I really loved Cyberpunk 2077. For better or worse, it set a benchmark for video games set in crowded dystopian metropolises, especially ones where you shoot the bad guys with cool future-tech weaponry to an icy synth-fueled soundtrack. As unfair as it sounds, I subconsciously compared my time with The Ascent to my time with 2077, but for a debut game made by just 11 people, it is astonishing. Despite the lack of a compelling narrative and some technical issues, The Ascent managed to keep me hooked with its terrific combat and world-building.
The Big City, Small Narrative of The Ascent
A megacorporation called The Ascent Group runs a dystopian planet called Veles, and you are an ‘indent’ under their employment. The term ‘indent’ is more-or-less corporate doublespeak for ‘slave’ – you don’t really have a say in the matter. But after the group collapses suddenly, you are tasked with finding out why. And… it’s all a bit muddy after that. You’ll take odd jobs from mutants and gang leaders in order to prevent one of the many new factions from taking over, but it’s a bit unclear who’s doing what and how it ties into the world as a whole. It’s a bit like you’re watching the world change organically rather than actively making it happen. You can customize your silent protagonist to your heart’s content, picking up cosmetic items from slain enemies along the way, but without a voiced, grounded protagonist, your actions feel rather superfluous.
The Ascent can be played solo or with up to three other players online. Even though I chose not to, it’s a welcome touch to be able to share in the narrative confusion with your friends. I am however delighted to say that the time spent traversing Veles, shooting rogue mercenaries and ravenous aliens, is excellent. For starters, The Ascent looks supremely detailed and lively – but it also looks weathered and lived-in. On my high-end PC with ray-traced lighting enabled, the dizzyingly dense streets look just as good as the dilapidated, industrial interiors. Neon greens and purples reflect off of puddles just as beautifully as the harsh red and brown hues that shine through giant machinery – it’s all very atmospheric and immersive.
Whilst the camera is mostly set in a permanent isometric view, you will occasionally find yourself being involuntarily panned up or down in order to better view important events or some particularly spectacular scenery. It’s a simple but genius way to counter fatigue from a constant angle. It is worth noting however that during intense battles, I experienced a lot of lag and stuttering. I was frequently dropping frames from 60+ to 15-20, despite running on an RTX 3080. If you don’ prioritize raytraced lighting, it might be best to turn it off.
The Ascent’s Blade (Or Gun, Or Grenade, Or Spider-Bot) Runner
When I wasn’t squinting between frames, I was thoroughly enjoying The Ascent’s frantic and shockingly deep combat. With a small but powerful and versatile arsenal, you’ll be taking on dozens of enemies at once, as well as dodging and rolling and taking cover. The brilliant option to fire ‘high’ is especially useful, wherein you can aim for the head to increase your chance to stagger, be it over cover and objects or run-and-gunning. There’s a wide choice of grenades and ultimate abilities to compliment your playstyle too, which means switching between frag and EMP grenades or a hydraulic slam and spider-bots for example keeps things flexible and fresh.
The guns at your disposal feel deadly from the get-go thanks to deafening sound design. My favourite was the aptly named ‘riot gun’, a shotgun that wouldn’t sound out of place in Heat, or to keep things topical, Black. Your guns are upgradable, just like your character. You can invest in more health, more stamina or better aiming for example. It’s such a pleasure to be able to spec out your character and weapons, but I can’t help but be disappointed that your character as a whole holds no significance in the world. No matter how well you do, or how cool you look, nobody will acknowledge you and you won’t be rewarded richly for your efforts. It can feel like a bit of a slog.
On the topic of great sound design, The Ascent’s soundtrack finds the sci-fi sweet spot. From Vangelis-esque cold ambiance to throbbing, neurotic beats during gunplay, it’s a joy to listen to, successfully enriching the experience. Additionally, the voice acting is decent, with mutant and alien characters sounding particularly menacing and grotesque.
If Cyberpunk 2077 taught me anything (besides Keanu good, corporation bad), it’s that games set in futuristic cities aren’t usually objectively good. They often deliver style over substance, sounding irresistible on paper but shallow and unfulfilling in practice. I believe for what The Ascent is – an indie game with a lot of originality and initiative – it is great. The gameplay and the landscape it takes place in is complex and intoxicating. It’s only the question of why you’re doing it which is a total letdown. I didn’t feel narratively compelled to keep going in Veles and reach the end of my journey. But the façade was just enough to trick me into doing so anyway.
By Nick Whiting
The Ascent’s excellent atmosphere and gameplay might just save it from a weak story and a lack of polish, wherein the whole is just less than the sum of its parts.
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