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With archery theme, ‘TowerFall’ hits the mark

courtesy of Ascension by Matt Makes Games

Sure, in real life they have caused many painful deaths, but as anyone who grew up loving “Robin Hood,” “Lord of the Rings,” and other fantasy and medieval epics can tell you, bows and arrows are awesome. From a pure adolescent adrenaline perspective, what can beat an arrow whizzing through the air with an understated whoosh, effortlessly finding its mark?

That appeal is part of why “TowerFall:
Ascension,” a new two-dimensional arena combat game for PC and PlayStation 4, is so much fun. But it’s only part of the story.

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This game, released by Matt Thorson and his Matt Makes Games indie development company, had been on the radar of those who follow the indie world for a while. But many who wanted to play it in its original incarnation were stymied by the fact that it was released in November exclusively for the Ouya console, and is only now available for PC and PlayStation 4 gamers. As of when I’m writing this, it can be had at about $13 for the former.

The basics are pretty simple: You’re a little pixelated character in a room with various platforms, you’ve got a bow and arrows, and you need to shoot everything that’s trying to kill you. Different levels have different layouts and obstacles, and there are chests filled with helpful items such as wings, a shield that will let you take a hit without losing a life, and explosive arrows, all of which add to the fun.

So why does it work so well? Like so many other successful games with a retro look, “TowerFall” takes the classic mechanics of two-dimensional games of the past — tight jumping from platform to platform, enemies with tricky but predictable attack patterns — and adds a few twists. In this case, the twists are contained mostly in the archery system. You have only a limited number of arrows and have to retrieve the ones you let loose if you want to use them again. That, combined with the fact that you can also attack enemies by bonking them on the head, means that especially in the game’s tougher levels, you need to simultaneously act fast and maneuver smartly to win. You can’t just fire off volley after volley.

The game’s multiplayer mode is its main draw and has received the most media attention, but I actually spent all my time with the single-player missions, fighting computer-controlled bad guys rather than other human-controlled characters. I had a great experience, but I was stuck with the single-player version because of one of the game’s main disappointments: the lack of an online multiplayer option.

If you want to play with or against friends — and this is an ideal game for some friendly competition — you need said friends physically with you wherever you have your PC or PlayStation 4 set up. This is a pretty big downside, because I’d love to be able to hop online and play random people from around the world. But I find it hard to come down as hard on Thorson as some others have. Sure, Thorson has a ready explanation. As he told PlayStation.blog, “Being local rather than online makes [multiplayer] interactions even more personal — these are actual people sitting right next to you, not a vague representation of a person somewhere else in the world. The energy in the room is a big part of TowerFall.”

The basics are pretty simple . . . you’ve got a bow and arrows, and you need to shoot everythingthat’s trying to kill you.

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But I suspect that’s only part of the story. Thorson led a very small team, and as soon as you add the complexities of online play to the already formidable task of building a game, all bets are off in terms of release date, bug-hunting, and everything else. It’s just a much tougher task.

Luckily, I’ve had enough fun with the single-player version to not mind the fact that there’s no online multiplayer option (though I hope this changes in the future). This is a wonderfully designed retro-style game.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.
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