I installed The Ascent on Friday the 30th of July, not expecting much for; not only playing a brand-new title on the hour of release (so I expected numerous bugs and issues) but also this being a top-down twin stick shooter styled RPG. Which is not something I usually go for. My only prior experience in these 2 styles has been Helldivers, which I never finished and honestly found way too intense. Other top-down RPGS though have existed for some time and have been great. The last big one’s being Divinity Original Sin 2 and Pillars of Eternity 2 (which I am still going though) and this being a Cyber-Punk setting made it very appealing. Though I must admit, I am still waiting to play Cyberpunk 2077… one day it will be ready… maybe before 2077… but there is enough film and gaming history in this genre to help frame not only this review but my own experience in it.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”
– Roy Batty, Blade Runner 1982
So, I booted it up, sat on the couch and thought “yeah, I’ve got a couple of hours to try this out”. Well, I finished it, solo, as of Sunday afternoon. So safe to say I enjoyed it very much.
I was shocked to find myself making the time to keep playing. The sights, the sounds and the gameplay just kept drawing me in. Any spare moment I had was spent running through the city, I quite literally couldn’t put it down. What’s funny is it had nothing to do with the actual combat of the game, though that’s how you “play” the game. It was everything else I loved.
Wake up, Samurai!
You start The Ascent at the literal bottom of the food chain, and game-world for that matter. You are an Indent. In game lore for indentured slave. You owe your whole life to a corporation as you wanted off planet (insert earth type home-world here) and required passage to the planet Veles. Which turns out to be a sort of working future city that is planet wide, as far as you can tell. You are working for the Ascent Group, the largest corp on Veles. It is never made apparent of who you are or your ambitions. You work off your debt so you can earn your freedom. So far it is all very familiar to me with almost any futuristic city; they all seem to be very Cyberpunk and Dystopian and always ruled by corporations, no governments or Kings/Queens, just people with control over those without. I must admit, as dark as it is it makes for compelling story-telling no?
All this is the first 5 minutes of the game setting up the world and throwing some amazing shots at you that look very familiar as another futuristic dystopian world run by corporations we all know well, Blade Runner. Honestly, this was a hook for me. I am glad these devs wore their inspirations on their sleeves, intentionally or not, because it allowed you to immediately relate to a world you never heard of but have seen many times before. It allowed me to understand exactly what the set-up was before even making a character. I was familiar with the plight of slave boy because I’ve used him before in other games and seen him in other films or tv. I know him, he’s got work to do. You can of course choose to be female if you wish. Though by the end you are less than human anyway.
A note on the devs; this was made by Swedish developer Neon Giant, who only formed in 2018. A team of just 12 people made this amazing game! Their debut game in fact! Big W to them
So you (who I called Slave_1) start at the bottom of what is called the Arcology. A massive working tower pictured above, controlled by the Ascent group. You literally start at the bottom in the sewer which is mostly only run by robots. You help your boss solve a problem down there and quickly get recognized for your aptitude in yes problem solving but through the medium of shooting a gun and blowing shit up. They respect that, it seems and so you are given more tasks to do which all involve copious amounts of murder and bullet related violence. I did a quick search and pretty much all Cyberpunk based games involve 2 things; gun violence and body augmentations. It seems there is no future explored that isn’t all human (and alien) life becoming more machine than organic. To reflect for a moment; we are always looking for the next best and faster tech. We upgrade our phones, TVs, computers and cars every few years or less if you can afford it but what if in the future, we upgraded ourselves?… Well, these kinds of games do 1 of 2 things: they either force that upon you through progress (this game and cyberpunk 2077) or make you question the very nature of such a thing and what you end up becoming (Deus Ex and The Observer) but for now we enjoy the medium as it plays with ideas and lets us commit video game violence (yay!)
Throughout the game you can’t help but notice, as an avid gamer and sci-fi enthusiast, the large number of influences these devs had when constructing this game. The gun-play and highly localized tower setting just feels like you could call this 3rd person Judge Dredd. The music and tone, including the lens flare and Neon glow let you feel like you’re in the world of Blade Runner or Altered Carbon. You start in the bowels of the underbelly of the world but as you rise up through the levels you encounter more varied scenery and species. There are numerous Aliens and robots that have their own language which feels so at home if you ever played Mass Effect (1-Andromeda). Then by the end you discover your place in this whole mess and your work in the power structure that makes the previous 15 hours feel very System Shock-y and even a touch Borderlands. I won’t spoil any of the story beats here for you, the fun of it lies in your rampage through the Arcology. Learning about your world through side missions and NPC conversations.
If any of the other sci-fi I mentioned above are of interest to you or the setting here in The Ascent, then stop. This game is for you. The 80’s synth-wave that started with Akira and Blade Runner has inspired so many that it has become the theme music to all great future-tech mediums and is no different here. Just listen to this game’s album on Spotify if you can (I did while writing this) the music kicks in whenever you enter a “hub” area and just frames everything you see and do. Masterfully done. I have not enjoyed music in a game like this since Super Giants: Transistor (chefs kiss of a game btw) also slightly cyberpunk but a lot more Jazz focused with more A.I overlord than augments.
Usually we, at Shadownet, like to split our game reviews into 3 categories: The Narrative, the Presentation and the Gameplay. For this game however, you cannot talk about narrative without presentation, they are 1 and the same. The story is part of the atmosphere and the atmosphere MAKES the game. If I told you Deus Ex Machina: Human Revolution is a game about a man out for revenge (the narrative) you’d think it was Mad Max or Max Payne. If I add it is set during a cyberpunk future and his revenge is aimed at the fact that he had augments forced upon him to keep him alive and help him in-act said vengeance (the presentation) well, you’d say it was Robocop haha but you get my point. The beauty of The Ascent lies in the marriage of these 2 points. The overall narrative is familiar, as stated above, but plays out nicely if you pay attention to the little bits of info added to each mission log. These are actually your character remarking on there position in it all and having to further do the biding of his boss, from one to another as the tasks rarely change but the quest giver does. They have a problem; you and your arsenal of weapons and augments solve it. Then the presentation is all the influences of cyber futures we already know. The city, the lights, the sounds, the people. It’s a dark future, but it’s home.
You ready?…You look ready
The Ascent is a game about doing the bidding of your boss (read as master) there are no other options. You are a slave after all [in all but name] so the task system is not a familiar one of choosing whether or not to continue with an objective or pick an outcome. Do you kill the crime boss or do you convince him to join you? No, none of that. To quote Judge Dredd again “You have been judged. The sentence is death”. In the Ascent that is what you do, you kill things. Well, everything actually. Your guns do damage to cars even, enough damage and they explode. The map sections are littered with yellow enemies; unfriendly that give you a chance to walk away before shooting. Red enemies that shoot you on site. And civilians who are just living their hard lives, idly in your way. All 3 of these types of NPC die by your bullets. Yes, even the innocence bystanders. One of your employers even remarks that you have a penchant for murder but is very displeased at your willingness for collateral damage. That’s as far as the game goes with a morality system but the ease of which you can kill them is concerning for a Paragon player such as myself. In the game world however, that is life in the Arcology. You either complete your contract or you die, it’s the only way out.
In this case the narrative has focused the gameplay to a state of disregard for your fellow indents in a way that is so Snake Plissken [Escape from New York] it’s you or them because unless you’re at the top (literally) you’re a slave.
The game offers you a variety of murder machines with just a slight nuance to their effectiveness against certain enemies. You have ballistic damage that is suited against most with low armour/flesh. Heat damage for higher tier armour humanoids and elites. Then electrical and Mind damage for synthetics. You find guns and armour as world drops as you kill enemies and open chests. Through my entire playthrough I only bought 1 thing; a grenade, to help with a side mission that needed me to use a particular effect on a few enemies. Otherwise, everything I had was drops and I finished the game with something like 300k uCreds (currency) safe to say I found the money system to be pointless but it does allow you to buy armour, weapons, augments and tactics. I just never needed to.
Armour stats are a measure of your resistances to the damage types out there and some higher tier ones give you bonuses to your own skills. The Skill tree itself is simple but does the job of aiding your gunplay, ability usage and survivability. So the Level up system is left to your own playstyle and preference. Each skill maxes out at 20 points and levels at 30 so you cannot be maxed in all by then end. There is a re-spec system of course so nothing is permanent, but it costs money.
The augment system is minor, as is the tactical system but both are designed to enhance your gunplay rather than create a new playstyle on their own. The late game can make you feel overpowered but the main story, especially the final mission, corrects this through sheer numbers and damage variety. In fact, the only stressful point was the final fight and it was all smooth (enough) sailing until that point. Augments can be really fun if you pair the right ones to your gunplay. I used a series of Spider-bots and a machine drone with a AR for most of my gametime. I would call those 2 essentials for a solo experience. Including a tactical auto-turret that pulls agro for you. Life saver.
The gunplay is also mostly cover based. In stalk contrast to my previous review of Outriders. This game uses a cover system that has you either hip firing or ADS. The ADS actually raises your gun to eye level and allows you (and your enemies) to shoot over cover. The only thing you cannot hit while doing so are shorter enemies or humanoids that also use cover. But a lobbed RPG takes care of that easy. The cover system will save your life. Especially since there is no auto-heal mechanic. Healing is via drops or purchased med pacs. Your tactical usage and energy meter (to use augments) generate overtime/by killing.
You can only equip 2 guns at a time through the whole game, even though there are 3 main damage types. However I found the perfect pair; a heavy machine gun and an RPG launcher that carried me all the way to the final fight. There was a 3rd with a nice bullet tracking mechanic but it was mostly useful against the robots as it was an electrical burst fire weapon. It lacked the “oomph” of the AR.
As for exploring the world, that was an easy endeavor marred only by the fact that certain areas are campaign locked, even side missions that lead you to a new location are gated behind main progress. There is also a hacking mechanic that is a literal 1 button system, called your Cyberdeck. It does however require you to find the upgrades for it throughout the world. Doors and chests have a 3-tiered lock system but the hacking upgrades could be sitting on a bench, in a side mission, in a building you have yet to go to. so exploration and completing tasks for strangers is key to surviving the late game as you need the higher tier mods locked behind some of these doors and chests.
This brings me to the main problem with this game. The mission log. At no point will a mission inform you that the location is in an area you have not opened yet or even if the side mission you have yet to find is above or below you. You have to aimlessly walk around trying to find a way up or down because the only tracking system (in a Dead Space way of a line on the ground) only works for a mission you have already started. It is the saving grace of the mission log really. There is also a taxi service you unlock early that brings up locations, on an arcology level only that will take you to sub areas within it. So, to traverse to a different level for a mission you must A. have been to that location before/have access and B. return to the “warrens” to move up and down the tower for access to those levels sub-areas.
For me there are only 2 issues with this game: The mission log system and the fact that it is a top-down 2 stick shooter. The former can be patched. The later is more likely a budget constraint but if Neon Giant get another shot at a game like this or a sequel I hope they get to make it a 3rd person over the shoulder shooter ala Mass Effect. This game NEEDS that extra level of immersion as it would make this a 10/10 experience. Listen, no game is perfect. A 10 score does not make it perfect. It is a score reflective of how well it does what the developers wanted it to do, or at least our interpretation of it.
So you made it to the end, was it worth it?
For me this game was not the best video game I have ever played. That praise belongs to both the Witcher 3 and AC: Odyssey, with Transistor as 3rd best. But much like AC:O, the merits of this game lie in all but the core gameplay. I mean, if you broke down most games with guns they all play the same; you aim at enemies and you pull the trigger. The reason why you do it and picture painted around you as you do is what keeps you coming back. I feel I have overstated my respect for the influences to this game and likely my own bias towards the genre of Cyber-future has had me play this game and write this review with rose tinted glasses. If this was all part of the plan from devs Neon Giant then kudos to you. If not, well a happy accident for me and from what I can tell, a lot of others too. The core gameplay loop of walk here, shoot enemies, pick up loot is as basic as RPG’s come these days. What makes it stand out is the visual style, art and sound direction. This game likely isn’t for everyone but for the first time my wife sat there (with bebe in arm) watching me play this and even remarked at its similarities to the films she has seen. Familiarity breeds comfort and joy and while yes this is a game you have played before, it is an experience you treasure.