Everyone has that one roguelite. The one game that got you to sit up and take notice of the genre. For some, that may be the classic The Binding of Isaac, or perhaps, like me it was one of the more recent hits like Dead Cells or Hades that converted you. With a genre littered with so many great games, does Astral Ascent do enough to be considered in the top-level pantheon of genre greats, or is it one of the titles that struggle to make its mark in a genre known for so many masterpieces?
Let Me Fight Your Horoscope
The basic premise of Astral Ascent is that you’re trapped in a naturalistic prison and have to defeat the 12 Zodiacs to escape. Somehow I think this is actually the first game to use the zodiac signs as bosses, which seems like an obvious choice typing it now, but Astral Ascent puts them front and center and makes them not only a formidable force but also uniquely their own.
Like many roguelites, you’ll find yourself in the HUB world before starting each run that will be inhabited by new and evolving characters that develop as you progress run by run, and interacting with each of them as one of the four playable characters will give you more lore and help unravel the world around you.
It’s Got Style… AND Substance
As you’ve probably picked up from the screenshots, Astral Ascent has a truly gorgeous pixelized anime art style that makes every environment and character pop. Each of the four realms you’ll explore over your many, many runs feel distinct from one another, making tackling runs a joy as no realm feels underwhelming when compared to the rest.
The same detail is provided to each of the HUB characters you’ll be interacting with between runs, whether that’s the excited gardener Zim-Zim, who you’ll be constantly visiting to upgrade your characters, or dozy Papa Yalee, who dispenses wisdom you’ll uncover about characters and the world you find yourself in. Each character has their own personality, and the art style captures it beautifully.
They’ve Gone Rogue
As good as the game is to look at, you’ll be coming back to this side-scrolling roguelite for its addictively simple and frantic combat. The aim of the game is to move and move fast while dealing as much damage to enemies as you can. Most damage is dealt by pressing the square button to deal you’re default attack and standard combo, which you’ll use to earn Mana and cast one of your four collected spells on enemies. You’ll begin with four copies of your character’s default spell, but after that, you’ll collect new spells on your adventure that can also be buffed up with pickups that can add even more damage, such as granting two missiles on cast or a change to electrocute. With the amount of spells on offer, and the options to buff each of them differently each run, helps keep each fight fresh and different from the last.
On top of that, each of the four characters has their unique signature spell that’ll see you either parry and damage with the likes of Kira, or summon a drone to aid in battle with Octave, amongst others. Each character does have enough to justify switching rather than a simple reskin of the same combat. I leaned more towards Kira and their parry fight style over the beginning character Ayla and her teleport backstab signature. That may not be the case for you, but that’s what makes the game great, granting you diversity in your combat approach and options when deciding how to tackle your next run.
The audio is an area where Astral Ascent truly shines. When I booted the game up, I wasn’t sure what sort of adventure I was in for, but I was pleasantly surprised. Each character isn’t the standard 2D text, but they’re given voices and are impeccably voice-acted giving a real sense of personality and individuality to each character. Coupled with the stylish design, I felt like I was just as excited to hear the characters converse in a boss battle as I was to fight them, as I wasn’t sure what sort of interaction I’d be in for.
The same can be said about Astral Ascent’s music, which mixes both a calming retro-inspired score to your journey as you meander across the HUB world and take in each new thing everyone has to offer before you’re pumped up by the score along your journeys through each run. It’s a score I could happily listen to outside of the game.
One More Try
Despite the near-home run Astral Ascent is, I feel like the lack of standard combos does weaken its gameplay as some gamers may want more options outside of the spell variety to mix up the combos. That being said, I thought I’d be one of them, but with how fast each battle is moving and how quick you have to be to maneuver, I barely had a chance to think about how integrating combos would fit into the playstyle.
“A Damn Fine Example Of Roguelites At Their Near Best”
Overall, Astral Ascent is a damn fine example of roguelites at their near best. It’s an unfolding mystery set in a beautiful world, and the addictive gameplay loop just keeps you coming back for more. The amount of times I was ready to head to bed before hearing my mind calling for “just one more” happened times than I’d care to admit. It may not topple the giants, but it certainly gives enough to stand amongst them.