When the Ouya hit shelves back in 2013, one of its standout titles was Towerfall by indie developer Matt Thorsen (AKA Matt Makes Games). Now that the exclusivity has run out, the game has been brought to the PlayStation 4 as part of their indie-centric Spring Fever promotion. Redubbed Towerfall Ascension, let’s see if it has what to takes to ascend to “must own” status on the PS4.
Simplicity is the name of the game with just three buttons — shoot, jump and dodge (which doubles as a button to catch arrows) — to keep track of. It may take a handful of games to get a feel for how things handle, but it’s hard to imagine much beyond that. As you’d expect with the retro look, you’re limited in movement and aiming to eight directions, which can occasionally frustrate when shooting. Jumping feels slightly off at times as well, but on balance it’s a strong effort.
There’s a definite charm to the pixilated world of Towerfall Ascension, whether it’s the environments or assortment of characters and enemies. The decision to place your available ammo, which is never more than a handful of arrows, above your character’s head is genius as it allows you to maintain your focus on the task at hand. On the downside, it feels odd that the arenas don’t even fill the screen; something you’d typically only see with older titles, not those that are merely retro themed.
Much like the graphics, the music and sound effects are quite enjoyable despite their simplicity. They don’t just blend into the background, either, as the tunes actually work to elevate the pace and tension of the game.
There are three modes available: Quest, Trials and Versus. Quest would qualify as the primary single-player offering (though you can play it co-operatively) as you battle waves of enemies, Horde style, across a series of unique locations. While not particularly lengthy, there’s enough variety and depth in both the environments and enemies (and their attacks) that it doesn’t feel like a tacked-on piece.
As you progress, locations become more densely populated and each subsequent wave is tougher than the last. And outside of the first level or two it feels like a legitimate accomplishment to move forward, even on normal difficulty. The enemies are clever, frequently dodging arrows and using the levels’ Pac-Man inspired pathways that allow you (and them) to warp left/right or drop through the floor and emerge from the ceiling. Plus, with enough them on the screen, and the one-hit kills, every single foe is potentially dangerous.
In Trials, you’re challenged to destroy a number of straw dummies as quickly as possible. It’s equal parts skill and strategy (and repetition) to post solid times, and the “diamond” goal, which is insanely fast, offers some incentive for the more dedicated players (or trophy hunters) to keep returning for more. Ultimately, however, it’s just you against the clock here, and that omits Towerfall’s most endearing quality: fast-paced mayhem.
Make no mistake, Towerfall Ascension is primarily a multiplayer game where you and up to three others can battle it out for bragging rights, and Versus is where it truly shines. Simple on the surface and yet boasting some real depth, the game turns team battles and free-for-alls into engaging white knuckle affairs. This is thanks to the excellent level design (and aforementioned Pac-Man inspirations), limited ammo and one-hit kills, all of which combine to create countless moments of agony and ecstasy.
Every round has the potential to turn into an elaborate game of cat and mouse, and the fact that you only start with three arrows means you have to make every shot count. Beyond your bow, you can also crush your friends underfoot by jumping on them Super Mario style, though such a strategy is fraught with danger since a well-timed arrow will end your round on the spot. As a defensive measure you’re able to catch arrows in flight, and there are few moments more satisfying that being out of ammo only to snag an incoming projectile and return it to sender in one fell swoop.
While there aren’t many game types, Towerfall helps assuage that with variants, which allow you to alter the match conditions. There are loads of things to tinker with — arrow types, power ups, turn on/off free aim, make it so defeated players return as ghosts, plunge levels into darkness, and so on — and they help you create the fights you want to play.
As much fun as the game can be, however, there are definite drawbacks. Chief among them is the lack of online multiplayer. From an artistic perspective, I get it; this game was inspired by growing up playing couch co-op and is an homage to that era. The problem with that, though, is if you’re old enough to have been raised on those games, then the odds are you’re old enough to have friends scattered around the country. So, while I do understand on some level, a game that’s so fun to play with others should really afford you every opportunity to do just that.
If you’ve got a PS4, four controllers and a steady supply of buddies and roommates to play with, then I cannot recommend Towerfall Ascension highly enough. If, however, you do most of your gaming alone or online it’s hard to say the single-player portions are substantial enough to warrant a purchase.