"Ascend feels like good, bloody fun."
In an effort to eke out a proper domain, three gods deliver avatars to a planet to replace the old Titan deities through slaughter and blasphemy. Such is the exciting premise of Ascend: New Gods, a third person action RPG coming to Xbox Live Arcade. Developed by Signal Studios, Ascend evokes comparisons to other games, including God of War and Dark Souls, but an emphasis on constant action as well as compelling multiplayer capabilities should set it apart.
At first, Ascend feels like most other third person action RPGs of the fantasy variety, as a towering pile of meat tears into rather anonymous monsters with hammers and morningstars. Treasure chests and groups of enemies populate a rather linear path interrupted by dungeons and various objectives, such as the destruction of certain buildings or foes. Players choose one of three giant avatars of different moral alignments, each with unique special abilities and flavors. There's equipment, experience, and various weapons with different attack patterns for playstyle customization. Greater emphasis on action and player skill rather than stats and numbers makes the combat more visceral than that of some other action RPGs. Those fond of this rather recent trend will be pleased.
To separate Ascend from the flock of similar games, Signal Studios implemented a multiplayer function in the tradition of the Souls series. When players join friends' games, a ghost appears; this will be very familiar to those who played the Souls games. Instead of direct involvement, players can curse or bless other players as they fight alongside their phantoms. One might place a totem of sorts to provide an area-of-effect blessing, while a crueler player might banish his enemies, transporting them to his friend's game world. I juggled a pack of wolves with another player during my playthrough until one of us decided to kill them for the experience and glory.
At some point near the end of the game, a player sacrifices his avatar. It then becomes a minor boss in another player's game, complete with the equipment and physical attributes the avatar had at the time of sacrifice. I had a chance to battle one of these invaders, and the experience was delightfully reminiscent of Dark Souls. These seem to be the basic concepts behind Ascend's multiplayer, but I foresee additional options before and after release.
The pre-alpha build seems fairly rough, and the lack of a solid narrative and setting might deter those looking for a more well-rounded experience, but a great personality underlies Ascend. One might expect a bunch of dumb action (and that's largely what’s going on here), but the game has surprising charm. The gratuitous violence seems playful as your avatar seizes a tiny human at his feet to be eaten for a few HP. The player character dwarfs the humans in the game, and they scurry about in terror or prostrate themselves before him in awful worship. Later in my game, a few even leaped upon his back with spears. These Titan-loyal fools never got the chance to convert to the new religion, as I shook them off and beat them to death.
During the demo, a great horned Titan stalked the mountainous horizon, an enormous reminder of my foe’s true power. The sense of scale and divine hugeness contributes to the overall feeling of badassery that Ascend exudes. Ascend feels like good, bloody fun, and that's precisely what Signal Studios seems to be going for. Fun details and unexpected charm compensate for the lack of story, and the multiplayer features ensure dynamic gameplay. I didn't expect to come away from Ascend: New Gods with much affection for it, but there's something appealing about its wild and direct approach to fun. Ascend will likely find converts when it releases on Xbox Live sometime soon.