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Small developers have stolen the industry’s limelight lately, with titles that have taken the gaming world by storm. Neon Giant, a studio comprised of just 12 people and located in Uppsala Sweden, caught the eye of many when their first title, The Ascent, was shown as part of an Inside Xbox presentation last year.
Published by Curve Digital and originally scheduled to launch with the Xbox Series consoles, the game was later delayed to 2021. But hype has been steadily building as more of its impressive, futuristic world and explosive combat have been teased. So, does The Ascent ascend to the heights of some of its indie peers? As an ARPG fanatic who also adores the Cyberpunk aesthetic, I couldn’t wait to find out.
The stage is set immediately as you take the role of an indentured worker, enslaved to a corporation in a rather familiar dystopian, cyberpunk metropolis called The Arcology. As The Ascent Group is suddenly shut down without warning, and the city’s structure is thrown into disarray, you are enlisted by a mysterious organization to help in figuring it all out. After creating your character through a rather basic suite, the journey begins.
The Ascent makes an incredible first impression as the environments are quite simply, stunning. The streets explode with color, and every street or building you navigate is filled with personality and detail. The lighting, texture, and shadow details are almost beyond comprehension, particularly for such a small development team. Furthermore, residents fill the streets of the crowded city, many of whom you can interact with for random stories that breathe further life into the world around you. And should chaos ensue in their proximity (which of course it will), they react accordingly.
Should you be one who seeks out lore in their games, The Ascent obliges with a deep codex and datapads scattered around the city that provide context to locations, backstories, and more. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most impressive game environments I’ve experienced in a small title.
The Ascent provides a fixed, isometric camera throughout. While it can be a small hindrance at times during combat or exploration, I didn’t mind as it allowed Neon Giant to continue to blow me away with backdrops that were full of life. The cinematography on display at times was quite spectacular as well, with shifting perspectives and cinematic camera angles that offered unique perspectives and sense of scale to the player. Beautiful.
Of course, you need not explore the spectacular city alone. In proper ARPG fashion, The Ascent features co-op for up to four players and does so either online or via the couch. If you plan to play with friends, be aware that cross-play is enabled, but only across Xbox consoles. PC and Xbox cannot play with one another, and there is also no cross-progression. The PC version does natively support controller play though, which was great to see.
Upon venturing out and getting a feel for the combat, I was immediately in my element. As someone who grew up adoring twin-stick shooters, the action felt both familiar and fluid. Firing the weaponry and utilizing the various augmentations is a joy, and I found myself mixing and matching just for the fun of it throughout my playthrough. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock different weapons that you can then upgrade using components you’ll find or earn during play. In addition to your guns of choice, you are equipped with a tactical ability (grenades and a few other surprises), two augmentations (abilities), and two passives (character enhancements).
While this design excited me in my early hours, and had me theorizing about the future possibilities, sadly it ended up highlighting one of my largest gripes with the game: The “loot.”
I used quotes on loot above for a reason. As an ARPG, and one that has been steadily advertised around the concept of looting, I became more and more disappointed the more I played. There are approximately 25 total guns in the game. While that in and of itself isn’t a very large amount of weaponry for an ARPG to begin with, it’s the design that lands really flat. Every time a weapon drops, it’s indicated by a red beam. There is zero variation in the quality or statistics on each gun type. Meaning, once you’ve seen The Enforcer drop once, it will be the same the next hundred times it drops. The only variation in a gun’s power is created through upgrading as I mentioned above. And the system is incredibly straight-forward and uneventful: You use a component to simply increase a gun’s damage output.
This sadly rings true for armor and abilities as well. There are only three areas of armor you can equip (head, chest, legs), and once you find a specific piece, you’ve found it. The majority of armor drops are blue icons, and each specific piece will have exactly the same traits every time you find it. Except armor is even more limited than weaponry, as it can’t be upgraded in any way (only in cosmetic color). Tacticals drop as yellow, and are the same way yet again. You’ll find them repeatedly, but once you have one there is no point in getting it again.
These issues are further compounded by the presence of the game’s currency, uCreds. You can buy the vast majority of the weaponry, armor, tacticals, and augmentations at vendors. This makes looting almost completely irrelevant. But, because the variety of these items is so limited, and you will find them over and over again, it also makes currency nearly worthless because there is nothing else to buy. It’s a vicious cycle in the game’s design, and quite counter to what many of us expect from an ARPG, where gear and player optimization is typically far deeper and more interesting.
In essence, if you’re like me and had visions of endless loot dropping from enemies, tackling big bosses for rare, randomized rewards, and frequently finding new ways to min/max statistical builds, you’re out of luck in The Ascent.
The design issues with loot/currency are especially disappointing as the moment to moment combat is generally a joy. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from your simple melee grunt to massive mechs hauling electric mini-guns. Engaging with them can go from relaxed to frantic in an instant, and before you know it, you can be overwhelmed. This forces you to experiment with different weapons and abilities, and as I unlocked the more interesting abilities about halfway through, I found it very enjoyable. Finding new ways to dismantle groups of enemies limb by limb, which fly all about the screen, repeatedly brought a smile to my face. And this is yet another area in which the gorgeous environments come into play.
Most of the combat takes place in the open city with a physics engine that is meant to put the fireworks on display. Explosions erupt in a fountain of particles and debris, light flashes across every corner of the screen, and citizens flee and scream. The way the environment reacts to destruction is magnificent and further adds to the atmosphere. I can only imagine how chaotic it will be when four players are all on the same screen simultaneously as, even playing solo, it was total mayhem at times. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Abilities are wide ranging and allow you to approach situations in very different ways. From stunning all enemies in an area and then entering your own mech, to deploying explosive spider bots (recommended) and throwing down turrets, The Ascent offers players meaningful and fun ways in which to engage the combat scenarios. Experimenting with your approach is required, as many of the larger encounters and boss fights are in closed areas with limited resources and space to maneuver. They force you to be quick on your feet which I found exhilarating most of the time.
Furthermore, the soundtrack accompanies both the setting and combat well, with an emphasis on combat scenarios that will have you amped and ready to gib every enemy that comes your way.
I did find some rather annoying difficulty spikes throughout. Just as you begin to power level and blast your way through hordes of enemies in rapid succession, you’ll reach a boss who will very quickly wipe the smile off of your face. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the stark difference from one moment to the next can be a little frustrating.
Character development plays a large role in your combat readiness, as you would expect. You are able to increase eight different attributes, ranging across such attributes as shooting accuracy, max health, and evasion efficiency. As enemies quickly level and are set by region/mission (they don’t scale to you), you’ll need to make sure you’re optimizing for your playstyle. But don’t be shy about loading points into the attributes that mean the most to you, as by the late game I was able to max out several of them. You can also reset your skill points any time at a “Grafter” for a fee. For what it’s worth, the max level in each statistic is 20, and I highly recommend a focus on critical hit chance as quickly dispatching droves of enemies will become vital in the late game.
Character development, as it pertains to the story of The Ascent, is another matter entirely. The core story at the heart of the game is passable, but certainly doesn’t push any boundaries nor elicit any emotion. It’s a rather flat, by the numbers affair where you never truly feel invested. While it picks up in the second half, and one of the main side characters helps to inject some life, it’s still largely forgettable. This is compounded by the fact that your character is entirely lifeless. You have no dialog, show no emotion, and generally just stand there during cut-scenes. It gave me flashbacks of Grand Theft Auto 3, and considering that game is now twenty years old, that’s not a compliment.
Furthermore, there are several areas of The Ascent that simply aren’t fleshed out as well as they could be. For instance, you are able to kill certain named enemies as bounties and turn those in at bars in the residential areas. But it’s the only thing you can do at the bar, and regardless of the bounty target’s level, or how challenging it was, they are always worth a simple 1,000 uCreds (which is rather useless a short while into the game). Cosmetics are lackluster at best as they are very limited, and the ones for your weaponry don’t even function correctly (even after the day one patch). The side missions offer experience and sometimes unique weapons or abilities which are useful, but the missions themselves have very little personality and tend to have you traveling to areas only to repeat simple combat scenarios and then return. And then, there’s the map.
Without writing an entire review on how poor it is, let’s just say it’s one of the worst I’ve experienced in recent memory. It’s not only a struggle to read at times, but has challenges with verticality as well. As many of the environments look and feel the same, and have multiple levels and interiors, the entire game can feel like a maze. A brief respite is offered by pushing up on the d-pad to give you a direct line to your objective, but only for your active mission. There is no ability to set waypoints, and side missions only show markers when active (and you can only have one mission active at a time). This leads to you activating your entire list of missions frequently just to see if there are any near to you.
Also, I am obligated to mention that I did run into my share of bugs during play, some of which were astonishingly frustrating. In one instance I quit the game and, upon returning, my main mission markers had all disappeared. There was no map marker, no line leading me to the objective, and genuinely nothing to indicate where I should go. Only after a few hours of play did I get lucky enough to stumble upon the location after exploring half the city. In multiple other instances, when facing off against large groups of enemies, a few of them would become invincible to where no weapons or abilities would damage them. As some missions call for eliminating all enemies to complete the objective, this made it quite literally, impossible. I frequently had to reload the game and hope for the best. And, my favorite, I had instances with the map where icons would move with me as I moved the cursor, so I had no real idea of where anything was.
The “day one” patch only released the night before publishing and after I had already finished the game. My hope, of course, is that these major issues have been resolved, but I cannot say for certain. For awareness, I played primarily on my PC in 1440p Ultrawide, but also tested the Xbox Series X version, both with my Elite Series 2 controller. The performance was generally solid on both, though I did experience some hitching at times on my PC, even after lowering the settings extensively. This seemed to be reduced after the day one patch, but as it arrived so late, I was only able to test briefly.
By the end, I had put nearly 30 hours into The Ascent, though I did complete a wealth of side content and was stuck for a few hours, as I noted. Neon Giant estimates the core game to be a 15-20 hour experience. There is a surprise after the credits, which I naturally won’t spoil, and after you complete the main game, you can continue your progress and wrap-up side missions, should you choose. But, as of now, there is no new game plus mode, nor anything noteworthy that would call for an additional playthrough.
Neon Giant is clearly a talented studio, and The Ascent is an admirable first title from them. Knowing that a team of only 12 people created it is noteworthy, and there is absolutely a strong foundation that I hope they build upon. The Ascent’s setting is remarkably striking, and it’s quite fun to play to boot. But the aspects that are either lacking, or entirely non-existent in the game’s design, have a large, detrimental affect on the overall quality of the experience. As one of my most anticipated titles of 2021, it left me deflated at times while still carrying promise of what could be in the future.