Game Overview – TowerFall Ascension

Game Overview


TowerFall Ascension – PS4

Matt Thorson


What systems are in place to dictate the ‘rules’ of the game? What kind of constraints do players operate within? What do players interact with?


Chaotic 4-player gameplay
Chaotic 4-player gameplay

TowerFall Ascension is a Smash Bros.-esque arena game where players eliminate one another within a limited space on-screen. Combat in TowerFall is fairly simple, consisting only of movement and three actions: Jump, Shoot, and Dash.

  • Shooting is the primary method of eliminating an opposing enemy. Players will fire an arrow off from their character in whichever direction the player is aiming. Arrows are finite though, and each player only starts with two or three of them. Arrows that have been launched may be picked up by any player and added to their ammunition. Players are not immune to their own arrows.
  • Jumping is pretty self-explanatory. It should be noted that another method of eliminating enemies is to land on their heads, which makes jumping a very useful alternative to shooting.
  • Dashing in TowerFall is an incredibly useful escape tool. It can be used to dodge incoming attacks, or to parry an incoming projectile. If a player releases a dash right as an arrow strikes them, they instead block the shot and keep the arrow that would have hit them otherwise. The arrows are added to the player’s arrow pool upon a successful dash-block.

Target-Seeking Arrows

Arrows have a tendency to curve towards a target. The sudden changes in an arrow’s trajectory can cause exhilarating moments as foes may be taken unaware by the directional change.

This mechanic alters the game’s pace as players are made to be aware of the incoming projectiles. An arrow fired a short distance away from you may actually prove to be fatal, so players must manage their focus appropriately.

Wall Hanging

An example of wall-hanging
An example of wall hanging

This mechanic plays a huge role in TowerFall’s gameplay. It’s quite simple, move towards the direction of the wall you’re facing, and your character will plant themselves upon the surface until you change directions or move elsewhere.

Using well-timed jumps with wall hanging allows for increased mobility, as well as the capability to move up to higher ground. Wall hanging grants quicker access to all locations on a map, especially when used in conjunction with a well-timed dash.

Sudden Death

Characters will die in one hit without defensive items.There is no health variable; if you are damaged, your character will be eliminated.

This mechanic effectively raises the level of tension as players may die at a moments notice, often due to seemingly random circumstances. Sudden death also serves to make rounds quicker, so there is generally low downtime between player deaths; rounds can end in seconds, so players are constantly jumping in and out of the action.

Stage Interaction

TowerFall Ascension boasts a plethora of  unique stages to compete in. Each main stage will have a theme, with a variety of layouts to spice things up.

Every stage has a screen looping effect; if players walk off the screen, they will end up on the opposite side of the map. These screen looping areas are placed to prevent players from being cornered and also promote strategic play. Arrows are also affected by this looping effect.

Many stages also include hazards that players interact with. Some maps may have falling objects while others with flaming floors or ‘Thwomp’-like moving blocks that can crush players on a whim. Stages will also randomly generate treasure chests with various items for players to use.

Take too long and the walls start closing in on you.
Take too long and the walls start closing in on you.

Items and Power-ups

A plethora of items and power-ups exist in TowerFall Ascension, each one providing a unique way of sprucing things up for the players. Notable power-ups include:

  • Shield – A bubble forms around the player. It stays on the player until struck by an arrow. The shield absorbs a shot that would otherwise kill the player.
  • Wings – Wings give players the ability to fly, basically giving infinite jumping to a player for a period of time.
  • Looking Glass – Turns the player invincible
  • Extra Arrows – Adds additional arrows to a player’s arsenal
  • Bomb Arrows – Explode shortly after being shot, dealing AoE damage
  • Super Bomb Arrows – Like bomb arrows, but with a bigger explosion radius
  • Laser Arrows – Arrows that ricochet off walls and objects
  • Bramble Arrows – Arrows that spawn clusters of dangerous bramble that kills a player upon touch.
  • Drill Arrows – These will fly right through obstacles without changing trajectory
  • Bolt Arrows – These are homing missile equivalents that change direction without warning
  • Feather Arrows – Unaffected by gravity, with an odd path shape.

A jumble of other variants, environmental effects, and game modes exist to change up gameplay.

A couple of opened chests with bomb arrows up for grabs
A couple of opened chests with bomb arrows up for grabs

Rubber Banding

A negative feedback loop takes the form of “Rubber Banding” in TowerFall Ascension. As players begin to creep too far ahead, the system limits their chances of winning by reducing their total of starting arrows. If a player begins getting even farther ahead of the competition, opposing players will receive shields at the start of each round, effectively handicapping the lead player.

Rewind it

This isn’t so much of a mechanic, but more of a bonus feature that plays a replay of the final kill after a game ends.

Game Modes

  • Versus Mode – By far the most popular mode in TowerFall. Allows 2-4 players to compete against one another in one of three modes:
    • Headhunter – The default game mode. Gain a point for each kill, but lose one for an environmental death, or self-elimination. The first to reach a pre-determined point cap wins it all.
    • Last Man Standing – The last player alive at the end of the round is awarded a single point. Recommended mode when playing with variants, as there is no point loss for self-destruction.
    • Team Deathmatch – Split up in teams and battle to the death! There is no friendly fire so teammates can eliminate their allies.
  • Quest Mode – A series of quests take the player through the maps of TowerFall, except the player is fighting hordes of monsters rather than other players. The monster waves become increasingly difficult as the player progresses through quest mode.

Quest mode is single player, but local co-op is available for up to two people. Each stage has two difficulty levels, Normal and Hardcore. If playing solo, Player 1 begins with 5 lives, while each player gets 4 lives when playing co-op. Friendly Fire is enabled by default in co-op mode, allowing players to kill each other by accident.

  • Trial Mode – Basically target practice. Straw dummies are strewn about the stage and the player must take them all out. A timer keeps track of your completion time. Beating a pre-determined time limit set by the devs will give the players a medal. The medals are just for bragging rights/trophy fodder.

Conditions for Victory

End game stats
End game stats

Be the last one standing! This applies to any game mode, except for trial mode where players must destroy target dummies in the shortest span of time possible.


Gameplay elements derived from the game’s mechanics that provide direct feedback to player actions. Often developed by players as they play. What strategies emerge from gameplay? How do players interact with each other?

  • Super Jump – A quick sequence of buttons (Crouch > Dash > Jump) will cause players to jump at greater distances laterally. This advanced technique allows players to move quickly and efficiently across the stage. The action is fairly easy to learn, but it takes a good amount of practice to master and use effectively.
  • Screen Loop Usage – The addition of a screen looping effect allows for some tricky plays for users aware of their surroundings. Players can get to the opposite of the map quickly using the screen loop, or they may even catch others off guard with arrows by shooting into the open spaces on either side of the map.
  • Using the Stage – Many maps have dynamic objects to shake up the gameplay. Some maps have braziers that can be shot down upon an enemy, or moving blocks that can crush a player on a whim. A strong player will manipulate the stage, granting them additional methods of attack and defense.
  • Mobility – Movement is important in this game. The better and more efficiently you move, the higher your survival rate.

Aesthetics of Play

Player Experience; is the game fun? Why and why not? Is the play emotionally/intellectually engaging?

TowerFall Ascension is an excellent multiplayer title that elicits some fantastic reactions from those playing and the audience watching it. Why is that?

  • Easy to Play and Understand… – Simplicity is a recurring theme of TowerFall Ascension. The control scheme, general gameplay, user interface, and even visual appearance is made to be straightforward and easy to understand. All you can do is move, shoot, and jump! It’s an extremely casual-friendly game.
  • …But Still Hard to Master – Even though the game is beginner-friendly, becoming really good at TowerFall requires a surprising amount of skill and effort. This game forces players to test the limits of their timing and reaction speeds.
  • Local Multiplayer is Key– This title would not have done nearly as well without a multiplayer component. Bringing your friends together or playing TowerFall at a party will get people engaged and staring/screaming at the TV. Back to point 1, the visuals and gameplay are easy enough for any onlooker to completely understand, which encourages more people to try it out.
  • Quick and Painless – On average, rounds are pretty short due to the sudden death mechanic. This allows for people to play without investing too much time or effort. It’s easy to walk away from the game, but also easy to get back into it due to the game’s nature.
  • Player Balance – Everyone starts on even ground, no player is of a higher level or more powerful than another. This encourages newbies to play. Better players can always handicap themselves by starting with fewer arrows.
  • Surprise! – The sudden death mechanic and unique range of offensive weaponry allows for some very hilarious eliminations and near misses, which just so happens to be a great tool to get the players and audience riled up.

Design Goals: Were They Achieved?

He described his development process as tweaking Super Smash Bros. Melee to his tastes. The limited arrow design was intended to slow the gameplay and encourage player strategy.

“I wanted the player to feel like they were already a master archer, even before they started playing.” -Thorson (Polygon)

Although I didn’t get a hint of the Smash Bros. feeling, I did enjoy a sense of the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master competitive gameplay that Thorson intended for the game. The indie title upholds a strong minimalist, arena-based couch co-op experience that is extremely engaging to both casual and hardcore players, so I would like to think that Thorson met his design goals for the most part.

Main Menu interface
Main Menu interface

General Weaknesses: What would I fix?

The title lacks depth. It’s a simple game that can be easily picked up on a whim, and due to this nature, the game is ultimately held back. I would have liked to see some more complexity built into the game’s core mechanics. I can’t discount the fact that you can get good, there’s certainly a good deal of skill and game sense required to be good, but I feel that a deeper, more complex system would work wonders in keeping veteran and hardcore players. As it stands, TowerFall Ascension is a fun game to pick up, but it isn’t a title that tends to last a long time in game groups; I’d categorize it as a party game, almost even a mini-game based on its content.

I think that a combo system, or some extra mechanics (i.e. weapons, tactics, etc.) could do wonders in improving the longevity of TowerFall Ascension in gaming circles. It would be difficult to balance, but it could be a great start to a bigger, fuller game.

User Interface

The game is made so that almost no UI is needed during gameplay. The arrow count is cleverly displayed above each player.
The game is made so that almost no UI is needed during gameplay. An arrow count is cleverly displayed above each player.

Button Layout

TowerFall Ascension_20150131214156

Bonus Tidbits

  • TowerFall is local co-op only. There is no online component.
  • The game was initially a concept derived from a game jam as a single player prototype.
  • It was first launched on the Ouya, and later ported to the PlayStation 4, Windows, Linux, and Mac OS as TowerFall Ascension.
  • TowerFall was Thorson’s first full commercial game

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