Published on November 23rd, 2023 | by Paul Garlic
Astral Ascent Review (Switch)
Summary: The greatest compliment I can give a videogame is that it moved its genre forward.
Astral Ascent is a 2D platformer rogue-lite game developed by Hibernian Workshop. Changing between four different Heroes with unique personalities, you must escape from a galactic prison guarded by twelve powerful bosses, known as the Zodiacs. Craft your hero how you want, master its abilities and uncover secret powers to break through the Zodiac’s unrelenting grip.
Oftentimes, the platformer genre can lack in the combat department. It can feel more robotic than it does robust – and I find myself just mashing buttons as belligerent as possible to survive. What Astral Ascent masters is not just how smooth the combat feels, but how much skill goes into survival. Rather than just smashing my controller and hoping to be standing once the dust settled, I found myself carefully memorizing spell combinations and perfecting the timing of different defense tactics. The detail of the combat mechanics is a vital piece to what makes the gameplay of Astral Ascent an addicting and fantastic experience.
Astral Ascent absolutely nails the character progression cycle. The gameplay loop is filled with such depth, I truly could not put the game down once I figured out how to navigate it properly. While there is nothing more disheartening than the permadeath characteristics of a roguelike game – essentially having to start from the beginning, upon failure – Astral Ascent is filled with so much variety when it comes to progressing your heroes, that failure only made me want to keep playing more. After each death, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Garden and see what new traits I could add to my hero for the next run.
Replayability is essential when talking about great gaming experiences. It’s not to say that a game I play only once is poor, but the games that I can pick up at any time and find a fresh new playthrough, just hit differently. Astral Ascent has created a special level of uniqueness each time I’d try to escape and fight the Zodiacs. There are hundreds of different ways to build your heroes for each battle, which resulted in zero burn out after dying countless times. I could reconstruct my hero differently for the next run and approach the challenge in a completely different manner.
Each boss fight is challenging, complex and different from the other bosses within the game. The twelve zodiacs all have a variety of spells, cadences and strengths that required me to be attentive to the different styles each brought. The encounters were accompanied by cinematic cutscenes, adding to the intensity of the battles. Defeating the bosses in Astral Ascent gave me a soulslike level of accomplishment – each victory feeling different than the prior.
Enemy variation is well done in Astral Ascent. Each of the four worlds have a wide variety of enemy encounters, each with different powers, which led to a lot of planning on my end when crafting the perfect hero for each world. The variety helped keep the fighting fresh after failing again and again (and again), with a great sense of confidence coming after figuring out tricks to defeat certain foes in a smoother fashion.
One negative I had with Astral Ascent was initial difficulty learning the gameplay loop. I felt the tutorial portion of the game was very simplistic, while the depth of the game left me having to figure out a lot on my own. Luckily I did, and loved it, but I did feel a stronger tutorial portion to start out would’ve helped immensely in the early stages of my playthrough.
Permadeath is going to be a leading characteristic in many roguelike games, there simply is no escaping that. However, most come with a decently strong healing mechanic that can help survive even the scariest of conflicts. I felt there was a lack in healing shards with Astral Ascent that led to some frustrating deaths. Sometimes shards would be granted after just a few kills, and other times I wouldn’t see a shard for so long that I’d end up standing no chance in the next portal. A level of consistency or a meter showing a build up for acquiring the next healing shard would be a huge addition to the game.
While I did feel incredibly motivated to escape the Astral prison and defeat the twelve brute Zodiacs, the story never truly immersed me. Overall, dialogue wasn’t engaging and at times felt like filler between portal runs. Capturing story shards and uncovering new details about the world, heroes and the Zodiacs was a unique touch but never left me in awe of the plot or storytelling.
The greatest compliment I can give a videogame is that it moved its genre forward. To me, Astral Ascent did just that. Where it lacked in storytelling, Astral Ascent’s robust combat system and uniquely deep character progression created an addicting gaming experience that can be played with endless enjoyment. While I fought so hard to eventually escape the Astral prison, I will gladly be back to do it all over again soon.