My first impressions of Ascendant went from sweet to sour in a couple playthroughs. Combat mimics brutal arcade beat-’em-ups of old? Childhood memories, here I come. I play as a deity returned to earth to eradicate evil? Cool, I think. My character progress resets when I die during battle? No comment. Although Ascendant stirs demigods and side-scrolling sword fights into a merciless roguelike cocktail, these bullet points saturate current consoles. Hapa Games cannot control what other indie developers publish, but the team can be held accountable for how cruel Ascendant can be.
Full disclosure: I have not beaten Ascendant. You might think that within three dozen attempts, any competent gamer could conquer a roguelike on the easiest difficulty. I am evidence to the contrary – the triumphing over Ascendant part, I mean, not the adequate gamer bit. The number of seasonal levels (early spring, late spring, early summer) lingers at a constant eight, whose layouts vary from run to run. At least I assume the level count stops at eight, unless the team throws players for a loop and reveals a ninth. Maybe the last boss apologizes for the stress you endured, or the credits proclaim friendship as the greatest award of all. I kid because I care.
And what I care about is a decent story. I adore mythology, but beyond the upgrades and their references to Agni, Hermes, Loki, or Osiris, I failed to see the narrative connections to these fabled gods – not in the character models, the enemies that players slaughter, or the thrashings you eventually take. While the playable heroes introduce the Athenian hero Theseus, Sumerian king Gilgamesh, Ethiopian king Memnon, and more, Hapa Games buries that information in the menus. All semblance of the plot vanishes when the gameplay begins. Ascendant is not the pinnacle of crossover fan fiction for disciples of Norse, Aztec, Greek, and other divine lords. A tough-as-nails hack and slasher that kicked my ass over and over, though? Oh yeah.
The challenge stems from Ascendant’s limited combat options that encourage players to dash through projectiles or leap about and intercept enemies mid-air. A majority of battles, however, amounted to me mashing on the single melee and spell buttons until I staggered foes, at which point I could launch them in any direction. Batting demons away puts distance between you and them, and damages and stuns their brethren. But catapulting enemies is done by aiming the left analog stick, the same stick that aids your escape from spellcasters, aerial attackers, and nimble infantry. Controlling crowds outweighed the desire to practice my home runs.
The simple controls prevent the action from delivering a lasting impact. I still patted myself on the back when I impaled a hoard of enemies on ceiling spikes, yet I never felt the power of, say, Gilgamesh’s Axe or the feedback of my chakram spells. Since Ascendant marks each enemy on the minimap – one design choice I sincerely appreciate – there is zero need to approach levels themselves cautiously.
The game forgets the nuance so crucial to any reputable brawler. Basic attacks stunlock monsters until your blows cease their breathing, and you cannot counter certain strikes, despite the desperately small parry window. The Maw – an acid-spewing worm – expels small and large globs of corrosive spit. The bigger blobs bounce around the arena, and they cannot be blocked or flung back at the behemoth despite burning away your hero’s precious hearts.
The hit detection also works exclusively when it wants to, which allowed me to pummel beasts several feet outside my weapon’s range. Likewise, I experienced frustration standing next to a creature and waving my blade to no effect. Hapa Games nailed the roguelike aspects. I dreaded the return to square one when my champion lost his last slivers of life, though I could never trust my own skills to bring me victory. A multitude of upgrades will save you from death’s touch if the random number gods indulge you. I’d fought through summer flawlessly, yet my loot consisted of health potions and influence (the shop’s currency), not health upgrades. I’d then strike gold in the form of locked chests and doors … and possess no keys to open them.
In a perfect run, you amass stat boosts quickly to avoid a handicap against increasingly tough bosses, yet the very nature of roguelikes steals that chance from players. Ascendant complicates the system by separating dozens of upgrades into several categories. The single-use “breaths” bestow offensive and defensive support. The Breath of Loki causes an earthquake for eight seconds; the Breath of Shamash makes someone temporarily invincible. In addition, passive spirits mix fun and function. Spirit of the Dwarf shrinks your hero; Spirit of Haggling reduces shop prices.
Blessings – modifiers you slot into weapons, your body, or spells – provide the best gamble for players to create something akin to a complex character build. The Blessing of Agni may ignite enemies injured by your sword. If equipped to one’s body instead, you generate explosions when hit. The Blessing of Itzli protects players from spikes, unless you want your mace to petrify opponents or your spells to pierce their hides. Defeating a boss grants you one blessing, and heroes have five or six sockets to fill. I value Ascendant for surprising me during laidback runs – I never knew what gifts to expect next – but consequently, poor drops imply less room for error.
Of course, Ascendant leaves something to discovery. A blessing’s benefits remain a secret until you permanently assign it to a slot. Other than that, Ascendant records every weapon, spell, and upgrade players acquire in the course of one run or another. Hapa Games even lets you access that information mid-game, meaning you should never forget the power of particular breaths or spirits. The minimap labels boss rooms, the store, and areas where players missed or left health behind, too, so kudos to Hapa Games for ensuring I seldom walked into a battle on accident.
The bosses, speaking of, demonstrate some creativity. The Alchemist hurls pots of acid, fire, and ice, forcing you to use the platforms to evade toxic rainfall or frozen spikes. A stationary tank lobs explosive barrels at you when not charging its laser, baiting you in close. Other fights combine larger forms of existing monsters with random objectives. While Grunty stands on top of his watchtower, flinging minions into the supports will shut down his second-rate showboating. I both respect and hate Ascendant’s limited bosses, because again, the rest of the gameplay remains notoriously soulless.
In other roguelikes, whether it be Galak-Z or Spelunky, the mechanics lend multiple means to a player’s survival. Whenever I fail to rescue a princess for the extra heart in Spelunky, I hunt the shopkeepers and pillage their goods. If I cannot afford upgrades in Galak-Z, I avoid hostile ships through expert piloting. Ascendant is too one-dimensional. I enter a room, assailants swarm en masse, I pound the attack and spell buttons until my finger goes numb, save a breath because I tell myself I’ll need it later, and hope to come away unscathed.
I feared for my eyesight at times, too. Although vibrant, the demigods, monsters, and settings – what seem like a random menagerie of shapes pasted together – gave me frequent headaches. I often lost track of my character in the heat of battle, no less, due to the temporary invincibility frames that kick in whenever a demon smacked me good. Heroes blink for a few seconds, their atrociously colored outfits becoming indistinguishable from the black, green, purple, or orange enemies onscreen. I would like to say I love the visuals – if I squint my eyes, the style reminds of Samurai Jack – but only fall’s sunset castle and winter’s white-capped mountains made me stop and stare.
The main menu theme also made me pause. I let the music loop while writing this review, in fact, the harmony of piano and string instruments – reminiscent of the Uncharted series – taking the edge off of another abysmal playthrough. 34 attempts and counting, I’m still struggling to uncover whatever final boss Hapa Games concocted, since my better runs concluded on disheartening terms. I dove into a sacrificial shark pit by mistake – eight hearts, seven spirits, one breath, and five blessings gone in an instant. My following attempt ended when Ascendant crashed to the dashboard, the PS4’s CE-34878-0 error mocking me in response.
Replaying the same seasons, whether or not the developers randomize the layouts, is rarely my idea of fun. I spent many days exploring Ascendant, grumbling and deciding whether or not I wanted to stick with my current character’s build or sack him off for a new one. Unfair RNG is a weak critique of the genre, some might say, but every hour with Ascendant roused memories of more sophisticated roguelikes. I simply prayed my luck changed in the next room. Oh, a grunt just knocked me into a bed of spikes? Make that death 35.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided.
Ascendant bears its brutal difficulty proudly, but the shallow hack-and-slash action and random, unbalanced weapon and upgrade drops will leave you dreaming of better roguelikes.