Plenty of video games over the past few years have played with the cyberpunk genre, and all too often they’re like the sky above the port in William Gibson’s Neuromancer: tuned to a dead channel. That’s not the case with The Ascent, the first game from indie studio Neon Giant. The Swedish dev has the dial set to the right frequency for this cyberpunk shooter.
An action RPG that centers around twin stick shooting that’s more Diablo-style demon hunter action (or a Grim Dawn demolitionist / Torchlight outlander) than shmup, The Ascent starts as fairly bog standard action RPG stuff. You have a gun, and many, many mutated or cyberized enemies to shoot. A commitment to simple ideas are elevated by great craftsmanship in atmosphere and combat design.
The game opens with the rather shuddering premise that the heavily exploited inhabitants and workers of the arcology have been effectively abandoned by the megacorp known as The Ascent Group. After years of wage slave servitude and feckless management, the corporation is gone just like that, like some fickle deity or a distant parent gone off to grab a pack of smokes.
After years of wage slave servitude and feckless management, the megacorporation known as The Ascent Group is gone just like that, like some fickle deity or a distant parent gone off to grab a pack of smokes.
After a brief moment to customize your character, you end up on an elevator heading into the most rust-filled bowels of the arcology to repair a faulty system. From start to finish, you’ll be blown away by the object density of each level in The Ascent. There’s loads of trash, not just a single broken robot chassis and an abandoned crate, but scores of them. This atmosphere of constant litter continues throughout, in which every level, every district and plaza is teeming with crowds, light and noise.
On Xbox Series X, the game looks exactly like what the trailers promised, and its cyberpunk inspirations are well studied. It doesn’t just take the hypercapitalist cool of Blade Runner and call it day, it draws inspiration from the run-down cities of Japanese manga and the feral neighborhoods of Paul Verhoeven movies. It blinds you with floodlights and overwhelms you with the cacophonous din of industry, poverty and urban suffering.
The Ascent has a convincing cyberpunk world that understands that income disparity and the god-like stature of corporations are what define the genre, not just really cool criminals with guns and knives coming out of their fists. In truth, The Ascent doesn’t really do anything with this to surface a compelling story, mind you. The core plot isn’t anything really, but it nails the theme and the tone.
From the beginning, The Ascent goes all in on its brutal ranged combat. It leans hard into firefight chaos over friendly conversations and that’s not a slight against it. It’s apparent that developer Neon Giant knew exactly what kind of game they wanted to make and scoped accordingly.
Just as the environments do a good job of selling the cyberpunk dystopia, they also communicate the fantasy of unhinged carnage with hundreds of reactive effects like destructible objects, deformable terrain and particle effects. While it does the videogame thing of healing world damage and making corpses vanish, in the heat of the moment, The Ascent makes murder chaos feel so satisfying.
Over the course of twenty hours, you’ll wield augmentations that let you dash and slam violently into your foes, annihilate large groups with grenades and explosive barrels and cause a hell of a lot of destruction with every bullet fired.
Over the course of around twenty hours, you’ll wield augmentations that let you dash and slam violently into your foes, annihilate large groups with grenades and explosive barrels and cause a hell of a lot of destruction with every bullet fired. Your reward is the constant dopamine trickle of more creds, extra gear and other various bits and bobs.
Which isn’t to say that The Ascent is a loot game. The variety of gear to be found pales in comparison to a game like the aforementioned Diablo, or even a Borderlands. And while there’s a little bit of fun to be had in playing cyberpunk dress up with various visors and jackets, the focus is mostly on numbers go up. Some customization is to be had in progression, but it’s really your loadout that is your point of mechanical self-expression.
The Ascent experience doesn’t rely on wild loot tables built from procedurally combined attributes or long-ass skill trees developed over years of balancing. Instead the experience is more authored. The levels are made by people not RNG and barring your regular stat spends for every level gained, everything is funneled into which guns, gear and augments you choose.
Switching kits is probably the most important thing you need to learn in the game. You can’t really skill point your way into a one size fits all enemies build, so adapting through gear is key. Ballistic rifles tear through mere gangers and cyber bandits fine, but you’ll need a good energy blaster to melt armored robots and mecha. This isn’t optional, it’s key, as The Ascent’s firefights can be challenging.
The UI and fonts are small and incredibly hard to read. I squinted a lot to manage my character’s skill points and gear and wasn’t always engaged with on-screen readables. Dialogue captions are scalable, but those bits are voice acted anyway.
There’s no danger of this game being referred to by some weirdo as the Dark Souls of Cyberpunk Shooters, but you’ll definitely live, die, repeat a fair bit. I don’t consider myself a particularly masterful player but not once did I feel like The Ascent was unfair. However, I do worry about other players who might be well served by difficulty options and other means of making it more accessible.
That lack of accessibility is at the heart of some of The Ascent’s minor annoyances and hold it back from being as transcendental as it could be. It is also quite lacking in the tutorialization of some concepts, and features some technical quirks. Overall, they don’t really take away from everything that Neon Giant gets right here, but they do make for a less than perfect release.
The UI and fonts for its menus and HUD are small and incredibly hard to read. I had to squint a lot just to manage my character’s skill points and gear and wasn’t always engaged with on-screen readables. I was initially happy to see a slider in the settings, but all it does is resize dialogue captions that are a mere fraction of your experience with text in-game. And those parts are voice acted anyway.
Several audio glitches also came up during my playtime. Shuffling noises would get stuck on repeat or I would get two channels of the same speech line playing over each other. Once these issues started, they would persist until I restarted the app. There’s also the matter of local co-op play, whose setup is rather unintuitive.
Ultimately, such issues don’t really detract from the accomplishment that’s on display here in The Ascent. Neon Giant has flexed AAA-level graphics to create a sense of place and harnessed some solid action game fundamentals to create a satisfying run and gun experience.
ABOUT THE SCORE
A wonderful, memorable experience. Any flaws in this game are easily outshined by moments of excellence.