From the off, one of the first things you see upon firing up The Ascent for the first time is the striking red background on the menu, along with your chosen created character looking out at a huge building, the traffic buzzing past, equipped with whatever gear you have picked up in your game so far, the synthy musical score playing as your character idles sets the tone for the game really well, as someone with synaesthesia and having a tactile sensation when listening to music, this was a real treat and one that keeps going as you play.
The Ascent is an Action RPG shooter set on Veles, a place where mega corporations rule, the cyber dystopian setting means there’s lots of upgrades and body mods that you can do, currently, my character is wearing a set of armour that gives her metal legs and what looks like 4 arms, its mostly cosmetic bar the stats, but she looks hardcore and definitely someone I’d rather no meet in a dark alley, to be fair, I’d hate to meet her in a sunny park too.(This isn’t her, ironically my screenshot was deleted.)
Under the hood, the game is running on the Unreal 4 engine, so you can go in expecting lush visuals which really don’t disappoint, the 11-man team at Neon Giant have really made their debut game look stunning, for a lot of top down/side scroll/isometric style games there are a lot of corners cut, not so much here. There are times when you just stop and look out over the city, little details pop up, there are even things going on off-screen, little details, cars flying past, people walking around and going into shops that help bring the feeling that this is a fully living world, it truly is a joy to look at and get immersed in.
At the start, you begin your journey by creating your character, gender, skin colour, hairstyles, the usual fare, and you’re then plopped down into a world that’s about to be rocked by a civil war, the megacorp, The Ascent Group collapses leaving all the minor businesses and high ballers vying for power in the vacuum that its created, gangs, syndicates, workers, it’s a free for all as the police try to restore some sort of order. Things aren’t going well for your character at this time as they’re deep down in the Ascent’s arcology doing the tasks that the rich don’t, like fixing the shower for your boss, Poone, so when shit literally hits the fan you’re in the firing line right away.(How does he avoid rust?……..)
Running around the bowels of the city is more appealing than it sounds, the aforementioned design choices mean you get to scrounge around cluttered, filthy corridors and rooms, breaking boxes and looting gear. A few min later you’re given a quest and thrust into combat with “Ferals”, swarms of little guys who can easily overrun you if you’re not careful, I played with mouse & keyboard, but full controller support is available, I do imagine it would be a bit easier with the twin sticks as running and turning meant I was regularly running backwards or sideways, which isn’t too much an issue until you get swamped by critters begging to bite your ankles.(That..or their Daddy shows up to see why so few of his kids have returned home.)
Combat itself is rather fun, cover is key to survival and instead of an aim down sights, you have an aim higher button, which lets you shoot over cover while staying nice and cosy behind. Later on you get access to different grenades, weapons (of which you can carry two) and augmentations, special abilities that can turn the tides rather quickly. My go to for weapons were an assault rifle and shotgun, standard frag grenade, ammo is plentiful, but grenades are on a timer which can be reduced by grabbing some tactical cool-down items. I found these to be rarer than ammo, probably as early on you can decimate huge groups with a single grenade. For augmentations, I went for the standard hydraulic slam, which seems to instantly kill enemies in a cone in front of you by blasting out their skeletons, think when Doctor Strange got punched and his astral self came out, like that but with more blood and guts.
My second augment was a nanite virus that put a “damage over time” debuff on the enemies in an area and upon their health depleting they would swell up and explode comically and causing damage to other folks, if they were infected too then they would cause a big chain reaction of guts, a nice way to rid a room of harder enemies. If you have a few friends spare, the game can also be playing in 4 player online coop and local couch co-op, I didn’t have chance to check out this side of the game, but I can imagine some of the hectic scenes that could be had with everyone firing off their specials and blowing stuff up.Weapons, armour and augments can be found and equipped in the field, the only special case is with augments, if installed while out you suffer some energy loss, but if you visit a grafter, you get no penalty. Grafters, along with shops can be found at the hub area of Cluster 13, which you gain access to after completing the first mission and witnessing the collapse. Once you arrived and have spoken to your boss, Poone, at Serenity Plus, a posh club in town, you’re free to explore the city and spend some cash, there are also a bunch of side quests to pick up, the one that gave me a chuckle was called “Balls Deep” which had me scour a sector called The Warrens to relieve some Ferals of their testicles, as you can image, they’re not too happy about this and the quest took longer to complete than I’d have thought, but it did lead me to the gear I mentioned earlier that makes me look like a big robot lady.
Given that the game is an RPG, quests are important to levelling up your character, XP, gear and skill points are all awarded through completion and levelling up, you get 3 skill points per level up to spend as you wish, be it better aim, faster reloads or being able to withstand debilitating effects.Being a big game too, you may take on too many quests and forget who and where they should be redeemed, luckily, the Codex has a list of everyone you have met so you at least have an idea who to go and talk to once you’ve finished your task and handily, after the 3rd mission, you gain access to fast travel taxis for convenience, you can call these to take you to places you have unlocked, but there is a steep monetary cost if you choose to.It’s not all smooth sailing though unfortunately, there are a few bugs which can hamper you, such as getting wedged on scenery, falling through the floor etc. which require a checkpoint load which may be before a difficult fight you’ve just had. There’s also a bit of lag at times, my machine is pretty high spec running at 4k and when there’s a lot of action going on, explosions, gibs etc. the game comes crunching to a halt, even dropping the settings didn’t help too much, but hopefully these are things that can be improved via patches, it’s disappointing, but I’m willing to call teething problems rather than inherent flaws.(It’s by NO means the most buggy game!)
Overall, The Ascent is a great way to spend some time, the aesthetics, the music, the world and the lore make the game feel alive, for such a small team to produce something this beautiful and enjoyable for their debut game shows that they really care for the medium; I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. If you can overlook some performance issues and bugs then there is a solid RPG shooter to be had in there and probably the best cyberpunk game to come out this year.