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The The Ascent Review
The Ascent is a bright, neon-colored cyberpunk nightmare that, unlike its contemporaries, changes things up with its unique take on isometric, twin-stick firefights. The genre as a whole doesn’t get as much love as it really deserves in the video game space. Sure, they come up every now and then, but when they do, it’s almost always like a first- or third-person shooter. I love playing games from that perspective, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just something so special about top-down perspective games.
Isometric games generally allow for better communication of information, especially when it comes to the player’s environment. This allows even the most basic combat systems to flourish, meaning any variety or special gimmicks are just extra sauce on top.
The Ascent’s dystopian hellscape is immediately interesting. Developer Neon Giant takes advantage of the vast space provided by the games camera corner for telling stories about the area as well as lots of bright neon lights that I can’t get enough of. If the world keeps moving towards the future of Blade Runner, we better get cool neon lights everywhere.
Even if there’s nothing new about “The Ascent,” every facet of the presentation and gameplay feels like it was molded by skilled hands. The founding team of Swedish studio Neon Giant (“The Ascent” is their first game under that banner) has been created up from developers who worked on Gears of War, the recent Doom series and “Far Cry 3”, all modern examples of the shooter genre.
I can’t think of a single moment when the level design and layout didn’t impress. Sure, some sections and areas are more interesting than others, but the immersion was consistent across the board. Heck, I actually died several times because I was distracted by how cool the world looks. The Ascent pulls you deep into its world and won’t let go. Detailed textures fill important lines in the capitalist/fascist setting and the lighting sets the tone. It’s actually breathtaking, and is a reminder of what Cyberpunk 2077 would have looked like had it chosen a visual tone that wasn’t based on our modern world.
This ugliness doesn’t extend to the planet Veles and its cityscape – at least on the surface. Within minutes of starting the game, you will be greeted with splashes of neon colors and mountainous architecture. “The Ascent” builds on the concept of “destroyed beauty,” coined by Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski in 2006. In those games, beauty destroyed meant old, ruined architecture. In “The Ascent” it envisions the kind of monuments that humans can erect when the notion of humanity is erased from the equation. Rather than buildings and landscapes, Veles’ ruined beauty is the soullessness of the people, material made into the sleek buildings and neon signs.
Neon Giant flirts with open world concepts by creating different ‘city’ areas where players can rearm and rebuild or choose themselves up side missions and taste texts about the world. As with the skill and weapon improvements, the game is light on role-playing mechanics, but that helps it achieve its temper and pace. It gives players time to soak up the atmosphere and take inventory of the environments and absorb the thumping soundtrack. While action scenes rumble with bass, the quieter moments are supported by music such as the Buddhist prayer songs in anime films like ‘Akira’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’. If “The Ascent” has one major problem, it’s that the aesthetic is almost too obviously referential. It’s cookie cutter cyberpunk.
Fights are great. Despite being a shooter, The Ascent reminds me a lot of Diablo III, and I’m sure other writers make the same comparison. It has the same addictive flavor that we love from Minecraft Dungeons, Diablo, and other top-down action RPGs. They are just nice.
Running and rolling through the company owned metropolis and shooting enemies is delightful. Weapon boosts, called Augmentations, are essentially magical buffs disguised as tech. It does not matter. It functions. It is cool. I love it. And you probably too.
While the combat remained relatively entertaining for most of the time, the final stretch of the campaign tested that feeling a bit. As I’ve seen countless times before, The Ascent subscribes to the late game design philosophy of “just throw all the hardest enemies you’ve seen before, but all at once,” which is never particularly fun and certainly isn’t here. The ending is just a drag, and it frustrated me more than anything. Questionable placement of checkpoints in the late game didn’t help either, and while there are multiple quick travel methods available to you, sometimes you’ll just get stuck for a while to reach your goal, and there will always be randomly spawned enemies annoying your way. I recommend bringing a friend to numb that endgame pain, though co-op makes The Ascent better 100% of the time anyway.
Sometimes, however, it pays off. Like “Ico” and other classic 3D games, “The Ascent” has a great sense of scale and place. You will be able to look over the cavernous city to see Killing Fields you just crossed. And despite mostly being in a classic PC-style isometric perspective, Neon Giant has made sure different parts of the city have changed perspectives, sometimes spreading out to showcase its art. Other times the game switches to a side view, live up to my early “Contra” parallel. It is never foreseen, and always welcome. This makes traveling through Veles surprising and exciting, even though it is essentially still about shooting up a place.
The Ascent is a solo and co-op action RPG set in a cyberpunk world. The mega corporation that owns you and everyone else, The Ascent Group, just collapsed. Your district’s survival is under threat: rival corporations try to enforce appropriation, and crime syndicates try to boost their black market trade. you have to take up weapons to stop them from taking control and embark on a new mission to find out what started it all.
Stop gangs and hostile corporations from taking over and discover what really happened in this explosive sci-fi shooter. Explore the world of Veles alone or with up to three friends, to find out what happened. Your ascent through the arcology will lead you along the path of the most impressive enemies, as well as unexpected alliances. Fully customize your character’s appearance, abilities, and skills to suit your playstyle and loot various weapons and equipment as you get stronger. Your ascent begins now.
Striking the right balance between important details that contribute to the world and boring loot helps sell the illusion. Neon Giant has clearly put a lot of thought into what to show when pulling back the curtain. The compelling world and setting of The Ascent made my actions and time there worthwhile.
There aren’t many options in the character creator, which obviously doesn’t affect the gameplay loop, but I wish there were more ways to express yourself in the game. I was also disappointed that the gender options were limited to men and women. Getting this right isn’t complicated – games can just choose not to include gender options. Developers can let players design their characters and just omit the gender selection altogether. I bring this up because it is the cheapest and easiest option. Knockout City went this route and it was well done. The other option is to allow players to accurately express their gender in games with more inclusion in gender selection.
Despite a few missteps, The Ascent is a must-play if you’re a fan of action RPGs, cyberpunk aesthetic, or both. The fully realized world and tight firefight make for a great time whether you’re playing solo or in a team up with some friends for some multiplayer action. Don’t sleep on this.
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