TowerFall Ascension is a superb multiplayer brawl, but you'll need to get together with friends in real life to enjoy it.
It is, quite simply, all about the catch. All the great multiplayer games have that one special hook - the mechanic that elevates them above the pack and fires even the most jaded of competitors up into a fist-pumping roar. Countering an Ultra in Street Fighter 4; lobbing the keeper in Pro Evolution Soccer; a last-second, final-bend banana in Mario Kart. And now you can add another to the list - catching an arrow in TowerFall Ascension.
Without this most audacious of counterattacks, Matt Makes Games' four-player arena brawl would still be a marvellous multiplayer game, like a 16-bit approximation of Bomberman, Smash Bros and Mario's battle mode. Four generic fantasy types fight for supremacy in a handful of two-dimensional arenas, where platforms are just too high to easily bound around and dropping through the holes in the bottom of the screen just transports them back to the top. Unlike Smash Bros, though, TowerFall offers ranged combat: every player has a stock of arrows that they fire across the level, which can only be restocked by grabbing them from where they drop, finding new ones in a treasure chest or - yes - catching an opponent's.
By yanking on the right trigger at the perfect time, your diminutive archer will snatch and incoming arrow out of the sky and immediately add it to his or her quiver. This leads to all manner of wondrous moments; the type of flair and gusto normally reserved for carefully crafted action games. Leaping from a high vantage point, firing off a speculative arrow to the left which kills one opponent, catching another as you fall and then executing the now arrowless foe as you land... this is TowerFall, and these amazing moments happen nearly every match.
It doesn't take long to wrap your head around the game's systems. It's obvious why the original TowerFall was heralded as the only thing worth playing on Ouya; there's an immediacy that brings to mind both Nidhogg and Samurai Gunn, but a depth that gradually turns frantic ledge-hopping melees into cautious, strategic wars of attrition (albeit still played out at breakneck speed).
Alongside the archery, with its arrows that can be rapid-fired in a straight line or carefully aimed from a static position, you can take out your enemies with a classic 2D head-stomp. This means you have to keep your eye on all four corners of the screen at once; your periphery is just as lethal as your immediate surroundings.
If the catch is TowerFall Ascension's most audacious move, the dodge is its most crucial. Also activated with a tug of the right trigger, this lets your warrior rapidly shift in any one of eight directions and can be used in mid air. It's useful for escaping incoming attacks, but more so for platforming. There's a reason those ledges are just a little bit too high or a touch too far - TowerFall wants you to earn your parkour stripes.
TowerFall Ascension, like the finest of multiplayer games, is all about the systems. Systems that layer on top of each other; systems so sound that they make the fundamentals feel completely reliable, yet offer the kind of unpredictability that leads to moments of sheer drama. Power-ups add further spice to this already heady cocktail of carnage, letting you smash up the environment (and your enemies) with bomb arrows or pierce through the scenery with drills. You can also fiddle with a vast list of variables that completely change the rules in a match and save your your new stipulations for future tournaments. This is the type of game that elicits raucous, primal noises from all who play it. I also think it might be physically impossible to blink mid-game.
Such a disappointment, then, that a multiplayer treat as rich and rewarding as TowerFall Ascension is offline only. While it's understandable given both the lack of resources in such a small-scale development and the technical nightmare of making such an intricate game playable across the internet, it's still a crying shame that TowerFall's highs are reserved for the rare occasions when four friends and four controllers collide.
To compensate, Matt Makes Games has built a comprehensive single-player or co-op quest that pits you against all manner of unusual enemies who attack in predictable patterns over a set number of waves. While it feels like an afterthought, this quest is surprisingly entertaining, managing to remain tense and tricky and giving lonely players a decent training ground in the wait for the next round of flesh-and-blood competition.
This is a pure multiplayer game, cut from the same cloth as SNES Mario Kart, Micro Machines and Bomberman
You'll be battered by hooded spectres with daggers, hounded by blue ghosts and assaulted by floating eyeballs. Each enemy has specific attacks and defensive moves which subtly teach you the finer side of TowerFall Ascension's platforming archery. Enemy archers, for example, won't let you shoot them head-on; they'll just catch your arrow and fire it back into your stupid face. A good lesson to learn without a real person to make you feel bad about yourself.
The quest is joined by a mode called Trials, where you're tasked with clearing a level of straw dummies and rewarded for your haste in doing so. It's actually very similar to 10 Second Ninja, with a critical path for the best time and an instant restart, but it lacks that game's razor-sharp focus. And so it should - Trials is a tertiary mode at best, a distraction from the all-conquering main event.
Despite valid efforts to convince you otherwise, then, TowerFall Ascension can't disguise itself for long. This is a pure multiplayer game, cut from the same cloth as SNES Mario Kart, Micro Machines and, of course, Bomberman. It is impossible to recommend if you do not have real-world friends to battle - a genuine concern in this online age - and the lack of connected gameplay does hurt the package.
Classic board games don't get marked down for only being playable with real-world humans, though, and nor should TowerFall Ascension. This is the type of game that creates memories and dissolves friendships, soundtracked by the pained swears of the defeated and the uproarious cheers of the victors. If that's not worth moving your life around for, then what is?
9 / 10