Every time that I try to sit down and write this review of Savant – Ascent, I stop, so that I can instead play Savant – Ascent. Savant is a $2 bullet hell game that is worth playing even for those that don’t particularly like bullet hell games. It’s flashy and exciting with great music and a fun, colorful aesthetic. Even including innumerable deaths, it only takes about an hour to beat, but it’s challenging enough to want to return and score higher in the Endless Mode.
The bullet hell/maniac shorter genre is one closely tied to arcades from the 90s, developed equally as a spectacle and as a game. It’s as much fun to set a high score as it is to watch someone else try to beat it. Games like Gradius and Contra are built to punish newcomers, allowing incremental improvements as the player recognizes enemy patterns and abilities. They’re designed to eat quarters and show off an impressive high score. Where Savant differs, however, is in how it adapts to play at home. Golden enemies are harmless and soak up several shots before dying, but when they’re defeated, they leave a quarter of a CD behind. When the player collects all four quarters of a CD, they not only open up a new soundtrack for the background, but they gain a new ability.
As the player develops the physical and mental skills to master the game, they accrue new skills that change how they manage the endless waves of enemies constantly rushing them. Each new skills seems to break open the game until the next wave shows itself. When compounded, they completely change the way the game is played, but they’re introduced gradually enough that the new abilities never feel overwhelming. It’s rewarding to sweep through a segment that caused considerable struggle only moments ago. Trying to earn new abilities is risky but makes the game more manageable in later playthroughs. New skills are also perfectly spaced out from one another; new skills are always challenging to reach but useful in getting farther.
As mentioned, Savant is a short game, but any more would make it feel repetitive. For the most part it controls beautifully, with the camera leaning in the direction that the player fires their magic bolts while leaving their back exposed. Cycling around to meet newly spawned enemies gives the illusion of constant motion and is just dizzying enough to add to the excitement without being nauseating. Furthermore, the music plays an enormous part in the play, not only as an objective in the game, but in setting the game’s frantic pace. Each track is fast paced with a retro arcade feel that blends into the action. The soundtrack is reason enough to get the game.
The plot is bare bones—the wizard Savant is jettisoned from his tower by an evil crystal ball and must ride the elevator back up while every-friggin’-thing in the world tries to kill him—but the game’s presentation is noteworthy. Savant is a good looking character. His ensemble of plague-doctor mask, purple cloak, tricorn, and shimmering armour is a unique look, and the similarly dressed puppet, Vario, is equally compelling. They’re impressive looking sprites for such a simple game that add considerably to the minimalist world. Moreover, while the player doesn’t get to explore Savant’s castle outside of the elevator shaft, the cartoony stain glass windows, steampunk inspired gears and pipes, and gothic horizon are fun details that add a lot of life to the tiny universe that the developers created. The enemies, on the other hand, are less detailed and look more like floating angry faces than distinct creatures. However, anything more detailed would take the focus away from the flamboyant wizard and his techno-fueled gunfight up the elevator shaft. They look like things to shoot at, which is all that they really need to look like.
The game is best played with a controller, though keyboards are an option for those without blood-pressure concerns. Savant’s movements are limited to a dodge to the right or the left platform or a quick hop. Managing some of the more frenzied segments with such a boxed in moveset can be frustrating, but just as often, the restrictions add to the game’s tension and excitement. The game also has the courtesy to stop for a few seconds after every death, forcing a few seconds to calm down. It’s a nice touch to break the constant adrenaline rush, a moment to pause before leaping right back into the chaos.
Savant – Ascent leaves me wanting more. The music, colors, and challenge keep pulling me back into it. It’s great to throw a few minutes into here or there or kill an hour with. It’s fun to boast about a high score. It’s fun to set a new record or watch others challenge it. There isn’t much to it but nothing could be removed. For two dollars it’s almost required playing.