The Ascent review

By Luke Albigés,
The Ascent really puts the 'punk' in 'cyberpunk.' So strong is the non-conformity here that The Ascent doesn't care if its menu options just stop working, or if mission-critical items and objectives can't be interacted with. Enemy placement? The Ascent just does whatever it likes, cramming armies of adversaries into areas which were completely empty on your last visit or vice versa. Sometimes it just decides it has had enough and kicks you back to the Xbox dashboard, even fobbing you off with some excuse about needing to upgrade your graphics card (yes, on console). It doesn't mind that you see its awful texture and detail pop-in during the transit sequences designed to disguise pretty lengthy loading times. It could certainly stand to be a little less punk if it meant the game actually, y'know, let you play it properly without having to tiptoe around potentially game-breaking issues — as punk as it is, it's also really quite busted.

the ascent review

It's a bummer to have to start a review on a negative note, but The Ascent's issues proved just too numerous and serious to overlook. We encountered no fewer than four game-breaking bugs — most involving key story objectives or characters not functioning or spawning — on top of a list of less severe glitches and other issues, as well as several hard crashes. While some of these were quite amusing (one time, a boss decided not to spawn, but after getting myself killed to reset the checkpoint, it saw fit to spawn four of the boss at once, and I got unceremoniously destroyed), the majority of The Ascent's issues are just infuriating. My workaround for the major roadblocks was the same each time: exploit the game's awful co-op checkpointing to pick up an early story mission checkpoint from a second save file, then rush through the main missions again (and again...) with my massively OP character. You see, The Ascent only offers a single auto-save slot, and joining another player's co-op session overwrites your progress (everything bar your character and inventory, basically) with that of the host. You'll want to be wary of this if you plan on playing with others, as skipping any major story mission will lock you out of the related achievement until/unless you play through the campaign again.

It's a real shame The Ascent is so plagued with technical issues, because when it works, it's really enjoyable. It's a chaotic twin-stick shooter at its core, with light RPG elements and some decent character progression options to add more depth. There are no classes and only ranged weapons, so most of the build diversity comes from the augments you load up on, and how you invest Skill Points in key stats, which offer their own inherent benefits (improved crit rates, faster reloads, better agility, etc.) as well as powering up certain kinds of augs. There's a pretty broad selection of augs on offer as the game goes on, ranging from simple explosives to summoned drones, bots, and mechs, plus you can freely switch these out as you luck into new ones that better suit your build. Chances are at least one of these will want to be a healing option, since otherwise your only source of health regeneration is getting lucky with drops from enemies (hanging your survival hopes on RNG is never a good strategy) or hoping there's a vending machine nearby.

the ascent review

The Ascent is at its best when there's loads going on, which makes its seemingly random enemy density and placement an even more curious design choice. You can find yourself deep in enemy territory but without a single goon out to stand in your way, or on a run back to a tricky boss after a death only to be set upon by legions of enemies that rinse your health and resources before you even get another shot at the boss... it can be pretty frustrating. To exacerbate this, enemies have a chance to spawn as a Bounty — effectively a mini-boss with a price on their head — and having one (or more) of these turn up at an inopportune moment might as well be a random fail state in some encounters. Having these guys appear in place of boss support mobs or as part of one of the wave-based defence sequences (we saw both happen, multiple times) can be savage if you're even slightly underprepared, and failure there just feels like losing an attempt to bad luck. Random 'champion' enemies are a common sight in games like this, sure, but their implementation here just feels off.

Stranger still is that given the kind of game that The Ascent is, it doesn't even really benefit from enemy randomisation. It's necessary in games like Diablo and Torchlight — where variety is crucial as you're naturally going to be rinsing the same areas over and over again — but this is a much more linear, narrative-led affair and aside from a handful of zones, you probably won't visit most areas more than once or twice. There's not even any kind of endgame that would require having that kind of enemy variety, and in a game so wracked with other technical problems, casually strolling through a zone that was packed with foes last time you were there can't help but feel more like a bug than something that is happening by design. That's compounded by the fact that we even saw enemies failing to spawn as a bug a couple of times, once in one of those wave-based area control missions (where having no enemies spawn softlocked the game at that point) and once in an early story mission where only three of four required targets showed up, sending me back to co-op to pick up that early save again and start over. Again.

the ascent review

To pivot onto a positive, the world of The Ascent is truly quite remarkable, doubly so considering the game is the debut project from this 12-man team. The setting might be a little cyberpunk-by-numbers, with all the neon-soaked alleys, eastern influence, body modification, and impractical architecture you would expect, but Veles feels dense and alive like the future metropolis it's supposed to be. It helps that the residents extend beyond just humans, and there are some interesting alien races (and interplay between them) to elevate The Ascent beyond those typical cyberpunk tropes. The fixed isometric camera allows for so much to be crammed into pretty much every shot, and whether it's the packed and noisy commerce hubs on the lower levels of the Arcology or the urban sprawl rolling to the horizon as you look out from a vantage point in the more privileged districts higher in the complex, the view here is always impressive. Extremes of dark and light are used to fantastic effect artistically, and on the rare occasions when the camera does start to move, you always know it's setting up to frame some absolutely spectacular shot. The audio really helps with the world-building here as well, with dirty electronic beats matching the tone perfectly and constant noise from just everywhere selling this as a proper bustling futurescape.

Somewhat less convincing, though, is the utter lack of culpability for your actions in this world. You're supposed to be this absolute nobody — an endentured worker for a megacorporation, slumped against the bottom rung of the societal ladder — yet within moments, you've got your hands on military-grade weapons and can just start shooting up the neighbourhood with zero consequences. Weapons are auto-holstered in the key hub areas so it's not like you can just straight-up murder everyone in the Arcology. But when you can just stroll into a 'high security' spaceport and gun down literally everybody without anyone intervening (and, conversely, enemies can freely start bombarding you with missiles the second you set foot outside of town, leaving you to exact your own justice), the walls of this beautifully presented metropolis start to crumble. Literally the only deterrent is an occasional call from your handler politely asking you if you could maybe cool it with all the murder, which is nuts, but it's ultimately probably for the best that there's no stricter punishment for collateral damage. AI is... well, it's really bad, and civilians have all the self-preservation instincts of an omelette. They'll willingly run into streams of bullets or straight at the big scary guy wildly swinging his oversized hammer, so it's hard to feel bad when they inevitably explode into a cloud of body parts due to their own stupidity. This utter lawlessness is narratively hand-waved by the Ascent Group's closure leading to enforcement not getting paid, but you'd think somebody would have something to say about all the wanton slaughter and destruction of property, especially since Veles' various gangs are so eager to off you just for violating their personal space.

the ascent review

AI in general can actually be pretty sketchy. Enemies have a habit of just wandering away from long gunfights like MMO mobs that have been kited slightly too far from their spawns, or sometimes they'll just stand around doing nothing as you gun them down. They'll also happily mill about ineffectually in the open while you just safely pick them off from cover, usually leaving it until their dying moments to remember that flanking is a thing that exists. Video games could stand to learn a lot from how good GMs run combat in tabletop RPGs — after seeing nine of his mates turned to jam in a single shot each, would that tenth dude really still just rush in blindly with a stick, or would he try to surrender or simply get the hell out of there? Everyone in this world is apparently dumb, drunk, or both.

Then there's the co-op, which, aside from that aforementioned horrible save system, seems pretty fun. As we've said, chaotic encounters are some of The Ascent's best moments and where its solid combat mechanics shine, so having more crazy abilities popping off all over the place really doubles (well, up to quadruples) down on that. Still, the online mode is not exactly intuitive to set up and the offline mode seems to have a legitimately awful camera setup — it seems to want to focus between active players rather than on any one in particular, meaning that if you get separated, especially in larger moving fights, you can end up in situations where there are no players on the screen. Which is rubbish, obviously.

In terms of achievements, it's hard to say an awful lot about the list as a whole because we still don't have it yet at the time of writing. What I will say is that I popped what I'd expect to be the majority of the achievements — 35 or so, probably somewhere around 800G — just through regular play, although a few were quite situational so I imagine there'll be a few more like that I'll be missing when we pull the list in. I'm just hoping there isn't one for completing all side missions, as my completed save has one that is bugged out and unfinishable and I'd rather not have to play the full game again just to hope that works next time. We'll need to wait and see if there are any real stinkers in those last few achievements (zero civilian kills would be close to impossible, given how thick those guys are), but aside from interference from technical issues, I can see this being a relatively straightforward completion.

the ascent review


Summary

The Ascent is a beautiful and entertaining action-RPG when everything is working as intended, but those moments are sadly much rarer than they should be. We know the team already has several patches planned so hopefully, a lot of the issues we encountered will be ironed out by the time you dive into the game — I'll be keeping an eye on these updates and will look to update and/or modify this review should things be significantly improved, because I'd have liked to have scored The Ascent higher. Combat is frantic and fun, the world is amazing, and there are some really satisfying abilities to bust out against foes, but you need a hell of a lot of patience to put up with all the technical nonsense going on with the game in its current state.
6 / 10
The Ascent
Ethics
Luke spent around 20 hours blowing stuff up and devising creative workarounds to The Ascent's myriad technical issues. He unlocked about 35 achievements in the process, although the list was not available at the time of writing. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.