As a long time fan of dark fantasy, one genre that has always appealed to me is the isometric dungeon crawler RPG’s. From back in the day getting my hands on the PS1 version of Diablo then moving on to titles like Dark Alliance and even more modern offerings such as Darksiders: Genesis and Path of Exile, these slasher gorefests are great fun to pick up and play after a hard day in the office when you just want to twat someone over the head with something heavy. The same formula has never quite translated into the shooter genre for my tastes, having dabbled in titles like Helldivers and Dead Nation, there always felt like something was lacking so when it was announced that Neon Giant was releasing a gritty cyberpunk-themed isometric shooter, I was immediately intrigued to see if they could crack the case, but does this neon fuelled cyber fest burst with lasting memories or will all those moments be lost in time like tears in rain, let’s take a look.
Style or Substance?
Set in a bleak dystopian setting known as “Veles” which is full of all the lovely elements you’d want from a cyberpunk world, neon lights, industrial complexes, funky hairstyles, rain, fake boobs and real assholes, all held together with a hard synth-wave soundtrack, it’s as if Bladerunner had a child with Altered Carbon and the results are stunning. Running on the Series X, The Ascent is a beautiful gaming world, which is saying something as the majority of locations are about as clean as London after a football match. Veles oozes character from top to bottom and is chock full of NPC’s bustling around making the whole place feel alive and lived in.
After the collapse of “The Ascent Group” (the corporation that runs the show), all smaller corporations and syndicates break out into a wide-scale turf war with each one seeking to gain control of Veles. You are a low-ranking agent for one of these syndicates and must work to stop rival syndicates from taking over while trying to uncover what happened to The Ascent Group. As a plot goes, it’s basic, yet does enough to keep you driving forward, the main issue is the characters you interact with are not really that interesting or engaging which is a shame as mentioned previously, the world itself is so well crafted that the lack of personality from the interactive folk kind of lets things down. This is even more disappointing as the designs of the characters are really intriguing with a mix of mutation and augmentations, but I just didn’t get any sense of liveliness from them as I did from something like Mass Effect.
Got it where it counts
Of course, the gameplay is where things really count and for the most part, The Ascent delivers. Your character is fully customisable and can be tweaked and altered along the way at vendors if you decide you want to make a few changes though to be honest, in these sorts of games, much like Diablo and the Fallout or Elder Scrolls titles, you spend so little time looking at your characters face as they are usually adorned with funky armour that it really doesn’t matter what they look like. The gameplay takes the form of a twin-stick shooter mixed with some RPG elements and a healthy dose of tactical options to consider as you blast your way through a series of odd jobs such as fixing the toilet systems to taking out rival gangs bosses.
A grand arsenal of deadly weapons is on hand featuring assault rifles, shotguns, heavy machine guns and everything in between. Each weapon can be upgraded and come in various forms with different stats to consider such as shock ammo to take down robotic foes or anti-personnel ammo for dealing with the fleshier enemy variety. A wide range of augmentations can be equipped to your body ranging from a selection of melee and grenade types for both offensive and defensive requirements plus a host of abilities to give you the edge in combat. Coupled with an armour system that revolves around four core stats, Biometrics, Frame, Cybernetics and Motorics, all of which line up with the games levelling system to help you tailor your character to your preferred play style.
A Creation of Choice
In the Ascent, there are no pre-set character builds such as a Tank or Healer, instead, the game gives you free rein to develop your character from a blank template however you see fit which I really enjoyed. As a single-player gamer, it was great to have the freedom to chop and change my character to suit my requirements instead of dedicating myself to one build and being stuck with it. Though for those who take advantage of the games multiplayer which can be enjoyed either by couch co-op or online with up to four friends, then dedicated class building might be a more preferred method.
The combat itself is hard-hitting and visceral, moving with the left stick and aiming with the right via a handy laser sight felt a bit oversensitive at first but soon felt second nature. Enemies attack en masse and in various forms making combat frantic but fun. Abilities are assigned to the RB and LB buttons with grenades being thrown with a click or R3. All abilities work with a cooldown and recharge mechanics so knowing when best to use them will be the key to success. One feature I did enjoy was the ability to aim high, so if enemies are above you on some steps or a platform, holding LT will raise your gun to gain elevation in fire, this also works for crouching behind cover and firing over the top, a great way for thinning the heard of oncoming hostiles while keeping yourself somewhat safe, during regular fights, this is also an effective way to gain headshots, critical hits and cause enemies to stagger.
Difficulty spikes can happen, in the early going it became almost frustrating to have no indication you were heading into a high-level territory, just turn a street corner and get killed in one shot by some dude who is twenty levels stronger than you, luckily the checkpoint system is pretty generous, so I never felt like I lost too much progress when this happened. In the times where you do come up against particularly difficult foes, even ones that are at your level range it’s always worth checking out what ammo and armour you have versus theirs, a good indicator that took me a while to figure out was the colour of my bullets. When firing, shots will be red if they are super effective against the enemy type, white is effective and grey is ineffective, this is subtle but handy once you know what you are looking for so it’s always good to carry a selection of weapon types with you.
A glitch in the System
The Ascent is full of subtle elements to help you but doesn’t always do a good job of letting you know they are there. It took me several hours to figure out the cooldown indicator for my evade ability was represented with two tiny arrows that face outwards of my character indicator. But for all the subtle hints it provides for some it also lacks clarity for others. Take the mission set up, in the menu, your missions are broken down by main mission and side missions, selecting which one you want to do will create a waypoint on the map with a handy tracker allocated to up on the D-Pad which provides a trail to point you in the right direction.
What the game doesn’t tell you is that many missions cannot be completed or progressed until you have completed a selection of other missions causing you to spend time getting to a location only to find the waypoint leads nowhere and the player left wondering if this is a glitch or by design. Speaking of glitches, The Ascent is not without its fair share, now at the time of writing a few improvements have been made but the game does still tend to crash on occasion or fail to load up the next phase of a mission after a cutscene. After witnessing a beautifully put together scene where some giant monstrosity of flesh and metal comes stomping into a room to tear you a new one, the gameplay returns only to provide an empty room, now we must reload the checkpoint and hope it works the next time.
Navigation is also a learning curve, though a map of the environment is on hand which highlights waypoints, loot chests and other points of interest, the waypoints are not always accurately aligned to the trail mechanic meaning if you rely solely on following the trail pressing UP provides, you might find yourself in completely the wrong location. Veles is a large complex, as such fast travel is a blessing, pressing Left on the D-Pad calls a taxi or you can make use of the monorail system, this again comes with a caveat, travel can only occur horizontally meaning if you want to travel to a higher or lower level of Veles you will need to make your way to an elevator complex so planning your routes will need to become a priority unless you want to spend many hours roaming the streets.
Even with these issues that do provide frustration, I still find myself coming back for more, Veles is an awesome gaming world that is riddled with Sci-Fi vibes and a cracking soundtrack. Though I play solo I am still having a great time after sinking numerous hours into The Ascent, maybe one day I will augment myself with some friends and delve into the multiplayer portion of the offering, but if you do want to play solo, know that you will still be getting a decent experience which is not always the case with modern games. Aside from the stunning visuals The Ascent really benefits from the horsepower under the Series X with swift loading times and responsive controls that when the game does want to work properly is an absolute treat. It’s just a shame that the modern curse of games being released in buggy conditions continues to rage on.
The Ascent is a great nod to Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk themes that makes up for its somewhat floppy story and characters with a great world to explore filled with badass combat. Whether playing alone or with friends, there is a great time to be had here if you have the patience to deal with some annoying game designs and bugs, both of which can hopefully be resolved with some patches. Though there is no excuse for games that come out in buggy states these days, I am not as annoyed with The Ascent as I got to access it through Game Pass, had I spent hard cash on it though, I might have felt overcharged based on its launch condition.
Format: PC, Xbox X|S
Genre: Action, Shooter, RPG
Developer: Neon Giant
Publisher: Curve Digital
Download link: Microsoft Store