(THE ASCENT is out today on PC and Xbox, including the Xbox Game Pass)
Set in a bleak dystopian future where mankind has colonized the universe and begun to fester, THE ASCENT ranks as one of the best games of the year. Rising from the midst of a sprawling megalopolis that stretches from the depths of the planet to the toxic clouds above, it’s a wildly inventive mix of sci-fi influences that left me breathless.
You begin as a lowly indent – an indentured servant for the planet-running corporations – working somewhere in the bowels of a decrepit megacity. Between the hissing pipes, grinding gears, and endless misery, a sudden outbreak of Corpo-warfare breaks the daily hustle. Play your cards right and a future of freedom awaits. Play them wrong, well, there are countless other workers to take your place.
From there, THE ASCENT opens into a semi-open world action RPG in the vein of DIABLO. Split between a sprawling network of pathways, tunnels, and decrepit sectors, THE ASCENT only stops for breathers in interconnecting hubs. These serve as a base camp of sorts, providing upgrades, stores, and new missions. While the structure is very DIABLO-esque, closed-off sections and upgradeable hacking skills bring to mind METROID as well. Happily, THE ASCENT doesn’t restrict wading into these areas at any point. You’re likely to be annihilated in an instant by the hard-hitting thugs, but it’s not a given.
Superbly paced, the story expands between both larger story missions as well as smaller side-quests, each written to perfection. There’s the occasional hokey moment and clunky piece of dialog, but overall it features better writing than most AAA titles out there.
The main campaign will keep you invested for a good twenty hours playing solo if you plan on doing everything. Ignoring sidequests can net you a healthy ten-hour speed through. I didn’t get a chance to try out the co-op options, which allow up to four players to get in on the fun, but I’ll update the review when I do.
Played alone, THE ASCENT feels like a classic ARPG in the best sense. I never felt lost, bored, or like this journey was a grind. The combat, a mix between twin-stick arcade-shooting and cover-based tactics, is hectic and, simply put, brilliant. Initially, enemies topple fairly easily, but as the game progresses, the waves grow larger and deadlier. Mixing up tactical skills and grenades will give you breathing room, while sometimes running is still the best option.
Admittedly, sometimes the AI isn’t up to the task. I sometimes found enemies running against walls or in circles, entirely unaware that anything was wrong. There isn’t a huge variety in enemy numbers, either, but it’s ultimately a tiny quibble.
Between combat, there are light roleplaying elements (think DARK SOULS), allowing as much expansion of the lore as you want. Datapads, NPC dialog, and newscasts all help flesh out the intricate world.
The atmosphere of THE ASCENT owes itself to many sources, most notably to the darkly humorous satire of JUDGE DREDD and the neon hellscapes of BLADE RUNNER. The city around you is a living, breathing entity, always bustling and loud. It’s a vivid and intense vision of life in a world that keep expanding, even as everything around it is already devoured. During my playthrough, I found myself staring into the steel and glass expanse more than once, marveling at the subtle worldbuilding in the background.
Every inch of Veles is crafted with care and dedication. From flying cars and drones to the New York-styled subway system, it all feels tangible and lived in. Lighting effects differentiate the sectors from one another, and the illusion is pristine. I can’t help but marvel at the level of sophistication on display, and can’t wait to see what developer Neon Giant does with a bigger budget.
But most of all, THE ASCENT is impressive for how fun it is to play. If you really were to nitpick, you can see where the corners are cut. Weapons aren’t the most impressive, and repetition sets in quickly. Your skill tree doesn’t change the gameplay loop in the slightest. And having aliens speak in gobbledygook gets old really quick.
But these are gripes you have to purposefully search for. While playing, all of that goes out the window. Because when it comes down to it, THE ASCENT is the definitive take on cyberpunk that CYBERPUNK 2077 should have been. It’s an inventive, dazzling vision of the future that combines classic styles and tropes into a staggering revelation.
It’s one of the best games of the year, and certainly one of the most impressive debuts from a new developer in years.