I have to be honest, when I first saw The Ascent, back in 2020 when it was first revealed, I didn’t think much of it. Visually, it looked stunning, but the gameplay didn’t exactly grab my attention. However, now that I’ve finally had the chance of playing it after all this time, all I can say is that I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong back then.
The Ascent describes itself as an “action-shooter RPG”, but I’d argue that designation doesn’t do it justice. If I had to describe it to someone, I’d say that it’s what you get when you combine the gameplay of an isometric shooter with the progression mechanics and the worldbuilding of an RPG. I guess I could also say that The Ascent is unlike anything else I’ve ever played before in this genre, at least in terms of scope.
It’s worth noting that the game supports online co-op and shared split-screen with up to 4 players, but you can also play the entire game by yourself, which is what I did. I never felt like I was missing out on anything by playing solo, and the game remained decently challenging throughout my entire playthrough. With that said, I’m actually not sure how the game scales as more players jump into a session.
I know that a lot of people quickly get sick of seeing the same theme across various games, but this was never an issue for me. Over the last couple of years, cyberpunk has been making a resurgence, and I’m glad that all the cyberpunk games coming out don’t restrict themselves to a specific genre. In the case of The Ascent, its world is absolutely breathtaking.
I completely adore the way that cyberpunk is displayed here. There’s a huge variety of sceneries, ranging from tight hallways filled with massive pipes and cables that power the vast industries of the arcology, to more open areas where people tend to mingle. The game takes place across multiple layers of the Ascent Group’s arcology, with each of them being divided into multiple districts that, ultimately, make up for a series of interconnected areas.
The world isn’t just populated by enemies, but also by its inhabitants. Most often than not, you’ll see plenty of people running away when shots start flying, and this adds a lot to the game in terms of making it a believable and breathing world. It’s a world of constant skirmishes, not only between major gangs, but also between massive corporations that fight over the dominance of extremely rare AIs and assets.
Obviously, the game’s atmosphere wouldn’t be possible without the game’s graphical fidelity. Whether it’s the massive neon signs that populate the forest of towering habitation modules, or the amazing vistas from above the clouds where the rich spend their entire lifetimes, The Ascent looks absolutely stunning. The game goes far and beyond to make its world feel real. There’s trash literally everywhere across the streets, there are people pondering their miserable lives at every corner, and it all just culminates in an extremely engrossing experience.
Furthermore, thanks to how the game looks, most weapons feel pretty impactful. From bullet trails flying across the screen, to enemies exploding into bits due to the sheer power of your weapons, combat looks absolutely great. Meanwhile, in terms of sound, the game also does a pretty good job. From the punchy sound of each gunshot, to the background noise of the city, everything contributes to the game as a whole. The soundtrack, in particular, is spot on and I found it to always set the perfect mood in the right moment. It’s composed by Pawel Blaszczak, which also worked on the music for Dying Light, the Dead Island games and also the Call of Juarez series, so you might have heard his work before.
Although I could probably spend hours talking about the world of The Ascent, I have to admit that the game’s story didn’t grab me as much, at least not initially. It’s fine for the most part, but I thought that the later missions definitely do a better job in keeping you engaged. Personally, I prefered wandering around the streets of arcology, listening to random street conversations. Nonetheless, the game features a pretty interesting set of characters, each with their personal agendas. The game also has a codex full of lore entries that allow you to learn a ton more about the world. Overall, although I certainly wouldn’t commend the game for its quest design and narrative, I would most definitely praise it for its stellar worldbuilding.
Now, in spite of all that, combat is what constitutes the core experience of The Ascent. In general, it’s pretty intuitive and easy to get into the groove. It’s your typical isometric shooter with numerous abilities, weapons, armour pieces, and upgrades, but it still has a rather distinct flair. I think the most peculiar thing about it is the fact that you can lift your weapon when shooting. This not only allows you to fire accurately from behind cover, but it also allows you to hit larger enemies that tower over their smaller allies. It might sound obvious and simple, but the cover system actually plays a huge role during the vast majority of the game.
Unlike most games where enemies will always be right in front of you, ready to engage, The Ascent makes an effort to create more dynamic encounters. Usually, when you start engaging a group of enemies, you’ll see a bunch of new enemies appear out of nowhere, like coming out from nearby buildings or jumping from flying cars. The thing is, they tend to appear from behind you, so you always have to keep the pressure on the enemy and kill them as fast as possible. It creates this rather forceful game of constantly jumping from cover to cover or circling around a single piece of cover. It forces you to always have something between you and your enemy, so that you can lift your weapon and shoot over it. At least, that’s what happens until you become tanky enough that most enemies can’t even scratch you.
Having said that, the enemy AI is somewhat of a mixed bag. During combat, they behave quite well, constantly looking for cover and trying to flank you while some enemies provide cover fire, but they aren’t the brightest outside of combat. There have been times where I’ve been able to slowly take down enemies one by one by just sitting at the edge of the screen. Despite getting shot, they wouldn’t react in any way, simply because I was too far away and they couldn’t aggro. Likewise, if you attract an enemy’s attention and you just run the opposite way, they’d eventually stop chasing you, even if you still keep shooting them. It’s quite disappointing.
However, what certainly didn’t disappoint was the number of weapons, and types, that you can get your hands on. There are pistols, SMGs, shotguns, rifles, hand cannons, miniguns, rocket launchers, energy weapons, weapons with homing shots, amongst other more exotic weapons. There’s surely something for everybody. Each weapon is also more effective against specific enemy types. For example, energy weapons are better for dealing with synthetic enemies, while ballistic weapons fare much better against humanoids.
Just like with weapons, there are also various armour types with different stat bonuses that allow you to come up with distinct builds. Furthermore, tactical gear like stun grenades and combat robots, as well as active abilities in the form of augmentations, also deepen the game’s customization even further.
Unfortunately, the AI isn’t the only downside of The Ascent. Another complaint that I have is that sometimes the camera angle isn’t the best. There’s no way for you to adjust the camera in any way, so it can happen that you find yourself behind an object on the screen and so you can’t properly see what’s going on. It’s also not uncommon to get shot from outside your field of view. There are also a few sections where the game switches to a side-scrolling perspective, and it’s particularly difficult to aim properly here, but thankfully these are extremely rare.
As far as bugs go, I experienced two, but unfortunately, one of them was quite annoying. When selling duplicate items at one of the various shops, I just wouldn’t receive any money for them. I would have to sell everything one by one. Besides that, the skins that you pick up as random drops from enemies also either disappear when you restart the game, or they just never show up as if you actually picked them up.
Additionally, there are other things that do detract from the overall experience, which hopefully can be addressed in future updates. For instance, there’s no way to filter items by weapon type, damage type or anything like that. Because of that, eventually, inventory management can become a chore. Lastly, although I do love to explore the city and take in the surroundings, I have to admit that, a lot of times, there’s just way too much walking around. There’s a fast travel system in the form of a train system, and there are also paid taxis, but they only take to specific spots, you can’t choose the exact destination. This means that even if you take one of these means of transportation, you’ll still have a bit of walking to do. I personally didn’t mind it too much, but I definitely see how it can bother some people.
The problems that I’ve mentioned aren’t actually game-breaking, they’re just pretty annoying in a worst-case scenario. Now, having said that, the biggest issue that I have with the game is how it handles the waypoint system for quests, and just how the map looks as a whole. The map makes it pretty hard to figure out if something, like a shop vendor or a collectable, is a level above or beneath you. The map screen could definitely use some work, but I guess that it could also be solved by allowing players to place their own waypoint and have the game lead them to it.
On the other hand, one thing that does need to be addressed is the fact that the game’s waypoint system can point you to awkward spots because you haven’t unlocked the areas where the currently selected quest actually takes place. As far as I can tell, this can only happen if you start playing the side-content instead of going for the main quests first. Therefore, it can be avoided, but if you’re like me and like exploring, you might run into quite a few dead ends.
All in all, despite its issues, there’s no denying that the core gameplay of The Ascent is fun and that the game’s world has been masterfully crafted. I went into it expecting just a generic shooter experience, but the game surprised me in terms of the dynamics that each combat encounter can bring to the table. One moment you fire the first shot, ready to deal with all enemies on the screen, but, next thing you know, a group of enemies has just exited a building and is ready to join the fight. This constant back and forth makes you adapt and always be on the lookout for the best spot to hide behind cover. Therefore, the game becomes much more than just run and gun.
Nevertheless, the final boss fight was a disappointment, especially when you consider all the different enemies that you face throughout the game. As far as the ending itself, it felt like it came out of nowhere, it was unexpected, and it left a lot of things hanging. With that being said, I guess that this leaves room for a potential sequel or to expand on the content of the base game.
It took me roughly 22 hours to reach the end of the game, and I completed every side-quest that I found. Therefore, if you just go for the main quest, you can probably finish it in much less time. Still, I think that a lot of the side quests are worthwhile, as they give you more insights into the world of The Ascent and its people. Despite all its issues, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game and I highly recommend it if you’re into shooters or just into cyberpunk as a whole.