Astral Ascent Preview: A Heavenly Prison Break (PC)

Not even the heavens themselves can contain you! In Astral Ascent, your goal is to escape a heavenly prison, which is guarded by 12 mighty warriors. Developer Hibernian Workshop promises a replayable adventure, filled through the brim with the arcane and the ethereal. Can they deliver? Find out in this Astral Ascent preview!

Astral Ascent Preview - a heavenly Prison BreakIt’s always a joy to see the passion and love of creators back in the projects themselves. Despite its early access release, the enthusiasm that the creators of this game had for it is visible everywhere. Following the success of their first rogue/souls-like 2D pixel-platformer, Dark Devotion, the small independent studio Hibernian Workshop created a wondrous and living world. The 2D pixel-platformer rogue-lite Astral Ascent has a beautiful art style, satisfying gameplay, and, above all, a personality. The early access version is a promising entrance into a world I don’t mind spending many hours in.

As you make your way through heavenly and astral landscapes, you can customize your experience every single time. Through arrays of collectible items, you can strengthen your heroes as you try to escape the strange ethereal paradise. While you’re planning your escape, you’ll learn more about the world, its curious but colorful inhabitants, and your own story. As the classic saying goes, the real journey was the friends we made along the way. Without further ado, let’s dig right into this Astral Ascent preview!

Astral Ascent is available in early access on Steam.

Astral Ascent - Early Access Launch Trailer

Story – Above all, Unraveling

If I had to summarize the story of Astral Ascent in one word, ‘unraveling’ would be the most appropriate choice. You exist in a paradise-like landscape called The Garden. It’s like a utopia – there are bright colors, flowers, friendly characters, and serene calm. But don’t let that fool you. This place is a prison, and it’s your objective to escape. Something took its inhabitants from their lives. It then locked them in heavenly jail, where they’re locked away. These are the words with which one of the protagonists, an assassin named Ayla, introduces you to the world of Astral Ascent. Her goal is simple: escape the heavenly prison. That’s easier said than done, however. 12 mighty warriors, the Zodiacs, prevent any escape.

This game is full of references to ancient Mythology - notably in the names of the Zodiacs themselves.

This game is full of references to ancient Mythology – notably in the names of the Zodiacs themselves.

Astral Ascent is not just Ayla’s story, however. No character in the Garden is there without purpose – although they initially might seem that way. Some try to escape with Ayla. Such as Kiran, a guy who’s much brawn and little brawn but seems to have his heart in the right place. Other characters exist to support the protagonists in their journey to defeat the Zodiacs and escape the heavenly prison. The inhabitants range from a wise owl to an upbeat botanist and everything in between. Every character in the Garden serves a purpose to let the heroes become stronger and unravel the secrets of this world. 

The things you learn about this world depend on the choices you make. It depends on the character with which you make interactions. It depends on the paths you take through the levels. You’ll meet gods and guardians whose purpose might not initially seem clear but is always there. One thing that Astral Ascent makes clear is that everything exists for a reason.

But nothing is as it seems. The Zodiacs serve as the primary antagonists since they are the 12 main obstacles preventing your escape from the Garden. Or are there more complex forces at hand? Are the Guardians free to decide as they please? Or are they trapped in a different kind of prison? As you travel through the astral plains, memories, goals, bonds, and purposes slowly reveal themselves. But what you discover about the world varies every single time.

Gameplay – Trial and most likely error

Astral Ascent revolves around the central mission of escaping the prison. In this sense, it’s pretty similar to other famous roguelikes and roguelites, like Hades. Once you’re ready, you’ll leave the Garden and make your way towards the first Zodiac. When you die, the run ends, and you’ll respawn in the Garden. However, the enemies you’ve defeated and the experience you’ve gained allow your character to become stronger. So although it’s back to square 1, you’ll have a higher chance to advance further in the story. Every time you lose, your chances to get further increase.

The game specializes in exploration and replayability. It doesn’t grow stale quickly. During every escape attempt, the content of the levels shifts. The routes you can take are different, the powers you can gain are more powerful, and there are new collectibles everywhere. As I mentioned, everything that happens in this game has a sense of purpose. You’re never running around aimlessly.

Curious about the genre and other great titles in it? Then check out our 5 Indie Roguelike/Roguelite recommendations! Especially for those of you who are skeptical of it all.

The garden and its colorful crew

The Garden is the main hub of the game. It’s also a prison. But, if you didn’t know that, it wouldn’t strike you as being one.

Whatever you may think of the characters, it's hard to deny their colorfulness. And their purpose!

Whatever you may think of the characters, it’s hard to deny their colorfulness. And their purpose!

Despite its many floating platforms, the Garden is very easy to navigate. Whenever you need to meet someone, the game guides you to them. And you’re going to meet a lot of people. Everyone you can talk to in the Garden has an important job that helps you progress throughout the game, either in terms of combat or by better understanding the world.

It’s easy to get around the Garden and prepare for your escape attempt. Many of the colorful characters quickly introduce themselves, after which they quickly demonstrate what they’re worth. The botanist, for instance, lets you upgrade your health and other stats. The so-called Poetic Paddler lets you purchase new spells. The dragon, adorably named Barbecue, lets you buy ever-stronger Auras to ease up your game. Although there are a lot of stats and modifiers to cope with, the well-organized hub makes it very easy to familiarize yourself with all of it.

Spells! Feathers! Auras! Gambits! Collect ’em all!

There is a lot to collect in Astral Ascent. And when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. Most of it tends to advance your combat while you’re doing a breakout attempt. You can get new spells in the Garden which can show up during your run. With Pavo’s Feathers, you can also make them more powerful. Gambits can give them additional effects, and auras give you a unique combat effect to help you in your escape. You can focus on any of these collectibles to craft your own built as you progress through the levels.

Of course, there’s more. Both quartz and keys serve as a form of currency, letting you unlock all kinds of valuable boosts throughout your run. With altar stones, you can choose to do more damage, do damage more quickly, or just get more health. The ways of playing vary every time, since the bonuses you can choose from shuffle around. What you can get depends on the path you take throughout the level – although every road leads to Rome. Or in this case, a Zodiac.

Replayability and different paths

None of your prison breaks will ever be the same. To get to a Zodiac, you first have to clear a bunch of short rooms. However, which rooms those vary per run. The reward may vary – sometimes the reward is keys, sometimes it’s quartz, but it can also be a new spell, gambit, or a feather. The obstacles you have to triumph are also constantly different. Exploration rooms focus on classic 2D platforming, making your way through enemies as you jump from one platform to the next. Fighting rooms, on the other hand, are similar to arenas. You’re locked in a small area where a horde of enemies spawn, and it’s up to you to kill them all.

Every journey is different - explore galore!

Every journey is different – explore galore!

Of course, there are also many special rooms. There’s a shop you can visit to buy just that spell you need, a relaxation zone where you can get some health and mana back, and a beautifully designed bar where you can get various kinds of stat boosts. As you progress, you’ll unlock different rooms, which of course change in every run you attempt. No exploration room is ever the same. What’s more, when you replay a room, new collectibles may appear, like memories. Thanks to this constantly changing and dynamic environment, this game is refreshing to travel through. There’s always something new to do or to collect, which either makes you stronger or lets you learn more about the world. No unnecessary filler content here!

The permanent high of combat

Astral Ascent doesn’t just specialize in exploration and replayability. Combat plays a central role in the game as well. Fortunately, combat is nothing short of excellent. It’s fast-paced, filled with combos, and highly satisfying. Especially air combat in this game feels great to pull off. Slashing opponents while hovering in mid-air, letting me pull off crazy combos without the constraints of gravity is the kind of cool I need in my life. 

The combat in the game revolves around spells and mana. You need mana to cast spells, which rotate in the order you have assigned them. Mana is easy to obtain – just do regular attacks to regain it. As such, you can cast cool spells almost all the time. Spells don’t feel cheap, though. It takes effort to obtain better ones, and the timer-based utility spells let you do the occasional mana-free attack to deal massive damage.

So you have three kinds of attacks that you combine in all kinds of ways to slash your way through the astral plane. The combat is just you going from one high point to the next. The spells have unique effects, ranges, damages, and animations, which become crazier the more powerful you get. By smartly using your spells, you’ll gain major tactical advantages. And will you ever need those advantages! The early levels are friendly. However, once you’ve reached Zodiacs, you’re in for a serious battle.

Let's face it, flashy, instant, and violent spells are the best ones.

Let’s face it, flashy, instant, and violent spells are the best ones.

The bosses are a lot tougher than the average enemy you’ve faced before. Although they’re not impossible to defeat, losing to them and having to journey back to them from tile one makes them this monumental obstacle to overcome. They won’t hold back either – there’s so much happening on the screen that you need to attack with resolve and carefulness. Once you’ve defeated a Zodiac though, the feeling is impossible to put into words. However, if the fight doesn’t work out for you, you can always get yourself a player 2 to assist!

Graphics and Audio – Sublime and Serene

You’ve seen the pictures in this preview. Astral Ascent is gorgeous, and it’s hard to give it any other term. With its open skies, green fields, and bright arcane colors, Astral Ascent certainly feels astral. Although the game is in its early access, the world is already vibrant and alive. The pixel art is beautifully animated to make everyone and everyone seem like there’s a constant gentle breeze. The background is full of fantastical landmasses, filled with floating islands and gems in plain sight. The flashy effects that come alongside spells make them so much more mighty.

Cha cha, real smooth pixel art

Cha cha, real smooth pixel art

The characters remind me of a mix of Ancient Greece, mystic religious elements, and a whole lot of fantasy and the arcane. The wise owl, Sova, is clad in a robe and a mask hiding her true face, adding to her role as one of the mysterious ancient inhabitants of the place. Although most of this world is built in wonderful pixel art, the characters have fully painted models when they engage in dialogue. This art lets us see who we’re dealing with and makes the world more immersive.

Don’t leave the sound off on this one

If you want the full experience of Astral Ascent, you can’t do so with the sound off. The music is very calming and relaxing, making heaven just a bit heavenly. Seriously, if it wasn’t for the fact that the characters have pasts and bonds to get back to, I don’t know why they bother leaving at all. The art makes the Garden already serene, but the soft and gentle music makes the picture complete. When combat flares up, the music becomes more intense as well. The music retains its calm character but morphs into a more heroic version as you pull off crazy air combat and superb spells.

Astral Ascent - Early Access OST

Aside from the music, another reason why you should leave the sound on in this game is the excellent voice acting. The voice acting is extravagant – every voice line, in every instance, for every character, has voice-acted dialogue. This effort bring the characters so much more to life. It just so shows that the developers of Astral Ascent have walked the extra mile. Even in early access, the game is already the whole package.

Astral Ascent was previewed on PC with a game key provided by ICO.

Summary
I can't stress enough that for a game in early access mode, Astral Ascent feels like it's already the full package. The sense of exploration and replayability makes me want to come back to this game, a desire which is only fueled by the smooth and satisfying combat. Journeying through this world and learning its secrets is an absolute joy thanks to the wonderful artwork, music, and voice acting. Astral Ascent is alive, and the early access experience promises much for the full, final version.
Good
  • Very atmospherical thanks to its style and music
  • Dynamic and engaging combat
  • Very replayable and much to do
  • The many stats-boosting and build items are well-organized
Bad
  • Unfortunate room RNG can mess up your run
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