Savant: Ascent lies in that style of game that I would call the “Robotron shooter”. For those who don’t remember Robotron: 2084, this two-dimensional shooter involves shooting dozens and dozens of evil robots that came in increasingly larger waves. You can move freely around the space provided, but touching an enemy or enemy shot will cause instant death. In that sense, there’s no way to “win” Robotron – only to gain a high score that’s higher than anyone else by pure survival skills and familiarity with its mechanical depths.
Of course, plenty of other genre stalwarts sound more familiar to modern ears. Specifically, I mean the game that revitalized the whole concept and also created a rather superficial “retro” appeal that still comes to us today: Geometry Wars. That little XBLA game proved the worth of cheap downloadable content, and brought arcade sensibilities back into the public mindset. However, I never found myself enjoying it too much. Precision obviously wasn’t on the mind of Bizarre Creations, and far too many explosions with wonderful particle effects make it impossible to see after a while. I set that down, waiting for somebody to do something awesome with Robotron’s roots.
Cue the game named above. M. Joshua Cauller, out of the kindness of his heart, bought me a copy of Savant: Ascent, and so I’m happy to oblige by playing it. Man, does this hit all my buttons. Wonderful, clean pixel art that’s beautiful, almost reminding me of a CAVE shmup? Check. Challenging waves and cascading enemy numbers bearing down on your position? Check. The ability to dodge being essential, with no other form of defense? Cue Bayonetta love here!
Basically, the game forces you into a strange sort of spatial awareness. Enemies arrive from all sides (on, or off screen, but there’s an ability that shows you where off-screen enemies are). You need to blow them up. Some of them hang around for a while, giving you an easy shot; others come in at weird arcs, forcing you out of your comfort zone. Other zone in on your current location, and only a power shot (using a handy-dandy power bar) will drive them away. The system’s simple, but effective; they merely pump the screen with more and more of these three, really, and minor variations will screw you up unless you adapt. It works, and it works well. I should add that the title actually refers to the name of the musical artist Savant, whose brostep (WUB WUB WUB) beats provide the background for all the craziness. Heck, it amps up the intensity tenfold, and I really like it.
Of course, none of these work without a solid foundation underneath, and from what I’ve played it works well. You can control the game either with mouse and keyboard or using a traditional game pad. I used the former, and I found it necessary for the accuracy required. You can only bounce between two points, and enemies appear on all sides, so you need the quickness to identify threats quickly. I’m sure an analog stick works well for some, but I can’t imagine playing it without the speed of mouse controls.
However, I should note that one aspect confuses me a whole lot: forced ability gating. Savant: Ascent forces you to play Story Mode, which amounts to a tutorial in the grand scheme (it also has a Time Attack Mode and an Endless Mode, where the real game lies). In the process of playing, though, you will find yellow-tinged enemies floating around; they drops pieces of a gold LP. Gather four of these with your hook ability, and you will unlock a new music track and a new ability at the same time. Sounds all well and good, right?
I found that particular aspect tedious. Far as I can tell, you need to kill specific yellow enemies as they spawn to complete all the LPs. At least one of them you need to complete the game as well, which is hilarious in all the wrong ways. Furthermore, while I understand the impulse to teach the player slowly without overwhelming them, it’s not as if Savant: Ascent is the most complicated game in the world. Restricting access to essential abilities just feels arbitrary rather than a natural outpouring of abilities; the problem is that I can see the gating, rather than that it is there. Does that make sense? It’s especially strange when seemingly essential abilities, such as the one where you can dodge and gain power meter, require that sort of tedium to acquire. I don’t get it, personally.
Yes, it lacks elegance in that design aspect, but the Endless Mode more than makes up for it in challenge and fun. I should note that yellow enemies further provide a scoring bonus when you snatch their LPs, meaning that you’ll want to destroy them. However, they’re quite durable and take a ton of shots, so you need to balance your time between enemies trying to kill you (i.e., most of the things on screen) and getting a score multiplier.
The best part of all this? I find it difficult to criticize a game which starts at a retail price of 1,99 USD, regardless of what platform you intend to use. I am unsure of the smartphone controls, considering that I am (obviously) using the PC version, but I can’t imagine touchscreen stuff would be horrible for this sort of venture. In any event, the cheap cost should provide zero barriers to entry for anyone looking for a genuine gaming experience.
For once, I find it wonderful to play something in short bursts with no pretensions of being the end-all, be-all of video games. Sometimes, an engaging set of simple mechanics that works holistically in short two-minute bursts proves a much-needed respite.
I encourage you to pick this up and at LEAST try it. Even if you happen to hate modern dubstep (more like “whatever Skrillex did” than actual dubstep, as they say), a cheap and excellent game with skill requirements deserves some sort of reward. They even keep updating the game, so stay tuned!