TowerFall Ascension Review

By Sam Quirke, 2 years ago
If you're feeling nostalgic for local multiplayer and couch co-op, you may want to turn your attention to the indie development scene. Besides the critical and commercial success of madcap kitchen simulator Overcooked, a lot of recent ID@Xbox titles have been combining their retro inspired visuals and gameplay with that good old fashioned ability for your friends to pick up a second controller and hop straight into the action. TowerFall Ascension is one of the latest games to play into this nostalgia. Conceptually, this could have been made in 1994. Its successes and frustrations will be familiar to anyone who has dusted off their old consoles with friends and tried to relive a time when games were simple, chaotic fun.

TowerFall Ascension

Even from the main menu, there is no doubt that TowerFall has a multiplayer focus. Although it's possible to play the limited campaign mode solo, even the button you press is called 'Co-Op', making you feel like a bit of a loser for playing it on your own. The campaign consists of eight initial levels, plus four bonus levels that are unlocked by meeting obscure requirements. Each level is a static map of various platforms. The maps wrap around, so if you drop through a gap in the floor then you'll appear in the ceiling, and exiting left brings you out on the right; it's a very basic setup. In the campaign, you'll face up to eight waves of various sprite-based monsters. Some fly and some walk, while some shoot arrows or lasers. All are classic platforming archetypes and while it's not very inspiring to look at, you'll at least feel like you're on familiar ground. The real challenge is keeping out of the way. One touch from an enemy or projectile and you lose one of your five precious lives.

With enemies continually spawning and falling through the wrap-around edges, you'll want to take them out quickly so that you aren't swarmed. Your primary weapon is a bow and three arrows, which you'll have to retrieve from the map or a dead enemy after shooting. Such a scarcity of ammo seems unfairly balanced in the enemy's favour, given that there are so many of them, but that balance quickly swings too far the other way when you realise two key tactics. Firstly, you can stomp on enemies like a traditional platformer, negating any danger from enemies without projectiles. The other option is to use the dash. Not only are you protected from damage while dashing, you will also catch any enemy projectile in the path of your dash. It completely changes the game. In the campaign you'll also notice that the spawn locations and types are static, meaning that you can memorise the wave, take out the more significant enemies before they become a problem and simply stomp on everything else.

TowerFall 3

Ultimately, the campaign mode suffers because of this. While there is some challenge, once you've got to grips with the enemy layouts it really just becomes a matter of concentration rather than tactical cleverness. You quickly realise that the design favours multiplayer arena battling – as a single player, it gets repetitive pretty quickly. The game has absolutely nothing going on in terms of story or world building and there's no context for the adventure, which is a missed trick. Although you can pick from several different brightly coloured protagonists, there's no narrative or gameplay reason to do so because all characters behave in exactly the same way. While this is definitely not the kind of game where you'd want bloated RPG elements weighing down what is essentially an arcade experience, a little variation would have led to more interesting strategies when going toe-to-toe with your friends. It's an odd omission from the classic arcade brawler model that TowerFall is trying to emulate.

The other single player mode is Trials, hidden away in the corner of the main menu, and its the least entertaining mode in the game. Instead of spawning enemies, you just have a series of target dummies to try and hit as quickly as possible, turning the game into a typical trajectory based puzzle you've played a million times over on your smartphone. The diamond medal times aren't impossible but they are punishing. There's simply not enough entertainment value in the Trials mode to put yourself through the frustration.

TowerFall 4

Luckily TowerFall succeeds in the most important aspect. The Versus mode gets top billing on the main menu and it's easy to see why. All of the elements that hamper the campaign's effectiveness work really well when you're battling friends because you're on a level playing field. You'll be moving at the same speed and using the same dashing tactics, so taking a shot is fraught with consequence. Not only might you waste an opportunity and lose your arrows on the map, but your opponent may dash-catch all of them, leaving you on the defensive and relying on a desperate catch while the arrows rain down on you.

Power-up chests will continually spawn, turning the action into a race to claim the prize. This might be a shield, a pair of wings, additional arrows or special arrows such as a Bomb or Laser. There's a decent amount of customisation available here too. Beyond setting the score target, you can limit which maps you play, what kind of power-ups will appear and how arrows will react in the environment. It's all cleverly balanced to favour lightning-fast rounds where one mistake can cost you the match, reminding me of Wand Wars or even Super Smash Bros. in its frenetic turning of the tables with every action. It's just unfortunate that TowerFall lacks the same level of charm and character.

TowerFall 1

Local co-op is a lot of fun but this is by no means a family game like Overcooked or your average Nintendo party product, where even console novices can easily get involved. TowerFall is really only going to appeal to people who are long-term gaming fans. If you don't have any of those in your house you are going to be stuck with the campaign. While one can appreciate the difficulties for an independent studio in setting up an online server, the fact that TowerFall doesn't have online multiplayer nevertheless feels like a massive missed opportunity. I'm sure plenty of people across the world would be interested in dropping into a match, but I can't see that many of them are going to be within travelling distance of each other.

The audiovisual design is quite charming if you like retro pixel art, with dynamic lighting giving a little flavour to the level design. Each arena has its own art style and theme tune and it's quite immersive. The soundtrack will get stuck in your head if you spend a good amount of time in the game, but it's a great homage to some classic 8-bit scores so you won't mind too much. There's certainly nothing here that offends the eyes or ears, but given the huge proportion of ID@Xbox titles already pumping out pixel art and 8-bit tunes, TowerFall fails to stand out from the crowd.

TowerFall 2

The achievement list is quite demanding, so completionists should be very wary before starting this up. You'll have to play 5000 rounds of Versus in total, and also earn Red and Gold skulls in the campaign. The game doesn't really explain how to get these very well, but we can assume from the Steam version that these will be granted for completing a level without dying. A Red Skull is awarded for doing so in Normal mode, while a Gold is given if you manage it in Hardcore. The latter ups the difficulty by increasing the speed and spawn frequency of your enemies, so you'll have to be very focused to manage it without dying once. The other achievements for unlocking additional archers and maps are entertainingly mysterious, each requiring an obscure sequence of events to occur. Just like the game itself, though, the few interesting elements of this achievement list can't quite balance out the frustrating ones.

Summary

TowerFall Ascension is an addictive archery-based multiplayer death-match with a simple concept and competent design. An absence of gameplay differences between characters is frustrating and the solo campaign mode is far too insubstantial, but the versus arena is engagingly chaotic, if short-lived. Online multiplayer would have elevated this game to another level, but local play is still a lot of fun if you and your friends like to duke it out once in a while. If you need another retro-inspired battle arena in your life and you have friends on hand to play locally, you'll enjoy your time here. Unfortunately, for single players looking for an engaging experience, Towerfall misses its target by a wide margin.
3 / 5
TowerFall Ascension
Positives
  • Simple, chaotic fun in local multiplayer
  • Great 8-bit fantasy score
  • Easy to learn but a reasonable challenge to master
Negatives
  • Campaign is woefully insubstantial
  • Character selection has no impact on gameplay
  • Online multiplayer could have improved the game's longevity
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent five hours shooting blobs with arrows, earning nine of the game's 17 achievements. An Xbox One digital copy of the game was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purposes of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016 and is now the Editor for both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.