“An Undeniably Addictive Roguelike” – Astral Ascent Review

Summary

  • Astral Ascent combines the best aspects of popular games like Hades, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Dead Cells to create an addictively entertaining roguelike experience.
  • The game features unique character designs and stunning pixel art, with well-developed NPCs that add charm and depth to the story.
  • Although the complex upgrade system may be initially confusing, the gameplay is intuitive and offers a satisfying platforming experience, with levels that are just the right size and a logical path to progress.

I wasn’t expecting Astral Ascent to hook me like it did, but Hibernian Workshop has combined nearly all the most entertaining aspects of games like Hades, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Dead Cells in such a way that it has done something unthinkable in 2023 – it’s gotten me interested in roguelikes again. It’s not a perfect game, but with an undeniably addictive gameplay loop, great characters, and the addition of local 2-player co-op, it’s impossible to call Astral Ascent anything less than a great time.

Astral Ascent begins with story beats that echo Hades – the player is tasked with making their way through multiple types of worlds, guarded by god-like guardians, while trying to find a way to escape the astral prison they are stuck in. Unlike Hades, however, isometric camera angles and members of the Greek Pantheon are nowhere to be found. Instead, it’s the Zodiacs (Capricorn, Taurus, etc.) who serve as Astral Ascent’s bosses, but rest assured they are every bit as fleshed-out and difficult to defeat as their Greco-Supergiant peers.

Charm Through Characters & Art

After the game’s brief intro, players have the option to choose from two different characters, with an additional two available to unlock later on. Each character has their own fighting style and special ability, but I settled on Kiran (an orphan who genuinely loves training to fight more than most people love their own children, and looks remarkably similar to the design of the Prince in the original Prince of Persia) for the majority of my playthrough just because I found his interactions with the game’s bosses and NPCs to be endearing and entertaining.

The four playable characters in Astral Ascent are Ayla, Kiran, Calie, and Octave. Players begin as Ayla and will unlock Kiran once they reach the game’s main hub.

Not only are Astral Ascent’s NPCs fun to talk to, they are also incredibly well-designed. The game is stuffed with high resolution pixel art, and while the most in-depth details are reserved for cinematic boss fight introduction scenes, even the more simplified versions look and move fluidly. This extends to enemy combat designs and animations, which excel at telegraphing upcoming attacks without losing their own sense of style and clarity.

Complex Combat Balancing & Wild Combinations

If Astral Ascent has one major flaw, it’s that the game contains a lot of different abilities players will upgrade throughout the course of any given run, so much so that it is quite confusing at first. Not only are there up to four equippable powers (which can be swapped out when a new one is found, similar to the weapon system in Dead Cells) but each of these powers also has up to four slots for modifiers. Then there is the player character’s signature move, which is upgraded when moving between different world zones, and there are also Aura powers, which modify regular combat, special attacks, or movement, and can be upgraded as well.

This is a lot to get used to, and the control scheme for navigating menus and upgrading abilities isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. However, it also doesn’t take long to get used to the buttons Astral Ascent is asking you to press (although speaking to an NPC using the left bumper will never not feel strange to me) and the multiple traversal options at hand make running through the game’s levels a real platforming treat. Once the abilities begin to stack and a simple normal punch sends out both ice shards and missiles, and a special attack causes everyone on the screen to suffer from a chain-reaction electric blast, it all falls into place.

Refined Randomness in Linearity

My biggest problem with Dead Cells and its DLC was that sometimes the maps could feel too large, the entrances and exits sometimes very close together and sometimes spread far too wide. Procedural generation is tricky for any developer, but Hibernian Workshop’s decision to keep levels contained to smaller, arena-like chunks both helps to incentivize players to keep pushing forward and removes the confusion that comes from aping the Metroidvania genre. Astral Ascent isn’t a Metroidvania – although the traversal and combat are highly reminiscent of them, and procedural generation is used heavily, every level provides a logical path forward.

There are two main types of levels in Astal Ascent. Combat Levels will close the player off from progressing until they defeat all the enemies provided, and Exploration Levels are the more Mario-esque platforming areas. In these, players only need to reach the end of the level to proceed, and can leave behind enemies if they are beginning to feel overwhelmed.

Scattered throughout these levels are multiple collectibles to find on each run. There are pink crystals which can be used to purchase more powerful special attacks and special attack modifiers at the shop, keys which allow you to choose between upgrading your character or upgrading your current powers, stars which can be traded for healing items or stat upgrades, and tickets which can be traded in back at The Garden (Astral Ascent’s hub world) for new outfit colors. Additionally, players earn currency for the amount of progress they make each run, and this currency can be turned in to various NPCs back at The Garden for even more upgrades.

At the time of this review, I have yet to actually beat Astral Ascent in full, so I can’t speak to the game’s ending. If it’s anything like most roguelikes I’ve played over the years, though, it’s not getting to the ending that matters; it’s about how enjoyable the trip is. As someone who has put in hundreds of hours in Dead Cells, Hades, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Slay the Spire, and countless others, I really thought I was kind of done with the whole genre. Astral Ascent, though, is the first game since Starfield was released earlier this year that has hooked me. It’s always hard to put into words what that “one more run” feeling is the best roguelikes inspire, but Astral Ascent undeniably nails it.

And I don’t even like astrology.

Astral Ascent is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and PS5. Screen Rant was provided with a Steam code for the purposes of this review.

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By Jane Austen

Jane Austen is a seasoned journalist with a passion for uncovering stories that resonate with readers worldwide. With a keen eye for detail and a commitment to journalistic integrity, Ganesan has contributed to the media landscape for over a decade, covering a diverse range of topics including politics, technology, culture, and human interest stories.