Review: Ascension Immortal Heroes

By Owen Faraday 30 Jun 2013 0
"The Touch Base-r" Some of the new constructs sound like they were named by the Mechana corporate communications department.

Remember the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation? The one where Tasha Yar and Q show up again for old times' sake -- not because they were strictly needed for the plot but just because they were remembered fondly by the fans?

In 2014, Ascension creators Stoneblade will launch their own Ascension Online service with exclusive access to future expansions, and Playdek's existing iOS Ascension app will have to pack it in. Being the last major expansion pack that the Playdek app will receive before an agreement with Stoneblade shuts the app down at the end of next year, Immortal Heroes is developer Playdek's farewell episode from the game.

It's fitting that the gameplay wrinkle introduced by Immortal Heroes is basically a bit of fan service. Certain card plays in the game will produce "soul gems", which are single-use cards from older Ascension blocks with a spooky Instagram filter applied to them. Hey, you got a soul gem! And your reward is a cameo appearance from your old pal Master Dhartha.

Immortal Heroes is an expansion made with existing Ascension fans in mind, not just because of the self-conscious nods to its own fantasy world, but because it adds depth and complexity to an increasingly complex game.

Speaking of that fantasy world: I think Stoneblade/Gary Games might be out of ideas in that department. Part of Ascension's appeal was always the unique art style and half-explained universe that suggested a fantasy world like nothing you've ever seen before. But after three major expansion packs, Immortal Heroes is just phoning the fantasy in from a poolside lounger in Acapulco. Instead of weird, mold-breaking characters like the Arbiter of the Precipice and Xeron the Duke of Lies, now we get "Spider Witch", "Nothing Man", and "Akam the Genie" -- who literally grants you three wishes. It also turns out the The Godslayer is just a goateed fellow named Jeff or something. I think I saw him skateboarding at the Southbank the other day.

Not that they were ever really gone. Your old pals are back.

The fiction isn't the main draw here: the game is. And the game of Ascension is pretty much as good as ever. As a deck-building card game, every turn in Ascension offers you a choice between gaining points (tallied up at the end to determine the victor) or strengthening your deck by acquiring cards. You will reach a point of diminishing returns where you've collected so many cards that your deck is now unmanageably big, and what makes Ascension so durably interesting is having to determine where that point is in each game.

The Immortal Heroes expansion makes Ascension more cerebral than ever. If you're playing with the cards from Immortal Heroes and one other "block", picking a strategy early and executing it is more viable: many of the new cards in the block add powerful bonuses for those who have set up their decks to take advantage of them. Concentrate on Lifebound heroes and you can string together power turns that will have you drawing cards almost indefinitely. Mechana players who forsake power for runes will have their discipline rewarded with monster-killing cards that open up later in the match. This does tend to accentuate Ascension's snowball effect problem: an early advantage usually translates into a victory, and Immortal Heroes doesn't really add many avenues for reversals-of-fortune.

I tremendously enjoyed last year's Storm of Souls expansion, but I also lamented the complexity that it added to a game that had been famously accessible and quick to play. Immortal Heroes continues that trend: a synchronous match of base Ascension could be run through in 10 minutes -- with all of the card-reading and mental calculations required by Immortal Heroes, its games take closer to a half-hour. In the late game especially, you do yourself little harm getting up to pour another drink or lay out tomorrow's clothes --or maybe even have a little nap-- while your opponent deliberates through his turn.

Picky, I know. The game browser could use a way to filter out players who start half a dozen games at once.

The fact that Immortal Heroes is a slower, more considered game isn't a bad thing. Far from it: I've been enjoying the game tremendously and I doubt I'll tire of it anytime soon. But it is a rather dramatic change in character for a title that typified the coffee break strategy game.

For as much as the game itself has changed, Playdek's app has made only small, subtle improvements in this new edition: small tweaks to the way the multiplayer game browser sorts matches, some apparent speed enhancements to the single-player AI, and the introduction a proprietary social layer -- the true value of which we won't know until Playdek's game network rolls out later this year. No massive changes here, but there weren't any to make, really. Ascension is the gold standard in iOS hobby game conversions and there's no need to reinvent it.

The last episode of Playdek's Ascension is a very good one indeed. It's a shame that their show has to end, but at least it goes out with a bang.

The game was played on a 4th gen iPad for this review.

Review: Ascension Immortal Heroes

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