Back in July of 2021, developers Neon Giant threw out a cyberpunk adventure running on Unreal Engine 4 that kicked your eyes in the teeth with what is, I feel, one of the most stunning usages of Epic’s powerhouse engine in years with The Ascent. Originally released on PC and Xbox machines – both One and Series – The Ascent was a magnificent visual tour de force of horizontal dystopian visual design, neon lights and particle-laden explosions.
The superb visual design and art direction, very clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner, made The Ascent stand out starkly from the crowd with an impressive sense of scale that helped to make you feel like just another cog in the machine. The use of specular highlights on metal surfaces coupled with the stunning use of UE lighting, especially for all those wonderful neon signs and lights was nothing short of inspiring.
That beauty, however, came at a price. At least it did on Xbox One hardware. Impressively long load times, constant frame dips, judder and hitches were all par for the course. And this was on an Xbox One X which, as near as I can tell, was running the game at its highest settings. Neon Giant have patched the game since then but the performance issues and long load times still exist, though to a lesser degree than before.
Which makes the game’s PlayStation debut for the PS4 generation of machines and PS5, nothing short of revelatory.
Before we get to that though, The Ascent is an isometric twin-stick action RPG shooter. Set in a future where corporations run everything, including entire habitats and, possibly, planets, work has become slavery in everything but name. All those shows and books you’ve read about how bad the future is going to be, well that’s The Ascents set-up in a nutshell. The corporations own everything, including you. As a new indent to The Ascent Corporation, you’re basically the muscle for anything your less than benevolent overseers want done. When The Ascent Corporation goes belly-up, it becomes a mad free-for-all for everyone else to try and grab what they can and pop themselves into positions of power with what’s left of The Ascent’s assets.
You start off here, at the tail-end of this power grab. Your contract is owned and you have no choice but to do as your told. Which includes a whole lot of shooting, gibbing, explosions and oodles upon oodles of collateral damage.
Gameplay-wise, The Ascent doesn’t do all that much different from other isometric shooters. But it does give you depth to the gameplay in the form of a character creator and its RPG systems, which include stat points to distribute on levelling up, augments to unlock and use and, most importantly, plenty of sidequests to take on. Weapons can be enhanced too, and believe me, you’re going to want to do that because The Ascent is quite challenging.
In combat, you can dodge roll, take cover and shoot over obstacles without having to blind fire. The game throws a lot of enemies at you, including boss fights which can be extremely challenging without some form of a plan. Augments range from health increases to being able to summon droids to help you in fights, all of which are governed by both a cooldown and the amount of energy you have. Grenades too are on a cooldown so you can’t just spam these area-of-effect attacks (AOE’s) relentlessly.
As traditional as the combat is, it is incredibly solid and well put together and, dare I say it, addictive. I was sucked more into the game and its world this time around than I was when it originally launched. And I do think a fair amount of that original disconnect had to do with the launch performance problems.
This brings us to this version’s performance and visual section of the review.
The Ascent is, still, a jaw-dropping technical showcase. Environments are gorgeously put together and the world is chock full of NPCs. The attention to detail, right down to the garbage littering the streets is phenomenal. The environment is full of destructible items, from futuristic hovercars to cement planters and pillars, which makes the level of detail – from the shop designs to the overhead skywalks and the transparent glass surfaces letting you see three to four floors below you – thoroughly absurd. Honestly, it’s hardly a wonder that the original release was plagued by performance issues when there’s just so much being rendered on-screen at once. Within my first three hours alone, I took forty-six screenshots and would gladly take more!
So the real question is, how does the game run now on Sony’s machines between the PS5 and the PS4?
First off, let’s hit up the PS5 version of the game as it’s really the easier one to talk about. Performance is, simply put, stellar. Visually the game is running at what I would assume are its highest settings with nary a hitch. That’s right, you’re getting The Ascent in all its visual glory, with all the VFX as they’re supposed to be and Sony’s beast handles it with aplomb. Whether it was a boss and its minions or a massive firefight in the middle of a crowded street – and boy are these streets crowded – the PS5 didn’t even so much as need a breather. And those load times? As you would expect, quite short. Not nearly instantaneous but I didn’t have the time to check or reply to a message while I waited for the game to load up. And in those moments when I pegged it and needed to reload? Not even worth mentioning, it was just that fast.
Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any Ray-Tracing support in the game and there are only two options under the games Graphics tab: Motion Blur and Film Grain.
So what about PS4, I hear you say. Surely if an Xbox One X struggled then Sony’s base machine should too?
First, the PS4 version is running at a decidedly lower resolution than its higher-end brother. Overall the game is running lower resolution assets with a lower crowd density as well. The image quality is a little on the fuzzy side with bloom lighting faring the same, meaning that the overall image quality isn’t as sharp as the PS5’s. It’s not a deal-breaker at all since the overall visual design of the game, its futuristic aesthetics, still remain firmly in place. The fact is, the game still looks very good if slightly fuzzy. There is a reduction overall in the number of specular highlights in the game on metal surfaces though. As with the PS5 version, the graphics tab only has options for Film Grain and Motion Blur.
Performance-wise, the PS4 handles The Ascent quite well. Load times are vastly improved over the Xbox versions with the game jumping into the menu screen quite quickly and loading into the game in a little over a minute. Dying and continuing is much faster than the initial load. It’s a significant improvement over the Xbox One versions load times which would take roughly five to six minutes from the moment you start the game, to get into the menu and then load up into the world. There are still frame drops in the game, mostly during large scale firefights, but they’re less frequent, yet again, than the Xbox versions. Also, there weren’t any of the hitches and stutters that I encountered during my first attempt with the game on its release. Overall I was hard-pressed to find fault with the performance of the game on the base PS4 as it was smooth enough across the board.
Right now, if you’re a PlayStation owner, the question isn’t so much which machine should you play The Ascent on as much as it is, should you play The Ascent. And that answer is a definite yes. Whether you’re a PS5 or PS4 owner, this game is more than worth your time.
The Ascent’s cyberpunk setting and visuals may have been what drew me to it, but it was the fun, addictive gameplay that kept me tracking down every sidequest I could while pumping round after round into the game’s many enemies. This is a dystopian sci-fi journey I highly recommend you take.
A review code for The Ascent was provided to Gameblur by the publisher.
The Ascent (PS4/PS5) ReviewThe Ascent (PS4/PS5) Review
Story8/10 Very Good
Visuals10/10 The Best
Audio8/10 Very Good
- Incredible visuals
- Wonderful world design
- Tight combat and gunplay
- Have I already mentioned those visuals?
- Can get very tough
- Still some frame rate dips on PS4