Title: The Ascent
Developer: Neon Giant
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: July 29, 2021 (Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S); March 24, 2022 (PS4, PS5)
Platforms: Windows, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS4, PS5 (Reviewed)
The Ascent is one of the latest role-playing games in a somewhat crowded cyberpunk genre. Released in July of last year for the Xbox One, Series X/S, and Windows, the title made the jump to PlayStation 4 and 5 in March, 2022. With the first DLC arriving earlier this month, it’s high time to cover this stylish looter-shooter from developer Neon Giant.
The Ascent takes place in a futuristic, alien world known as Veles. A megacorporation named The Ascent Group controls most operations on the planet, and in order to maintain the bustling economy they hire indentured servants from off-world with the promise of eventually finding riches and freedom. Known as “indents,” these corporate chattels are often tied to their contracts for the rest of their lives, slaving away for the establishment without ever achieving their assured dreams.
One day, the Ascent Group suddenly collapses under mysterious circumstances, and Veles is thrown into utter chaos as rival corporations, violent gangs, and shadowy syndicates battle for control. As such, the contracts of all indents are made null-and-void, including your own, and compacts are made anew with these rival bands looking to add to their number. Newly released from The Ascent Group, the player is recruited by a covert operation named yCorp, and is tasked with uncovering the truth of the Group’s collapse, while also fighting for fame, fortune, and survival.
There is potential for a good espionage story here, but The Ascent’s plot really just serves as an excuse to get you out there killing more foes. To be frank, the plot in many of these types of games–from Diablo to Borderlands–is much the same, and I’ve always found it a bit difficult to get invested. A big problem here is how quickly it glosses over some of the more complex story points, usually leaving all but the most observant players a little confused. You have the option to ask specific questions of your quest givers in between missions, but that only goes so far when you don’t have a firm grasp of the bigger picture.
The world building is a little flimsy as well. You can pick up codex entries from datapads spread across the world, but they are few and far between, and don’t give enough insight into some of Veles’s inner workings. Your computerized companion named AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) can offer some witty dialogue, much in the way Claptrap does in the Borderland games, but it can be difficult following along with what they have to say. This is due in part to the sound being a bit unbalanced, leaving their speech drowned out by the thumping techno soundtrack and the BOOM of explosions. One can always adjust the sound levels, which is greatly appreciated, yet when the plot is this forgettable, I unfortunately believe many gamers won’t be bothered to do so. There are subtitles, of course, which would help remedy this issue, but they are located in the top left corner of the screen, away from the action, and I don’t see anyone risking death in order to read the throwaway banter of their companion in any game.
The Ascent is surprisingly innovative in most other areas however, wonderfully blending an open world RPG structure with looter-shooter mechanics, and thrilling twin-stick shooter combat.
The world of Veles is a real treat to explore. By looking at it, you’d never believe that the game was made by a team of only 12 people. The attention to detail here is extraordinary, and its truly stunning how detailed the environments look. Buildings are packed with furniture and small, everyday items; streets are littered with trash, debris, and the occasional dismembered body part of an eviscerated gang member. The several populated areas you explore are crammed with NPCs having conversations, conducting business, having meals, and generally going about their day. All of these little details compound to create a genuinely realistic world that can be as immersive as many first-person RPGs.
The lighting effects are also incredibly impressive, employing appropriate lens flares and neon lights to make Veles fit right in with other games in the sci-fi genre. I will say that the bright colors in some instances is a little too harsh, which really caused some strain to my eyes when playing in a dim room. Still, the art direction here is breathtaking at every turn.
As for the world itself, Veles is split across several maps, with many districts within each one. There is usually at least one civilized, “peaceful” area in which you can do your shopping and take up quests, with other districts populated with enemies and various dungeons. The main quest will take you through most of these locations, but side missions will guide you to plenty more, and there are others still that exist only for your looting pleasure.
Traversing this large world can be a bit of a slog at times, as there are just so many foes to make you take pause in order to mow them down, and your player character already moves at a sluggish pace. The map system doesn’t help make navigating much easier. The mini map only displays objects such as NPCs, enemies, chests, and doors, so by not seeing pathways it’s very easy to get turned around. Your map also doesn’t have much range, only picking up things that are slightly off screen, which makes traveling long distances somewhat of a pain. You can bring up a much more detailed map through the pause menu, which does make it easier to plan a route in the urban environment. Still, maps often have layers to them, and unfortunately its next to impossible to find elevators on either map. You also cannot set a waypoint to anything other than a quest, so if you want to nab a chest that on the far side of the map, you’ll need to continuously check the large map to ensure your headed in the right direction.
You can call for a short “bread crumb” trail to guide you to your objectives, and this is often very handy. A big frustration though comes from trying to navigate to many of your side missions. Too many of these had trails that guided me to a dead end, leaving me confused as to why I couldn’t proceed. Turns out, many of these optional quests require you to advance the main story to actually complete, but the game never tells you this. So, you accept a side quest, journey all the way to the waypoint, only to find out you can’t complete the objective until you invest in the main plot some more. It’s really frustrating having wasted all of that time when just not having the quests be available until they can be completed would solve a lot of things.
The Ascent does have a convenient fast travel system, in which you may use the subway trains spread across the map, or call for a paid taxi that can pick you up from just about anywhere outdoors for a small fee. This isn’t without it’s annoyances, however. You cannot move between the large maps, for one, which is a hassle. You’ll need to reach a hub area located in each map in order to travel to a new one. Even then, maps are accessed sequentially, so if you want to go to the fourth area from the first, you’ll need to go through two and three before you can get there. Lastly, when fast traveling to many locations, the spawn point is rarely in a convenient location. For instance, most of the spawn points in the hub areas are located far away from the entrances to other maps, so you still need to risk death and traverse a hostile area if you want to go someplace else.
Twin-Stick Shooter Combat
Combat is one area where The Ascent soars with flying colors. The twin-stick gunplay here is among the most satisfying I’ve had in either an RPG or an action title in a long time.
For the uninitiated, twin-stick shooters originated with the 1982 arcade game Robotron: 2084, which has served as inspiration for other games including Smash TV, The Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon, and Hotline Miami. The genre earned its name from having a two joystick control scheme, with one offering character movement, and the other providing a full 360 degree range of motion for weaponry. Twin-stick games typically are presented in an overhead view, making it easier to aim at foes, and as such are sometimes called “top-down shooters”. These aspects lend themselves to frenzied shootouts, where players are constantly strafing to avoid enemy fire while blasting away at relentless mobs of baddies hellbent on seeing your demise.
The Ascent switches some things up to create a unique experience in a tried-and-true genre. First, the camera is most always at an isometric angle, very much like Blizzard’s Diablo series of games. It can make navigating the maps slightly more difficult, as well as add challenge to some of the more hectic firefights, but helps to immediately alert the player that this is just as much an RPG adventure as it is a punishing shooter.
Secondly, while you’ll be facing off with tons of baddies in combat scenarios where the bullets and explosions fly like leaves in autumn, strafing will only get you so far. Instead, The Ascent introduces a crouching mechanic where players can duck behind most any obstacle to immediately take cover from projectiles coming their way. From there, gamers can hold the left trigger to aim higher, firing off shots from the safety of cover at the swarms of foes advancing on your location. Even outside of cover, you may aim higher to nail enemies in the head. This can stun them in their tracks for a brief moment, granting you precious breathing room, though accuracy is somewhat sacrificed when doing so.
Enemies of course will utilize the same tactics, so you will need to constantly be moving from cover-to-cover, taking out those in the open while working to flank others trying to hide in safety. There are even some shorter enemies mixed in with the normal and larger sized ones, which require you to step away from the confines of your makeshift shielding to land an accurate hit.
All of this may make The Ascent sound like a grueling title, but it’s really not all that difficult. This is largely due to death being inconsequential. When you die, you never lose gear, or experience, or even money, so the only thing lost is your time. Enemy levels also don’t make a huge difference in The Ascent, so challenging a baddie that’s several levels above your own is quite doable, and of course should you fail there’s really no harm done.
Players will be picking up a lot of offensive tools to wipe Veles clean of bad guys, too. Firearms consist of pistols that can hit with pinpoint precision, submachine guns that fire in wild bursts, shotguns that can obliterate nearby foes, miniguns that are perfect for burying large swarms of weaker enemies, and plenty more. Some weapons will also specialize in a certain ammo type, such as energy weapons that can quickly destroy robotic enemies, and ballistic ammunition that can lay waste to humans. Players can equip two weapons at a time, and quickly switch between the two at the touch of a button, so it’s a great idea of have two weapons with different damage types to make the most out of various situations; you can always change your loadout in the pause menu should you encounter something you’re not prepared for, even during combat.
Characters can also equip two augmentation abilities in addition to their weaponry. Augments are like this game’s version of magic spells, and grant their users various abilities at the cost of energy points. Augments are truly some of the more inventive and enjoyable parts of The Ascent’s combat, as they are just so varied in what they offer. Some may improve your weapon’s damage output, or fire a powerful beam like something out of Dragon Ball, or call forth a companion droid to serve as a distraction. Putting enemies into stasis is one of my favorites, as it freezes them in place and lets you pack on the pain as much as possible for a limited time; should they receive too much, they’ll explode in a powerful blast, sending their innards about and damaging others nearby.
Characters may also assign one tactical ability, which is a extremely powerful move that can be used after building up enough tactical charge by damaging foes. Low grade tactical abilities include tossing a grenade to deliver area-of-attack damage, or having a shockwave knock foes backwards; higher end abilities are far more important, as they can be used to heal you and your entire party, or even summon a massive mech that can be piloted to provide swift punishment to all those around.
One final aspect of both combat and exploration is hacking. Hacking can be performed at any time, and can let you apply penalties to an enemy’s stats, as well as gain access to things such as locked doors or chests. For the most part, this is easy to understand, but I don’t think it’s execution is as great as it could be. Hacking things can be fun: enemies surrounding you can be quickly taken aback by a fast hack, and if you’re quick enough you can apply major penalties to enemies that try to hack into your own defenses. One thing I came to love is cracking into vending machines that I encountered; using money at these can give you a burst of energy or health, but if your hacking ability is strong enough you can make them empty their stock without spending a dime.
Your hacking level isn’t tied to a stat or ability however, but to collectibles you must find whilst exploring. I wasn’t aware of this early on, and kept failing my hacks because I hadn’t picked up any of these limited collectible items. For such an important part of the game, tying it to optional hidden items feels counterintuitive to the RPG format, and I would have really liked to have been able to craft a stronger hacker at the beginning by spending points in a certain stat tree.
The Ascent is equal parts RPG as it is a twin-stick shooter, though its quality as an RPG isn’t quite as high as its action counterpart. One of the most important aspects of a role-playing game is creating the ideal avatar for you to inhabit. The game’s character creator is sufficient: it allows you to choose from a variety of head and face models, a gender based body type, a hairstyle, and change the colors accordingly. The game does let you change your appearance at any time by visiting a vendor called a Grafter. What’s also greatly appreciated is that The Ascent lets you transmogrify your armor. That is, if you find something that you think looks good on you, you can save that appearance and inherit the stats of a different, presumably stronger piece of equipment. So many RPGs still to this day don’t offer this option, and its sorely missed when its absent (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077).
For a looter-shooter though, the weapon variety just isn’t up to snuff. Games like Diablo and Borderlands have near endless amounts of weaponry to find and equip, each with unique effects, stat boosts, and the like. Here, you will acquire around 40 different kinds of weapons, and while they all of their own distinct feel, it sadly isn’t enough for those really craving a dungeon crawling experience.
Every weapon you obtain can be upgraded up to level 10 at the weapon smith in exchange for items found in your travels. These upgrades remain consistent with all weapons of that single type. For example, should you level up the HMG42 Dominator machine gun to level eight, then every version of that weapon you pick up will also be at that level. Should you later decide to sell all of your Dominators, when you pick up a new one it will remain at the level you have upgraded it to. This lets players quickly amass an inventory of every available weapon while being able to sell off all duplicates at the touch of a button. It’s fast, convenient, and most appreciated.
Your armor is a bit more varied, though works in a similar fashion. You can equip items onto your head, legs, and torso, and any duplicates you get can quickly be sold. You cannot unfortunately upgrade them, which is why transmogrification is so important. Each piece of equipment offers protection against the four different damage types, as well as passive boosts to your character. I did find the menu showing your equipment’s stats to be a bit confusing at first, but it didn’t take long for me to learn how to quickly measure new armor at a glance.
Stat allocation isn’t as good as it could be, either. Assigning points to various stats is one of the key ways in crafting a unique character in an RPG, but in The Ascent, all characters eventually end up feeling the same. Upon leveling up, players are given three points to which they can assign to any eight skills, and all skills can be upgraded to a level of 20. While each of these offer various bonuses to your character, and effect the strength of many augmentations, only two really stand out to me as being necessary: Weapon Handling and Vital Signs. Weapon Handling determines your reload and weapon swapping speed, while Vital Signs increase your overall health. Because you never run out of ammo in The Ascent, being able to reload in the blink of an eye makes every weapon you wield that much more powerful, and health, as you know, is paramount to your survival, so increasing both of these will make you an unstoppable force in no time.
Other skills, while sounding good on paper, don’t always make that much of a difference: Critical Hit Rate makes extra damage occur more frequently, though not enough to matter; Evasion determines the speed and distance you travel when dodging, though this is only really noticeable for a few levels or so; Balance negates negative status effects, which are rarely utilized by the enemy; Aiming supposedly makes the grouping of your shots tighter, but I recommend just setting the aim assist option in the menus to “high;” Body Battery increases the amount of energy you have for augmentations, while Tactical Sense determines how much tactical charge you receive from damaging enemies, and as such I suggest leveling these up evenly after you’ve improved your handling and vitals.
The Ascent does have multiplayer like so many other loot focused games, and there is fun to be had by joining up to three friends (or strangers) and leisurely blasting away at everything that comes at you. The multiplayer experience is crippled though based on the game’s structure. Characters don’t have defined roles to play in battle due to the limitations on abilities, weaponry, and stat allocation. The restricted amount of items to collect also makes looting somewhat trivial; there’s never really a chance of getting something better than what you already have, so dungeon crawling is really only done for experience points. The difficulty also doesn’t increase when more players join the adventure, so it becomes much, MUCH easier when you have more teammates.
Multiplayer in The Ascent does include cross platform and cross-gen play between PC and XBox, so there is that; PlayStation users are sadly stuck with only each other.
There’s also no form of PvP in The Ascent, so those wanting to challenge their friends will have to stick to besting them at killing the most enemies during excursions instead.
The game’s sound design is excellent. When the action turns up, you can really feel like you’re in an actual warzone with the intense explosions, shrill screams of enemies dying, and the blaring of guns bursting with bullets.
Composer Pawel Blaszczak, who has previously worked on the games Call of Juarez, Dead Island, and The Witcher, delivers a beautifully electronic score complete with dance club-like beats for battles and mystifying digital melodies for exploring the dystopian alien settlements. The soundtrack has a runtime of just under two hours, but this is cleverly disguised by adapting the appropriate music to what’s happening on the screen.
The only real issue with sound is that it’s not properly balanced, as I previously mentioned. Some tweaking in the menus can solve a lot of problems, but many players probably won’t think to even do this.
Glitches in an indie title are pretty much expected, and while some have cited this to be a big issue with The Ascent, I didn’t encounter too many that hampered my playing. I encountered on a couple occasions an invisible wall, which was likely cover that hadn’t completely been destroyed. Once that I can recall, I got stuck in the environment, and had to quit to the main menu. I had the game fully crash on me twice, which would probably have been infuriating had I been in the middle of a quest, but these both occurred while simply wandering around one of the cities.
The DualSense controller continues to be one of my favorite parts of the PS5, and The Ascent’s developers make great use of the pad’s unique features. The controller’s speaker produces just the right amount of sound during combat to really enhance immersion. Most menu sounds are produced via the controller as well, which just feels appropriate. The complex rumble technology of the DualSense is used to great effect here: when in a raining environment, it can feel like someone is lightly tickling your palms, while during battle the controller can shake with fierce aggression as bullets spew from your selected firearm.
The PS5 has had some impressive loading times in most of its games, which is why the extended wait times in The Ascent are more annoying than usual. Moving to a new map can take upwards of 30 seconds, while fast traveling can be around half that. It’s not a lot, but when games like Ghost of Tsushima load near instantaneously, it can be a tad frustrating.
Players wanting to rush through the game can expect to complete the 12 story missions in roughly 15 hours or so. You’ll be missing out on a lot if you do, and a game length of about 25 hours is more reasonable for those wanting a fuller experience. To me this felt just right, as the combat was starting to get repetitive by that point, and the game had stopped presenting anything really new. Those that really dig the gameplay though may find The Ascent a bit on the short side for an action RPG, which is understandable. Replay value is hindered for many the same reasons that the multiplayer falls short, though the levels of enemies are increased to better match your own when starting a New Game Plus.
The Ascent mostly prevails with its exciting combat, and truly injects a sense of newness to both the twin-stick shooter and RPG genre. It’s not without some noticeable flaws however, with a paltry amount of weapons compared to its contemporaries, as well as a skill system that isn’t used to its full potential. Other areas are disappointing as well, with a ho-hum plot, unbalanced sound design, and clumsy navigation system. Regardless, I fully recommend rising to the challenge The Ascent presents, as it remains one of the more memorable gaming experiences I’ve had in a long while. The combat is beyond thrilling, and that alone can provide hours on end of excitement.
Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.