Xbox One, PC, Xbox Series X
July 29, 2021
A chaotic cyberpunk action game from only 12 people, The Ascent is Neon Giant‘s ambitious first game as a studio. It’s coming to us from industry veterans who had previously worked on titles like Bulletstorm, DOOM, Gears of War, and the newer Wolfenstein games – and it shows. The Ascent throws players into a metropolis in turmoil, full of unique characters and thrilling encounters. While it’s not perfect, what is on offer here is one of the best twin-stick shooters of the year and the better cyberpunk game of recent.
An arcology known as Veles was once controlled by the powerful megacorporation ‘The Ascent Group’. Mysteriously, the omnipresent entity collapses and the people divide into a dangerous free-for-all, gangs fighting over districts and rival corporations trying to seize control. As an indentured worker for The Ascent Group before its fall, you’re tasked with uncovering what happened while being caught between haphazard firefights.
A cybernetic, neon world that actually feels alive
Setting, atmosphere, vibe. This is genuinely a cyberpunk world that is in desperate need of order, and you really feel it. Environments range from dark and damp garbage wards with hordes of mechanical Ferals to neon cities with hundreds of creatures from all over the universe, bustling and trading to make a living. You can even visit a local bar and chat with aliens about their recent schemes or a crime they witnessed. It’s a visual feast with so many intricate details to stop and take in that truly immerses you into the world of Veles.
As the story moves on, the ascent through this city is serviceable. The narrative takes you through twists and turns, much of which are genre commons. An underground cyber-hacking syndicate of so-called Netsages helps dive deeper into the neurology of the social construct, a typical neo-yakuza gang who cause havoc, and of course the Corpos who want to be above everything. The personalities you meet along the way are often amusing, such as Poone and 438 Hung. An AI called Imp (short for Personal Imprint) guides you through the entire journey, adding its analytical comments and sometimes comedic quips. There isn’t anything groundbreaking here in writing or story. Yet, The Ascent provides exactly what you’d want from a cyberpunk game.
“The Ascent provides exactly what you’d want from a cyberpunk game.”
Questing has good variety, driving you through the challenging pathways of the world. In one, you’ll infiltrate a morgue and a medical facility to uncover the strange disappearance of someone’s close friend, and in another, you’ll perform scans of environments for virtual reality devices, which boils down to a device to explore the city. While the map itself is certainly cluttered and hard to navigate, simply running around the world is a joy. The main questline involves high-octane action with huge boss battles which will force you to change your strategy. A cybernetic spider fight made me rethink my approach and come back to it hours later once I played around with other weapons and augmentation combos. Quests are well-designed and keep the adventure a challenge.
The player character is a basic, blank slate that you customise at the beginning of the game. Change their face, hair, sex, and clothing colour before delving into the RPG elements. Eight different skills reflect the power of four different attribute levels: Cybernetics, Motorics, Biometrics, and Frame. A strong Cybernetic build will have a fast-charging tactical attack and a high critical rate. In contrast, a powerful Frame means the character will be resistant to stuns and incredibly evasive. You’ll upgrade skills as you level up and assign one point to each, maxing out at level 20. Admittedly, it is a shallow RPG system as builds don’t change your playstyle too drastically. Slotting skill points isn’t as important as weaponry and augmentations, which more prominently will change how effective you can tear apart pesky Turbo Thugs.
More shooting, less role-playing and all the better for it
The game is a twin-stick shooter, through and through. Combat is based on aiming low and high, crouching behind cover, and moving around to dodge projectiles. Shorter enemies will run under aimed fire, keeping you on your toes when there’s a crowd of Ferals crawling out of the corners. Fully utilising two weapons on the go, tactical equipment such as grenades or sonic stuns, and two augmentations abilities are essential in firefights. Different damage types correspond to enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, which you’ll only learn by paying close attention to the damage dealt during the often chaotic combat. While the gameplay is very fun, the camera can be tricky to work with at times. When firing at enemies below/south of you, it doesn’t always extend far enough for targets to be within sight, which can be annoying.
The Ascent isn’t as straightforward of a shooter as it seems on the surface. It is hard, and particularly so if you want to rush through the story under levelled. Unlocking new regions results in a difficulty jump, requiring grinding older side quests you haven’t completed, finding new loot, and learning more about Veles. Game over isn’t terribly punishing, sending you back to the last checkpoint, usually only a few minutes prior. It can seem a little too easy just to respawn and continue clearing out enemies, rinse and repeat until they are all gone. How this translates to co-op is unknown right now as no multiplayer servers are live prior to release. Either way, learning the mechanics of combat and getting a hold of the controls, gliding through enemies like a knife to butter, is exhilarating.
One of the most significant concerns The Ascent is getting surrounds its end game. There is little to no extra content besides uncompleted quests and claiming the occasional bounty once the main story is complete. Unlike ARPGs like Diablo or Grim Dawn, this is a condensed experience. Sitting at around 10-15 hours long, depending on your playstyle, this may not be exactly what fans of the genre expect. Neon Giant is planning upcoming patches to the game in the coming months, but there isn’t any news on future DLC. All things considered, The Ascent is here for a good time, not a long time, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Intricate environments take advantage of Ray Tracing technology
Graphically, the game is outstanding. As mentioned before, the environments are the shining star in this vivid and grimy cyberpunk world. Impressive DX12 and Ray Tracing technology shows off the fantastic work done on lighting and shadows. There are plenty of gleaming metal contraptions, glowing lights in the world, and reflections in puddles of water; every scene looks like a futurist painting. Unfortunately, the character models sorely stick out. Low textured faces and bodies look like playdough in clear enough lighting, especially noticeable when customising your character.
“…some of the best sound design and music in a game this year… It’s synth at its finest…”
The Ascent has some of the best sound design and music in a game this year. Sweet Justice Sound is the group behind the monstrous and ultramodern audio effects in the game. The laser projectiles of energy weapons blasting through grunting augmented gangsters and clanking Siege Mechs is clear and quality. I remember specifically the growling of Ferals in the Waste Recycling Network making me feel uneasy whilst pumping me up for a fight. Pawel Blaszczak crafts a superb neo-electronic and trance score as the cherry on top of the immersion sundae. It’s synth at its finest, and Blaszczak is no stranger to great game soundtracks as the composer for Dying Light and several The Witcher games.
Regrettably, there are a handful of performance and functional issues with the game. On PC, optimisation isn’t perfect just yet. Moments with lots of particle effects and moving enemies may tank the frame rate. You can’t remap buttons for those playing with a controller, which is problematic if you dislike the layout or have accessibility concerns. Finally, some languages are missing localisation until the team at Neon Giant address the matter in their first patch in mid-August. With a few occasional bugs here and there, these issues will make The Ascent mildly frustrating to some players – but nothing nearly as bad as the ‘other’ cyberpunk game.
- Detailed cyberpunk environment art and visuals
- Thrilling gunplay with varying playstyles
- Enjoyable quests with engaging tasks
- One of the best synth soundtracks of recent
- Has co-op features so you can bring a friend along the ride
- Minor performance and accessibility issues
- Map UI and character models aren't great
The Ascent proves why the cyberpunk genre is so popular right now. There isn’t anything exactly different or unique about its story, but it perfects the atmosphere with terrific environment art and an otherworldly soundtrack. Combine that with outstanding twin-stick shooter gameplay and elements of wall cover, cool-down management, and role-playing to deepen the experience. Blasting through crews of Rojins with a rocket-firing gun, the Astrosmasher, being among my personal highlights. It may have accessibility and minor performance concerns, but it’s still sensational, action-packed, and so much fun. The Ascent may be the best cyberpunk game in the last year.