Score Updated Post Launch: The Xbox and Windows Store versions are far behind and buggier than their Steam counterpart, thus I have lowered the score from 9.7 to 9.0
Welcome to The Ascent.
A hyper-detailed and isometric (mostly) action RPG, it marks the debut for Swedish developer Neon Giant, a small 12 man team made up from various industry veterans. Debuting in May of 2020 the title quickly grabbed people’s attention. I love games like Diablo and Path of Exile and taking that style and putting in a guns-first Cyberpunk-themed world had me very interested. I’m happy to say that not only has this lived up to every expectation I had set for it, but it has far exceeded them. Also, it is available at launch on Game Pass.
There’s no place as awful as home
Indents are the slave class that are forced to work as indentured servants of the various mega-corporations that run this universe. Your company, The Ascent Group, quickly collapses as its super-powered “AGI” artificial intelligence suddenly declares bankruptcy. Over the course of 15+ hours, you are tasked with stopping rival corps from destroying your home, keeping your home from destroying itself, and trying to figure out just what happened to The Ascent Group.
Up to four players can team up in cooperative play, and the setup for it is perfectly realized. Every item that drops goes in everyone’s inventory, whether it is money, guns, armor, or the other various pickups you’ll come across. Every part of this game feels well thought out. From the way dialogue interactions work in co-op, where whoever initiates it gets the main view and the others can see text floating above the NPC, to the simple to understand build system.
This is not a full-on looter as there is a limited number of items for each slot, though I found the variety to match perfectly with a title that wasn’t trying to be a “forever game” in the vein of Diablo or P.O.E. You will want to mainline the campaign to start though, as you need to get 4 or 5 hours in before you truly see the breadth of options that are in store for your character.
The game starts off with a fairly simplistic character creator. Things are kept to male or female with a small number of options for changing your overall look. Various new cosmetic items are unlocked through gameplay as random drops, and by the end, I had a decent amount of items to go through to change things up when I felt bored of my current cyberpunk aesthetic. Thankfully, this can be done for free at any time by visiting a Grafter in town.
Tools of Chaos
You have two main weapon slots, along with a tactical one that can range from various powerful grenades to stationary turrets and even calling in a Mech suit. Ammo is limited to how many rounds you have in each gun until you must reload. To be clear, there is no scrounging for ammo, as you have no default attack other than shooting.
No matter what weapon you have equipped, you have an unlimited supply of ammo, and the only real worry is how quickly each one can reload. The skill tree is rather basic and is broken down into four different groups, with two sub-categories in each. It’s an easy-to-understand system with numbers that never suffer from the wild inflation that you typically find in the genre. Each of these categories maxes out at rank 20, and there is no level cap, so you could theoretically max every stat to twenty.
Weapons work on a similar leveling-up system. You will find components of three rarities as in-game pickups which are used to level up your guns so that they can keep up with the larger health pools of high-level enemies. It can lead to new drops being unused until you get back to a weaponsmith to upgrade them at times, which can be a minor frustration.
The armor system is limited to three slots: Head, Upper Torso, and Lower Torso. Rounding things out are the Augmentations, which are the most interesting part of the combat for me. You have two active slots, with the first augmentation you unlock being a massive punch that obliterates enemies in a cloud of red dust and fiery bones. You’ll quickly have numerous abilities at your disposal and finding the right one for each situation feels fantastic.
An issue with the UI is how small the text is on occasion. Whenever you pick up an item there is the smallest area of the bottom left of the screen that states what you got. Items are only a name most of the time, so until you’re familiar with them you are forced to search around for what it is you just picked up. The map is great-looking and decently functional. There are multiple levels to the city and seeing exactly where your objective is can be a bit frustrating at times. Thankfully a quick press of Up on the d-pad and the game will show you exactly the direction you need to always head towards. Left on the d-pad brings up a taxi system that allows you to quick travel at a cost of 1000 in-game credits, or you can find the metro line which allows travel for free but is not as convenient.
The gunplay itself is a revelation for the genre. This is not solely an isometric game as the camera routinely changes position on the fly. It smoothly goes from a ¾ overhead position to behind the back or directly from the side. These shifts are used often, and it feels brilliant every time. This all works in service of a cover system that you will need to engage with when things start getting really crazy around you. A press of the B button has your character crouch, and you must use the Left Trigger to raise your gun up so that you can shoot over your surroundings. It feels awkward at first, but quickly it becomes second nature. This verticality comes into play with certain enemies that are either too short or floating too high for you to be able to hit them without adjusting your gun’s aim.
Armor is routinely hilarious looking, and at times I felt like I was someone straight out of the old arcade classic Smash TV. There is no transmog system like in Diablo, but you can change up your colors whenever you like in town. This does affect the circle under your character though, and the darker ones tend to be quite hard to see on the mini-map in the top-right corner of the screen.
Twelve people made something this gorgeous?
Playing on both PC and Series X for this review after 30 hours of playtime I still cannot get over just how stunning everything here is. Running on Unreal Engine 4 at 4k resolution and 60 frames per second on the Series X and 1440p resolution/60fps on Series S this looks and feels like a proper new generation title. The use of color, perspective, and a commitment to their art direction has given us one of the better-looking video games of all time. The fact that this has come from a development team of just twelve people is absolutely mind-boggling. The performance solo was near flawless, but I did run into what seemed to be sync-related hiccups while playing co-op. Multiple patches were deployed on both PC and console during the review period, and what had been a very rough start on PC was massively improved as my time went on. I have a modest laptop that was averaging roughly 45 fps at medium settings to start, after a few patches I was able to hit 100fps at High settings. Enabling DLSS let me run full ray-tracing at medium settings and a locked 60fps at 1080p.
The soundtrack is both exactly what you’d expect from something Cyberpunk and utterly fantastic. It knows when to go heavy during the action and when to hold off and play things more subtly. Voice acting varies between ok and excellent, with the alien NogHead being a particular highlight for me. Not only is the character believably voiced, but he’s given genuinely funny and interesting lines. This is a tale of capitalism run amok, deceit, and the lowest class doing everything it can to try and survive. Main storylines and side missions alike are well crafted, and though many of them end up being “go here and kill them” or “go here and get this for me” in nature, the fact that they’re so well made keeps things from ever getting to feel like a drag.
Cooperative play, bugs, and a lack of accessibility features
The Ascent offers up both couch co-op and online play. Unfortunately, you are not able to do both at once. It’s either couch co-op OR online, and the two cannot mix. The Ascent has full crossplay and cross-progression between the Xbox consoles and Windows 10 store. It is however its own secluded island on Steam, as it cannot interact at all with anyone that isn’t on that one platform. When you can play together though things generally worked well, with few disconnects or crashes on the whole. I also ran into a lot of bugs.
One major one was a complete progression blocker for my co-op character if I pulled him into a single-player game. The missions simply don’t exist in my mission log to advance the story. Along with this have been smaller issues, such as audio of a gun shooting repeating until either I or my co-op partner shot again. Another issue that cropped up for an hour or so and then fixed itself was my weapon UI disappearing, and all sound effects not working. The day one patch helped quite a bit but still a few major issues persisted. Once this game is patched up and relatively bug free, honestly it’s a 10 out of 10. At launch though, there are just too many of these issues to ignore.
On the accessibility front things are limited. There are three modes to assist with color blindness, sliders for various audio levels, and options for changing how the in-game subtitles appear. That is it though, no controller remapping or difficulty modes exist. On the difficulty front though the game does seem to take into account when you’re struggling with a section and give you a bit of an easier time. That is a bit anecdtoal, but there were multiple boss fights that became easier as I died over and over again. There were a few occasions where higher-level enemies were in the way when heading to a mission. One time I had a mission that showed level 16 but level 22 enemies were between me and getting to the starting point. I was able to make it past them, but it felt like an oversight on the devs part there.
In the first three days of getting the review code I put nearly 30 hours into The Ascent. Not because I had to, in fact, I had nearly a week before launch. I simply couldn’t stop playing because it was so ridiculously fun. Even now with the full release here all I want to do is play through it again and again. At $30 US it is a steal, but it’s also available day one on Game Pass. Stunning graphics, excellent music, innovative gameplay, and so many other factors come together to not only make one of the best releases of the year but one of my favorite games of all time.
*The game was reviewed on an Xbox Series X and Windows 10
*A review code was provided for us ahead of release by the publisher.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X & Windows PC|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 4|5, Windows PC|
|Release Date||July 29th, 2021|