Review: The Ascent

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Review copy provided by developer

Do you remember the first time you watched Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell and beheld those towering, cyberpunk metropolises? Sure, they’d be absolute dystopian hellholes to live in, but surely those smoking, neon vistas set your imagination ablaze with thoughts of the adventures and intrigue you would find in every squalid, seedy corner. More than a few games have sought to evoke those dismal future environs, but I’m not sure any game has done it as viscerally as The Ascent. It’s a fittingly brutal and, at times, confusing adventure, set in an unmatched cyberpunk wonderland.

Humanity has spread to the stars, only to find that aliens do soulless corporate drudgery better than we do. The galaxy is ruled by megacorps like the Ascent Group, which has founded the impossibly huge arcology that you reside in. As an indentured contractor or “indent”, you find yourself performing menial tasks in the stinking underbelly of the megalopolis when disaster strikes. The Ascent Group has defaulted, the arcology has no official leadership, and the other megacorps will be showing up at any moment to pillage the place. You just so happen to be in the right place at the right time to make a difference in all of this, and perhaps uncover what terrible (if not deserved) fate befell the executive board and the corporation that owns you.

It’s the stuff of dystopian nightmares, and the tone of the game maintains these grim excesses in every part of the design. Anything sewer-ish threatens to be a cliché, but starting your adventure off in the cramped, stinking bowels of the arcology really sells your status and the state of society. It also makes the first vista of the thronging city that much more breathtaking, and from there your journey takes you to ever more cluttered and glitzy regions, surrounded by dizzying twists of conduits and buildings. Without question, one of The Ascent’s greatest strengths is in the visuals that assault your eyes no matter where you are. Hordes of people, piles of refuse, impossible tangles of pipes and wires, and so much more fill every single screen of the game. The attention to detail is frankly incredible, and has such a powerful effect on immersion despite the arcadey action the rest of the experience is built around.

I was a little unclear on what kind of game The Ascent was at first, honestly. Billing itself as an “Action-shooter RPG”, I assumed it was some sort of cyberpunk Diablo. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I thought that because it is very much a top-down shooter with light RPG elements. The gear you find, including guns, pants, track suits, and hilariously stupid VR headsets, are not randomized but they do drop randomly, meaning sometimes you’ll find a vicious shotgun in an early area, while other times you might score a buzzy SMG or a workhorse of a rocket launcher. You can equip a rechargeable tactical grenade with all kinds of entertaining effects, as well as both passive and active cybernetic skills capable of punch a foe’s skeleton entirely out of their skin. Leveling your character comes mostly from quests and side quests, and gets you skill points that really just improve your attributes in areas like weapon reload and dodge frequency.

Leveling and growing stronger is particularly important here, because of of the open and often confusing nature of the world. The arcology is broken into several levels, with huge interconnected districts on each, and right from the start you are free to wander far and wide in search of quests, treasures, and upgrades. If you do that, however, you are almost sure to die to enemies far beyond your capabilities. My one big problem with The Ascent is that the levels of enemies in areas make absolutely no sense, with level 20 murder machines literally down the stairs from level 4 starter foes. It’s particularly brutal if you’re the kind of person who likes to do side quests the moment you get them, because most will happily send you into hopeless meat grinders long before you’re ready for them. If I have one piece of advice for anyone starting out in this game, it’s to stick to main quests almost exclusively until you really have a feel for what the game expects.

It’s totally worth sticking with, too, because the brutal combat and cyberpunk trappings make this a very special thrill ride. The story is solid, told through clever dialogues and voiced by hilarious characters. Guns feel meaty and impactful, battles can rage across neighborhoods with explosions and blood everywhere, and the pumping soundtrack never lets you forget about the action. And in between visceral shootouts, you’re wandering around one of the most well-realized sci-fi dystopias in gaming. I really can’t stress enough how amazing it feels to just wander the arcology, taking in all the loving craftsmanship of the world as you uncover secrets and challenges in every corner. Cyberpunk hellholes rarely look and feel this good, and if you’re the type who’s always wanted to visit, this is your chance.

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