What is it? A cyberpunk action RPG with guns. Lots of guns.
Expect to pay $30/£25
Developer Neon Giant
Publisher Curve Digital
Reviewed on RTX 2080 Super, Intel i7-9700K, 16GB RAM
Along with thousands of other galactic migrants, your character in The Ascent pays a small fortune for a ticket to the planet Veles, looking for a better life. The moment you step off the ship, however, the price of the ticket becomes a debt so astronomical that you'll probably die before you can pay it off. Even so, the company that owns the massive city you now call home, the Ascent Group, wants its pound of flesh. You are now an indent—slang for an indentured labourer—working dirty, dangerous jobs to pay it off. So much for a better life. Those advertising blimps in Blade Runner were full of shit.
The Ascent's setting, a mix of neon-flecked '80s cyberpunk and grimy science fiction, is magnificent. The story takes place in an Arcology—a self-contained city squeezed into an immense skyscraper—and it's obscene with detail. Think Hong Kong's infamous Kowloon Walled City, crossed with Akira's Neo Tokyo, and populated by the scuzzy aliens from the Mos Eisley cantina. It's a dazzling urban crush of tight-knit markets, bustling plazas, cavernous concrete valleys buzzing with streams of flying cars, and colossal neon billboards casting coloured light over the cluttered, teeming streets.
But what really makes the setting special is how detailed it is on a micro level too. A location called Coder's Cove—a hacker hideout hidden in a flooded part of the city—is a perfect example of this, with its ramshackle stacks of computer monitors, tangled cables snaking across the floor, hackers tapping away at keyboards, graffiti-splattered walls, and beat-up leather couches. Every location you visit, from convenience stores, to casinos, to nightclubs, to gun shops, is crammed with this kind of intricate, painstaking detail.
It's a hell of a setting, and one of the most compelling cyberpunk worlds on PC. But what do you actually do in it? Well, The Ascent is an action RPG—with an emphasis on the action—that you can either play alone or with up to three friends in co-op. It's a gloriously chunky, brutal isometric shooter where you strafe and roll around that gorgeous city, blowing enemies away with shotguns, exploding them with grenades, or churning them into a fine bloody mist with rattly machine-guns. Occasionally, sparkling loot, money, and power-ups will sprinkle out of their jelly-limbed corpses, and scooping these up provides a constant stream of tiny, pleasing dopamine hits.
Loot comes in the form of weapons and various bits of cyberpunk-themed armour to play dress-up with, including glowing visors and mechanical limbs. You can create some pretty cool (and wild) looking characters, although overall there isn't as much loot variety as, say, Diablo. The Ascent has a lot in common with Blizzard's action RPG, specifically the crunchy feel of the combat, the way your character is constantly growing stronger, and the isometric camera. But it's much more authored. There are no random dungeons here: every inch of the Arcology, and everything you do there, is hand-crafted.
Playing with a mouse and keyboard, it's WASD to move, mouse to aim. With a gamepad, it's a twin-stick shooter. Both work well, but the extra precision of the mouse aiming just clinched it for me—especially late in the game when a comical number of enemies are thrown at you. You can also install augmentations, including a hydraulic arm that allows you to punch people so hard their body dissolves into a twinkling cloud of person-shaped dust. Another aug lets you mark certain enemies so that they explode when they die, basically letting you create fleshy explosive barrels on the fly.
Cover is a factor too. Crouch behind something and you can raise your gun with the left trigger or the right mouse button, shooting over the top of whichever chunk of ultra-detailed debris you happen to be squatting near. If you double tap the spacebar (or A button) you can evade enemies with a fast roll, which works on a cooldown timer. All these elements combine to create a really great-feeling shooter that involves more than just pointing and shooting. Enemies come thick and fast, and thinking about where you're moving in these dense, messy environments is as important as having a good aim.
Don't be fooled by the existence of a cover system: the relentless rhythm of The Ascent's combat forces you to be in near-constant motion. Gun-toting enemies are accompanied by large groups of melee grunts wielding katanas, pipes, knives, and other painful-looking weapons. They push forward aggressively, never giving you a chance to get settled or get too comfortable behind cover, which can be exhausting sometimes. I spent the majority of the game running backwards, kiting enemies. Later, a class of enemy shows up who can drop offensive gadgets including mortar launchers, complicating things further.
When you begin the game, your lowly indent—who you create yourself from a fairly limited selection of faces, haircuts, and tattoos—is working a job in the Deepstink, the lowest part of the city. This grim industrial abyss is dark, claustrophobic, and crawling with bitey creatures called Ferals. But as you make a name for yourself, working as a mercenary for an influential crime boss, you find yourself rising to the top—quite literally. The story takes you from the stinking depths of the Arcology to increasingly higher, more opulent levels, all of which have a very different aesthetic and vibe.
This is fundamentally a game about shooting lots of people dead, including gangsters, corporate soldiers, augmented aliens, and hulking mechs. But there are some quiet moments too. In crowded social hubs you can shop, talk to NPCs, and pick up sidequests without fear of being attacked. The combat is great, but exploring these areas, I wish The Ascent was more of an RPG. A setting this rich would be a perfect fit for a game in the style of classic Fallout, with deep quests and dialogue. But these safe zone visits, as evocative as they are, are ultimately just a brief pit stop before the action ramps up again.
I also had issues with sudden, sharp difficulty spikes, some of which forced me to break off from the story and grind sidequests to level up. I wouldn't mind this if the sidequests were consistently good, but I found them pretty hit and miss. Some, like the one involving a soft drinks company conducting sinister experiments on citizens addicted to their product, keep you hooked with a good story. But others feel a little like busywork, with a lot of walking long distances between districts to perform fairly mundane tasks. The ability to call a taxi or jump on the metro to move between different parts of the Arcology does take some of the sting out of this, but there's still a fair amount of backtracking—with respawning enemies—which can be quite gruelling.
But whenever The Ascent does something to disappoint me, the world always wins me back. From the lavish Golden Satori casino to the bleak, dilapidated Black Lake slums, this is a masterclass in creating a sense of place and establishing an atmosphere. Just be aware that, even though the screenshots might make it look like it's a CRPG similar to something like Shadowrun, it's a fast-paced, challenging, almost arcade-like shooter above all. A city this well-realised perhaps deserves more than that, and I'd love future games to expand on the role-playing aspect. But I can still enjoy The Ascent for what it is: a superb action RPG elevated by an exceptional setting.