Through no fault of its own, The Ascent has a bit of a mountain to climb. With its cyberpunk-adjacent sci-fi world, you can’t help but make some comparisons to Cyberpunk 2077, which was always going to be a tough act to follow, even with all its bad press. Despite my trepidation, The Ascent has turned out to be pretty darn good.
Set in a dystopian future on the world of Veles, everything in your particular arcology is controlled by the Ascent Group megacorporation, a company that has effective slaves as all the people it has sponsored on the trip to the planet have to pay off their debts through labour. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, The Ascent Group collapses. Everything falls into chaos, districts start fighting each other, and other megacorps vie for control. It’s down to you to find out what happened to The Ascent Group and stop the various factions from seizing control.
The Ascent’s gameplay is an oddly wonderful mix of Diablo-like action RPGs and twin stick shooters. Don’t be fooled by this combat though; this game is an RPG, and you’ll need to pay close attention to how you build your character.
Levelling up nets you points to assign to various attributes, each buffing your character different ways. Putting points into Weapon Handling, for instance, increases weapon swap speed and decreases reload time, while leveling Balance, increases resistance to being stunned, knocked back and staggered, as well as helping you fire heavy weapons without slowing down. The eight skills are tied to four attributes which can also be buffed with certain armour pieces.
Like Diablo, you’ll most likely be stopping every time you pick up something new to see if a particular stat is better, or if you just prefer the nice shiny helmet over the visor you are wearing. While you have some character customisation available to you, and I was very happy to have a man bun option, it’s not the most intricate character creator and you’re generally viewing the game from a top-down perspective. It’s really the armour you pick up that defines your look. Yes, dressing up your dolls is a thing here and I love it.
You can also equip your character with various augmentations, letting you do some cool things in combat. I purchased the Lockon Fire augmentation from a vendor and proceeded to jump with joy as my character could now empty his full clip at blistering speed, landing every shot on target. It was wonderful. The enemy ambush I ran into went very badly for them!
Stats and upgrades are one side of the combat, the rest being handled via two sticks, a shoot and a dodge button. To be fair, I’m not really doing it justice here as there’s a lot more to it than that, but it is a fundamentally simple system with depth to discover in learning how to crouch and adjust your weapon height.
Raising your gun with the left trigger and crouching combine brilliantly to let you hunker down behind cover and fire over the top. It’s super simple, but very effective at creating intense combat situations, remembering to crouch and aim so you can shoot the muppets that stand out in the open. The A.I. is just smart enough to rush or flank you when you’re in cover or sometimes take cover themselves, and you’ll have to stay alert to enemies coming from behind. It’s a great system that the enemy also takes advantage of as well, forcing you to adapt to the situation, going from run-and-dodge combat when swarmed to cover shooting if you’re under fire.
Sometimes, the combat difficulty spikes out of nowhere and you’ll be surrounded by about ten enemies. Before you know it, you’re dust. This is where I found the checkpointing to be a touch too easy. One mission tasked me will killing four elite soldiers and I was getting absolutely battered by it, but I quickly realised that not only was I keeping my XP and levelling up from this, if I managed to kill one of them, he remained dead. I didn’t mind too much, as I had died a bunch from this encounter, but I couldn’t help feeling like the game was hand-holding me through a difficulty spike that maybe shouldn’t have been there.
Outside of combat, you have a huge game world to explore. The overall tone has a dark reddish dystopian vibe and is really stunning to look at. The world itself is astonishingly detailed, full of life and capturing the grimy neon-filled vibes of Cyberpunk and Blade Runner that has defined so much science fiction over the last few decades.
Non-combat areas are green on your mini radar, which is there for seeing enemy dots, chests or vendors. As you transition between areas, there are no loading times which is pretty neat, unless you are leaving the map entirely, of course, in which case you are just treated to an elevator scene or a train ride. Oh, and don’t worry if the map feels overwhelmingly large, it’s not long before you unlock two methods of fast travel.
Because everything is so interconnected, you often don’t realise you’ve walked into a dungeon area until your aim reticle appears. NPCs will still be walking around minding their own business when everything kicks off, their mad dash to get away often seeing them get mowed down in the crossfire. I felt kind of bad the first time. But, there’s a nice little touch where by just firing your gun once, will send all the NPCs in the vicinity scattering, screaming things like, “Help!” and “This is insane!”
Other character NPCs are also fairly interesting to talk to, the camera pulling in and giving you a good view of their character models for quest givers. They all fit well within the confines of the universe, even the minor ones that give you sub quests, and manage to avoid being overacted to the point where they are annoying.
There are a ton of side quests to do and hidden items to find which are well worth going for. Although I do worry about map bloat which can be a little off putting for some, I just happily ignored a lot of it, stopping to do a few side missions before continuing on the main quest. Some missions, you’ll have to ignore anyway because they are levelled way higher then you are at the point of discovery. I tried one without checking the recommended level and wandered into an area of goons that were all ten levels higher. I died quickly.
It’s all playable in local and online co-op which, when you can revive your buddies, means you can push that recommended level a bit harder. The game supports up to four players, and even from briefly testing the game with two, it adds even more chaos to the battles.
Considering the scope of the game and the small team at Neon Giant, it’s not surprising there’s a few rough edges. Most notable was the time where objective enemies failed to spawn in – thankfully they did after reloading the game – and other times enemies were gliding around in a T-pose before animations kicked in. These were minor issues at worst, but can hopefully be ironed out with through the planned patches over the next few months.
Performance on console is generally good as well. Sure, loading times on Xbox One and Xbox One X are almost 3 minutes, but they stick well to 30fps. Xbox Series X cuts loads to around 30 seconds and benefits from 60fps gameplay. On rare occasions it can drop during intense combat, and there is some frame pacing judder, but it’s forgivable given how pretty the game is!