ASCENDANCE: First Horizon as a concept is pretty simple. You leap around a 3D space onto a variety of platforms, stairways, and jump pads to reach markers. As you reach each marker, the level is built up, and your final goal is as the name suggests; to ascend. Along the way, you’ll probably fall plenty and lose track of how the level has built around you, but there is fun to be had. When you use momentum to string together a succession of jumps or manage to quickly figure out how to progress it can be rewarding. However, huge technical problems and a real lack of polish drag the experience down.
The “Zen” Experience
What stands out initially is the game’s art style. Minimalist is one way to put it, or simplistic if you’re cynical, but it does work. The relaxing music combines with the colourful backgrounds and low-poly platforms and you find yourself just floating around, chilled out, and in the zone. Collectables are the game’s other objective and are worth doing as the content is pretty light across three levels. You’ll probably find yourself already grabbing some as you progress, and that sweet lure of 100 Gamerscore per level will probably entice you to go looking.
Sadly, so much of what surrounds the concept of ASCENDANCE is poorly put together. First off, it took me hours just to start the game as even the menu manages to confuse. There is a tiny, triangle cursor to find that blends into the background so well I thought it was broken. Once you navigate this initial hurdle and load in, you’ll likely notice the framerate. I was playing on an Xbox One X and once the level builds it can run like a slideshow at times. This varying performance level is disappointing as a smooth 60fps would have fit the game’s aesthetic so well.
Run Forest Run
ASCENDANCE may claim it doesn’t need to explain its premise or core mechanics, but some pointers would have been nice. I took over an hour to realize the game had a sprint function, which made the “floaty” walking more manageable. Sprinting also builds momentum for bigger jumps, so discovering it is essential. Simple controller layout menu screens would have fixed this issue, but continue and audio are the only options available. As a user experience then, ASCENDANCE doesn’t quite match what we’ve come to expect, even from smaller titles.
At times though, the level design is rather clever. The way the game uses moving platforms, jump pads and slopes to create a path make for fun platforming. Building momentum by sprinting across pillars works, and creates a smooth experience, at times. Sadly, once the level builds further, things can become confusing and downright frustrating. The checkpoint system puts you back to your last marker, which can feel miles away. This system combined with naturally more difficult end-level platforming can detract from the relaxed experience ASCENDANCE goes for.
Overall, there is an interesting concept buried within ASCENDANCE: First Horizon. Yet, whenever the game does something interesting, it’s always countered by frustration. The atmosphere and premise are relaxing, yet the uneven checkpoint system is frustrating. The game is simple in design and style yet you are barely able to navigate the main menu. ASCENDANCE begins with a promise and draws you into its world but is never quite able to fulfil what it sets out to do, leading to a messy, frustrating platformer. Technical problems only add to the game’s shortcomings and choppy framerates and a confusing interface is just the start. I also ran into a collision bug which made me have to restart the game from scratch. These technical issues mean that in its current state, it’s hard to recommend ASCENDANCE for anyone except the most hardcore parkour lover.