The Ascent Review (PS5) – Ascend The Tiers of Dystopia
Neon lights, dreary society, guns galore and destructive cyberpower to exploit, The Ascent lands on PS5 at last. The Finger Guns Review.
Oh Cyperpunk. There was once a time your name was a hallowed and worshipped thing. Dredd was a revered dystopic slaughter-fest of violence and carnage. Blade Runner and its sequel were compelling introspections of the nature of humanity. Ruiner was one of my favourite action shooter ’em ups of the last five years. What all of these IPs from differing mediums had in common was their Cyberpunk setting and atmosphere. It’s a versatile genre, one ripe for mesmerising stories and stunningly gory depictions of violence.
At least it was, until Cyberpunk 2077 rolled around, poured gasoline on its greatness and proceeded to take a dump all over itself. No, I’m still not over it, leave me alone.
Thank the dystopian Gods of cruel, vain and unempathetic worlds then that The Ascent has strolled in, strapped to the brim with chrome, augments out the ears and a selection of weapons to explode human sacks with reckless abandon. Needless to say, as a twin-stick action game with a top-down perspective and a Diablo inspired design, The Ascent had all of my dopamine stations ticking nicely when it was initially shown off.
I was disappointed when it released as an Xbox exclusive, owing to the fact I didn’t own said console at the time. Well, be disappointed no more will I be. The Ascent has arrived on PS5 to bestow upon us a Cyberpunk adventure. Is it worth ascending from the pits of Veles after the travesty that was Cyberpunk 2077? Can it redeem a genre so inextricably tainted? Let’s get ourselves on the melding table and find out.
He’s A Goddamned One-man Slaughterhouse, That’s what he is.
The Ascent is a top-down perspective shoot ’em up with twin-stick controls. If you’ve ever played a Diablo title, or something belonging to that ilk, you’ll be more than familiar with its set up. You begin as a lowly Indent, sent on menial tough-guy jobs to sort out whatever your seedy boss commands you to do, usually in a less friendly manner.
Whether it be main or side missions, your time will be spent traveling through Veles on one of its 4 tiers, mowing down hordes of angsty, chromed-up enemies, interacting with objects and completing tasks. The combat and shooting mechanics are weighty and effective. Put enough lead into a foe and they’ll eject limbs, be sent packing over the end of a platform, or just straight up implode in a delightfully sadistic manner.
You move with the left stick and aim with the right, with The Ascent’s extra wrinkle of depth coming from the perspective at which you fire. Aiming regularly will have you firing chest high, as opposed to when you’re holding L2, which makes you aim for the head or for opponents savvy enough to be on a floor above you. The game makes the most of this mechanic by having lots of available verticality for enemies, and equally deploying smaller, shorter troops that’ll have your rounds gliding lovingly – but ineffectually – over their noggins.
Pressing Circle has you stooping your precious grey matter, allowing you to take cover and aim above to pot shot unsuspecting fools. The enemy AI is smart however, as they charge down your position with superior numbers or bombard you with ordinance to flush you out. The result is that The Ascent is neither a run-and-gun or a cover based shooter, it’s a hectic hybrid which constantly forces you to switch up depending on what the moment demands.
It all works well; the sheer brunt impact force of landing shots, eviscerating enemies into red piles of mist and throwing out equipment and augments to lay down some serious firepower is awesome. It channels that feral desire of recreating scenes from Dredd or The Raid, as you stomp around exploding anything in your way, just ’cause you can. Like a one-man supercharged tank of badassery.
There’s the occasional niggle here and there. Sometimes the aiming sight can go a little stiff or wonky, causing shots to inexcusably miss despite my utmost attempts to correct their course. Also, while the mechanic of aiming normally or up high is a neat little addition, it’s not always as tight as it probably should be. After over a dozen hours, I’m still confused as to why I can’t aim at anything on a floor below me, when enemies can quite easily gun me down from said position. It all works, don’t get me wrong, but some minor tweaks would have elevated the system from “great” to “I am death itself”.
More Human Than Human Is Our Motto
Now obviously, in order to be finishing your assignments, you’re gonna need guns. A lot of guns. The Ascent has a nice variety of death-dealing tools at your disposal. Pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, energy variants, snipers and my personal favourite category: excessive. In the latter category, you’ll find the fun stuff like flamethrowers, rocket launchers and miniguns. I mean, who doesn’t wanna mow down dozens of idiots with an automatic rocket launcher?!
As you level up and progress, you’ll also unlock various augmentation abilities like rotating razors, a neuron beam, stasis stomps and more fun stuff, alongside your equipment like a grenade or turret (or even your very own mech suit…). You can equip two weapons, two augmentations and one equipment at any time, with the ability to swap them out on-the-fly or even mid-encounter. Experimentation is where you’ll derive the most fun, as you test out what each ability and weapon can do on the poor unsuspecting victims of Veles.
Along the way, you’ll pick up variations of components you can put to good use by upgrading weapons, increasing their damage output. Before you know it you’ll be tearing through groups of fodder with the kind of glee only Doomguy thought was possible.
Modules can also be purchased or discovered in the world which provide passive buffs to health, dodge or credit gain for example, giving you a few different elements to be keeping an eye on as you build your supercharged Indent of destruction. I really enjoyed the ability to customise my character’s build so extensively and the upgrading of different weapons is essential in the mid-late game as you take on more varieties of enemies which present alternative challenges to overcome. As a tip, make sure to have an energy weapon leveled up to help for later in the campaign – it’ll come in handy.
A Violent Utopia
Of course, to accommodate all of the feral desires for violence and death you’ll be a penchant of, there needs to be a suitable slaughtering ground. In-keeping with its Cyberpunk inspiration and fellow action-RPGs like Diablo or Ruiner, the Arcology of Veles is a world ripe for your gory exploits.
There are a handful of haven zones scattered across the tiers you’ll be traversing. Inside these areas, no weapons are allowed. Things are peaceful, though definitely not ‘nice’. Outside of these confines however, anything goes. You can be accosted by rival gangs at almost any and every corner. Katana wielding Rojins, wild projectile hurling ferals and mechanised robots will be out for your blood.
This makes traversing Veles a consistently action-packed affair. It suits the narrative of the world, as virtually every person or group is hostile, seeking their own success and to gain at your expense. However, it does become more tiresome when you’re backtracking areas to have to constantly be engaging with combat, especially when you’ve become vastly overpowered and can tear them asunder with as little as a menacing stare.
I’ll admit, it sets off some serious ego inflating complexes to completely shred enemies that hours ago gave you a decent fight, but I started to wish by the end I could tone down their aggressiveness ever so slightly so I could run past and get my job done. Alas, a rocket to the gullet will just have to suffice. Fortunately, there’s plenty of loot, chests and side missions to encounter in the world, so your travelling rarely goes unrewarded.
Something that is unrewarding though, is the map. Seriously, the map is so unhelpful it may as well be a stumped up Corpo executive. Wanna place a marker to reach a specific point? Can’t. Want to identify what layer a particular chest is in? No can do, the layers bunch up on top of each other. Exploration is enjoyable on the whole, but having to decipher the schematics of the death star is not an ideal way to try and navigate a map.
Chromed To The Gills
Discovering new areas of Veles’ various locales will in turn bring you into contact with stronger and tougher opponents. Specifically, its wealth of boss entries during the main campaign missions. I won’t spoil them or their designs, but rest assured they’re a creative, dastardly and intimidating bunch. These encounters will put your reaction time and character build to the test, requiring that aforementioned adaptability to overcome.
Early on, I found myself over-levelled for the campaign thanks to my obsession with doing all the side-content as I went, making a couple of battles a relative breeze. Strangely, I had the opposite issue with side quests, whereby I would activate missions I was almost 10 levels below the recommended threshold, or more annoyingly, I hadn’t actually unlocked the locations where they take place in. Now I totally get having things to look forward to, but why set up a side quest well before I can feasibly or practically complete it? The Ascent also doesn’t tell you if you’ve unlocked the relevant area yet, so you may haul your monochromatic ass over to the location, only to discover a locked door. Awesome. Best walk of shame to get back, I can tell you that.
Speaking of levels, you’ll be earning XP frequently on your brutal escapades serving the seedy bosses of Veles. Each level allocates you 3 skill points, with more found out in the wild concrete jungle that surrounds you. Dolling these out often is essential to boosting your stats alongside your gear and armour, so you’ll spend quite a bit of time micro-managing in the menus. However, compared to other looter games, this is much milder and more tolerable. It takes up a significantly smaller proportion of your time compared to something like a Diablo, which I actually really appreciated.
The Ascent’s approach to fast travel is also commendable. Across the tiers are metro stations connected by a tube like starlink train, heading for these and accessing them is free, but you’ll still have commutes to your objectives. Alternatively, you can hail a cyber-cab in a moment’s notice using left on the D-pad, at the expense of 1000 uCreds a pop. Initially, the thought of carelessly wasting so many credits may seem ludicrous, but thanks to the economy becoming almost embarrassingly generously later on, it becomes a viable way to get around and cut out some of the leg work. It gives the option for those who want to roam around executing lethal force on bounty targets a nice reward for traipsing about, while not bogging those down who want to get to their end goal quickly.
You’re A Shiny One, Ain’t Ya?
Ignoring the combat and gameplay for a moment, the main attraction of The Ascent will be the attractiveness of its world. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that The Ascent is a breathtaking game in terms of visuals and sound design. Everything is absolutely superb, from the incredibly beautiful lighting and reflection work, which has glass positively glistening, to the density and detail of every corner of this grimy, dirty and worn-down hellhole.
Every area, whether it be a nightclub, cyber hacking den, town centre or just the toilets of a non-descript building has an eye tickling level of intricacy to appreciate. DeepStinks has such a dour, down-trodden and lamentable presentation you can almost taste and smell the garbage, decay and decrepidness of the broken machinery and browned, muddied floors. Reaching the Pinnacle tier, with its beautiful and ego-intensifying gardens of white, complete skyline view and luscious green patches are a spectacle to behold after spending hours in the depths of the dark, seedy underworld.
That’s not to say the underlying tiers are hideous – they’re far from it. The neon signs of the shops pulse with colour and vibrancy, your energy weapons sheen as they pierce a bandit’s skull, explosions plume with a gorgeous orange hue of destruction. Everything just looks spectacular and does so much of the grunt work in making this world feel alive and believable.
It helps that haven areas are bristling with creatures and people roaming around, all intensely detailed and phenomenally animated. This might be one of the few games that looks and runs better in its in-game engine than in its cutscenes, such is the phenomenal visual presentation you’ll be privy too. Having said that, all of this excellent visual design can come at a price – visual, audio and technical glitches can infrequently rear their ugly mugs.
Dynamic loading screens can drop audio completely, I once even had a loading screen just get totally stuck in place until I paused and unpaused again. Occasionally, the level geometry would get confused as to what layer I was on, whereby it would show me on ground level but I’d still be on a higher one, causing me to become stuck on what appeared like nothing. The problems are minor, for sure, but there’s just enough of them to be a slight burden.
You Know The Score, Pal
You may have noticed that I haven’t really mentioned story or narrative at all by this point, and there’s a good reason for that – there isn’t much, to be honest.
The Ascent takes on the narrative structure of too many acronyms are the best kind of acronyms. AGIs, CPTs, Onyx Voids, so on, so forth. You’ll be pretty much bombarded with various terms for systems, groups, people, places and just… things… that you’ll quickly start to find it akin to white noise. There are some interesting story points, but it’s the usual things you’d find in any run of the mill Cyberpunk story.
You start off an Indent, a contracted mercenary who’s contract is effectively life-long, meaning you’re a slave for all intents and purposes. You work for a slimy, underhanded and foul-mouthed underboss, before slowly ascending the social hierarchy of military corps by completing missions. Usual themes of everyone being untrustworthy, backstabbing, heartless and selfish pieces of fermented trash are accounted for and virtually everyone refers you with the kind of disdain usually only reserved by my parents for the fact I still play video games at 27.
I didn’t hate the story. But there’s little to really latch onto and it doesn’t offer anything particularly unique or compelling from other Cyberpunk narratives. Voice acting can swing from pretty decent, delivered with vitriolic gusto to just flat out bad and off-putting. It’s clear that gameplay and combat are the focus for The Ascent, with a tidal wave’s worth more resources put into its graphic and audio design to compensate. Which is fine, not every game needs to have Blade Runner levels of nuance to be a bombastically fun time.
I played through The Ascent solo which was a rip-roaring time in and of itself. There’s the option for online as well as local coop which has serious potential for amping up the carnage. If you and a friend are looking for an explosive, bullet hailing, stunning dystopic Cyperpunk city to wreak havoc in, you’re most certainly in luck.
The main campaign can likely be blasted through within about 10 hours provided you breeze past the side content, but with side missions and collectibles to uncover, a New Game + mode to delve your consciousness into and a coop mode to double up the explosions and disgustingly hilarious violence, there’s a lot of replayability on offer within this package.
Neon Giant have crafted a phenomenally fun, spectacular Cyberpunk world in Veles which nails those dopamine hits at almost every turn. It has some mechanical and technical hiccups which disrupt the flow and immersion in unfortunate ways, but this is a Cyberpunk game that restores some faith that was drained following the debacle of Cyberpunk 2077. Is it as deep as Blade Runner narratively? Absolutely not. But if you can spray the bullets and wreak havoc like Dredd, while looking stunning in the same breath. Well, maybe we can survive without the Corpo critique.
The Ascent has the kind of graphical and audio design prowess that many games can only dream of. While some technical and mechanical issues disrupt the immersion, there’s no denying the sheer sadistic joy that comes from shredding through the neon glazed tiers of Veles. A critique of the Cyberpunk genre this isn’t, but damn is it a blast to play.
The Ascent is available now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles.
Developer: Neon Giant
Publisher: Curve Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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