Neon lights. Trash littering the streets. A fetid stench rising from below. Rain pouring from above. Street vendors plying their wares. Suddenly a shot rings out, and guns start blazing. The Turbo Vipers are at it again. Some poor sap is about to be flatlined. But then, you see it: a lone figure returns fires, dodging and ducking behind cover. A barrage of missiles shoot out of their back, which thunder down on the hapless miscreants. Some die instantly, gibbed from the explosives; the hardier ones are set ablaze. A Full-Chrome enters the fray and launches rockets at the target, who takes out more of his buddies from cover. But the lone figure then faces the cybernetic monstrosity, pulls out an energy cannon of somesort, and then: a blinding flash and a solid beam of blue energy erupts and vaporizes everyone in the way. With the last Viper gone, the figure picks up their Ucreds, a health pack or two and then calmly walks away. Who was that? A one man arsenal? A cyberpunk avenging angel? Or could they be just another indent trying to survive in this futuristic hellscape? Hard to say, but maybe you might be able to give it a try yourself? The Ascent is an action packed adventure that, while having stunning visuals and solid game play, does falter from time to time, with obtuse UI choices and a lack of polish. But given how much is in this title, I figure it is worth the time to talk about it. Let’s begin!
Beginning your Ascent
The Ascent takes place in the future, on the Planet Veles, within an Arcology, where the megacorporation The Ascent Group holds sway. With the rich and well connected living high above in the Pinnacle, the mid level in High Street, and the rest of the poor souls in the Warrens, the Arcology is a tiered city housing millions of people. However, not all of them are friendly: rival gangs, like the Turbo Vipers, Liquid Quiks and the Rojin all control territory and are itching for a fight. Combine that with other corporations that want to gain a foothold, and you have a recipe for a very hostile environment. You start as an indent: an indentured servant, bought for on contract, to work for the corporation till you have paid it off.
One thing you will notice very quickly is that the game throws a LOT of words at you that most people won’t understand (I sure didn’t!): mentioning things like AGIs, Keech, Aphorians, Jochlans, CGTs and more will make you start scratching your head at all of it. You are rather suddenly thrust into the middle of this world, without much explanation, and have to scramble to figure it out. Even by the end, I am still a little confused on the names of some of the alien races that are in the world, and some of the technical terms, but thankfully you don’t necessarily need it to play the game. The basic gist is this: not long into the game, The Ascent Group (the one your contract belongs to) goes dark, defaults and now the whole Arcology is in chaos. The security team, CorpSec, are no longer getting paid, so violence is running rampant. Your job is to work out what happened to the Ascent Group and try to get the situation under control. I won’t lie, the story is not super engaging, and sometimes trying to figure out why things are happening (partially hampered by all the cyberpunk techno babble) is a pain. A lot of it feels like “Why should I care?”, though there are scenes with “Unless we get — back online, the Arcology is doomed”, which make a lot more sense. Most of it is just, “Hey Indent, go here and do the thing, because I say so!”
The Characters themselves are also not super memorable, and at least one is memorable only for his abrasiveness. You start working for stackboss Poone, a prickly, cybernetically enhanced, cantankerous alien who insults you and makes you run his errands. While some of his lines can be fun, he is a chore to deal with most of the time. The one I found a lot of fun though is nogHead, an alien that is a master hacker, oftentimes with quick asides and letting you in on tidbits that others don’t want you to know. That is an alien I would like to hang with. One other character of note is your imp (a low level AI designed to assist you in minor tasks), who over the course of the game gets several upgrades, growing in intelligence (and sadistic tendencies). Seriously, it gets off on you slaughtering people. Creepy. All in all, the story and characters are not the reason to play; let’s see what is!
A Neon, Rain Drenched Hellscape
The world of The Ascent is beautiful, in all its tragic surroundings. Made with the Unreal Engine, the game is honestly stunning. Most of the models look good, with some so-so efforts, but what really stands out are the environments and effects. Everything looks alive in here and the sheer amount of debris and clutter in the areas is impressive. It lends itself to the feeling, especially in the lower levels, of just how messed up this world really is. Some areas have mountains of trash, one is completely flooded, some even have parts that look like a warzone. All of it is rendered beautifully under the glow of neon and flame (the latter courtesy of you).
What is also impressive is the life in these areas: maintenance sections have robot drones repairing pipes and cables, shopping districts have stalls, and sometimes you just have civilians milling around. This gives the world a very alive feeling to it, like people are trying to survive as best they can. There are also a number of areas in the game, which, while some are barely distinguishable from each other, stand out. The flooded section of Black Lake Towers, the bars, clubs and robo-brothels (don’t ask!) of Stimtown, the airport of Tahm’s Gate, the pristine beauty of the pinnacle: these areas give off their own vibe. The rest of the areas start to blur, with dark, dingy alleys or big industrial areas. More variety would’ve been appreciated (like checking out a defunct Zoo that was hinted at in one area), but I suppose that is what sequels are for, right?
While the variety of areas might not be impressive, what is is the soundtrack. All a mix of electronic with hints of intrigue, action and desperation that compliment the game’s tone perfectly. The menu theme is a great listen in and of itself, and a number of the themes throughout are standout as well. And along with that music comes the sound design itself, which is also top notch. Bullets are impactful, explosions thunder, and the squelch of a hapless flatliner getting gibbed are all punctuated perfectly. The voice actors all do competent jobs with their parts, though I wouldn’t necessarily say it is award worthy. A minor note should be added: all the major parts are voice acted, the minor ones aren’t. Side characters don’t get specific lines voice acted, instead it is a confusing babbling of some made up language which, while sci-fi-y, is just off. I would’ve preferred to have someone actually voice them normally, but that is how it goes it seems. The world is all set up for us, now let’s play!
Fighting Your Way to The Top
As you start the game, very quickly you are thrown into combat, which is a standard twin stick like affair. Reminiscent of Alien Shooter and the like, one set of controls are your movement and the other are for shooting, only this time with a twist. You see, there are two different ways to shoot in the world: hip fire and ADS. Hip fire works against short enemies and you move faster than ADS, but ADS allows for more knockback against enemies, and shooting behind cover. This is further added to by adding a crouch button to the game, and when you go behind cover, and use the ADS button, can now shoot safely behind cover. This feature is essential in later levels, when the enemies inundate you with gunfire and cover becomes your best friend. However, there are some enemies you have to hipfire, like the animalistic Ferals, that are so low to the ground that if you ADS you will shoot over their heads! Switching between these two perspectives is simple and soon you will see how to approach any situation. That is, until the enemies are coming for you from all sides and you start freaking out!
The variety of enemies increases as you go, from Ferals in the deepStink, human gangs with guns, to robots and other aliens joining in the fun. Each alien enemy also has different tactics, from the huge muscle bound Larkians with hammers that create shockwaves when they slam the ground, SMG wielding Keech that jump around like kids on a sugar high, and several others that test your resolve and problem solving skills. Humans also sometimes rush you with melee weapons, while their gun toting pals try to hit you from afar. This is where things can get interesting, as the enemy AI will try to flank you, and flush you out of cover, either with grenades, mortars, or sometimes harmful hacking (yeah, there are combat hackers). Often trying to fend off one group only to see another coming around is nerve wracking and made for some very intense fights. Although sometimes the enemy AI is braindead and will either run past me or sometimes (on a rare occasion) freeze up and let me wail on them. Most of the time, though, things go well and the fights can be pulse pounding, as you try to navigate everyone trying to kill you.
What is interesting is that many times you will be in an area with lots of civilians and suddenly enemies will come, and as soon as the gunfire starts, the civvies scream and dive for cover. Now, sometimes they run right into my line of fire, and one of my superiors chastises me about “collateral damage”, but it isn’t my fault they walked in front of my gunfire, especially with guys trying to kill me! The fact that people freak out at the violence, but after it is over they go back to what they were doing is a sobering realization that death and carnage are all too common in the Arcology. Isn’t the first time they are in danger and won’t be the last, I’m sure.
As for your weapon selection, you got plenty! Pistols, Shotguns, machine guns, snipers, even rocket launchers, you got it all! You can sometimes buy them from a vendor, but often enemies will drop them, and you can always sell the extras. What is interesting is, instead of finding better versions of weapons, you upgrade the weapon you have (all versions of the same weapon) and it gets progressively stronger. Though I have to admit, the system is fairly obtuse, since it tells you how much damage it does, but the DPS numbers seem off, and they don’t explain damage types at all. After some digging, (and trial and error) I have found the following: Ballistic is effective against organic targets, Fire is as well, and leaves a burn DoT, Energy is good against mechs and robots and Digital does the same (more effective or not, hard to say, only one Aug actually deals digital damage). Though to be honest, it seems Ballistic does less damage to robots than Energy does to organic, so that is a weird inconsistency. There are also some unique weapons to be found with special abilities. My favorite (which became one of my go tos) is the Overwhelmer, an LMG that fires explosive rounds, essentially dealing Ballistic damage with an aoe plus Fire DoT.
Along with your weapons, you also have tactical equipment. While this does include grenades of various types, it also has healing Regen fields, a mini droid to help you, and even a drone that puts enemies in stasis, which incapacitates them and if you do enough damage to them in stasis, they are overcharged and explode! Finding which one works best for you is great, though I mostly went for the ever increasingly more powerful grenades. There are a lot of options to try out, and watching them play havoc with the enemies is always fun.
However, the most fun you will have is with the Augmentations. These give you two abilities for you to use in battle, and the choices are plentiful! Whether you choose what I did (exemplified by the mystery indent in the intro) and go with homing missiles and the all powerful Neutron Beam (Shoop da Whoop, yall!), an ability that switches all bullet damage to digital for a time (perfect against robots!), an ability that marks enemies to make them explode on death, exploding spider drones, slicing spinning blades, a super slam (Falcon PUNCH!!!!), or any other you find fits your style, these all can be life savers when you need them the most!
What is interesting about the Augs, however, is that they are affected by your personal stats. You see, The Ascent is part twin stick shooter, part RPG, and it’s the other half that adds strategy to it. Through various stats, like Crit chance, aim recovery, max health and more, you can customize your indent to the way you want. I mostly focused on crit chance and weapon handling, allowing me to hit hard and reload fast. However, you can also increase your body energy levels to use your Augs more often, your tactical sense to recharge your tacticals quicker or your mobility allowing you to dodge roll far more often. Your armor can also give you bonuses to it, and depending on what you are dumping your stats into can influence your Aug choice. Some stats will increase the damage, duration or number of summons that each Aug does, so keep that in mind when selecting which Aug you use. Or just go with what you like best, it’s your game!
A Glitch (or Several) in the System
Though there is one aspect of combat I found VERY annoying. The Ascent has enemy levels, which, while not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself (Borderlands and Destiny both have it and enjoy both of them), the problem comes in when you are in a perfectly normal leveled area, and blunder into a group of high level enemies that obliterate you. Many times you can’t see their level unless you shoot them and by the time you see that Skull icon, the bullets are flying and so are your brains. Sometimes I would get flatlined from offscreen, as the camera hasn’t shown them yet. The camera is one aspect that, while the auto perspective approach can be cinematic, it can also be distracting, as I sometimes can’t see what is out of my field of view and I can’t change that. Also there are times when the mission says it is one level, but higher level enemies show up, giving me the feeling that SOMEBODY lied. Thankfully, I was doing so many side missions I was overleveled for most Main missions (though still found ways to get flatlined by someone in a less travelled route, sometimes just down a flight of stairs).
In addition, one of the most frustrating aspects of this game is the map. It has no rotate feature, is almost impossible to tell what level a chest or mission is on, and what is worse, sometimes the marker will show for the same area on separate levels of the Arcology, making things even MORE complicated. Trying to find out where something is located is about going there, finding it’s not there and then finding a way down or up a level and trying again. Oftentimes I had to default to the objective marker button, which sends an orange digital looking line to where it should go. Problem is, it is bound to the “O” key, which is awkward to press repeatedly when moving and it doesn’t last very long, so you WILL need to repeatedly press it to find where you would be going. Also, there are no custom markers you can put on the map, which make looking for the chests (and skill points and cyberdeck upgrades for hacking) a pain. Given how many layers the Arcology has, this very quickly turns navigation into an exercise in frustration, as you wish you could just have a readable map instead of what is given. It is easy to get lost, which, while fun when you are roaming and looking for a fight, can be aggravating when you are trying to progress in the story.
But by far the worst part of the game are the bugs. Given that this is a game made by about 12 people, it is a sight to behold, but I do need to call them out when it comes to QA. Just as I hold a studio like Infinity Ward for releasing a buggy game (MW, I’m looking at you!) I hold Neon Giant to that same standard. Some bugs include: Damage numbers disappearing when hitting enemies; enemies despawning from the game, to the point I had to quit and resume the game, as the Boss didn’t spawn in, and I couldn’t continue until I beat them (which I can’t do if they don’t spawn in, right?); some enemies gaining invincibility (happened at least once in a boss fight, where one of his lackeys wouldn’t take damage, but it was fixed after I died); enemies spawning on another plane of existence above me (couldn’t hit me, couldn’t hit them); Guns randomly gaining infinite ammo; clearing all the enemies from an area did not complete a quest; and some others that I saw, but can’t remember at the moment. Truth be told, in addition to the bugs, there are a number of concepts in the game that feel half baked or only partially thought out, like it needed another year or six months to figure out.
However, in spite of the bugs and shortcomings the game has, I still enjoyed my time with The Ascent. The fast paced action, with the stunning visuals and pounding soundtrack kept me going till the very end. There are still things that Neon Giant could’ve done better, but given this is their first game, I’m impressed and would love to see what they got next. If The Ascent 2 has a better map, a more intuitive gun system, with even more features, is almost bug free, and with more music from the same composer, we could very well have a solid hit on our hands! For now, if running and gunning in a cyberpunk world sounds like what you want, check it out! You just might find yourself Ascending to a new plane of violent enlightenment!