The Ascent – developed by Neon Giant and published by Curve Digital – had me thinking back to another 2021 release. Biomutant. And while that is not cyberpunk, it doesn’t use an isometric viewpoint, and it’s not a tactical twin-stick shooter, it shares The Ascent’s major failing. Both are games that offer a massive world to explore but offer too few compelling things to do within it. Once the core gameplay loop becomes stale and you find yourself pushing from one bland mission to the next, even the audiovisual majesty of The Ascent’s intricate environments begin to lose their impact and fade into the background.
The Ascent places you in the boots of a lightly customisable human “indent” on the corporate-controlled world of Veles. You’re a slave in all but name, bound to The Ascent Group by a lengthy contract, tasked with jobs that have a good chance of killing long before you gain your freedom. During a mission in the “DeepStink” – the filthy underbelly of the massive, densely-inhabited Arcology you’ll spend all your time in – The Ascent Group goes into default, the board goes quiet, and chaos ensues. The entire Arcology becomes a free-for-all. Corporate security disbands, gangs begin fighting over territory, and other corporations send in teams to claim assets.
It’s a great start that introduces the planet of Veles. A world cohabitated by a half-dozen intelligent species where the powerful corporations are engaged in rampant, often violent, capitalism. It’s a world in which the life of an individual indent is worth little; the board and their corporate security teams control everything from above; while secondary hierarchies exist among the communities they control. Everyone attempts to exert power within their sphere of interest, so long as they can avoid the gaze of those above them.
Sadly, this great premise often feels underutilised as the narrative moves at a lethargic pace (even if you only tackle the main quests), while the subsequent world-building is handled poorly. The Ascent is one of those games in which little of interest happens until you hit an end-mission cutscene. You interact with a quest giver, sit through a one-sided explanation of the situation and what they need (your character is the silent type). You then fight your way to the conclusion, hoping that the next cutscene advances the story in some meaningful way. Side missions can be quirky and often reveal the extent of corporate greed, but they are equally simplistic in structure and also boil down to running between quest markers.
Sure, there are intriguing elements: why did The Ascent Group collapse, what is the mysterious project they were working on, what are the intentions of the different corporations and factions vying to take control. However, these story beats are dragged out between lengthy, multi-part missions that have you running around the world, sometimes in literal circles (the game even alludes to this in some late-game dialogue that was, presumably, meant to be funny). The scale of missions picks up from about a third of the way into the story, but it always feels like you’re just going along for a ride. Your character is a gun-for-hire, following orders in the hope of more freedom or pay, and the player is never given any agency in how the story plays out.
Despite Neon Giant putting a ton of effort into establishing the universe and providing detailed descriptions for every location and character, this information is hidden away in an increasingly bloated codex or requires the player to sit through more NPC monologues. You’ve got a semi-sentient “IMP” communication device that occasionally pipes up with some information about a new location, but the bulk of your playtime will be spent trudging through large, elaborate areas that serve as nothing more than an incredibly pretty backdrop for increasingly rote gameplay.
In densely packed settlements, you’ll find no shortage of NPCs to have one-sided conversations with – or banter between NPCs to overhear – but taking these all in is time-consuming to the point of immersion-breaking. There’s one newscaster that recounts recent events, some quest-givers that comment on collateral damage, and a few new (endlessly repeating) pop-up conversations in towns, but that’s as much feedback as you get. The Ascent desperately needed a more organic way of conveying its extensive lore to the player on the go.
When it comes to the gameplay, The Ascent can be engaging and fun – specifically in coop, local or online – when it finds a good balance of exploration and combat. The longer you play, the more frequent the bouts of hyper-violent, tactical twin-stick shooting become. Given most missions task you with delivering something, holding out in a position, or holding a button until a task is complete, you’ll come to crave these encounters and several end-mission bosses (though they’re really just tough enemies with supporting minions). During combat, you’ll also appreciate that The Ascent gives you more options than simply moving with the left stick and aiming with the right.
There’s an active dodge and skills with cooldowns (par for the course these days), and a hacking tool that can override some turrets or get vending machines to spew out consumables, but The Ascent places the most emphasis on cover and aiming height. In standard run-and-gun combat, you can switch aiming from the hip to raising your weapon and aiming down the sight. Aiming carefully slows you down but decreases bullet spread and increases the chance of critical hits. Crouching allows you to use cover, and raising your weapon in this position will allow you to blind fire from a relatively safe position (with surprisingly minimal loss of accuracy). However, enemies will make use of cover too and there are also low-profile enemies added to the mix that require you to crouch or hip-fire to hit.
As battles get tougher and the enemy roster more diverse – think melee rushers, shielded enemies, enemies with jump-packs, hackers with turrets, heavy-weapon users, grenadiers, and snipers – combat can be engaging and enjoyable when you’ve got a friend or two to cover all angles and prioritise targets. Different enemy types are susceptible to one of four damage types, the game almost always spawns new enemies behind you, and there’s a down-but-not-out feature when playing coop (death in single-player often sends you back to a distant checkpoint).
Played solo, there were several difficulty spikes and the entire end-game sequence was miserable. I say that having completed all but one side mission (which was bugged), having upped my weapons to Mk.10, equipped all purple gear, and equipped several support augmentations. Whether played solo or in coop, you’ll eventually realise combat doesn’t evolve much over the length of the game. You keep increasing your damage output and resistance with each level, while enemies do the same. There were no moments when a new weapon or augmentation caused me to change tactics.
Outside of combat, The Ascent most closely resembles an action-RPG: your character gains levels and puts points into a simple skill tree; augmentations provide active skills on a cooldown and passive buffs; your hacking tool can be upgraded with the right collectables; the extensive gear system has rarity tiers and weapons can be upgraded; shop-keepers will buy and sell said gear; and level-gated areas have enemies that’ll often one-shot you if you stray there too early. The levelling and gear systems are not too deep, but they’re streamlined so as not to be intrusive. Weapons have varying stats and damage types, while armour comes in several tiers, offering different resistances and boosts to skills or attributes.
While that may sound like a lot of systems to engage with, The Ascent’s vast environments do their best to ensure the bulk of your playtime is spent trudging from point A to point B. You move at an infuriatingly slow speed, and the fast-travel options – elevators, metro stations, and a taxi you can summon (almost) anywhere – are not as efficient as they sound. Metros are spread far and wide, the taxi often drops you in inhabited areas far from objectives, and different elevators connect each level of the Arcology (rather than one central elevator). It’s worth noting fast-travel times already feel long on the current-gen consoles at 20+ seconds but might be insufferable on last-gen consoles with significantly longer times reported.
If there’s one positive to all the spend you’ll spend traversing these massive environments, it’s that you’ll often do it with your jaw on the floor. Now nothing is perfect, and The Ascent has some issues with floaty animations, erratic physics objects, NPC reactions, and inconsistent levels of environmental destruction, but these only rarely detract from the otherwise impeccable presentation. The isometric viewpoint and the developer-controlled camera have allowed Neon Giant to create a world that feels alive, packed with fine detail and moving parts, that also runs at high resolutions and a near-perfect 60fps on the current generation of consoles.
Once you emerge from the subterranean “DeepStink”, the sheer scale of every location is overwhelming. The world is densely layered, with an incredible level of fine detail stretching far into the distance. The map scale is often difficult to interpret and waypoints are a pain to find without using the ping system, as areas often exist both above and below you. It’s a cold, brutal, and neon-soaked world but you can’t help but admire its beauty. The environments are also teaming with NPCs – good luck avoiding collateral damage in firefights – and The Ascent has a dense layer of ambient sounds to ensure it feels even more lifelike (though a few areas had audio balance issues). The voice-work is decent, and every moment – cutscene, exploration, or combat – is enhanced further thanks to a moody and, when necessary, thumping cyberpunk soundtrack from Pawel Blaszczak.
I just wish the gameplay mechanics could have been as diverse and compelling as the environments. So many of these stunning locations simply serve as a backdrop for follow-the-waypoint missions and increasingly samey combat. While I appreciate The Ascent comes from a 12-person team, it feels like far too much time was spent on developing the world, and far too little was spent on ensuring there were interesting things to do in it. I often found myself exploring empty areas, packed with incidental details, struggling to imagine what an environmental artist would feel if they discovered all it was used for was a random firefight?
That said, if you’ve got an Xbox Game Pass subscription, or are happy to take a risk given it’s half the price of a “AAA” title, the world of The Ascent is worth experiencing – even if just for a little while – and preferably with a few friends.
The Ascent was reviewed using an active Xbox Game Pass subscription on Xbox Series S
The Ascent (Xbox Series S) ReviewThe Ascent (Xbox Series S) Review
Story6/10 NormalIt's a game in which little happens between cutscenes and the story doesn't stray far from common cyberpunk tropes.
Gameplay6/10 NormalExploration, combat, and the streamlined RPG and loot mechanics are initially engaging. However, it's not balanced for solo play and loses steam as you find yourself trudging between quest locations, engaging in samey combat.
Visuals8/10 Very GoodThere are a few issues, sure, but they don't detract too much from the impressive visuals. The epic scale, an immense level of detail, high resolutions, and solid (current-gen) performance are impressive.
Audio8/10 Very GoodThe voice work is solid but it's the densely layered ambient audio and moody soundtrack that enhance the experience and make the world feel alive.
- Tactical twin-stick combat is rewarding in coop
- Streamlined RPG and loot mechanics
- Intricate visuals and amazing atmosphere
- Moody, authentic soundtrack
- Unbalanced difficulty when played solo
- Bland Missions
- Combat doesn’t evolve significantly
- World-building relies on exposition dumps and codex entries