Developer: Hapa Games
Publisher: Hapa Games
Whether you like it or not, Rogue-likes have experienced a surge in popularity over the past few years, and now Hapa Games’s first studio release has come to play with the big boys in the form of a 2D brawler Rogue-like called Ascendant.
The game implores you to play the part of a god, a god who must spend most of his time bushwhacking simple, sword-toting grunts and measly flies, but a god nonetheless. You must fight through various stages, all labelled after the seasons of the year, besting your enemies while improving your character along the way and finally becoming the ultimate god.
Or, at least, that seems to be the plan Hapa Games wants you to play out. I only ever made it through the first few levels, though, before my god got killed by either an overwhelming group of enemies, an unfortunately-placed spike trap, or a souped-up boss. While I’m sure the remaining levels exhibit the same original enemy designs, the same charming presentation, and the same good soundtrack as the early stages, I doubt I will ever get to see them on my own attempted playthroughs. Ascendant condemns itself in this regard, inviting you in graciously with smooth gameplay and a cool art style, but ultimately denying you enjoyment of much of anything for long.
The problem lies in the game’s balance, which will feel much too punishing to all but the most dedicated Rogue-like fans. I love tough games, Dark Souls, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy and Super Hexagon being examples of difficulty done correctly. But Ascendant just feels unfair, and the sense of progression that should come at a fairly regular pace in this type of game seems almost nonexistent. Admittedly, I have gotten better at the game, and it does offer more room for improvement. One could probably master the parrying system, which allows you to block and return almost any enemy attack as long as you press the parry button within a few frames of the attack hitting you.
And the core brawler mechanics of punch enemy until they are staggered, launch said staggered enemy into other enemies, and then unload your entire magic meter into the newly-formed ball of knocked-over enemies holds a lot of depth. But the game never allows your character to live long enough to experience that depth, because your fighters simply don’t have enough health to survive, an unfortunate fallacy in a game that offers so many offensive tools yet so few defensive ones.
Beyond the sheer base fighting power of your chosen god, you will uncover a slew of upgrades for your fighter along the way. Better weapons and spells, as well as powerful one-use breath attacks, enhancements, and blessings, lie hidden in every level, and finding them proves easy enough with the use of the old-school-Zelda style map. You will find them in treasure chests or in shops, but if you wish to purchase them, you better have enough Influence, the scarce in-game currency that almost exclusively drops in piddling amounts.
But all the upgrades seem disparately proportioned in terms of power and ability anyway, and, because of the randomly generated nature of the levels, luck becomes either your savior or your downfall much more often than your own skill or knowledge. You might acquire a simple damage buff to your already adequate sword, but you might instead discover The Twig, an insanely powerful weapon that provides infinite magic as well as double magic damage. This one item makes all but the boss encounters almost trivial, but, of course, you cannot rely on finding it in every playthrough.
Even your choice of god does not help much in easing your journey. When you begin, you can only choose between two: Memnon, an orange dude with no discernible drawbacks and good health, and Theseus, a purple dude with less health but more damage. If the character select screen is to be trusted, you can eventually unlock a total of seven of these Ancient Greece freaks, though, at the time of this writing, I have yet to find any beyond the first two. However, the gods I have seen and the other characters in general have an original, cartoony, almost Wind Waker-esque flair to their design, and one can immediately tell a lot of time and thought went into the feel and look of Ascendant’s world.
Overall, Ascendant seems well-built and lovingly constructed, but it just does not feel finished. It hits all the necessary notes of a new indie title but fails to live up to the example of its peers. The music, art, underlying concept, approach, and presentation all provide a good backdrop for a great game, but its flaws unfortunately overshadow its good intentions. Even played with a friend, the game remains too hard, because the bosses prove too much of a hindrance, and the core design just does not measure up.
If only some of what you unlocked in one playthrough carried over to the next, progress might become possible. But, since you, for all intents and purposes, start at square one every time you hit new game, playing Ascendant will always prove a frustrating, albeit pretty, romp until the next inevitable death. I genuinely hope Hapa Games puts out some patches to make the game more forgiving and more enjoyable, but, for now, even ten dollars seems like a high price for a half hour experience. Unless you thrive on nothing but games like Contra and Battletoads (in which case I would consider you a little bit of a masochist), I would save your money on this one and wait for Ascendant to transcend its humble, stumbling beginnings.