The Ascent doesn't seem like much first blush. It wears the trappings of a neon-drenched cyberpunk future and its gameplay is a mix of an action RPG and a twin-stick shooter. In the broadest strokes, this is true. But there are some novel twists to its presentation, much more fantastical sci-fi trappings while still maintaining its grungy aesthetic, that help it stand out from the pack. Which is a good thing since that exact same presentation helps gloss over some middling issues.
Just Another Job
As mentioned before, The Ascent is an all too familiar vision of the far future full of vast economic inequality and completely rampant corporate capitalism. Your custom-made character is an indent, literally shortened from “indentured servant” to the whims of a megacorporation known as The Ascent Group, and are tasked with doing grunt work for them. However, due to multiple complications involving the malfunction of an AI that was handling the company's finances – yes even in the far future we are somehow still slaves to The Algorithm – The Ascent Group goes bankrupt. This leads to a mad dash for power where you fight for your life against everyone trying to take what they can in the chaos, shifting alliances with different brokers and handlers, and hopefully win your freedom once the dust settles.
But since this is a cyberpunk story, the chaos of a corporation going under plays out with gunfire and dead bodies rather than documents getting shredded and pens being stolen. You'll move from location to location, picking up missions from various key characters which will usually involve getting into gunfights with gangs and armored soldiers, delivering information, or stealing info from a computer. In addition, there are side missions where you can help various minor characters which help flesh out the world.
Furthermore, the world of The Ascent immediately stands out thanks to the introduction of alien life. It's a small change on paper but it has a drastic effect on all of the hub areas you go to as well as paradoxically create a more hopeful world and a more miserable one. We aren't alone in the universe, but we are still trying to survive in the shadow of large corporations that reduce us to cheap products and labor.
It also helps flesh out the supporting cast and adds more visual variety to story missions. Cyberpunk games always struggle with making interesting encounters that amount to more than just fifteen different versions of a cyborg with a gun followed by a robot, but here there's a bit more going on. In addition to katana-wielding yakuza and armored assault troopers, enemies include hordes of spiked monstrosities, ten-foot-tall alien brutes with giant hammers, and lizardmen with jetpacks.
Edgerun and Gun
If you have played any kind of looter shooter in the past seven years or even a Borderlands game, you will feel right at home with the core loop of The Ascent. You can have up to two weapons equipped at a time as well as two cybernetic augmentations which serve as special attacks. These attacks are on a cooldown and take from an energy bar. Your weapons have infinite ammo but have to be reloaded.
When it comes to facing hordes of enemies, there is a lot to enjoy with the gunplay. The rumble feedback on a gamepad has just the right level of kick, the sound design makes each weapon feel powerful, and seeing a gunman get reduced to a pile of giblets is always a delight. When The Ascent leans into a more arcade-action direction with its encounters, it is a blast.
In fact, the game's RPG elements seem to agree. As you level up, you'll get character points which can increase various stats. But rather than the usual attributes like Strength, Constitution, or Intelligence, The Ascent funnels you towards different forms of gunplay. Tactical Sense makes your special consumable item (usually a grenade) recover faster, Evasion increases the invincibility frames and cooldown of your dodge roll, Handling reduces bullet spray, and Aiming increases critical hit chance.
On paper, it can lead to a lot of variety in the gunfights, but there are few design decisions that hurt it. The game encourages tactical use of the battlefield but occasionally pulls the rug out from under you in small but frustrating ways. The biggest example of this is how it introduces cover-based combat and aiming your weapon. As gun battles progress and enemies start using automatic weapons, you can crouch behind cover and continue the gunfight like you would a traditional third-person shooter. Aiming your weapon by holding the left trigger lets you shoot over cover and can stagger enemies with enough concentrated fire. There's even a radar on the screen to help you navigate and negotiate enemy placement as well as whatever geography you have available.
But The Ascent has a terrible habit of setting up ambushes. Multiple times without fail, I would have half a dozen new enemies suddenly appear either behind me or in a blind spot, just popping into existence on my radar, and usually in a way that reduces me to chunky salsa within seconds. The mechanics and progression tell me it rewards thinking ahead, but then the encounters keep throwing curveballs that my tools cannot account for.
Then there are difficulty spikes and general balance issues. The most difficult boss battle in the entire game is a robotic spider that spawns smaller spiders that leap and explode when you get too close. But the fight isn't a pain in the neck due to explosive damage or volume, but because the game's very own aiming system just seems to arbitrarily decide whether or not your shots will hit a suicide spider or not. Given how much the game pushes the importance of aiming and crouching, this feels like an oversight.
As for abilities, there are a few that feel vastly underpowered. The biggest offender is a portable mech. It costs a lot of energy to deploy, gives you a giant mini-gun as well as a large pool of health, and is about as effective in combat as a super soaker. Alternatively, there are stasis grenades that freeze enemies in place and violently explode when you hit them hard enough, which provides a lot more bang (sorry, not sorry) for your energy buck.
This isn't to say The Ascent completely falls apart in the action department. Checkpoints are plentiful and enemy encounters seem to jump from different configurations to make things easier if you're struggling. There's a quick and handy fast-travel system that helps when you are knocking out side missions. And, giant robot spider bosses aside, there are some delightful setpieces to enjoy throughout the main story's 15-hour runtime. I only wish there was a New Game Plus mode just so I could stomp through old content again with my juggernaut of a character.
Finally, The Ascent includes both online co-op as well as local co-op for up to four players. At the time of writing, I wasn't able to fully test the online functionality, but the fact that both online and offline have been implemented shows that Neon Giant knew what they were going for with this title.
The Ascent | Final Thoughts
If you are craving a more imaginative take on cyberpunk sci-fi action and can put up with some undercooked elements, there is a lot to enjoy in The Ascent. The introduction of alien races and the action-packed take on a corporation going under helps give the whole experience a more nasty and dirty edge which helps it stand out. Just be ready to put up with some headaches along the way.
TechRaptor reviewed The Ascent on PC with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S
- Punchy, Satisfying Gun Combat
- Imaginative, Well-Realized Sci-Fi World
- Online and Offline Local Co-Op Modes Included
- Imbalanced Combat Encounters
- Several Unpolished Augmentations and Skills
- No New Game Plus