Review: Astral Ascent
So, hey, that game Hades is pretty good, huh? Like, everyone liked it. Don’t pretend you don’t know that’s why we have a nice big rush of games that are cashing in on the whole roguelike thing. You know it, I know it, a variety of stray cats know it. And most of them are… not as good.
It’s not really their fault. Supergiant Games has a real knack for tapping into a rich vein of game design that had heretofore gone unobserved, and it’s way easier to make a clone than a whole new experience that does the same thing. A good roguelike along those lines is tricky; you have to find a way to balance on the knife’s edge between a compelling story and a feeling like each bit of progress is meaningful without making it too easy. It is genuinely hard.
So does Astral Ascent thread the needle when it releases today on PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, and Nintendo Switch? (The PC version was played for this review, but it was played on a PlayStation controller, so lodge that fact somewhere in your brainmeat.) Well, that’s what the next several hundred words are for, right?
When you first start Astral Ascent, Ayla (the first playable character) explains the situation. The Master sends his minions to worlds upon worlds, and he claims the strongest inhabitants for his own. The rest are forced to either serve or be destroyed. Countless worlds have thus been shattered, but Ayla is going to change that… because she’s gone on a one-way trip to the Master’s prisons. Starting in the simplest and most approachable of the prisons, she’s going to make her way through the Master’s twelve guardians, the Zodiacs, and then kill the Master himself.
Of course, Ayla isn’t stupid, and when she meets friendly inhabitants she’s happy to team up with them and visit their home base. It’s here that her journey starts, and it’s here she returns each time upon her death. But there are also other people eager to seek out and fight the Master, and one of them is already within the Garden. Together – or separately – they can work to overcome the enemies across multiple worlds and finally take the Master down once and for all.
Yes, the story structure is very similar to Hades insofar as each run is still diegetic and still happens, especially early on when you’re unlocking new NPC functions each time you make a run and come back. But it’s also told with a remarkably keen eye toward making everyone sympathetic and likable. Ayla, for example, would easily have been characterized as an emotionless killing machine or a vulnerability magnet, but instead the story threads the needle by making her someone who has agreed to do a dangerous, frustrating task while also being naturally inclined to being a little more personable. Everyone has their reasons for being here, and their reasons for not helping you more… or, in the case of the Zodiacs, reasons for working to stop you.
One of the not-subtle but very smart parts of the game is that narratively, you don’t feel like you screwed up by not making it all the way on your first go-round. You like these characters and have a sense of the stakes and don’t resent going back to the start. That’s half the trick.
The other half of a good roguelike is making you feel like you have control over your character during runs and between runs. And yes, Astral Ascent handles this quite well.
At the basic level, every character has the same core abilities. You have a double-jump, attacks that can be aimed up, down, or straight ahead, a diving attack, and an invulnerable dash. You also have a unique spell for each character and a quartet of spells you can cast. The quartet naturally cycles through and costs mana for each one you use, with mana being recovered by hitting enemies; your signature spell, meanwhile, just has a cooldown timer.
Right when you land on the first world for your first run, you get your pick of a new spell and level-up bonuses that can alter how your signature spell and your attacks work. But it keeps going from there. You pick up Auras, passive powers that can be leveled up. Each spell can have a number of Gambits attached, which add extra effects like bonus damage per hit or poison or heals. You pick up stones to boost your stats, and you grab more spell level upgrades. You get the idea. Like a good roguelike, your tactics and abilities are constantly improving as you move through each level.
Once you die, you get zapped back to the Garden… and all the stuff you collected along the way contributes to your Sun Fragments, which can be spent for permanent upgrades such as more spells being available to your character, universal upgrades like more aura slots or life, and so forth. Then you dive back in. And, of course, each character having a different lineup of spells and a different signature spell makes them all feel distinct as you smack your way through.
The difficulty is also pitched nicely, at least in my experience. Especially early on, the game isn’t slow but it’s letting you get a feel for it, and if you pick abilities that synergize well you can carve your way through things swiftly enough. Each new world is also a nice jump in difficulty, not in the sense of “wow, this place is way too hard” but just in a “oh, neat, I thought I had this on lock but I can tell it’s going to kick me around.” There’s a real sense of slow improvement through both your own practice and an ever-increasing set of unlocks.
In other words, it’s tuned just right for that addictive sense of “all right, that’s enough for tonight… well, wait, maybe just one more try.” And when you get a fun power your whole playstyle can shift around it, just like finding enemies that resist that power can send you skidding to a halt. It’s great fun.
Visually, the game has a strong pixel art approach, but the lack of detail on faces and many sprites is actually a deliberate choice. The portraits are beautifully rendered, but the lack of fine details lets you focus instead on the body language of the characters, which is remarkably expressive. It says so much the character art can’t.
I also appreciate that the game lets you choose between outlining sprites or not, just to help with visibility. It means that my usual complaint about how these intricate and bespoke designs can overwhelm foreground elements is… not relevant! Good work, art team, you cut me off! I mean that.
The music is a consistent light, airy bop that keeps you jazzed up and moving through the regions, and the voice acting isn’t the best thing I’ve heard this year but is definitely several cuts above what it needs to be. Character voices are memorable and lines are well-acted, and I never met a character I wanted to just shut the heck up. Combine that with solid sound effects and every part of the game both looks and feels very responsive to play.
As I said in the beginning, lots of games want to basically be Hades again. Astral Ascent is definitely using some of the same tricks it does. But it’s not ripping them off by any stretch of the imagination; it’s making use of a confident flex to present a different vision that seems inspired by the aforementioned game only insofar as it took the cogent lessons and applied them. It’s got a confident, easy swagger, a carefully designed game with a lot of fun in its core design loop.
If you are tired as heck of roguelike games, this is not the game that’s going to change your mind. But if you like solid platforming action and are willing to learn the game’s systems, crack the bones and sink into the marrow? You’ve got a heck of a game on your hands, and many exciting runs ahead of you. And that’s even before you unlock your third characters.
Review copy provided by Hibernian Workshop for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Hibernian Workshop.