My PlayStation 4 has brought me a great deal of enjoyment in the four months it’s occupied my entertainment centre. But up until a week ago, I hadn’t considered it something worth firing up when I had company over, let alone a source of abject joy for a group of friends the same way my Nintendo 64 or Wii could be. Towerfall Ascension is the reason my PlayStation 4 is suddenly my go-to device for entertaining - the Ouya’s killer app has now launched on Steam and PlayStation Network for PS4, and it’s never been better.
Towerfall is a 2D arena battler in which up to four archers attempt to off one another through the use of arrows, head-stomps, and environmental hazards. The controls are incredibly simple, consisting only of jump, dash, and shoot, but there’s considerable depth to the strategies that the finely-honed mechanics bring to each encounter.
The game blends the best of 8-bit games systems in a way that will be immediately accessible to most. Each arena is a single screen in size, using ‘Pac-Man’ rules, so players who run off to the left appear on the right, or players jumping through the bottom of the screen falling through the top. The characters, and the arrows they fire, are beholden to a simple physics system that calls to mind Super Mario Bros - which is appropriate for the head-stomping that takes place.
Each warrior starts with three arrows in their quiver, and spent arrows must be collected from the battlefield. Arrows aren’t locked to a certain character, so if you miss a shot, you’re leaving ammunition for your would-be victim. Since this is a 2D game using 8-way controls, the arrows have a slight homing effect when they get close to an enemy - this gentle aim-assist gives everyone a fighting chance, and also underscores the importance of mastering the dash feature. Dashing is useful to shunt a character out of harm’s way, but when timed correctly, dashing into the path of an oncoming arrow catches it and adds it to your quiver.
The way these mechanics interface, combined with the varying playstyles of four players leads to spectacular moments in practically every game, regardless of the skill level of those involved. Wayward payloads will be gathered up and used against their owner, volleys of arrows will be caught against all odds, and matches will devolve into head-stomping mosh pits when arrows get stuck in hard-to reach places. The spectacle on-screen will often be accompanied by revelry in front of the TV as excitement from fast-paced combat and instadeath knife’s-edge tension releases itself in a series of squirms, yelps, and - if your friends are anything like mine - torrents of tourette's style swearing.
This expanded edition features all of the arenas from the Ouya original, with 50 new arenas supplementing the original 70, four new unlockable characters, and a slew of multiplayer customization variants that brings the total tally up to 67. The biggest addition, and the one most exciting for those lacking a group of game-happy local friends is the Quest mode.
I wasn’t expecting much from the single player campaign, but Matt Makes Games has done a terrific job of retrofitting AI enemies that perfectly complement the game’s fantasy art style and existing mechanics. Each level consists of a ‘horde-mode’ style setup, sending waves of increasingly difficult enemies into the arena. Every enemy has a specific attack pattern, and vulnerability, which can make for very tricky interactions when an arena is flooded with dozens of them milling about. The level of challenge isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s an addictive mode that combines the premise of Mario Bros (the non-’super’ 1983 original), the exacting input requirements of N+ or Super Meat Boy, and the pattern recognition of Mega Man. This mode can be played cooperatively with two players, which adds the benefit of a second gunner, but also the burden of more projectiles to avoid. A Trials mode tests a different set of skills, setting up time-based challenges to destroy a set of dummies, with each stage playing out like a puzzle that requires fast reflexes for success. For anyone captivated by Super Smash Bros’ target-smashing mini-game, this is bound to be a time-sink.
The few tweaks specific to the PS4 really do go a long way towards boosting the overall experience. The coloured LEDs on the front of the controller glow in the hue of the selected character, making it easier to direct your disgust at whichever jammy friend just pinned your character to a wall. The front-facing speaker provides localized audio feedback when there are no arrows remaining, and vibration use is spared for when your archer meets a grisly end. The replay that bookends each round prompts players to hit the share button, which is bound to generate a ton of content, given the drama that Towerfall routinely conjures.
Towerfall Ascension is quite simply the best multiplayer experience there is to be had on the PS4 today. Through its simple-yet-sophisticated mechanics, and pitch-perfect execution it has nailed that alchemical formula for local multiplayer brilliance. For the solitary gamer, a satisfying campaign awaits that will stress reflexes, as well as one’s ability to conjure new plans on a moment’s notice.
Towerfall has scratched an itch I didn’t realize I had, and will likely spark a renaissance in games that focus on local-multiplayer. Whatever the impact this has on the genre as a whole, one thing is clear - Sony are about to sell a whole pile of DualShock 4s.