Videogames paint a grim image for our future, but given the last year or so they’re probably right.
Neon Giant’s The Ascent casts players as an Indent – a slave, basically – working for a mega-corporation within a cyberpunk-inspired dystopian world called Veles. Only, that corporation you’re working for has just suddenly shut down, causing vultures to circle its corpse. Can you survive without your
master employer? Is it possible to earn your freedom? Maybe.
It’s just a shame that the story of The Ascent fails to engage like it should. Your character is devoid of any real personality, making it hard for you to care about what happens to them. In fact, it’s hard to find any characters in The Ascent likeable; everyone just seems to be out for themselves and is two-dimensional. Although the way the story is presented doesn’t help, either. Characters either stand around boringly while spouting dialogue at you as you select basic text responses, or bark at you as you traverse the world.
What’s more engrossing, thankfully, is the gameplay. Let loose with your own custom created character – though your options are limited – you’ll want to explore Veles, as it looks absolutely stunning. It may be a grim, violent place with pretty much zero flora in sight, but it’s absolute dripping with detail, and drenched in sublime neon light. It’s a busy place, too; the streets are packed with civilians just going about their daily business – you can’t help but be impressed with the scale of it all.
With your employer going under at the outset of the game, you’ll be working to make your life a bit more comfortable, though you’re still essentially a slave. You’ll be ordered to go from one place to another, completing tasks that range from the menial to the highly risky. Along the way, you can pick up a wide range of side-quests if you like, though while they offer rewards, they’re generally not interesting and add little, if nothing, to The Ascent‘s underlying story.
Of course, being set in a cyberpunk-inspired dystopian world, threats lurk around most corners; everything from grotesque mutants to hulking mechs. Combat is fast-paced and rather brutal. Playing alone, I found it rather unbalanced at times; one minute I’d be killing a group of armed goons with ease, the next I’d be having the fight of my life tackling waves of them while a timer counted down. The action is primarily of the twin-stick shooter variety, but you can duck to take cover if you wish. You also have the handy ability of raising your gun up over your head to shoot over cover or other obstacles. With the majority of enemies bum-rushing you, however, taking cover is rarely the best option.
Irritatingly, there are limited ways to recover your health during combat other than hoping that the enemies you dispatch drop a health kit or two. They can’t be stored in an inventory, either – you just use them on the spot or leave them be. Credits can be used at some vending machines to buy health recovery items, but you won’t find them everywhere. In some locations then, death seems pretty much inevitable. Thankfully there’s little in the way of punishment for dying; you’re simply respawned back at a recent checkpoint, which all of your loot etc. intact.
Spicing the gameplay up is a raft of RPG elements. Upon levelling up you gain skill points, for example, which can be distributed among a wide rage of attributes to make your character sturdier and more dangerous in combat. Weapons and armour can also be looted or bought within the world, with the former also being upgradeable. Disappointingly there isn’t much variety when it comes to weapons, though, and there’s no pool of random effects or random stat modifiers to make them unique. This isn’t Borderlands played from an isometric viewpoint.
Two weapons can be equipped at one time, and can you quickly switch between them with the push of a button. Ammo is unlimited, too, so you don’t have to worry about that. Adding to your repertoire is a third tactical weapon, which can only be used when a gauge is full. Tactical weapons range from frag grenades to deployable turrets, and can be very useful in battle. Though unless you pump plenty of points into certain attributes, you won’t be using them all that often.
Finally, there’s a wide range of skills that you can acquire and then equip to your character. Being set in a future where cybernetics are the norm, you can have two implants that provide useful skills and two that provide passive bonuses at any one time. You might decide to give yourself the ability to emit a powerful force from your hand, for example, essentially granting you a melee attack. And to go with that, perhaps you’d like to be able to unleash a horde of drone spiders, ready to jump at targets that get close before exploding and doing massive amounts of damage.
Using skills requires energy, of course, so you can’t just spam them infinitely. They have cooldown timers, too. The passive modules you equip don’t have cooldown timers or require energy, however; you just install them and they provide a constant benefit, like changing your dodge roll into a teleportation-like manoeuvre, or increasing your max health. Needless to say, you’ll want to track down the best skills and modules in order to make your character a formidable combatant.
It’s safe to say that when you get into The Ascent it’s utterly engrossing, but frustrations do pull you out of the experience fairly regularly. The aforementioned difficulty spikes, health recovery issues and story woes are accompanied by occasional glitches and the fact that there’s so much traipsing through the same environments to be done. You do unlock a fast travel option fairly early on in the game, but it doesn’t totally alleviate the issue.
Fans of twin-stick shooters and action RPGs are likely to get a good amount of fun out of The Ascent, especially if they have the patience to work though some of its issues. The fact that it looks so pretty, at least on Xbox Series X, means that some may find more of a reason to persist with it, too. With its merely passable story and small assortment of gameplay frustrations, however, it’s not quite the game it could have been. It simply feels a bit rough around the edges, though perhaps a patch or two could smooth them off.
The Ascent Review: GameSpew’s Score