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The RPS Selection Sprout: Edders' bonus game of the year 2023

Dead Cells-likers come on through

Aries shows off her sword gauntlets in Astral Ascent.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hibernian Workshop

Everyone's saying 2023 has been a stonking year for video games. To be honest dear reader, I don't think it's been my year. That might be because I've not had a huge amount of time to play loads outside of review duties and general life things, but there's only been, like, less than a handful of games that have truly commanded my attention.

One of said games comes backflipping in right at the tailend of this year: Astral Ascent. It's a 2D roguelike in the vein of Dead Cells, where you battle through stages, power-up, try and get as far as you can, inevitably die, reinvest your winnings, power-up permanently, then go again. It saddens me that I've not seen much excitement for the game elsewhere, so here I am with a little pudding for you. A little treat. Here comes the plane, nyaaaooownnn.

I've played enough roguelikes now to know when something just feels right, you know? Astral Ascent is one of those games where I knew instantly through a character's hop whether it meant business. First off, the weight of the platforming is just the right combination of floaty to falling, all backed by good animations for when you grip walls, double jump, and dash. The fundamentals of the movement are bang on, as are the quality levels when doing little things. It's got everything from top to bottom sorted: the music provides a pleasant ambience to the chaos; the background environments are lush and vibrant; speak to an NPC and they might have history with certain characters and not with others. Cool animated cutscenes kick in when bosses rock up, not to mention the voice acting isn't half bad either. Seriously, the game hasn't skimped.

Speaking to a humanoid capybara warrior in Astral Ascent.
Checking out some ghostly pals in Astral Ascent.
A chaotic fight breaks out in Astral Ascent, with a big lightning orb wreaking havoc on enemies.
A fight in Astral Ascent's first area.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hibernian Workshop

The setup isn't jawdropping, but it's interesting enough, and introduced to you through another cool animated short. You inhabit a world where some horrible leader called The Master has wars waged for entertainment. They go about collecting the strongest warriors, caging them as trophies and to protect the Master themself from any unwanted hero who happens to be quite good at roguelikes. There's 12 in total, all of them matched with a zodiac and mostly all smoking hot, naturally. Your job is to fight through stages, defeat these warriors, and try to reach The Master. Of course, because it's a roguelike you'll likely die a lot early on in your attempts, but you'll earn points you can spend to upgrade your characters permanently back at base. Then you'll go back to those points you died and, hopefully, overcome them with your bettered spells and such.

What separates Astral Ascent from other roguelikes is how each character's spells differ so drastically. Spells are everything - not technically everything as you've still got basic attacks, but work with me here - as using them is key to spitting out as much damage as possible. How often you can use them is determined by: 1) your mana bar, which refills as you smack enemies with your basic attacks; 2) completion of a "spell cycle", a cycle being a complete rotation through your total of four spells. For instance, after you use the first of your four spells, you can't use it again until you've cycled through the next three and it re-emerges at the top of the stack.

Spell cycles might sound annoying, but it encourages careful management of your casts. As you battle through stages, you might encounter better spells that can be shuffled into your rotation, alongside modifiers that add enhance them in special ways. I'm a huge fan of an orb that shuffles across a screen and zaps nearby enemies, and thankfully Astral Ascent has just that. I modified it so every time it zapped a baddie, it had a chance to spawn a cloud that would also follow it across the screen, and also zap enemies for me. There are loads of elemental types, too: electric, fire, poison, ice, even one that's built around summoning cute little elves who spit out laser beams.

Looking at some spell unlocks in Astral Ascent.
Return to base and not only are there plenty of folks to talk with if you're into story, there's always a new visitor or a new reward waiting to be discovered. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hibernian Workshop

Working your way through Astral Ascent's stages grants you a lovely amount of control. Stages are mostly split into "Exploration" or "Fight room", and you'll always have a choice as to what you'd like to tackle. Exploration has you platform to the end, with a touch of fighting along the way, while fight rooms challenge you to survive an onslaught of increasingly difficult enemies. Beat a stage, and you'll have the choice to jump into either of these options, all complete with differing difficulty levels, and better rewards for the hardest stages. Take on tougher rooms and you'll be given more crystals to spend at shops on spells, more stars to spend on stat-buffing drinks, and more keys to unlock yet more stat buffs.

It wouldn't be a roguelike without super rooms popping up, though. Some options let you visit an enormous whale who gifts you a selection of powerful spells, while another has you select a ghostly companion who'll trigger when certain conditions are met. My fave pal was an enormous merchant I'd met previously, who'd rock up whenever I used my signature ability (oh yeah, each character has a signature spell that defines their playstyle) and blaze through enemies on a cart. Other rooms have you enter mysterious dark voids and gamble on whether you've got the mettle to best a reaper. The list goes on.

Aries launches a fireball at the player in Astral Ascent.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Hibernian Workshop

I wouldn't say the environments are all that inventive, as they're mainly basic rooms or simplistic platforming bits, all set-dressed with a theme: coral, desert, woodland. But, I think the combat more than makes up for it! And there's still wow factor whenever you visit rarer spaces or take on the flashy bosses.

And the boss fights are excellent, with interesting moves and carefully constructed windows of opportunity. Importantly, many of these tangos feature a lot of signalling, so you'll know when to time your dodges to avoid red alert bars and the like. You won't fight the same folks repeatedly, either, as you'll come up against swift spellcasters or lumbering lads with massive swords. They're just the right amount of nails that victory feels hard fought and death feels fair, which is all you can ask for really.

You can find Astral Ascent on Steam and GOG for £21/$25/€25, and it's easily the most fun I've had in a roguelike for quite some time. Don't pass it up.

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