A Second Take on The Ascent

The Ascent, a cyberpunk-styled twin stick shooter with a humorously sardonic story and fairly detailed RPG mechanics. This game released by Neon Giant on the 29th of July for PC and Xbox is a game that jumps out to me as a game I am going to love, and yet, I don’t. I want to, I really do, I am so ready to have my gamer thirst quenched by a big old gulp of Ascent Juice, but it’s just not as crisp and satisfying as the amazing packaging led me to believe. My fellow colleague, Ryan, scored the game a 6 out of 10, so let’s see if I agree with him or not.

So, why isn’t it completely capturing me? I think the central theme of why this game isn’t compelling me like it should is the fact that the game has a bunch of great ideas, which when you list them off individually, sound awesome. On paper it’s a collection of really cool things to include in a game, but when these ingredients get thrown together, they don’t make delicious dish or complement each other. They do the opposite, they cannabalise each other, work against themselves and worsen the actual playing experience.  

Before diving into what holds the game back from being excellent, let’s talk about what makes the game good, because despite having a few structural issues, I still think this is a good game. It has a notably excellent art style that arguably creates the best cyberpunk atmosphere of any game ever. Its shooting and combat mechanics are simple yet fulfilling and fun, and overall, it has a lot of strong design choices that make the game more expansive and fleshed out.

 

Pro – An Excellent Art Style and Narrative

This game does a lot more than just looks pretty, it does what all good art design should do. It actively sets the tone of the world, it reinforces the energy and ethos of the game and provides narrative details through visuals rather than exposition.

The general plot of the game is ‘The Ascent Group’, an overbearing and generically evil corporation, has collapsed and set the world into turmoil; a world that is naturally cruel and brutal and filled with violence. This has let us, a  previous enslaved worker, gain freedom and autonomy.

This plot is moderately engaging, but the world design is so full and complex that the effect on the narrative is very much seen constantly. It really does feel like a world that is struggling under the thumb of a villainous corporation. You can see people eating at alien-styled food vendors, you can see the various stores and vending machines that freely dispense weapons, health and cybernetic upgrades, and you can see people walking around living their lives.

It’s a massive world with many somewhat unique districts, all with their own hub areas with individually designed sections. All of this does what so many games attempt to do, where they want you to feel like the world is real, feel like you are a part of something bigger, and the design sets this up…to a degree as this is where the central problem I outlined earlier kicks in. 

 

Con – The Secret Issue with an Amazing World and Story

The game requires the player to be captured by the world and the story to care about the game. What I mean is that the game has this world and some low-level plot, so it feels like it justifies itself being this big because it thinks you’re going to be engaged, but the problem is, all odds, you won’t be.

Let’s break down an example. I want to do a simple side quest. I look on the map and I slowly roll my way over to a side quest-giver and give them a causal, “Hey, hey, what’s up? I’m here to make bread, and I do that by killing motherf@&kers, you got something for me?”. This person, enticed by my natural charm and can-do attitude, hooks me up with that exact opportunity.

But get a load of this sick beat. These side quests aren’t generic, they aren’t some sad old radiant quests that purely exist to give players direction on where to go. No, these are extra special design quests, each side quest has its own fun backstory. There are named characters at play that have their own motives, desires and lives.

And you may be thinking, this sounds so good. This game is so detailed and so beautifully constructed that even the side quests have multi-faceted lore. And this would be amazing if I cared, but I don’t.

Having side quests have eight lines of moderately interesting backstory attached that is portrayed to me through text accompanied with a cool alien language sound bite played over the top isn’t going to really get me invested.

It’s like the game thinks I’m going to be so blown away by the narrative. Wait, what? You’re just a random street food vendor, but your meat supplier, Flavvus, is doing you dirty by giving you terrible meat. Oh no. He is located in the basement of Meat Face in Corpzone. Rest not, weary headed nameless NPC, I’m here to rectify the malpractice of this food supplier. Good thing I know all this because it makes the combat experience that extra bit richer. Except no.

These names don’t really mean anything to me, these places don’t really matter to me, the outcome of this is inconsequential, so all I really care about is “where do I need to go and what do I need to do”, which is usually go to a place and kill the right people, and that part is fun and enjoyable, so obviously that’s all I care about. So, the vast majority of the time, I just skip through all the exposition of the quest and move on.

This may not seem like an issue because if you don’t care, you can just skip it, but the game puts each quest-giver in vastly different areas, often quite far from where the actual quest is, doing so under the pretense that you’ll care about the story and that you like the world, so the many, many minutes you’ll spend rolling to get to the quests will be endearing, but it’s not at all, it’s tedious, boring and ultimately lessens the impact of all combat encounters.

Seems like it wouldn’t be true, but it is, because you’ll be doing so much backtracking and going through the same encounters over and over just to get to the actual quest encounter, so when you do the correct combat for the quest, its effect has been so diluted by the three to five meaningless ones you did just to get to an encounter that will feel exactly the same.

So, what we are left with is a game that is pretending to be an RPG and thinks it deserves to be one but doesn’t. In my opinion, if The Ascent had the same upgrade system with a smaller hub, even presenting us the same story, with each quest being given to us before we enter the in-game justified portal to the level, that’d probably be more enjoyable for most people as it would streamline the quest to the combat part of the game. As it doesn’t, it means that this on paper great world and interesting story are actually a huge drawback, and that’s unfortunate.

 

Pro – Satisfying and Fun Twin-Stick Combat

So, let’s sidestep into talking about combat because, as I’ve referenced earlier, most people are only really going to care about combat. The good news is that combat is good, it is genuinely fun to roll into the hordes of enemies, plow them down with your gun, then roll onto the next. It’s fun and satisfying, but this isn’t really something to be heralded as games should, at a minimum, have their main mechanic be fun. Hot take, I know.

So, how does combat work? Well, it’s pretty simple. You can have two guns equipped that go blam blam and do most of the damage. You also have augmentations, which are more or less special abilities, and these let you unleash a wide array of extra fun and damaging power moves. Sometimes it’s a big punch, sometimes it’s a swarm of small spider drones. There are quite a few, and they’re creative and unique. 

On top of this, you have a grenade, which is a grenade, you throw it, and it goes boom. You can switch these around and get some that focus on damage, some that do knockback, some that stun, etc. Lastly, you have a roll, which helps you dodge and is something you will constantly be doing to move faster during your long walks from place to place.

These things together are fairly simple, but as a group they allow for a lot of different ways to improve your character and many of the augmentations are fun to use. This means that for most players of the game, they’ll have a good time blasting away different gangs of enemies in a medium variety of well designed areas. So, if you think you can look past the tedious walking and are just keen for a game that has some fun combat, then The Ascent is an okay choice, but honestly, there are so many games that do this better.

 

Pro – Totally Standard and Adequately Executed RPG Mechanics

In combination with the combat, the game has RPG elements. Some I mentioned as far as the choice you have with special moves, a.k.a., augmentations, but the game also has eight skills, a weapon upgrade system, a litany of clothing options that provide armour protection and skill upgrades, along with a second augmentation type that provides passive upgrades.

Let’s start with skills. These eight skills are pretty standard and nothing that reinvent the wheel, things like higher crit. chance and more health. While simple, it is nice to get to choose where you develop your character, but the increases aren’t so significant that you don’t feel overly different after investing skills, and they mainly affect pretty basic elements, so they don’t provide the opportunity to really differentiate yourself from other characters. 

They do have one interesting symbiosis, which is that each skill falls into one of four categories, and each augmentation is improved by your level total for one of these skill categories, which is a nice touch.

Clothes also help you upgrade your stats, which also let you customise your character a little. They also provide protection to one of four weapon damage types: physical, energy, digital and heat. Most of the clothes aren’t that cool, and the game definitely could have done a much better job with the outfit design.

If none of these mechanics are really getting you hyped, then that makes sense, they’re all perfectly fine and nice enough, but they certainly lack creativity, and it feels like the game is being way too timid here.

 

Con – A Negative Feedback Loop Weapon Upgrade System

Now that we’ve noted that combat is super swell, let’s focus on a major choice the game makes to try to make the combat rock and roll but inadvertently makes it less fun and less varied: the ability to upgrade individual weapons. 

This is a choice that seems like a straight homerun. More ways to improve my character? F@&k yeah, put me in coach, I’m ready to go! But hold up, shortstop, because its inclusion in the game has such massive unintended drawbacks attached that they lightly neuter the entire combat system.

The Ascent basically has two separate systems for doing more bullet damage. The first is your absolute stock standard giving the player better weapons. There are weapon categories, side arms, machine guns, shotguns, etc., and within these they have different guns. You start with guns that are alright, and as you progress, you find better guns. Overall, in the game there’s a respectable total of twenty-nine weapons. So far, this is 100% standard and inoffensive.

The second system is the ability to upgrade individual weapons, which is done by investing basic, advanced and superior components. These components are found naturally throughout the world by looting or doing bounties (kill a specific person quests). Each weapon has ten levels, with all weapons having the same component requirements to upgrade. Once again, totally fine and normal, in fact, many games have both of these in some form and have made it work.

And yet, The Ascent’s version of this drops the ball big time. Instead of these systems working together in some sort of beautiful weapon improvement symphony that leads to powerful mega weapons, they subtly undercut each other, stealing self-actualisation away from the other, and the villain of the piece is undoubtedly the individual weapon upgrade.

The issue here is that the upgrade system limits your desire to actually change which weapons you use. And instead of fostering experimentation or promoting weapon choice diversity and playstyle variance, it creates a system where using one weapon or maybe a few weapons for the entire game is not just encouraged but is optimal. The most powerful way to play is just put all your upgrades into one gun, make a soul bond with it and promise it’ll you’ll never leave it for another gun, it’s your forever in this life and the next.

Which I think leads the game to stagnating and feeling stale because it’s not just actively encouraging the player to play the same way the entire game, it punishes players who want to try new things. And if you decide to push through and change up your loadout, it’s hard to shake the feeling that your character isn’t as good as they could be, which is just a dampener and makes you feel less excited about playing.

 

Conclusion – A Totally Fine Gaming Experience

What all of this means to me is that this is a game that is good and quite easy to like, but it’s hard to really get invested, and its fundamental issues will make it very hard for any player to commit too many hours into or really love it.

If you are keen to play a fun(-ish) cyberpunk-styled RGP, then go crazy. This is a good game. However, if you just want to play a fun twin-stick shooter, I would suggest looking for a different option. Or be aware that you are going to have to overcome some really unnecessary drudgery just to be able to play the fun part of this game.

Developer: Neon Giant

Publisher: Curve Digital

Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC

Release Date: 29th July 2021

 

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