The Ascent Review – Underwhelming Cyberpunk Hype

    Title: The Ascent
    Developer: Neon Giant
    Release Date: July 29, 2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Curve Digital
    Genre: Action

Viewed from a distance, Veles, the cyberpunk planet dominated by The Ascent Group’s arcology, looks like a massive and sprawling metropolis filled with life and promise. However, a closer look reveals the chaos and confusion that ensue in the wake of the collapse of the Ascent Group, the mega-corporation that owns everyone.

The Ascent has you play as an indent who must ascend to the top of the social hierarchy to answer a few questions. This is a solo and cooperative open-world, isometric, top-down, twin-stick action RPG. But, unfortunately, what may seem like the long-awaited fulfillment of a great cyberpunk experience is held back by a lack of a gameloop and poorly implementing features.

Veles is a vivid and intricate city filled with neon signs, flashy billboards, futuristic hover cars, monolithic skyscrapers, and creatures from all over the galaxy. Developer Neon Giant does a fantastic job creating a game drenched in atmosphere, weaving together conversations of passersby going about their day, billboard announcements over the speaker, endless drops of pouring rain, and a neo-noir electro-synth soundtrack in the background.

Though Veles may have you in awe with its remarkable visual and auditory aesthetic at first, you will soon feel like you are wandering tediously in a lifeless static world. The environments end up being nothing but a giant landscape of reused assets and enemy types. In addition, you can only interact with a limited number of objects and people. These include NPCs that assign quests or exchange hard-coded dialogue with you, as well as shops in dedicated safe zones.

In addition, you are free to shoot and kill neutral citizens, but it is nothing more than a gimmick. You don’t gain experience points and gold or trigger any sort of karma system. Fast travel options like the taxi and subway system are either too expensive or too limited, leaving you to walk five to ten minutes just to progress the story.

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The main story of The Ascent is mediocre at best, with few moments that stand out. You play as the classic silent protagonist doing various jobs for corporations as you uncover what happened to The Ascent Group. You experience everything from life in the slums all the way up to skyline suites enjoyed by the rich. On the other hand, side missions are mundane and monotonous, where most are just simple fetch quests or killing something.

Neon Giant introduces some refreshing gameplay elements. Being a twin-stick shooter, The Ascent offers the ability to aim both high and low on enemy targets, with a crouch/cover system behind various objects and structures found in the world. Further, the RPG elements offer character customization and skill trees, including cyberware augmentations and the ability to hack using a cyberdeck.

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There is a delightful variety of different weapons, tactical gear, and augmentations to find and utilize. These vary from pistols and shotguns to miniguns, spider bots, and even your own mech robot to control. The amount of customization and differentiation in gear is robust and promotes different playstyles, especially in co-op.

Loot is not randomized and is often very underwhelming. Most of the time, whatever loot you collect is best sold for cash in the shops, as leveling up weapons is only possible via a rare currency found in the world. In addition, old bosses become regular mobs, and enemy types end up being reused. Most are not worth killing because they drop little experience and gold. Exploration is also bland as you walk several minutes with the intent of finding loot, only to discover that it is locked behind a higher “hack” level or is just cash or an item you already own.

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For a game that markets itself heavily on cooperative play, The Ascent fails to meet the most rudimentary of expectations for an online game and lacks substantially in solo offline play. To put it simply, the co-op function is broken. Multiple crashes ensue after hosting or joining an online session to the point where the multiplayer aspect of the game is not only unenjoyable but unplayable.

In the brief minutes in which the online session does not crash, bugs riddle the game; one player zooms across the map at lightning speed, and enemies that are visible to one player are invisible to another. In addition, there is no option of public matchmaking, yet there is the functionality to kick players from your session. If you’re only playing with friends, why would you want to kick them out?

Apart from important key items, the loot is not shared among all players and promotes unhealthy and often unfair multiplayer experiences. Moving forward, the solo player experience doesn’t bode so well either. An atrocious number of enemies are basically just damaged sponges that come at you. At the same time, you are tasked to point defend or survive X number of minutes, making the game extremely unbalanced.

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The Ascent could have used further polish. The experience is infested with bugs that include but are not limited to the inability to shoot any gun, invisible enemies (there are actually invisible enemies whose silhouettes you can see in the game), constant frame drops when there is lots of action, incorrect hitboxes, and even an infinite exp glitch.

The Ascent is said to be “seamless, with essentially no loading screens,” yet the elevator, taxi, and subway ride that cut to black essentially act as replacement loading screens. The developers promise that “playing through the Main Missions will land you somewhere around 15 to 20 hours.” I was able to complete all the main missions and a handful of side missions in 12 hours, with a good chunk of that being straight up walking and retrying the insanely unbalanced single-player boss encounters. Many quality-of-life changes need to be addressed, such as a lack of a manual save, no sprint functionality, tutorials randomly re-appearing, and Steam achievements not popping.

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In theory, a co-op, loot-based isometric RPG like The Ascent has the potential of being a great cyberpunk-themed experience to play with a group of friends. The world-building is appealing visually and aurally, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying and often unrewarding during exploration. The lack of replayability, broken cooperative play, bugs, and unbalanced artificial enemy difficulty make it tough to appreciate its positive elements. It’s sad to say that The Ascent is another over-hyped cyberpunk game that is all fluff and no substance.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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