I have a habit, perhaps not very healthy, of not releasing a roguelike that is hooking me until I have another one with the same capacity to keep me for hours and hours launching into new runs. It doesn’t matter if it’s action, role-playing or deck-building; The point is to have a game that I can become obsessed with but that at the same time allows me to introduce its shorter games into my daily life while I progress in other games that require longer sessions. The game that has occupied this space during the month of November is actually a title that I had already played last year, when its early access began, but that has really started to hook me a year and several large updates later.
Astral Ascent is the new game from the French studio Hibernian Workshop, which debuted in 2019 with the 2D soulslike Dark Devotion. In that title we already saw a team with great affection for platforming, combat and attractive animations, but who had a hard time finding the balance between a roguelike structure and systems that cried out for a more traditional metroidvania style. Its new title resolves this conflict by maintaining its positive hallmarks while seeking other influences in the progression part, where the previous title stumbled the most.
In this 2D roguelite we can choose between four different characters that are unlocked little by little, each of them with a different combat style (fast blades, brute force, ranged weapons, a kind of magic stones) and a compelling reason. to want to escape from the astral prison in which they find themselves. Although their motivations are different, the objective is common: eliminate the Master, the leader of an army that is dedicated to invading worlds and imprisoning their most powerful inhabitants.
The Garden is our prison but it also serves as a hub between escape attempts, with numerous peculiar inhabitants with whom to chat to unlock permanent improvements, new aspects or more magic for the game pool. This aspect didn’t fit very well in Dark Devotion, but Astral Ascent takes a few lessons from Hades to build this location and it’s less burdensome to spend some time here after each death since it’s not as punitive as its previous soulslike adventure.
Once we start a run, we have to decide between two or three options, the type of room that interests us next depending on the reward offered and the level of difficulty established, allowing us to adjust the level of demand to our state at all times. (again, similarly to Hades). The basic rooms are quick platforming or combat arenas, although little by little other types of rooms are unlocked that allow for extra challenges, resting for a while or even sacrificing life to increase the power of our spells.
After a dozen rooms we will have to face a final boss that represents one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Each of the four large locations of the run has three possible associated bosses, so no matter how much we prepare during the area, every run has as an unpredictable factor which of these fierce enemies with elaborate attack patterns is going to hit us at the end of the run. each region. This information is not revealed until the last moment, with a spectacular animation to identify them.
It is a good time to stop in combat; By moving away from the Souls context and opting for more agile and less technical confrontations, Astral Ascent has a combat that is more reminiscent of Dead Cells, especially with the first character available. Each character has, in addition to their basic attack and a unique ability, four magics that they can change or improve throughout the game. This magic system is the greatest success of Astral Ascent, since we start with four identical spells but as the run progresses we alter our build with new magics with radically different attack types and we can also customize them with gambits, which add additional effects and allow synergies to be created. The same spell can be totally different if we opt for gambits that serve to summon minions to our service or poison effects that accumulate to kill rivals without touching them.
The process of building the build in each game is fun and satisfying, in addition to being full of small decisions at almost every moment. Do we lose the opportunity to obtain keys to open chests in exchange for securing a gambit in the next room? Do we spend our run currency on new spells or unlocking gambits for the ones we already have? Do we focus our efforts on a single devastating magic or try to balance all four?
As you can see, the structure of the game is clearly inspired by many other representatives of the genre; most notably Hades and Dead Cells. Although Astral Ascent does not exude originality, it is clear about what it needs from each influence and how to execute each aspect so that everything fits together perfectly. The runs are agile, the power escalation is slow but visible, and dying always makes us want to invest a couple of minutes in permanent improvements and throw ourselves back into the ring.
It’s a shame that, with all the success that Astral Ascent presents in the purely mechanical aspect, the game universe fails to arouse as much interest. I’ve been playing since early access and I still can’t pinpoint what exactly is wrong; Perhaps it is a combination of elements that do not quite fit together. The designs are attractive but somewhat loaded with clichés, each zodiac has a well-defined personality but none is particularly notable, the story does not stand out in a bad way but it does not have the strength to sustain the rest of the game either. Luckily, you don’t need it; The gameplay takes care of that in spades.
Perhaps this setback distances it a little from the excellence that its references represent, but that does not make the work behind Astral Ascent any less meritorious. The early access process has helped Hibernian Workshop fine-tune the experience, from progression to the combat system. The result is an addictive roguelike that has taken up much of my space in the last month and will probably be a fixture on my Steam Deck for another few weeks. At least until I start the first run of one of the deck-building games I have in my sights.