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Usually, it is very easy to put a particular game in a box and label it as a game that appeals to a certain type of player. Whether that be a gamer who loves a particular genre, a particular theme, or a particular approach to gameplay. However, there are some games that are packaged as something but offer a completely different experience than what one might be expecting when they boot the game up. We assume that when players picked up Death Stranding, for example, a lot of players were expecting a more high octane experience rather than the postal delivery service gameplay they got. Or when players picked up Cyberpunk 2077, I can only assume that players expected a game that didn’t crash every ten minutes, but alas, that is what a lot of players got. Well, not long after Cyberpunk 2077 came another Cyberpunk-themed title. A game that for all the world looked like another isometric RPG, but in truth, it’s something different entirely.
The Ascent is a cyberpunk, dystopian adventure where the player is cast in the shoes of an Indent, a slave working for a corporation on the game’s planet setting. However, when the corporation overseeing the operation goes ghost, it offers the player a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rise from the ashes, fight for freedom and become a household name known across the galaxy. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I was aware of this game’s PC reception going in, and I know that this game had huge amounts of praise and huge amounts of ney-sayers. In short, it was a very Marmite-style game, you love it, or you hate it. However, with an open mind, I have taken this game for what it is rather than what it might have been, and, to be frank, it’s a very polished and enjoyable experience.
Now, enough vague rambling. Let’s get into the action and break down what works and what flatters to deceive in this title. Without further delay, here is our The Ascent review on PS5.
The Elephant in the Room
Okay, so let’s address the elephant in the room, so to speak, the trick that this game plays on the player right from the offset. When I sat down to play this game, I was convinced that this title was going to be a game much like Wasteland, Pillars of Eternity, and Disco Elysium, offering a rich RPG world where choices matter and dialogue is king. However, that couldn’t be further from the case. The game looks and feels like one of these top-down isometric games in a lot of respects, but when you get into the action, you begin to realize that talk is cheap and bullets are the best way to communicate within the world of The Ascent. The game plays like games like Diablo and Borderlands in a lot of respects, where the player will constantly be fighting waves of enemies, be collecting loot every ten seconds or so, giving us little bumps of serotonin as we go, and thanks to a pretty accessible and simple upgrade system where you can improve and source new weapons and armor pretty regularly, the player always feels like they have something to do.
Then to continue this comparison thread, the game also plays like top-down bullet hell style games at times, too, like Dead Nation, Alienation, Resogun, and Nex Machina. However, without the level of refinement needed to be a truly flowing, liquid experience, but more in that in a second. I want to commend the game for this approach, as it is something different within the space that has a little something for everyone. Modern FPS fans will appreciate aspects of this game, RPG fans will enjoy some parts of this adventure, looter-shooter fans will adore this game, and bullet-hell junkies will get a kick out of this too. For a gaming connoisseur that loves a bit of everything, this is super. However, for all the purists out there that love one genre and want an experience that leans in heavily toward one area, this might not be for you.
Shooty, Boom Boom
Now that we have addressed that, it’s time to look at the gameplay, and as we mentioned, bullets are best in this high-octane action title. The player will work through a series of missions and side missions that see you explore a sprawling open world, and as you do that, you will fight against cyber-freaks, gangsters, aliens, and all sorts of nasty foes who would love nothing more than to take you out. In theory, this sounds great, and if the game had superfluid gunplay, the format would work a treat. However, in practice, the combat that the game relies so heavily on is rather flawed. The gunplay is a typical twin-stick shooter, again, like Dead Nation, if you are familiar. You have the ability to dodge, to take cover, and then you have an ultimate move that can deal big damage and help with crowd control. When this system works, it really does feel fun, but often the player will feel like they are fighting a battle that is stacked in the enemy’s favor and through no fault of their own.
The player begins with weak stats, meaning that the gun can misfire, and the player’s aim is poor to begin with. This is something that was often seen in isometric RPGs like the original Fallout, for example. However, in a game that relies on players being reactive and proficient with a gun to survive, this leads to frustrating battles where RNG dictates success. Then you have instances where enemies will duck behind cover and stay there until the end of time, meaning that you will need to step out of cover and rush them to get a shot off, which usually means taking damage just to end a fight. The ultimate move can be a great help, but due to the low charge rate and the poor UI showcasing when it is available again, it isn’t as effective as it could be in the early stages. Then to top it all off, the game does a really bad job at communicating key aspects of the combat system, like enemy weaknesses or that there could be better weapons for a certain situation. I honestly was using the starting pistol for so long in this game, all because the game never made it clear that I should constantly be upgrading.
The saving grace of the combat is when the player has to take on a boss. The combat is largely repetitive throughout, but when you are paired up against a juggernaut of an enemy, you actually need to think about tactics and strategy. We admit you won’t have to make the deepest of tactical considerations to succeed, but it’s a step up from the near mindlessness of standard combat. However, even with this area which deserves praise, we encountered some bugs that respawned bosses, locking players into an area where they couldn’t progress and couldn’t die, meaning you would need to quit manually and start again, usually from an unfavorable checkpoint.
Overall, the gameplay was fine, and these problems all ceased to be an issue as the game progressed, but you can see why there would be a huge drop-off from players right at the beginning of the game. However, to give credit where it is due, when you use explosive barrels to wipe out enemy waves or use your ultimate to thin out the crowd, it does feel really satisfying, and while some might not appreciate the tough nature of this game, I for one liked to difficult nature of the combat. It’s a game where you have to take the good with the bad in that respect.
A Neon Utopia
While I had a lot of hang-ups and gripes with the combat and gameplay within this game, I couldn’t find a bad thing to say about the presentation here. The game is a neon utopia that offers a rich world to explore, and while every sector of the map does have that distinctly neon-heavy, futuristic glow. It has to be said that every new area feels distinctly different from the next. New areas are presented through slick cut scenes, there are lots of discernable landmarks and locations that really tie areas together artistically, and each area has its own culture and backstory. Some areas feel very corporate and high-end, whereas other areas feel very dingy and rundown. In a game such as this, it can be very easy to create a world that recycles assets and almost offers a procedurally generated style setting. The Ascent sidesteps that potential pitfall and delivers a world that is rich in character, feels very much alive, and makes the player feel like they are genuinely exploring a world hand-built for them.
It has to be said as well that the cutscenes that break up the play, offering high definition renderings of the enemies, settings, core characters, and more, are seriously well done. The animations are superb, the textures, lighting, and overall design are out of this world, and when you take into account that only twelve people created this game, you begin to appreciate the incredible scale and world-building that has taken place here. The game has no right to look this good or offer a world quite as deep and vibrant as this, but against the odds, The Ascent does this with aplomb.
Then lastly, with regards to presentation, The Ascent on PS5 does some very cool stuff with the Dualsense controller, offering haptic feedback that brings the player closer to the action. The best example of this is the auditory cues that players receive when the weapon is running out of bullets, as bullets are infinite in this title so long as you reload. The gun will let out a little beep, and this is a great indicator to players that they need to find cover and reload. It’s small details like this that help this game feel like a much more refined experience on a console.
Immersive but Flawed UI
While the UI for this game isn’t perfect, the game does work very hard to keep the HUD to a minimum, which allows this game to feel immersive and suck players into the meticulously designed and well-presented world of The Ascent. The player will essentially play on a screen free of HUD unless they are firing a gun, in which case they will see their bullet count and their Ultimate recharge. If the player wants to see their current goal or the waypoint to their next mission, they will need to press a command to trigger this. It’s something that we have seen before in games like Dead Space, for example, where a lot of the HUD was contextually aligned with Issac Clarke’s Mechsuit. This works excellently within this game and allows players to either rely on this feature or make their own way through the city, committing each of its nooks and crannies to memory.
However, the UI has some major issues. We mentioned the small and incomprehensible ultimate gauge on the screen, which makes relying on this mechanic a bit of a gamble. However, the most irritating and best example of the wonky UI is the menuing when shopping or changing load-outs, for example. The game has multiple layers of menus within these screens, so players will need to use triggers to change between larger segments, interact with smaller sections to get into the respective areas, exit out of them to return to the larger selection, and then enter into another, exit again and so on. Then as you do this, I guarantee you, you will inadvertently hit a trigger or use a directional command, swapping the menu altogether, and have to start from scratch. Basically, my question here is, why not have one page that allows you to deal with everything. Streamline the process; it’s 2022; there are so many examples of good UI that could have been mirrored here.
Gatekeeping Stops Exploration
Now, let’s talk about the progression in this game and the exploration. As with any open-world game, RPG, Action Shooter, or whatever open-ended game you happen to be playing, exploration and player freedom and discovery are paramount to the success of the game. Well, in The Ascent, this game encourages exploration as the player can find components for upgrades and new areas with weapons and other great loot. However, while some areas allow for this and award exploration, others bombard the player with super-strong enemies and gatekeep areas and content. Now, this is not a case that I was not skilled enough to beat the enemies and see these areas. The game isn’t Dark Souls; it doesn’t allow you to succeed if you are good enough. It essentially uses this as a barrier to entry, effectively saying you aren’t good enough, come back later, and I really resent that approach. Your ability to proceed and access these difficult areas early should be dictated by your skill, and sadly this game isn’t set up to allow for this. Only your ability to grind and follow the story path will serve you here.
Then on a lesser note, the game makes this process of exploring and interfacing with the world a very tedious experience in the initial stages of the game. Fast travel in this game is super important and helps the game curb the repetitiveness of the early gameplay and combat. However, in my opinion, it is offered to the player far too late, by which point I can only assume that a lot of players will have lost their heads and stopped playing. Again, another problem that means early game drop-off.
Then to top it all off, the checkpoints in this game are super punishing, and health within this game can be quite hard to come by in certain situations. This then means that if you go off the beaten track and try to explore, you will often lose a lot of progress without any idea what you could have done differently. So you are almost urged to stick to the story path and funneled through the game. Overall, the player isn’t rewarded well enough for trying to explore, they are often punished if they do, and the process is very repetitive and grind-heavy if they do, adding more busywork to their already overflowing schedule. So, in short, the game misses the boat here.
A Rich World of Horrible People
Then lastly, we need to take a look at the narrative journey that players will go on throughout The Ascent. From the offset, you can immediately see that the game presents an interesting concept. The world-building here is phenomenal; the fine details, the rich lore, and the intricate linking between the different entities, races, and cultures are all clear to see. Then when the player gets plopped into the action, this concept almost immediately loses its appeal, as the game’s format does not lend itself to storytelling. The missions that are presented to the player often have no real stakes or depth other than you have to go there to collect something, or you have to visit this area to take care of a wave of enemies or a boss. Ultimately, this all feels like busywork. Imagine all of the quests that Preston Garvey gave you in Fallout 4, but that is the central plot. The player does have the option to carry on an optional dialogue with quest givers to gain more intel and understand the motives behind each quest, but it all feels a little bit hollow, like an afterthought.
This would all be forgivable if the characters that you interacted with were at all interesting or charismatic, serving as a vehicle to drive the story forward. However, almost every character within the game is one-note, and it’s the same note across the board. Each character is a hardened, gruff, foul-mouthed taskmaster. Every character is vulgar for the sake of it, and as someone that can tolerate some dark, vulgar humor and content, this was a bit offputting even for me. It was like a middle school student was asked to write the dialogue in a space-age mercenary movie. It’s a missed opportunity by this title, and this approach puts a dampener on the overall world and lore, which, again, is stellar.
Overall, it’s very hard to call this game a masterpiece, which is something that I have personally seen this game referred to. The problem with this game is that it is very unfocused. It wants to be a bullet hell game, an RPG, and an action looter-shooter; however, because of these mixed ideas, the game becomes a mixed bag filled with peaks and valleys. If The Ascent had picked a lane and stuck to it, then maybe it would have been more of a holistically successful and cohesive experience, but in the end, the experience serves to alienate more than satisfy. The combat and gameplay feel labored, like busywork, the narrative feels hollow despite the excellent world that it takes place in, the progression and open-world format is a front as the game doesn’t truly reward exploration and emergent gameplay, the game is buggy in places, the characters are annoyingly vulgar, every aspect of this game feels like a grind, and yet, I have a real soft spot for this game.
The game is a beautifully presented one, both artistically and in terms of world-building. The adaptions to include the Dualsense controller are great, the blend of different gaming genres will suit some players down to the ground, the UI for navigation is fantastic, and if you like games like Diablo, where grinding is part and parcel of playing, this will really appeal to you. This game is a brilliant achievement by a small studio with only twelve developers, and that deserves a lot of praise. However, if I was to sum this whole experience up in one quick statement, I would say that this game flatters to deceive. We hope that this review gives you all the insight that you were looking for, and if you do hop into The Ascent, we hope you have as many fun moments as bullets you fire. Thank you for reading RPG Informer!
Pros and cons
- Outstanding visuals and world-building. The game looks the part and the lore of this cyberpunk world is rich and meticulously crafted
- The UI, while imperfect has a great navigation feature
- Great Dualsense functionality
- Boss battles showcase the best the combat system has to offer
- The story missions feel like busywork and the side missions become redundant towards the end of the game
- The characters are uninteresting and one-note throughout
- Combat is repetitive, has some balance issues, and isn’t as fluid as we would like
- The game gatekeeps content, doesn’t reward exploration, feels linear at times, and is full of strange difficulty spikes
Question: Is The Ascent Co-op?
Answer: Yes, The Ascent allows players to play in co-op mode and enjoy the story together. The co-op is drop-in/drop-out and allows players to hop into the action whenever they like. So if you are playing solo and a boss battle is proving a little troublesome, then an extra gun could be your ticket to success. You can play in couch-co-op, or you can go online and search for players to join the fight with. No matter what game mode you select, you will be able to play with up to four players. So for bullet mayhem, assemble a squad of indents and have at it.
Question: Was The Ascent An Xbox Exclusive?
Answer: Yes, The Ascent was a timed Xbox exclusive, meaning that players on Playstation have had to wait until very recently to play this one on PS4 and PS5. However, this game was also released last year on PC, so players who had a Playstation but dabbled in PC gaming would have been able to play The Ascent this way. The game had a nine-month exclusivity window with Xbox, and this game was available on Xbox Game Pass on launch.
Question: Who Made The Ascent?
Answer: The Ascent was made by Neon Giant, a small indie studio with just twelve staff. This showcases just how much of a triumph that The Ascent is when you take this into account. Neon Giant are yet to release or announce any other projects, as The Ascent was their debut project, but considering the quality of their first outing, we will certainly be keeping them on our radar.