Now… I’m a fan of walking simulators, moreso than the average human being.
I give Dear Esther some of the credit it deserves. My favorite game of all time can begrudgingly be called a walking simulator. However, there’s a flip-side to that notion, with walking simulators recently being nothing but tone-deaf dreck. Where The Bees Make Honey, Tyd wag Vir Niemand, Storm Boy, and now ASCENDANCE: First Horizon are the walking simulators to end all walking simulators.
This is the latest title from German developers ONEVISION Games. They’ve made a name for themselves by doing what similar German developer Piranha Bytes does: releasing the same game. While Piranha Bytes relish in re-releasing Gothic II under different skins, ONEVISION have done the same with a “Surreal First-Person Exploration” formula, with titles like ESSENCE, ASCENDANCE, and the soon-to-be-released DYSTOA. You don’t know whether you’re buying a video game or perfume.
There’s no plot, and that’s to be expected. You play as a vague human shape, stuck in small, undeveloped ruins surrounded by fluorescent landscapes that pierce the eyes with light. You walk up to floating orbs, and what do they offer? More of the level to explore! Hold on, Sonny Jim, the rollercoaster ain’t over yet! As you get higher and higher while touching more and more floating orbs, the platforms will become tougher to reach, which… honestly surprised me.
For once, a walking simulator is taking into accounts that the path forward isn’t always going to be laid out. It’s much more validated than something like Shape of The World, where the progression is halted by a lack of clairvoyance in level design and shit aesthetic presentations. ASCENDANCE suffers from that as well, but it has more in common with the game Refunct: The 2015 10-minute platformer from Dominique Grieshofer.
The similarities are there. Levels slowly expand upon collection of random collectibles dotted about the map. There’s an emphasis on rising up in the world to reach transcendental perfection, and similar endless horizons punctuated by a sense of feeling and becoming ethereal. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not supposed to, but Refunct definitely knew to stay in its lane.
Say what you will about a ten-minute game with only one level and a price tag of $3, at least it never lied to you about what it was. It knew it was a small adventure that never hesitated to welcome you. It was a small experiment that was designed well enough to warrant what some might consider to be a hefty price tag. ASCENDANCE doesn’t really deserve the same clout, despite more content, because its main goal is to patronize you.
ASCENDANCE is the equivalent of a scam guru who asks that you pay a small fee for his advice and insight, because to not pay would mean that you wouldn’t understand it. The few nuggets of “wisdom” that ONEVISION attempt to force down your throats are so poorly-written and pretentious, it feels like a 16-year old Amazing Atheist fan rewrote The Holy Mountain.
Take the shapes, for example. Aside from orbs that expand the platforming playground you’ll partake in, you also have random abstract hourglasses you can interact with. These won’t expand the level, but instead treat you to what ONEVISION thinks is important.
“As the world is our foundation, no matter how high we rise — we will always find our origin.” Y… you’re kidding me, right? As we get higher, we can always look down? Not since Adam Sandler in Grown-Ups 2 have we seen a meditative visionary so on point with humanity’s need to always break new metaphorical atmospheres.
Of course I get what they’re trying to say. It’s essentially “Don’t forget where you come from”, but written by someone who’s trying to reach a word limit in an essay. It’s the lowest level of attempting to show off your open third eye, and anyone can do it. Don’t believe me? Okay, watch: “As our achievements continue to multiply, don’t forget that as they radiate your life, the faults will also be present.” See? It’s that bloody simple. Granted, mine isn’t as “graceful” as ONEVISION’s attempt, but that wasn’t my point. Using a thesaurus for phrases isn’t poignant.
That’s not even the end of the pretentiousness, however! As the level gets bigger, more collectibles also become present, and are hidden around the map, underneath platforms and hard-to-reach areas. Your reward? One word. Words like “Luminescence”, “Ebullience”, and “Accidence”.
Accidence. A word so dis-attached from the modern English language, that even as I write this, my spell-checker is having a fit. A word that has something to do with grammar is supposedly thematically relevant to the world of ASCENDANCE. I just… let’s talk about the gameplay.
ASCENDANCE‘s level design is similar to Metroidvania prospects due to how there is no true straight path. As you touch the floating spheres, more spheres will arrive at one time, meaning that you’ll suddenly have to backtrack and find the one platform out of the several hundred present that will lead you to another spheres. The presentation of paths is piss-poor.
Your character moves like molasses, even when you discover the sprint button. Jumping feels like you’ve got Samson’s chain attached to your ankle, and when descending platforms come into play, your character tends to clip inside of them, leading to missed jumps and frustrating retries.
There is a checkpoint system, but it’s implemented poorly. If you fall into the purple water, then you’ll respawn at the last orb you touched. However, if you decide to revisit a completed level to try and find these oh-so-valuable collectibles, then if you fall there, you’ll always respawn at the beginning. You could always reset the level and start again, but honestly?
No, just… are you kidding me? No.
There are three levels to explor– sorry, I mean “experience”, and as you get further into it, they become harder to stomach. The frame rate chugs further downhill as each new world gets more graphically intense, or rather more aesthetically repetitive. They all last around 10-15 minutes if you can make heads of tails of the spaghetti junctions paths.
You might think “Oh, well if this is triple the length of Refunct, but the same price as Refunct, then it’s a diddly-done deal!” Hold on there, champ, it’s not that simple. ASCENDANCE doesn’t really hold the same values as Refunct, nor does it hold or possess any of the genuine sincere talents present in Grieshofer’s miniature gift to players.
Whereas Refunct came and left with a kiss on each cheek, ASCENDANCE demands you sit down and listen to what it has to say. It’s an insulting way to spend an afternoon, and to think that there’s any sort of intelligent commentary or insight here is just being dishonest to yourself.
In the end, ASCENDANCE might end up being one of the most pretentious games you ever play. Its writing is insipidly nonsensical, the gameplay is a slog to get through, the level design isn’t smart or aware of player movement. It’s your favorite art student asking you if you think The Matrix Revolutions is smart.
This Review of ASCENDANCE: First Horizon was based on the Xbox One version of the game.
A game wallowing in its own farts, proud of how mentally above everyone they are.
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