The roguelike genre has experienced a revival in recent years, indicated by the success of games like The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky, and Rogue Legacy -- perhaps to the point of saturation. That's why it's refreshing to see a game like Ascendant add something new into the mix.
In Ascendant, players control a demigod doing what demigods tend to do: kill lots of things because they're the best. That's all the backstory delivered up-front, which is just fine, since the gameplay is the main focus as in many roguelikes. Ascendant is the first release by Hapa Games, a small indie developer founded by two guys straight out of college and housed in a garage. As such, it's impressive to see the game they've managed to produce with only $10,000 from their narrowly funded kickstarter.
Ascendant is a procedurally-generated roguelike / beat 'em up hybrid, elements which work surprisingly well together. The level system can be closely compared to The Binding of Isaac's -- there are different floors (seasons, in this case) that progress in difficulty, each consisting of several rooms of enemies, a treasure room, a shop, and a boss. Everything is randomized, even the bosses, so every new game has a genuinely different feel; and there will be plenty of new games. Health is rare and deaths come often, the only things making the next run easier are the five unlockable characters (starting with two) and some unlockable items as potential drops in the future.
If judging the difficulty of Ascendant by the ratio of games started to games successfully completed, then it's practically impossible. To my shame, I've played roughly 12 hours according to Steam and have only just made it through the first season (Summer). Reassuringly though, most of the difficulty doesn't come from randomness: there are very few encounters that can't be won with good timing and quick reactions, and more experienced players will have a much easier time.
The gameplay is 2D platforming with an emphasis on brawler-style combat, favoring strategies like parrying and launching enemies, with a low-damage ranged ability to back them up. There are no combos built into the game, but success requires quickly alternating between dodging, parrying, attacking, launching, and firing missiles as the situation demands. Upgrades, in the form of blessings, spirits, and weapons, significantly affect abilities and playstyles. For example, one possible weapon enchantment eliminates the cost of spells, making the formerly unimpressive ranged attack much more powerful.
Luck plays a large part in what upgrades your character will get and what enchantments will be on dropped weapons, but again, the core gameplay is more dependent on skill and timing than good fortune.
I highly recommend using a gamepad instead of the keyboard controls. I used a Logitech controller almost exclusively, and it's really the easiest way to make sure that your various attacks and dodges are quickly accessible; the only downside is that you're forced to use a joystick or the D-pad to aim spells (rather than a mouse). If you're not content with the preset configuration, keys can be rebound easily.
Ascendant is a beautiful game. There's a consistent color palette with what appear to be cel-shaded textures and a sort of Classical Greek feel to the designs. The 2.5D models work well and ragdoll in a very satisfying way, flopping around or dangling from spikes. The music is appropriate for a game about ancient demigods, if not especially exciting. Enemy designs are somewhat varied, though perhaps not as much as they could be -- especially given that the majority of playtime is (probably) spent in the first few levels.
As always, my motto for Steam purchases is "don't buy it unless it's on sale, because it will be soon," but $10 is a very reasonable price -- especially coming from a tiny and presumably underfunded indie company with one released game. It's gratifying to see a small developer fund a good game with the proceeds from a relatively modest kickstarter, and then actually finish and release that game. If you enjoy difficult roguelikes and beat 'em ups, it's well worth the money.
Find more on Ascendant here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/296930/
- Patrick "POL1607" Lathan.