The cyberpunk setting is slowly gaining traction in video games, with The Ascent as the latest interpretation of a dystopic future. Sometimes, it comes out good, other times it is a miss like Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk, the genre, is a fascinating prediction of humanity’s future. It feels familiar, yet exotic. This is why The Fifth Element remains as one of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies. On the surface, The Ascent delivers an immensely atmospheric and beautifully well-crafted world known as the Arcology. However, the deeper you dive into the game, the more you will realize its shortcomings.
A Typical Day in Cyberpunk Town
The Ascent does not reinvent the archetypes of cyberpunk lore, but it does not have to. The basic premise checks all the typical cyberpunk themes. Omnipotent corporations that compete with each other, check. A reduction of human life to expendable consumers, check. Crowded cosmopolitan livings, check and check.
Players control a worker enslaved by the omnipotent megacorporation that is appropriately named “The Ascent Group”. Mysteriously, the megacorporation witnesses a sudden collapse. Chaos ensues in the Arcology that pits different districts and factions against one another.
Each district has a distinct socio-economic status to it, and it brings out the themes of social strife through this particular prism. As the Arcology descends into lawlessness, syndicates and rival corporations fight one another to gain control of the megalopolis. That’s where you come in. Your role is to stop other factions from seizing control of the Arcology and uncover the mystery behind the demise of The Ascent Group.
These themes are present throughout the game. For instance, if you kill innocent bystanders, you’ll get warned by one of your companions. But there is tolerance for few collateral deaths in the Arcology. The claustrophobia of the Arcology’s crowdedness is pervasive. This is especially true in hub areas and specific locations like nightclubs and airports, more on this below.
Atmosphere Like No Other
To say The Ascent oozes atmosphere would be a gross understatement. In my opinion, the Arcology feels like one of the most lived-in game worlds I have experienced in 2021. After completing the game’s tutorial and stepping into the mega-city, I was intoxicated by its vividness and attention to detail.
Traveling to hub areas like Cluster 13, Stimtown, or The Golden Satori was always exciting. Humans and aliens of different shapes and sizes would walk briskly as if they were running late. Drunkards would vomit near bars. People would crowd around hologram stations and listen carefully to news reports. One particular nightclub was overflowing with people on the dance floor while others lined up at different bars. Also, the airport also wonderfully depicts the restlessness of travelers as they sat and waited for their trips or crowd around baggage carousels. The Ascent beautifully recreates these minutiae that add immersion to the game’s atmosphere.
Visually, the game is an impressive use of Unreal Engine 4 at an isometric camera angle. Despite the elevated camera angle, The Ascent is one of the most detailed games I have played this year. I was actually surprised to learn that the game does not support HDR. Because the colors and lighting really pop and look incredible.
Neon signs and lights brilliantly illuminate the Arcology. Particle effects looked impressive and added to the game’s overall colorful, yet, industrial aesthetics. It was clear that the environments and the atmosphere received a lion’s share of the developers’ time and effort.
Since the game dons an isometric camera, character models didn’t need to be the most detailed aspect of the game’s visuals. For the most part, the different character models looked passable, but nothing spectacular. They had a generic look and generally felt uninspired, though given the commodification of humanity that exists in this genre it could be argued that is the point. In particular, the main character’s hair had a plastic-y look to it. Luckily, it was not too distracting, and equipping any head equipment will quickly cover it.
The Ascent is Twin-Stick Goodness
The Ascent utterly nails the twin-stick shooting mechanics. Character movement is smooth and the shooting is responsive and enjoyable. Holding down LT raises your firing angle, which is useful to get shots off when crouching behind cover.
Overall, the cover system functions well. Learning how to dip into cover is an essential skill to master for survival early on. Combat encounters are immediate triggers to look for a useable cover. Shooting from behind cover is a skill as well and is necessary due to the challenge of the game.
Though it must be said that it took a little time to get the aiming down. The aim assist does help out substantially when playing with a controller. But then again, in general, twin-stick shooters are not renowned for their pinpoint accurate shooting mechanics.
In some instances, when fighting enemies near stairs, it is difficult to get shots in when you and your enemies are on different levels. Other times, it is difficult to land shots at enemies from a distance. This is because any slight movement in the right analog stick will change the trajectory of your bullets when aiming at long-distance targets. However, this is more a genre complaint than a specific criticism of The Ascent’s shooting mechanics, but it occurred often enough for me to feel its presence, which is not a good thing. But all in all, I felt the twin-stick mechanics were tight, responsive, and more importantly, engaging and a lot of fun.
The UI Descends Into Annoyance
One of the particular areas that falls flat in The Ascent is the overall user interface experience. Navigating through the Arcology can be a nightmare. Especially when traversing between different levels. You would have to fast travel to the nearest lift and manually go inside the elevator to go to a different level. The first couple of times of doing this was not so bad. But the game constantly wants you to back travel and it eventually became a drag.
Oftentimes, your objective marker would flat out lie to you. You would travel to your destination, expecting to progress to your quest. Instead, the marker takes you to an inaccessible lift or a dead end. The game would not inform you that you needed to progress within the storyline a bit in order to complete some of the side missions.
Quest and Enemy Scaling Woes
Another UI aspect that would lie to you is recommended levels for quests. Early in my playthrough, I distinctly remember attempting a side quest that recommended being level 2 to complete. The side quest tasks you to travel to the High Street level. When I traveled to the lift that takes me to High Street, I was greeted by enemies well above level 9 that were right next to the elevator. In fact, if you moved further away from the lift, there were level 19 enemies waiting to mow me down!
This enemy scaling persisted throughout my entire playthrough. It was frustrating, but eventually, I worked out a suitable build for my character. Luckily it was well overpowered and I wasn’t as bothered with the issue later on in the game. Nonetheless, I was confused as to why the game recommended being level 2 for this felt this particular side quest when there were enemies were level 9 and above. I haven’t experienced this kind of bug in a game before, so I was taken aback by and it still resonates with me.
To add, after barely clearing out the enemies by the lift, I harshly found out I couldn’t ride the High Street elevator. I was locked out and I needed to progress in the main storyline to ride it. Again, I felt perplexed as to why would this side quest would be made available when I couldn’t even reach its conclusion.
Half Baked RPG Mechanics
The Ascent’s RPG mechanics seem to be an afterthought. There are multiple stats and attributes that felt half-baked and hardly impacted my character. Stats and attributes like fire defense and electric defense became redundant fast, especially by the end. By that point, I was almost exclusively selecting armor that increased my health or critical damage. When I settled on a particular loadout, I became more interested in armor aesthetics than stats.
Also, some of the abilities suffered from similar issues. For instance, the spider drones ability is not only OP but is essential in the game. The ability dispatches a group of spider drones that explode next to enemies. The spider drone ability provided immediate relief when being overrun by enemies, which happens often, especially later on in the game. So, to replace it with anything was not only risky but foolish.
Additionally, the hyper-focus ability, again, provided much-needed breathing space in the heat of combat. The ability creates a bubble around your character that slows down incoming projectiles. To say it’s a lifesaver is putting it lightly. When the game puts such overpowered abilities at your disposal it negates interest in exploring other ones.
Even when leveling my character I would focus on abilities that helped me survive. This includes investing points towards health and critical damage. Once I maxed those stats out, it didn’t really matter where I invested skill points.
Solid Performance for the Most Part
For the most part, The Ascent performed admirably on an Xbox Series X. It was a solid 60 FPS throughout most of my almost 9-hour playthrough. The game ran well even in the densely crowded hub areas. There were even sections that took place in densely crowded nightclubs and airports that did not break a sweat. However, that same performance did not translate well when combat became crowded.
The Ascent had some thrilling and quite frankly challenging boss fights. Some of those boss fights would send out waves of mobs to try and take you down. Especially towards the end of the game, there would be dozens of enemies that would rush you. It was also during these moments that the frame rate would tank into oblivion. Fortunately, these moments are few and far apart, but they are worth noting. Because of the grander scheme of things, the game performed well. So, these instances stood out because of the stellar performance in the rest of the game.
There would be texture pop-ins as well during the elevator loading sequences (obviously the game took note of Mass Effect elevator cues). A patch did rectify the pop-in to a degree but did not completely eliminate it. But other than that, The Ascent performed well on the Xbox Series X.
Final Thoughts on The Ascent
The Ascent gives off an impeccable first impression. The game is one of the most atmospheric titles I have experienced this year. Graphically, the game has some of the best environmental art styles of 2021. It’s a testament to the small developer team to be able to pull off these kinds of feats. However, where The Ascent does fall is in its uninspired RPG mechanics that felt like an afterthought. That, coupled with disastrous UI, difficulty spikes, and quest-scaling issues, hampered that amazing first impression. Though a later patch remedied some of these technical issues. All in all, The Ascent is definitely worth your time. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and will leave you a lasting impression of the dystopic nature that is the Arcology.