It’s judgment time
Admittedly, The Ascent starts on a pretty dull and uninteresting note. You’re wading through the deep bowls of the arcology the game is set on, fighting mindless feral mutants, and doing the equivalent of flipping switches to restart a “sentient intelligence” system. All of this leads to a fight with a giant feral that you can beat by simply running in a big circle and shooting at it.
I’ve gone through this introduction across PC, co-op with some friends, and twice now on Xbox Series X after accidentally nuking my own save file. Combine that with a pretty lackluster character creation system, I think it gives a bad first impression.
However, every time I took the elevator out of that mess and made my way into Cluster 13 — and was greeted with hearing the incredible soundtrack that accompanies it — I knew the real fun was about to begin.
The Ascent (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S [reviewed])
Developer: Neon Giant
Publisher: Curve Digital
Released: July 29, 2021
MSRP: $29.99 (Also available on Xbox Game Pass)
As great as the soundtrack is, though, the sound design across The Ascent is just excellent all around. The sound effects on the guns are a notable highlight. Every time I blew away ferals or random mercs with the Dread (an excellent gun name by the way), it sounded so incredibly punchy and base heavy through my headphones and it never got old for me. Even smaller details such as ambient noises, NPC alien languages, flying vehicles, and robots overhead add to the game’s atmosphere perfectly. In fact, smaller details are something The Ascent absolutely nails.
Obviously, the overall visuals in this game are stellar. The Ascent is undoubtedly the best-looking isometric viewing experience I’ve seen to date in a video game.
That attention to detail that I’ve been praising so much also blends into the mechanics in many ways. From minor aesthetics such as certain armor types straight-up replacing your limbs with full-blown robotic parts to even things like the fast travel system and getting a short visual of your character riding in a flying taxi with a robotic driver went a long way in selling me on this universe and setting.
As impressive and immersive as those details are, though, the story in The Ascent is a lot more cut and dry by comparison. The gist of the setup is that The Ascent Corporation (the mega-corporation seemingly running the whole show and arcology on the planet of Veles) has mysteriously defaulted and closed up shop. As a result, things fall into chaos. Pretty much everyone from lowly gangsters to other mega-corporations are now looking to take advantage of the situation.
You end up getting mixed up in all of it, working every angle, but you hardly ever make any choices for yourself along the way. You’re very much a pawn in the grand scheme of things, both in the narrative and what you’ll be doing almost the entire game. Even the dialogue options are super limited as pretty much every bit of dialogue you get to choose between can be summed up as one-word inquiries on different subjects.
The Ascent RPG’s mechanics only ever revolve around character progression: leveling, skill points, gear, weapons, augmentations, and so forth. Thankfully, the twin-stick shooting was just good enough to keep me going until the credits rolled. I say that because as good as the overall controls feel, and despite some cool depth in the duck and cover mechanics, I felt like I was endlessly encountering different forms of jank across both my experience in single-player and co-op.
The co-op itself is an absolute blast. Even the single-player, I’d argue, is worth a separate playthrough if you enjoy a lot of the world-building, dialogue, and lore to be found within The Ascent. However, the number of technical issues I encountered really pulled me out of the game at times — sometimes literally. From crashing, to downright bizarre moments like multiple instances of the same boss fight appearing (making it an impossible fight to win), to even stranger moments in co-op such as certain enemies just not even reacting to us damaging them.
My biggest issue with The Ascent, though, is simply the downright awful navigation and guidance system. At any moment during a mission, you can press up on the d-pad (or O on keyboard) to make a red line pop up and go in the direction you need to be going. The problem is this line tends to just give you the quickest beeline and doesn’t at all take into consideration whether or not you’re even strong enough to survive whatever area it’s trying to take you through.
This led me to many frustrating deaths as I wandered into high-level areas with barely any time to react before being killed instantly. The isometric camera angles certainly don’t help with this. In most cases, I wasn’t even aware I was in a high-level area until it was too late. In one instance, I even noticed some high-level enemies on the other side of a fence with gates I couldn’t access yet, but right before leaving, they somehow noticed me and one-shot me right through the fence. So, as a result, I was constantly bringing up the in-game map to make sure I was on the right (and safest) path or just getting straight-up lost.
There are also several side missions that are either within or below your level range that straight-up take you into these high-level areas. It just left me questioning why the recommended level was so low on some of these missions. Throughout the entire game, it felt like I was constantly picking up side missions from NPCs, only to come back and do them many hours (if not literal days) later.
Despite my complaints, though, I legitimately love the world Neon Giant has crafted here and would love to see even more of it. There’s loads of potential in this setting for straight-up better stories to be told, and I think The Ascent itself is kept from greatness from a lot of jank, technical issues, and weird design decisions. All that said, I think once I get my hands on a Steam Deck, I’m absolutely going to treat that as an excuse to go back for more. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have a lot of the technical issues addressed.
[This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.]