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EGM Review: TowerFall: Ascension

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Posted on March 7, 2014 AT 03:30pm

Arch enemies

TowerFall: Ascension has no gimmick.

It’s easy to imagine, after more than six decades of videogames, that all the easy bits of design genius have already been discovered. No one would fault you for thinking that modern games need some highly technical spin to be entertaining, that “immersion” and “innovation” are less buzzwords and more a necessary firewall against stagnation, that the medium’s days of incisive simplicity are behind us.

But you’d be wrong.

I’ve spent the last three days trying to sniff out what makes TowerFall, the SNES-inspired arena fighter from Matt Thorson, such a consistently rollicking good time. I’m starting to suspect there’s no simple answer. I could recount in boring, excruciating detail its minor offenses—one aspect of its control scheme that’s a few frames too finicky, less-than-ideal implementation of save data and Trophies for multiple accounts, a lack of online play in a game that’s certain to cultivate fanatical multiplayer obsession—but I can’t point to any single facet that explains why what is here works so indescribably well.

The basics are rather, well, basic. TowerFall controls like your average platformer and structures itself after a standard arena fighter. In its primary mode, up to four players go head-to-head, armed with bows and arrows that can shoot in a suitably retro eight directions. One hit from an enemy arrow (or a Mario-style aerial stomp) and you’re out of commision for the rest of the round. Pickups can grant you a shield, more potent arrow types, or other minor upgrades. Beyond that, your only consideration is the way the levels wrap around on themselves, a mechanic borrowed from classic arcade games like Pac-Man. Fall through a hole at the bottom of the screen, and you’ll come out the matching one at the top. Walk off the right, and you’ll warp back to the left-hand side.

Ascension, a PS4 port of last year’s Ouya original, adds a bit more variety to the proceedings, with new maps, match variants, and a pair of added game modes designed to provide some single-player longevity. The meatiest addition is the new one- or two-player Quest mode, which introduces a decently varied lineup of computer-controlled enemy types that attack in waves—essentially a stripped-down, 2D take on Gears of War’s Horde.

That’s really all there is. Assuming you haven’t already had a chance to play it, you’re probably not all that impressed. In an era of focus groups and formulaic successes, TowerFall seems like it should be a curious sideshow at best. What would you put as bullet points on the back of the proverbial box? What is this game doing that couldn’t have been done just as well in the SNES era? Pretty much nothing, really.

But whatever TowerFall may lack in high-concept flash, it more than makes up for in skillful execution. The control scheme, with the small exception of an aiming system that infrequently feels slightly twitchier than it should, is tight and empowering. The dodge mechanic, in conjunction with the various power-ups and some exceptionally designed levels, makes for a surprising amount of strategic depth in every battle. You’re constantly jockeying for the height advantage, monitoring ammo counters, looking for pickups, and trying your best to be mindful of wraparound sneak attacks. With the right approach and enough finesse, even a matchup against a better-equipped foe is never unwinnable. There’s a certain flavor in the way Ascension blends its emphases on skill, balance, accessibility, and randomness that borders on magical.

If we’re measuring greatness by excited outbursts, triumphant high fives, and junior high–caliber trash talk, TowerFall might as well be the game of the decade at the EGM offices. The tense, come-from-behind wins in co-op Quest mode make me feel like part of some elite two-man hit squad. Going head-to-head turns me into a smug winner or, much more frequently, a jeering loser. Even when I’m losing—hell, even when I’m just sitting on the sidelines watching—I’m still having a good time. This is game design as social lubricant. It’s intoxicating.

In speaking to my fellow editors, I’ve realized that the games to which we’ve each drawn comparisons aren’t those that share common mechanics, but those that share a common sentiment. To one, it’s Bomberman. To another, it’s Super Smash Bros. To me, the youngest of the bunch, it’s Halo. For all their disparate genres and tones, there’s one thing those games have in common: They were the defining multiplayer experiences of their generation, the titles that turned a simple set of rules and a few pixels or polygons into an endless stream of late nights, hard-fought victories, and memorable friendships.

I’m loath to christen a new classic before the sheen has worn off, but TowerFall seems for all the world to be headed toward that hallowed ground. It may be straightforward, yes, but it’s also aggressively focused, humbly spectacular, and nearly unimpeachable in its design. To use that most dangerous, most reductive of words, it’s fun. Maybe, even in this modern age, that’s gimmick enough.

Developer: Matt Makes Games • Publisher: Matt Makes Games • ESRB: RP • Release Date: 3.11.2014
10

TowerFall: Ascension might not be complicated or feature-rich, but the instant pick-up-and-play fun of its local co-op arena battles make this the best game in the PS4’s fledgling library.

The Good Evokes the couch co-op pleasure of yesterday’s greatest multiplayer games.
The Bad Lack of online play may stop the lonely and friendless from experiencing what it has to offer.
The Ugly The shame of impaling yourself on an arrow you shot straight up and forgot about.
TowerFall Ascension is available on PlayStation 4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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