My first few plays of Ascension reminded me of reading Haruki Murakami as a teenager. It was unmistakeable that there was something great going on, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. With Ascension – as with Murakami – there are rewards for the patient.
Ascension is a fantasy-themed deck-building game: a contest in which players draw from a common pool of cards to build the most valuable point total before the end of the game. The deck produces heroes and constructs for you to acquire, as well as monsters to defeat. You can choose to specialize in acquiring valuable cards, or make a less expensive deck that specializes in killing monsters, or try to blaze a middle path between those strategies. Meanwhile your opponent (or opponents – the game features a wicked AI and supports asynchronous multiplayer for as many as four) can see what you’re doing and will do his best to subvert your strategy.
If it sounds complex, that’s because it is – at least a little. Ascension starts you off with a thoughtfully written tutorial, and matches are so short that you’re suddenly a veteran before you know it. I never played Magic: The Gathering or any of it’s ilk (at my school lunch table we mostly talked about Star Trek, thanks) but I picked up the ins and outs quickly.
Some experienced players that I’ve talked to about Ascension have told me that the game is more luck-driven than it is dependent on skill; this certainly true. But the level of time investment is so modest (10 minutes per game, perhaps – even if spread out across a few days) it’s hard to get too worked up over a cold run of cards that runs counter to your deck-building strategy. Even taking that randomness into account – there’s certainly skill involved. If your experience is anything like mine you’ll find yourself improving steadily as you play, which discredits the idea that Ascension is just about luck.
The game has a love-it-or-hate-it fantasy art style that others have called beautiful. To my eye it’s more enthusiastic than accomplished, but there’s no denying that there’s quite a lot of it. The music is good, but after a dozen or so multiplayer matches you’ll beg for an additional track or two, just to mix it up a little. Nothing about the game feels white-label, though – and you can feel the of amount of work that’s gone on under the hood. The game engine is really polished, from way the cards feedback your input to the seamlessness of the in-game multiplayer match browser.
Ascension shouldn’t discourage a strategy gamer who is unfamiliar with card games. If you think that card games are collectible money pits in which your competitiveness is pegged to your willingness to part with cash – Ascension isn’t one of those. There is just one IAP in the game, an expansion pack that adds more cards (another should be arriving this week). It is entirely optional – in multiplayer matches you will only be paired with those who have the same expansions enabled as you do, meaning you’ll never be at a competitive disadvantage for being frugal.
Ascension’s game mechanics make it equally appropriate for a 10-minute subway ride or a languid three-day-long asynchronous match with a friend. Most important of all, the learning curve isn’t as steep as it looks from outside. And once you’ve gotten good, pick up A Wild Sheep Chase, you should have no trouble with it.
5 out of 5