Game Review: Towerfall Ascension

This review was an unfinished draft destined for obscurity a month or two ago, but now Sony has announced that the game is free on Playstation Plus this month, so hello relevance! Only a couple of days left to add this one to your cart for no cost, though.

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Platform:
PS4, PC
Developer:
Matt Makes Games
Rating: PG
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I've never reviewed a download-only game before on this blog, so this presentation style is a trial.

I’ve never reviewed a download-only game before on this blog, so this presentation style is a trial.

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It’s Bow-etry in Motion.
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Spawning, taking a split second to line up a perfect cross-stage shot, loosing an arrow that pins one opponent to the wall, double-jumping over to his corpse to retrieve both your arrow and his, leaping down to meet a fresh airborne assault, timing a button press just right to catch an incoming projectile, retaliating instantly with a pair of arrows to nab a second kill, feinting a ranged attack on the sole remaining player before accelerating your fall and ending her with a swift head-stomp. All your opponents are in the same room as you, and all you need to do is glance around with a grin on your face to confirm their priceless rage.

The spirit of cut-throat local competitive multiplayer is not dead, nor is it exclusive to Nintendo consoles. Towerfall Ascension is proof enough of that. It’s charming, manic and highly customisable, and over four months after its launch it remains unquestionably my favourite game currently available on the PS4.

THE SET-UP

The easiest way to sum up the nature of Towerfall Ascension is to call it a 16-bit Super Smash Bros-style, four player local brawler where your only means of attack are several types of one-shot-one-kill arrows and a pair of deadly Mario-esque stomping boots. Ascension is actually an enhanced port of what used to be an exclusive title for the ill-fated OUYA microconsole (originally just called Towerfall).

Let the games begin.

Let the games begin.

WHAT YOU DO

Kill or be killed is pretty much the name of the game for the fast-paced flow of Towerfall Ascension. All players have a limited number of buttons with which to play, though the simple controls mask some surprising tactical depth. Lining up a perfect shot while predicting your opponents’ moves is one thing, but the inclusion of a dodge move that grants a second of invincibility while also catching any incoming arrows ups the tension and the combat options. Advanced positioning techniques involving crouches, wall jumps and the like are possible, and the most satisfying of kills can easily be saved and shared using the PS4’s built-in capture functionality. In my experience highlights seem to happen for everyone, regardless of their play history and gaming experience, which is a testament to Towerfall‘s balanced accessibility.

Play it again, son.

Play it again, son.

Matches take place across several variants of a single themed stage, all fitting into a single static screen. Rounds are decided by either accumulated kills or number of rounds survived, depending on player settings, with team battles as an option as well. That isn’t where the customisation potential ends, however, which is part of Ascension‘s lasting appeal. You can customise the amount of arrows each player starts with (even choosing to give certain players handicapped advantages), turn off certain arrow types and pickups, set only one type of power-up available, tweak the types of item chests that appear, give everyone really slippery shoes, make accidentally firing an empty bow punishable by death and much, much more.

For the record, these are the icons for my house rules (No Autobalance, Single Arrow, Stealth Archers, Corpses Drop Arrows, Free Aiming). Hardcore.

For the record, these are the icons for my house rules (No Autobalance, Single Arrow, Stealth Archers, Corpses Drop Arrows, Free Aiming). Hardcore.

No two matches of Towerfall Ascension are ever the same, much like in the Super Smash Bros series, which keeps things interesting and fresh. Your human opponents are forever the most unpredictable factor in any given situation. What’s more, unlike many modern fighting/party games, Towerfall Ascension features actual, honest-to-goodness unlockables, from characters to stages to arrow types to game modes. No DLC; it’s all in there to be earned through your own blood, sweat and tears, whether via multiple Versus matches or the game’s included two player co-op AI gauntlet mode. Astounding in this day and age.

There is a bit of a caveat to all this multiplayer goodness – Towerfall Ascension lacks any sort of online multiplayer whatsoever. While gameplay is largely twitch-based, meaning the slightest bit of lag might have real consequences and thus the decision to leave the feature out kinda makes sense, it still sucks, because it alienates certain players without regular access to local play.

WHAT YOU SEE

The game’s aesthetic is immediately striking, and might seem a little cliched depending on your perspective. If you’re familiar with indie games, the idea of yet another 16-bit visual “homage” to the days of old might seem worth of an eye roll, but the style really does work here. The gameplay of Towerfall Ascension is fast, furious and precise, so you might say the less visual distractions on hand the better, but that’s just one way of looking at things. Ascension is, after all, leagues better looking than its excellent cousin Samurai Gunn (available now on Steam, coming this year to PS4 and Vita) and is just as frantic, so that argument only goes so far.

Colours are rich and this stage is the worst in the game. Just saying.

Treachery has never looked so colourful!

Indeed it is my opinion that Towerfall Ascension looks stunning, drawing from a vast, rich colour palette that pops off a big screen with the same violent energy as it does a small one. Animated effects are lively in every location, whether white waves are crashing onto rocks in the background of the Moonstone stage, wind is howling around the hollow halls of Flight or water currents are adding to the ambiance of Sunken City. Small touches like different death animations depending on where your character is hit (and even the forced removal of headgear if someone just misses you) add a huge bundle of personality, which is without even mentioning the game’s best visual feature: The colour of your controller’s lightbar matches that of your character, meaning if a spectator walks in to the room there is no need for the annoying “Which one is you?” question – one look at your hands will reveal the answer. Genius.

WHAT YOU HEAR

It’s clear that some shrewd sound design went into Towerfall Ascension. Sound effects have a distinctly 1980s flavour to match the visuals, with death and power-up chimes amounting to little more than a cascading sequence of bleeps and bloops. Yet each one matches the emotion typically attached to it rather nicely, individual characters utter unique Pokemon-style cries and the PS4 version of the game even migrates the majority of each character’s sounds to his or her corresponding controller speaker, freeing up your home entertainment system for the game’s soundtrack.

Sounds everywhere!

Sounds everywhere!

And my oh my, what a soundtrack it is. There is certainly a retro tint to the buzzing percussion of most of the tracks, which anchors the feel of the soundtrack, but the rest is just catchy tunes polished to a level not quite possible in the days of the Super Nintendo. Every track adds a lovely sense of grandeur to proceedings, building nicely as matches inevitably get closer to a grisly conclusion. Variations in style ensure the all-synthesised suite of musical offerings match up with their respective stages (my favourite has to be the oasis-y “Dance of the Sun God” from the Mirage level) and each character’s specifically tailored victory fanfare is well suited to dancing in the faces of your vanquished foes.

You can purchase it on bandcamp.com (link here) for about $12 Australian. I most certainly did.

A victory tune to savour.

A victory tune to savour.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

I’ve probably already covered most of the replayable appeal of Towerfall Ascension, so I’ll just sum it up with this screenshot:

That’s a lot of rounds.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Wonderfully accessible, clever customisation options, looks and sounds fantastic
Bad:
No online play whatsoever
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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