I am smitten with, and befuddled by, The Ascent. It’s an incredibly mixed bag design-wise, with some downright poor choices made. I’d struggle to call the game consistently good. But I think I loved it? I was magnetized by the game’s lavish world and its dynamic gunplay. On both the most basic mechanical level and the most surface aesthetic level, The Ascent compelled me in spite of almost everything between. The bad is largely sandwiched between the very good both above and below, which was enough to have me sailing through my thirteen-hour adventure.
I should speak first to those aesthetics, as they’re what have drawn most people to The Ascent. I completely relate to that as the game’s cyberpunk trappings are what caught my eye too. After all, this subgenre is home to some of my favorite works of fiction from Blade Runner to Akira. So, right from the title screen, I was inherently compelled by what Neon Giant had put before me.
more human than human
Of course, this style has become a bit of a powder keg in a post-Cyberpunk 2077 world. That title has unfortunately set the tenor for discourse around The Ascent to an extent. It’s unfortunate, as the interpretation of cyberpunk differs greatly between both games, and contrasting them only renews the narratives surrounding CD Projekt Red’s circus show. The Ascent‘s take on cyberpunk feels simultaneously staid and surprising, and is worth discussing without comparison.
To the former, The Ascent certainly treads upon familiar thematic material. Anyone with even a tangential understanding of the subgenre will recognize the well-trodden themes of cybernetics superseding humanity in the context of a hyper-capitalist, amoral, and environmentally bankrupt world. Ultimately, this is the niche that all cyberpunk media fills, so the reprisal of these elements is to be expected. And, I was excited to see The Ascent actually address these genre themes in both overt and subtle ways instead of simply aping aesthetic tropes and discarding the meaning underneath.
However, The Ascent still interprets cyberpunk through its own lens too by infusing a lot of traditional sci-fi elements into the fold. Typically, I connotate cyberpunk with a direct and dour look at a cynical future for humanity. You expect to run into people who are more machine than man, but there’s going to be a bit of human flesh in there somewhere, or at least the veneer of it. The Ascent forgoes this by introducing straight-up alien races into its world. I really like this idea, as it injects a unique element into what has become a pretty homogenized genre.
All of that was my more academic explanation of why The Ascent’s look at cyberpunk works, so now I can simply gush about the game’s world of Veles and not come off like a bumbling fool. Because damn, is Veles very pretty! Neon Giant goes so unnecessarily hard with the detail here. Every inch of this location is meticulously assembled and stuffed with bits and bobs to look at. Then, it’s draped in excellent texture work and even excellent-er (bumbling fool) neon lighting and environmental effects. Then you throw in that beautiful score… forget about it. It’s enough to make Roy Batty break out in an impassioned monologue.
The plotline itself is pretty compelling too. You’re an Indent, a totally expendable bit of what is effectively slave labor who works for The Ascent Group. After your organization mysteriously dissolves in the blink of an eye, Veles is plunged into a power struggle where various other parties attempt to seize The Ascent Group’s assets. You become one of those seized assets, recruited to help the power-hungry satiate their appetite for capitalistic conquest. With plenty of techno-mumbo-jumbo and a pretty satisfying thematic resonance, the narrative is a good time. While I would’ve liked a bit more in the way of personal agency in the story through dialog options, I was engaged nonetheless.
The problems with this game don’t really crop up until you’re actually on the sticks. I have few issues with either the construction of the world or its narrative. If anything, I chafe at the way in which the incredible detail of Veles is impacted by an unoptimized Xbox Series S port, which is where I was playing. Various graphical hiccups and occasional frame chugging were certainly noticeable. Neither materially affected gameplay (which is a miracle), but they did pull me out of a world that I otherwise did not want to leave.
i’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe
No, the troubles only emerge when you’re doing, well, most things really. I have pretty significant issues with pretty significant chunks of this game from a design perspective. At its core, The Ascent is a twin-stick shooter. This is the good part of the gameplay. On the surface, The Ascent is an action-RPG. This is the over-encumbered part of the gameplay, and where the issues start stacking up as tall as Veles itself.
This title would’ve been much stronger had it stuck to the more basic, arcade-style gameplay which its combat draws upon. The introduction of an open-world contextualized by all the mechanical trappings of an RPG start to bog the experience down. To begin, the pacing between missions feels off. This is a multifaceted issue which owes the bulk of its frustration to poor map design. It’s difficult to manipulate this map in a way that offers a clear sense of direction or clarity for tracking objectives, which in turn dampens the utility of the fast-travel system. While you can simply march in the direction of the candy-colored waypoint marker that prods you in the right direction, it often gets confused when transitioning between areas or elevations.
As if getting from point A to point B wasn’t already a challenge, The Ascent adopts what amounts to a pseudo-random encounter system. While there are some safe spaces in the world, large chunks of the map are overpopulated with aggro gangs and organizations. This quickly becomes overwhelming as literal swarms of enemies converge on you when you’re just trying to find the way to the next story beat. It’s tiresome.
I felt like John Wick after becoming excommunicado, weaving amongst civilians as countless assailants pursue me. This choice, in addition to throwing a wrench into the pacing, totally shatters immersion too. As you’ll often get engaged in the midst of crowded areas, you’ll end up mowing down an apartment complex’s worth of innocents not on purpose, but just because they were caught in this crossfire. While there is flavor text that reprimands your character not to wantonly kill passersby (not that it’s ever intentional), it never matters on a gameplay level.
I was disappointed by this, as it feeds into the surprising lack of choice in this RPG. Armor, weapon and skill tree stats and upgrades are incredibly granular. These, alongside the flexibility in loadouts, give the player a lot of choice in combat. However, there is little choice or depth to the cybernetic hacking gameplay, nor is there any real opportunity for stealth or negotiation. Just as you’re only given the veneer of consequence when randoms are killed, you’re only given the veneer of choice as to how your Indent engages with the world around them. This all funnels back to my core contention that if The Ascent narrowed its focus and made a tight twin-stick shooter without the RPG elements, the game would’ve felt more deliberate and less noisy.
not very sporting to fire on an unarmed opponent
Luckily though, the shooting is largely foregrounded, and it’s fantastic. As I alluded to, it’s very dynamic given the extent to which you can customize your character. By the tail end of the game, I was this slick badass with a burst rifle that shot energy rounds which curved to seek targets. I also had a deployable tactical turret and two autonomous robot teammates, one who specialized in melee combat and the other who took dudes out from afar. At another point though, I was a brutal berserker with huge hydraulic armor, an upgraded shotgun, and the power to regenerate health from the foes I killed. There is so much choice to spec and respec your Indent to adopt empowering playstyles.
This flexibility meshes nicely with the satisfaction of the core gunplay. The Ascent is a pretty strait-laced twin-stick shooter, save for its cover system which I had never seen before. You can aim either from the hip or the shoulder, which allows you to target specific body parts and fire from behind cover. The enemy AI is very active though, so combat is mobile. If you try to dig in behind a wall and mow down foes without taking damage, you’ll just get flanked and overwhelmed. The cover system is balanced well and adds another dimension to the combat.
It’s just damn punchy too. When the soundtrack starts going nuts and your guns play a nice percussion accompaniment, it’s easy to get lost in the rhythm of it all. The chaos of juggling two guns, cooldowns, swarms of enemies and level geography is great. This medley evoked DOOM 2016 for me, and if your gunplay does that, you’re doing something right.
wake up, time to die
But if you want to talk about doing something wrong, let’s discuss the “difficulty curve.” I put that in quotes because no such curve really exists, especially in the last leg of the campaign. Enemy levels fluctuate between half of yours and several levels above. Sometimes this works, but other times it absolutely does not. Where it really bites you in the ass are the last few missions, which feature some really uninspired point-defense objectives. The point defense at the end of the mission Recompile took me probably forty-five minutes to complete when I was at the suggested level – even after dropping the difficulty to easy.
The game just becomes so unnecessarily crushing in spots, an issue that is aggravated further by inconsistent checkpoints. Between deaths on that Recompile mission, I had about a minute of loading and traversal to surmount before I could try the defense again. This just feels uneven and adds to the frustration of botched attempts. Now maybe I just suck at the game. But I don’t think that’s the case. For 85% of the runtime, I could hang with the challenge on normal and not sweat too much. That other 15% was just poor design. I was being swarmed by literally a dozen enemies or more at a time which just became soul-crushing. The game does have co-op, which I image would mitigate this issue to some extent. But, this is an immersive, narrative-driven action-RPG. That’s a journey I want to have alone.
And don’t get me started on the very last battle. There were literally so many enemies on screen that I thought Neon Giant was playing a practical joke on me. I thought that one of the developers was going to jump out from behind my door with a camera to film my reaction. But that wasn’t the case. I was just sitting in my desk chair at 12:30am as my eyes burned out of my head at the climax of a six-hour Ascent bender. I have no idea how my Xbox didn’t simply melt into a puddle of plastic in the face of this assault. I’m not sure that it even chugged once. After many attempts I beat it, but I’ll never be the same.
But my little secret is that I liked that final battle. A lot. It was objectively a design nightmare, especially for a solo player. There’s something decidedly and clumsily old-school about The Ascent. For better and worse the game feels like a return to an older era design-wise. I really vibed with that. In spite of all the poor decisions made I did not want to stop playing this game. I probably binged eight or ten hours of my playthrough at once, which is remarkable as I rarely play more than two or three hours of a game in a day.
Neon Giant’s work speaks to my love of raw, skill-based gameplay. It kicked my ass, but Ikaruga kicks my ass too. And like Ikaruga, I want to return to this game and improve. I want to sharpen this skillset and conquer these challenges faster and on a higher difficulty. There’s something primal about The Ascent in its rawness. It’s a very uneven game but at its nexus is a brilliantly assembled twin-stick combat system that gripped me from the jump. And, it’s blanketed in this cyberpunk world which speaks to that love of mine as well.
The Ascent is currently my game of the year. I really think it has a good shot of ending in my top three for 2021. It still has to tango with the holy trinity of Halo Infinite, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, and Metroid Dread. But it’s going to be up there, and I think it’ll stand toe-to-toe with those titles. This game is really special, even if it’s really clumsy in many respects. So give it a shot. It’s on Game Pass. Maybe, like me, you’ll find magic amidst all of the missteps.