A few days ago, I sat down with developer Neon Giant and played the latest build of their upcoming action RPG, The Ascent. Better still, I managed to spend some time with the developers to discuss the creative decisions they made with the project. It helped me understand the challenges and freedoms that come with making a modestly scaled game with a small team of talented old hands.
The cyberpunk genre has seen a resurgence in recent years. From the massive undertaking that was CD Projekt Red's infamous Cyberpunk 2077 to smaller studio fare like Ghostrunner, Invisible Inc., and The Red Strings Club. In this regard, The Ascent has a very strong opening with cutscenes encompassing all staples of the genre. Widespread poverty and squalor among the masses while untold wealth is accrued by privileged elites; urban decay full of dwindling resources and rampant crime; all of that is here and presented in an especially dirty red-tinged near-future hellscape.
As for my time with the demo, it was interesting to say the least. The Ascent happily wears its Diablo inspirations on its sleeve, but since this is a cyberpunk far future, combat is done with firearms and cybernetic enhancements rather than magic spells. The demo's first area made that clear when my character was running through labyrinthine sewers and tunnels firing away at grotesque mutants. Swarms of creatures continued to flank me; there were even a few times where enemies scurried up from behind for a surprise attack. It was almost horror-esque since I had no melee attack and had to watch my corners. Thankfully, I had a radar and a slow dripfeed of new weapons.
However, this was where The Ascent revealed that it wasn't just dystopian cyberpunk; there were aliens present as well.
“We don't just do the standard cyberpunk tropes but we go a bit more science fiction with it, with alien races and everything," said Arcade Berg, creative director of the game. "That theme lets us put anything we want into the game and still have it make sense within the game fiction. This is because we want to make video games and we want to make fun video games, and sometimes really weird stuff needs to be in for the mechanics we want to execute, but we still want to build a believable and fleshed-out world.”
It was a statement made clear once I had passed the dingy tunnels and made it into a populated area full of alien creatures and neon signs. Suddenly, The Ascent had more of an identity to it with this mixing of genres. This became more obvious as I went from shop to shop, looking at the wares they were selling and seeing the various cybernetic implants I was allowed to buy and ones kept out of my reach.
It wasn't until I got into the demo's second mission area that the gunplay began to open up. To that point, I had been dodge-rolling and kiting enemies while firing hot lead. While that was fun in its own right, the second level featured other human soldiers with firearms on a war-torn bunch of streets. It was at this point that The Ascent revealed some modern shooter touches like crouching behind cover, blindfiring from cover, and aiming down sights in order to hit enemies from difficult positions.
It was at this point that the enemy placement and game feel started to clash a little. While The Ascent gives the tools to either take tactical potshots from cover or just dodge roll everywhere with a shotgun to get the job done, enemy encounters give mixed messages about what to encourage from time to time. More times than I could count I would be pinned down by several enemies with guns, hiding behind cover and focusing my priority on whoever was closest, only to have several maniacs with steel rods and bats to come after me in cover. I leap out of cover and start picking them off, only to be shot to pieces by the gunmen. Even when I tried keeping melee berserkers as priority targets more enemies kept spawning in to flush me out. It led to me hitting a wall in the second boss fight where it felt more like a battle of attrition than a tailored challenge.
To be fair, this is a build of a game in progress. These encounters and enemy configurations can be tweaked, and difficulty can be adjusted. Also, it was obvious after my session with the demo that it was designed with a gamepad in mind, and I was playing on a mouse and keyboard. Feel free to take that information into account while judging my skill level.
In fact, Berg himself mentions the importance of feedback as we talked throughout the demo.
“We definitely do focus a lot on the gameplay and the feedback," Berg said. "We don't let anything fall flat. We are really precious about making everything have an impact. That goes for not only having the gamepad rumble when you shoot but with the destruction in the world, we wanted everything to have a response to what the player is doing. That was a major driving force for us.”
Berg then continued about the difficulty of making sure The Ascent appeals to both action fans and RPG veterans alike, letting it so someone who's good at leaping around and blasting has just as fun a time as someone who looks over numbers and stats. It made me interested in what might have happened if I knuckled down and invested a bit more into gear and took my time leading up to the second area. Would there have been an equally rewarding experience there? Sadly there was only so much time for the demo provided, and I tend to be a more reckless twitch-oriented player in action combat.
Eventually, the conversation came to personal inspiration and design goals for the game. Berg confirmed that some of the nastier and dirtier looks of The Ascent came from the sci-fi movie Upgrade directed by Leigh Whannell, even citing it as the best Venom movie he'd ever seen. Berg then continued that the introduction of alien races also helped add to enemy variety. No matter how high the numbers go, if you are mostly fighting humans with guns, it is going to get boring really quickly. The discussion continued into the small but important bits that are taken for granted like cutscenes introducing a boss battle or seeing damage numbers.
Berg went on about how up to four players could join a game together, and that cutscenes would take them into account. That each character's customized armor and weapons would be taken into account rather than favoring the host. It was at this point out of curiosity I took a shot in the dark and asked the burning question: Is this going to have couch coop? Berg practically cheered as he said yes. Berg then was quick to mention that the online would not be a neglected feature either. Since The Ascent runs on Unreal, there were already plenty of tools available to assist with making online features work. So no matter how you play, it looks like Neon Giant has you covered.
We even briefly discussed accessibility options. The Ascent will include various colorblind modes as well as adjustable text boxes and completely remappable controls. There are even options to adjust If you require a special controller for whatever reason, it looks like the process here will be painless.
This does finally bring us to a major announcement Neon Giant has made regarding The Ascent. It will be available on Xbox platforms as a console exclusive as well as PC as a part of Xbox Game Pass or for separate purchase at $29.99 on July 21. Xbox players and Game Pass subscribers, you literally have no excuse not to check this out.
The Ascent stumbled a bit near the end for me when it came to some of its combat encounters, but I was moved by how much presentation and care went into the game from a small team of veteran developers. Here's hoping that when the release date comes around, their nasty action take on the genre finds an audience that will recognize and appreciate that passion.