Ever since my first Roguelike run of The Binding of Isaac back in 2011, there hasn’t been a genre that’s been able to hold my attention for months at a time quite like the humble Roguelike. Nowadays I have the distinct pleasure of playing and reviewing dozens of games in this compelling genre every year, but not all of them can climb to the top of the permadeath mountain like a Hades or a Spelunky. Well we may have a new contender for the Roguelike daddy of them all, and its name is Astral Ascent.
Set in an astral world called The Garden, Astral Ascent features a selection of characters aiming to beat down the twelve zodiac themed guardians of this gorgeous prison to escape and release all the charming animal characters trapped within. The sort of main character Ayla has snuck in to try and accomplish this with her daggers and backstabbing prowess, but taking down twelve badass bosses is no small feat. The overarching story feels less important than getting to know characters themselves, especially due to the fact that you’ll build up a bit of a rapport with your allies (and even the zodiacs themselves) as you meet them on repeated runs.
Astral Ascent is a 2D action Roguelike, most comparable to something like Dead Cells. That means you’ll spend most of your time taking on enemies with a variety of attacks, spells and most importantly a dash that grants you a decent chunk of invincibility that you can use to dodge attacks with ease. Controlling Ayla feels absolutely perfect, with beautifully precise controls that just feel right the moment you pick up your controller or handheld system of choice.
Your basic attack combo is unleashed by bashing the X button, but once you’ve built up enough mana by stabbing enemies you can unleash a more powerful spell. You always have four spells available to you in Astral Ascent, but instead of using whichever of them you want you have to use them one after the other in a set order. Paying attention to what spell comes next is key if you want to deal damage effectively, and nothing feels worse than stupidly dropping a poisonous bomb at your feet when the enemy is on the opposite side of a room. It’s a great way to ensure you try out all the different spells the game has to offer though, because you absolutely have to.
As you’d probably expect, each run of Astral Ascent features all manner of random spells and upgrades that you’ll stumble across as you dive deeper into The Garden. The variety of spells is really impressive, and that’s before you start equipping gambits to give them additional effects. Perhaps your whirlwind attack would be better with a chance to summon orbs of lighting on activation that zap foes for massive damage, or you just want to add a bit of healing to a fireball. The amount of different combinations is rather mind-blowing, especially as each spell can be upgraded to have four gambits equipped at once.
Each world of Astral Ascent is broken up into different sections, and at the end of each one you’re given a choice of multiple others to take on next, all with different rewards. I usually tried to start by gathering keys in arena battles that I’d be able to use later on to unlock stat boosting altars or spell upgrading feathers, but you can also go to the bar to spend currency on healing and upgrades, or take on exploration stages full of grunts and traps looking to end your run. Listing all the different challenge rooms and upgrades you can find would be a gargantuan task, but rest assured that the variety is truly wild.
Astral Ascent isn’t an easy game, and eventually you will likely lose those last few hit points against a tricky boss or lucky grunt. Don’t despair though, because even in death you’ll gain a whole lot of currency to spend on permanent upgrades in the hub area. There are dozens and dozens of different ways to power yourself up between runs, with everything from starting stats to the number of buffs you can equip at once available to be beefed up for a bit of cash. Every one of these upgrades feels really meaningful, and the sense of progression is absolutely delightful.
Even if you don’t do particularly well in a run, you’ll likely end up unlocking different in-game achievements that give you bonus currency too, and will be able to spend that on getting stronger or unlocking new abilities. The hub area is full of anthropomorphic animals to chat to, who can help you with everything from getting more cash to changing your outfit to something more stylish.
Above everything else, my favourite moments of Astral Ascent were the boss fights. Each of the Zodiacs has a unique selection of powerful attacks you’ll need to learn to dodge if you want to beat them without getting battered, and mastering those attack patterns makes you feel like a gaming god. Whether it’s via Taurus’s sword launching or Libra’s massive laser columns, the guardians of The Garden are happy to take you down and send you back to the hub (and will probably succeed in that more than a few times).
There’s so much that Astral Ascent has to offer, with all sorts of special attacks, ways to level up, and challenge rooms all packed into this incredibly dense Roguelike. All of these elements would be more than enough to make this wonderful game an all time classic, but that wasn’t enough for Hibernian Workshop. Alongside everything else there are also four entirely different characters to play as, each with entirely different spells, weapons and even upgrades. It would be unreasonable to expect the amount of content that Astral Ascent has to offer from a game, but I’m delighted it does.
The action packed and incredibly tight gameplay is absolutely the star of the show in Astral Ascent, but I’d be doing the game a disservice if I didn’t mention the stunning visuals. The pixel art characters and their animations are simply breath-taking, and the vibrant colours just make the whole game pop.
It’s hard to think of many issues with a game as expertly crafted as Astral Ascent, but I do have a couple of very minor complaints. I think the hub area is a little confusing to navigate, and a little more open than it needs to be. I also never really felt like I was crafting a specific build to make my way through the game, and instead was improving simply by getting better at dodging certain enemy attacks. There are some upgrades and spells that can be combined to make some synergistic attacks, but really all that matters is boosting as many stats as possible and dodging like a champ.
Astral Ascent is one of the best Roguelikes on the market, and one that deserves the same recognition as the genre leaders. The action combat just feels sensational, and there are so many dense systems to master and meaningful upgrades to unlock as you play. If I was trapped in my house and forced to only play one game for the rest of the year, I would pick Astral Ascent without hesitation and have an absolute blast.
Sublime combat that just feels great
So many dense systems to master
Permanent upgrades always feel meaningful
A ridiculous amount of content
You never really have to worry about your build
The hub area is a bit too big