As far as next generation console launches go, the ninth generation has been comparatively slow with only a few “next-gen” experiences released thus far. Being someone who got in from day one, you’d think that I would be disappointed by how slowly the justification comes for that price, however you’d be mistaken. Even with the bigger releases, I’ve always gravitated to the creatively-freed indie space for my gaming experiences and, whenever the new big game comes out, I always find it a fun distraction rather than a marker of the year. What actually justifies my jump to the next generation at the starting point, for me, has been to experience – in the best possible way – this new generation of indie development; a space that has gotten less difficult to start in and has less obstacles to overcome. In a way then, The Ascent is one of the first “next-gen” games that I played and I couldn’t be happier with the experience or more excited by what’s to come, either from Neon Giant (the studio behind The Ascent) or by the general indie space.
The Ascent is a top-down, twin-stick shooter with light-RPG elements and a cyberpunk aesthetic, about a lowlife mercenary employee of The Ascent group that has just gone under and has left their employees fighting for their lives against other corporations and gangs fighting for the recently available assets of the group. Most people who already know about the game may come in thinking that it’s “top-down Diablo”, but as always, that is too condescending and simplified to the point of misleading potential players; the best condensed pitch for the game is “top-down Gears of War”, which acts as a nice primer of what to expect. Mechanics-wise, The Ascent has one gimmick that absolutely changes the way the genre plays and is what makes the game feel unique: Height. The game has a fully functioning cover system that allows your character to crouch behind waist-high objects and take cover from enemy fire; shooting your guns is now either hip-fire or shoulder-high to shoot over cover and to stagger enemies; enemies themselves can be short requiring hip-fire to hit them or can crouch behind cover as well and fire over it like the player; the world has multiple layers of verticality which adds to the dystopian nature of the game and has gameplay ramifications like having the high-ground being a tactical advantage and disadvantage at times. This is what makes The Ascent one of my favorite games of the year thus far; it’s a top-down, twin-stick shooter that requires planning and tactics yet pushes the player into the genre defining fast-paced action. Enemies will flank your cover and throw grenades, while melee opponents will rush you and force you to move, eliciting that feeling of Gears where you see the Locust rush you with grenades and flank your position; difference being, out of cover gameplay in The Ascent matches the best in the genre of twin-stick shooters and can be an exhilarating experience of reacting to enemies from multiple directions and keep moving to better positions to outsmart and outpower your opponents.
As far as the Diablo connections go, they are not completely unfounded as The Ascent does have a loot system in place, however it is more of a linear progression of power that happens in the world rather than in a cutscene or through rewards from missions. That means that, the shops selling armor and weapons are less about buying good weapons instead of rolling the dice on boss fights for great ones (as is most common in loot games), and more about selling obsolete gear and evening out the early-to-mid game progression. This is best exemplified by the basic crafting system the game has; it is not about salvaging older gear or weaker loot for parts, but it is a way to reward players taking the time (and risk) of exploring the world and finding the resources needed that are always displayed on the map. It’s a simple transaction of giving up crafting components to make better variants of some weapons in your arsenal, which start from basic orange and go all the way up to gold.
Similarly, the RPG nature of the game is more like the cherry-on-top rather than a fully formed layer; it is less about dialogue choices or any meaningful roleplaying and more about allowing the player to get as much lore as they want through optional questions and deciding which stats are more important and raise those instead of other stats. That’s not to suggest that The Ascent has only shooting mechanics of note though. There are some other elements, like hacking, that add streamlined side elements to the loop and there is the augmentations mechanic, which gives the player two choices of active and two choices of passive abilities that significantly change the moment-to-moment gameplay. Passives are the less interesting ones, as I found two choices early on that I stuck to for the entire game (those being a significant boost in health and recharging my tactical charge), however active abilities are significantly more interesting and wild; some even drop from bosses and mimic their unique traits and I had a lot of fun switching back and forth from them to try out new styles and see the new ways the devs thought of for destroying the enemies, like marking an enemy so that when they die they explode causing damage to all near by or setting an army of explosive bots loose to hunt down enemies and explode on close proximity.
Having said that, there are a few nitpicks I’d like to point out that I think could have been handled way better, despite how impressed I was at the overall package. The tactical charge is a good example of how the game sometimes misses the mark on how ambitious it was. There are a few ways to damage enemies more effectively, such as using different damage types or staggering them to stun them for a bit; one way that felt like an after-thought was the stasis and overcharge mechanics. When damaging an enemy with a particular (and ill-explained) type, that will fill a bar that once exceeded will overcharge and explode the enemy; this is only required to finish a side mission and cannot happen consistently enough in the early-to-mid game and I only know how to, because I wanted to finish all the side missions. Another is that hacking has a few categories to upgrade but you cannot choose which one gets upgraded and there are even more upgrades than what you need; all these features don’t gel as well with the others and add to a sense of being overwhelmed or the game’s features simply not mattering to the overall experience. Furthermore, there are a whole bunch of technical issues I encountered with the Xbox Series X version of the game, from crashes and visual bugs to bizarre issues like quitting to the main menu not working for 5-6 playthroughs and then suddenly being fixed.
All of the above though, are just the base of the cake. The Ascent, at its core, is a great twin-stick shooter, but it’s been one of my favorite games of the year, because the dressing in this cake has been so deliciously good. Despite all the technical issues, The Ascent is gorgeous to look at and a treat to be immersed in its world. As a cyberpunk game, the use of bright neon colors is just a sampler of what you can expect from it; wet and dirty ghettos and underground sewers where people live and robots work endlessly; bustling and confusing cities with casinos and hope prominently displayed on the screens for all the miserable and broken people to see; a wild nightlife for the rich and the social climbers to enjoy. Even the elevators that take you up and down on this literal social ladder tell a story about where you are heading or from where you’ve left. Little details like starting a gunfight near civilians will see them scramble to safety and ragdoll wildly if caught in the crossfire, while their friends run to their side. It is a bleak and uncaring world, and your character is only a cog in a larger machine, presided over by mega-corporations who only see profit and numbers while playing with people’s lives. The story that guides you along is not anything to write home about, but the general beats it hits inside of this world and alongside the mechanics and details the devs implemented, provide an experience that is worthwhile; its not that the twists or the drama created is surprising, it’s more that it is earned by a ruthless devotion to the world and the genre. Then, there’s the soundtrack which is my favorite of the year so far. It’s not just the synth tracks that are synonymous with the cyberpunk genre, there is so much more variety and creativity than that as well as a mastery of the whole mood the game is going for; from the Cannibal-Holocaust-like them for the sewers, to EDM and synth-rock, I adored listening to the music and it set or elevated the mood in a way that could be the difference of this game being great with a lesser soundtrack and an excellent must-play that it is now.
Lastly, I want to briefly mention about my completely solo experience; I found the early game to be fairly challenging, but as I went along and completed more side missions, explored most of the map, and got used to the game’s mechanic, I found the challenge to be fair and rarely felt like the game was screwing me over. There were a couple of boss fights that did seem to spam a few too many enemies for one player to be able to handle, but my death count after 20 hours getting near 100% completion was nearly 20, so that’s not too harsh. I did search for how the game fairs as a solo experience and saw that a few people had some complaints about that, so be warned. I do feel that, since there is support for couch co-op as well as for online and the solo experience being very good for me, I can recommend this game with incredible ease. I had a blast and I can’t see how this game is not in my favorite games of the year list come end of the year.