Ascend: Hand of Kul is the latest free-to-play Xbox Live Arcade game following the likes of Happy Wars and preceding the upcoming Xbox 360 version of World of Tanks. It is also the newest game from Signal Studios, the same folks who brought us the great Toy Soldiers games.
Ascend is something of a departure for the developer as instead of defending your toy box from waves of evil toy soldiers, you are now a big angry ogre thing, kicking the crap out of trolls and eating tasty humans. From what I have played so far, Ascend is looking to be the best game free-to-play game available on Xbox Live and it is definitely something you should check out.
The first thing you do in Ascend is create your character. Everyone will be a large ogre type, known as a Kaos, but some customisation is offered as you can change your skin colour, your hair and your hair colour. After that, you will then kit out your protagonist with different pieces of armour and a weapon.
During this process, you will notice immediately that your customisation options feel restricted as this is a free-to-play game. You will see that a lot of items are locked and you have to pay a certain number of souls to unlock them, and as you can guess, souls are the currency used to buy new equipment.
While it sounds like a negative, instantly seeing how the game wants you to pay real money to have more souls, Ascend is actually kind enough to give you 3000 souls to get new players started. This is a decent sum of souls and you can actually buy some good items. I was able to buy a Purple-rated torso armour and a Green-rated helmet. As a result, I had to get a free starter sword but it is cool that the player has a good number of options from the get go. You will also gain souls constantly when you are actually playing the game, so I have no problems with Ascend's use of micro-transactions.
Once you're happy with your character, you then have to choose an alignment. There are three options, Dark, Void and Light. I can't speak to how different all three of the different alignments are but each of them has their own unique perks which will benefit the player. I chose the Dark path as it focuses on damage and destruction, which is just what I wanted!
The actual gameplay of Ascend will be immediately familiar to most of you. It is an action RPG with an emphasis on the action. Unlike most other RPGs, there isn't a big focus on the world as Ascend feels much more linear in its approach. The game isn't particularly open either. Instead, Ascend is much more segmented, which may feel like a turn off for some, but I think it works a more simple, pick-up and play RPG.
The action is fast-paced and responsive. There are light and heavy attacks and you also have magic spells to perform. For my character, I can shoot a fireball but I'd imagine this spell is different depending on which alignment you have chosen. The combat has a good, heavy feel to it and it is pretty fun beating the hell out of some trolls. From what I have played, I haven't seen a lot of enemy variety which is a concern but so far, I think the combat works very well.
As you kill enemies, you will gain experience points and level up. When you reach a new level, you will unlock more weapon and armour options in the game's store, which you can access at anytime. You can also repair and buy upgrades for any items you already own and you can also buy temporary buffs and spells. While it sounds like you will be doing a lot of shopping in Ascend, the game also has a lot of treasure chests scattered all around, giving access to a lot of useful items.
Once you reach a certain level, you are given the option for your character to... well, ascend. I did it immediately, to see what happens and your character Ascends and becomes a champion, but you have to start over with a new character, losing all of your items. This might sound awful but you can pay some souls in order to carry your best weapons and armour from one character to the next. It feels a lot like the Prestige system in the Call of Duty games but you do want to ascend as the level cap gets higher for each time you do it.
The most interesting aspect of Ascend is how you can interact with other players who are playing at the same time. The game is not multiplayer in the truest sense, but as you are running around, you will see the outlines of other players. Think of either Demon's Souls or Dark Souls and you might have an idea.
A fun thing Ascend allows you to do is either send them a blessing or a curse. So far, I have only been able to curse other players, which again, might be attributed to the fact I chose the Dark alignment. The spell I have allows me to send any enemies attacking me into someone else's game and I will receive bonus souls for any damage those minions dole out. Any Ascended champions might appear in other people's games as boss battles and if your champion wins, you will gain a bonus, which is pretty awesome. Generally, being able to see what other players is doing is a cool idea and it makes the world of Ascend seem much more alive than what it really is.
So far, I have been having a good time with Ascend. As mentioned, I have some concerns with regards to enemy variety and do think the environment might become tiresome after a while. Nevertheless, the action is good, the RPG elements work as expected and there are some unique ideas offered here that you don't see in many other games. Best of all, it's free and the micro-transactions shouldn't ruin your experience. Ascend: Hand of Kul is definitely worth checking out.