In The Ascent, you enter the world of Veles and soon realise that you are nothing more than a stain on this planet’s surface, made to work to the bone for little reward or even recognition. This is not some cyberpunk fantasy tale of starting at the bottom then quickly becoming the leader of the free world. You’re a pawn, and that’s all you’ll ever be.
The Ascent is a game that gives you glimpses of power, makes you feel invincible, then brings you crashing straight back down to earth with either a difficulty spike or another character barking commands at you.
Abandon All Hope
You are a worker, hired by the Ascent Group to carry out their bidding, which mostly consists of crappy maintenance jobs that no one else would do. The work is hard, the hours are long, and the pay, well... the less said about that the better.
Neon Giant has created an incredible world in Veles, which doesn’t sell itself as some neon futuristic wonderland like many other cyberpunk-themed games. This world is dark, oppressive and will destroy you the second you turn your back on it.
During my first few hours with the game, I found myself asking if things would lighten up. Would the world get ‘prettier’, am I just stuck in the prologue before I become the ass-kicking hero of the story? The truth is, that never happens.
You spend the entire game as someone else’s lapdog, taking commands and obeying the leaders. Once it struck me how my role in this game is set out, I fell in love with the uniqueness of it all.
It would have been easier to make my character this invincible augmented beast who goes from the minnows to calling the shots, but that’s not the world that Neon Giant has created with The Ascent.
For a brief overview of the story, the corporation you work for, The Ascent Group, all of a sudden cease operations and leave the planet’s major players to fight among themselves for supremacy and survival.
You’re caught up in this fight and become a frontline soldier overnight while everyone fights to save or enslave the district. You just want answers about what happened to The Ascent.
The characters you’ll encounter on this journey are utterly brilliant. Each and every character that The Ascent shines a light on is memorable for their own unique reasons. Maybe they’re hilariously passive-aggressive with a hint of pessimism like Poon, or a straight-up no thrills hard-ass like Kira.
Either way, every character is brilliantly voiced, modelled, and placed in The Ascent's story.
Brutality Is The New Norm
When you wrap your head around the world you’re inhabiting, the gameplay all starts to click. The Ascent throws some brutal difficulty curves at you from time to time and in truth, sometimes they’re a little too much but it all makes sense in the context of the game. The controls are perfect for the game’s style. It’s an ARPG with a fixed dynamic camera.
The Ascent controls like a twin-stick shooter and it’s hard to imagine it working any other way. The best feature of the control scheme is the height adjustment for shooting.
The right trigger fires the weapon, but the left trigger raises the weapon. This is useful when firing from behind cover, or when you want to fire over a short enemy towards a taller one. The way this mechanic is used in-game takes some getting used to but soon becomes second nature.
Combat is both the high and low point of the game, though. For an indie title that isn’t trying to compete with the length of massive, 100-hour open-world adventures, it feels like certain sections have been artificially padded out with combat sections to slow you down.
The aforementioned difficulty curves also come into play here. On multiple occasions, what felt like a harmless section of the game suddenly turned into me vs 20+ enemies at once and you can be overwhelmed really quickly.
Character progression is key, too. As you level up, you can spend skill points across a set of attributes that improve your health, aim, energy and much more.
Spending these points wisely is important, of course, but it feels a little too much like you have to spread your skill points to succeed and that there are no sacrifices you can make to overload a certain aspect of your character’s attributes.
You’ll also need to keep your eye on gear. Whether it’s the weapons you’re using or armour you’re wearing, ensuring you have the best equipment on is key to survival.
Finally, you also have augmentations which are like special abilities that can turn the tide of battle in a pinch. I won’t go into too much detail but the spider bot augments saved my ass more times than I can count.
Learn To Love The Pain
Neon Giant have also crafted a pretty brilliant tutorial level that you can play before the true story kicks off and it’s one that, should you ignore or skip, will see you miss vital teachings that make Veles much easier to traverse early on.
It’s easy to ignore the fact that you can crouch and use cover, but later in the game, this becomes essential to survival and is pointed out during the tutorial.
The Ascent doesn’t and shouldn’t apologise for its oppressive tones and difficulty spikes. As much as certain sections and bosses had me tearing my beard out, they felt right, however, not everyone will feel this way and it could be perceived negatively overall. The Ascent would not have been nearly as enjoyable or memorable an experience if it was a walk in the park to play but there is a line it crosses sometimes that's hard to ignore.
My only concern is when I started to feel that the difficulty may have been a result of the game being designed more for a co-op experience. Unfortunately, I was unable to test out the co-op features so cannot confirm if the game is much easier when playing with multiple players.
The Ascent takes its genre and theme, reads the rulebook on both, then politely shreds them and does what the hell it wants. While I understand the difficulty spikes in the context of the game, such a drastic switch in gameplay could turn a lot of people away from playing The Ascent so I ultimately see this as an issue. Everything else, the visuals, sound, story, gameplay loop, characters and world, is glorious.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so numb when playing a game, yet had so much fun at the same time.
RealSport Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)
For transparency, we had our review code for The Ascent provided by Neon Giant and played on PC via Steam, using an Xbox controller.