eTo begin this review on a major positive: for a team of just twelve people, The Ascent is absolutely stunning. I’ve rarely seen backdrops used to such incredible effect. Perhaps only Warhammer 40K games come anywhere near the level of detail in their grimdark environments and some areas in The Ascent are genuinely staggering. Sadly, the downside to this is that some other areas of the game have received considerably less polish.
Which is not a damning indictment. I’ve had quite a lot of fun overall with The Ascent. But it’s a game that has frustrated me as often as it has wowed me. The neon-drenched cyberpunk setting, for example, often feels like window dressing as opposed to a world in of itself. Your mercenary, here called an “Indent” (short for indentured servant), has come to Veles to work off their debts and make a name for themselves. Employed by the Ascent Group, your job is to run do or die missions into the bowls of the gargantuan city. It’s analogous to W40K’s Underhive in that way. With the city teetering on the brink of collapse, numerous organisations and entities have stepped in to take control, with the expected consequences. Corporate gangs now battle for control, and you have become a pawn.
The Ascent: It’s deadly at the top
Some of this falls apart because there’s nothing inherently special about your character. You are simply another Indent, and are reminded of such regularly. Yes you can level up and purchase upgrades, but so could literally anyone in the city. These gangs have tons of soldiers, and there’s very little you seem to be doing that they couldn’t do with a small army. Or one highly trained operative. As a result, I struggled to feel any real connection to my character. And as you can swap everything from hair to gender for no charge, there’s little to tie you to their progression.
The Ascent is structured like a dungeon crawler. There are several central hubs filled with shops and crafters who will sell or upgrade gear. You’ll follow either the critical path objective or a number of side quests in order to level up, earn loot, and improve your survivability. The biggest impediment to this relatively simple process is the world design. While it looks spectacular, it’s also way, way too big. And I don’t mean the mission areas, necessarily. While there is a lot of running around between objectives, missions at least break it up with lots of shooting. But even after you unlock the weird fast travel system, you’ll do so much walking between areas that it starts to become incredibly tedious.
And I call the fast travel system weird because it is. There are Metro stations that will take you between the districts of the city, and you can summon taxis to drop you off in places. But not everywhere is on the list, and it will often drop you either at the entrance to an area, or just outside it. Meaning that you will still have to make a tedious trek to where you need to go. I can see the similarities to Diablo’s waypoint system. Neon Giant want you to see their world, and don’t want you skipping too much of it. Thing is, by the time I’d unlocked the fast travel I was done being wowed.
Almost all the truly awe-inspiring sights are in the first half of the story, and after that you’re just seeing lots of different coloured corridors. Don’t get me wrong, the first time in a new area like Highstreet, flooded with the neon glare of storefronts, holographic dancers, building-sized adverts, all glistening with fresh rain, it’s impressive. The ray tracing on PC adds a level of realism to the city streets that’s hard to ignore. But that stuff only has so much mileage.
A great deal of your time will be spent shooting things. There’s no melee attack, but you can mod your Indent with a variety of skills. You could summon exploding spider-bots, for instance, or a melee droid to fight beside you. Some of the skills I struggled to really see the benefit of, although one that syphons health from damaged enemies became a mainstay. Character progression is a little simplistic, though.
Levelling up will earn you three skill points to spend on a variety of stat boosts. You can increase health, accuracy, critical chance, energy levels. There are stats for balance and to speed up the cooldown of your dodge roll. But they do not really allow for build diversity in any meaningful way. Armour, too, has stats attached, but while there are a lot to track, it’s easy enough to just equip the armour with the most green numbers.
If that sounds unfair, consider that The Ascent is riddled with difficulty spikes that completely stall you. One boss a few hours in destroyed me over and over. In the end I re-specced all my points into health, upgraded all my weapons, pushed up all my resistances to fire and electricity, went back – and it made no difference. I tried various mods and augments, and still couldn’t beat it. In the end, I fluked it because the little drones it summoned dropped a disproportionate amount of health refills compared to other attempts.
Sometimes you’ll pass through an area with enemies a level below you and it’s like destroying cardboard cut-outs. Other times they’ll be at your level and soak up bullets like spilled milk. It’s shockingly inconsistent at times. And while some of the armour looks pretty cool in a dystopian way, some of the best stuff is distractingly ugly to look at. That may be purely down to me, though. On PC, the NPC count is incredibly dense. They’re everywhere. And watching them trip over themselves to get away from you if you open fire is immersive. However, it’s weird that there are no police. It’s even weirder when the AI doesn’t trigger and people stand there sipping drinks and chatting while you blast goons to mulch.
Much of The Ascent feels like it was designed with multiplayer in mind. Combat becomes much easier with two of you, and there’s someone to talk to while you walk everywhere. Oddly though, in the few bouts of multiplayer I had pre-launch, it never felt like it elevated the experience. If anything, the atmosphere and world are at odds with co-op. You’re supposed to be oppressed by an oppressive dystopia. That’s the point. Being able to team up, while sensible, is counter to that sense of fear.
The Ascent: Flawed, but fun
The saving grace is the combat itself. You can shoot like a twin-stick blaster, but pushing the left trigger raises your gun. This hits headshots for more crits, but it also allows you to duck behind cover and fire over it. It’s a decent system but not without drawbacks. For example you must raise your gun to shoot enemies upstairs, but you can’t shoot down the same flight of stairs when you’re at the top. Also, as there’s no melee attack, if you’re mobbed by melee enemies (which happens a lot), all you can do is dodge roll like mad to get away.
Ultimately, then, The Ascent really is a bit of a mixed bag. On one side it’s gorgeous in places, the combat is excellent when it works, the story is passable if not thrilling. On the other side it’s marred by difficulty spikes and take-it-or-leave-it character progression. There’s a sense that Neon Giant are very proud of their world – and they should be. But the gameplay needs more polish and the world needs to be streamlined just a little. There’s no doubt people will have fun despite my complaints, but with a bit more time The Ascent could have been something special.
Some interesting ideas
Too much walking
Some frame rate drops
Simplistic character progression