It’s Staggering How Good The Ascent Is

It’s Staggering How Good The Ascent Is
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Every now and again, a game comes along that simply blows you away.

That’s what it’s been like playing The Ascent, the debut title from the 12-person studio Neon Giant. Let me be clear: it’s far from perfect. The build I played on PC suffered a ton of micro-stuttering, particularly when bodies or barrels would explode.

I ran into a surprising amount of quest-breaking bugs, ranging from major bosses refusing to spawn, doors not opening or not being hackable despite quest markers demanding I run through them, and AI enemies freezing in place after a cutscene.

The map is frustratingly unhelpful. The game’s variety of loot is nothing spectacular, and you’ll frequently find yourself reselling duplicate bits of armour, weapons and augments — but the excess credits generated can’t really be put towards anything meaningful because of how The Ascent‘s items work.

Perhaps the most egregious flaw lies in The Ascent‘s inventory menus, which obfuscates useful information so frequently that it almost feels deliberate. And while The Ascent is a honest-to-God cyberpunk game, and players will inevitably draw some comparisons with Cyberpunk 2077, I’m not sure Neon Giant needed to borrow some of Cyberpunk 2077‘s fonts.

Those looking for something new in the cyberpunk genre might be disappointed, too. Neon Giant doesn’t lean into ’80s cyberpunk, the way CD Projekt Red did, but the setting never really ventures beyond the corporatocracy aesthetic.

Plus, this is a twin-stick shooter with a lot of cinematic views — so naturally, you’re going to run into moments of frustration with the camera. And most concerning of all: we have no idea how the game runs on any Xbox console, as only PC codes were provided by the game’s publisher prior to release (and Microsoft, despite the exclusivity, didn’t offer any codes of their own).

So now that I’ve got all of that out of the way, let me tell you why The Ascent is hands down one of the best things I’ve played in years.

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There’s no shortage of incredible views, and it’s largely thanks to the excellent lighting and sheer density of NPCs, objects and buildings. Image: Kotaku Australia

Let’s get the basics out of the way. You’re an indent — short for indentured labourer — who acts as a low-end gun for hire. The citizens of Veles are all basically slaves, having travelled to the planet by taking out contracts with various corporations. These contracts typically last for life, since most people are so deeply in debt — and in need of the various augmentations and access corporations provide.

Having fulfilled one of these shit-eating contracts — quite literally in the sewage system — you emerge to the lower levels only to discover that the biggest corporation of all has completely collapsed. And in the Veles’ largely lawless world, especially amongst the poorer classes, that creates a massive economic and power void. Your stackboss — a mob boss crossed with a council manager — sends you out to quickly get the necessary supplies and firepower needed for the lower level city to survive, and thus your journey in The Ascent begins.

The lawlessness of The Ascent means most people want to shoot you. You can be walking through a fairly ordinary city street and you’ll be instantly faced with an ambush. It doesn’t matter that regular civilians are just walking on by: you’ll see flying cars swoop past, mobsters dropping out right nearby. It’s on, and if an innocent bystander gets literally blown to bits … that’s life in The Ascent.

Aiming is done with a small reticule that follows your cursor — or right stick for controller users. You can equip two weapons at any given time, two augmentations and one tactical grenade. Ammo isn’t a consideration for any of these: you will have to reload your gun in The Ascent, although you’ll never actually run out of ammo. Your abilities are all tied to cooldowns that regenerate based on how much damage you do, although that can also be boosted by dumping points into one of the game’s 8 core stats.

There’s three item slots to play with: head gear, upper body and your lower body. It’s pretty thin in the way of customisation, although the character creator gives you a little more flexibility. In a nice touch, you can completely change your biology and appearance at any time in the game through one of the robotic vendors. (They’ll reset your skills too, for a hefty fee.)

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It’d be a mistake to think of The Ascent as Cyberpunk Diablo. While there’s obviously loot, Neon Giant’s adventure is more of a tactical twin-stick shooter. The general idea is to roll, dodge and crouch behind various bits of cover, picking off enemies in the open to thin numbers out.

Your character, however, won’t automatically attach to cover like, say, Gears of War. You’re expected to run up to objects more organically, crouching behind and then holding the aim button to fire over the top. It’s natural and fluid. You never end up fighting the environment mid-battle because the game automatically decided you wanted to be behind a corner. Instead, you’re able to roll in, roll out at complete will, having to focus only on your crosshair, the next enemy and a potential escape path if things get dicey.

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The raised right arm on my character — holding the gun one handed — shows that I’m safely in cover. It’s a great little touch, not only letting me take on enemies well beyond my level, but it’s also one of The Ascent’s many excellent animation touches. Image: Kotaku Australia

Weapons are broken into four damage types, and there’s a full array of shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, revolver-class pistols and rocket launchers to play with. The weapon type is generally more important than the actual weapon itself, though. The humans of the first few hours get instantly minced by the HCF Heat’s fire damage, while it’s mandatory to equip at least one, if not two, energy weapons to deal with robotic enemies later on.

Upgrades are handled through components, which you pick up through missions and regular travel. There’s three classes of components, and you can’t break higher value tier 2 components down to upgrade a pistol that needs level 1 components.

Limiting things to components seems a touch arbitrary; The Ascent‘s world runs entirely on money, and you’re never short of a buck with how many fights you’ll run into. Still, doing things this way means weapon upgrades are permanent — even if you sell the gun later on, the next version you pick up or buy will always be the most upgraded model.

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You can play The Ascent solo or in co-op, and you can have separate characters across each playthrough or have the same character for both. For testing, Neon Giant supplied me with a second code and I flipped between both modes. Your story progression doesn’t carry through from solo to co-op or vice versa, although your character’s items and stats do.

The co-op was pretty efficient, although I found the stuttering issues were more frequent when playing in co-op, possibly due to the increased number of enemies. But joining and starting games was relatively efficient, although I wasn’t able to test the game with 3 or 4 player co-op lobbies with the amount of codes we had. (We’ll see how that all scales out later this week; The Ascent supports cross-play, and with it launching day one on Steam and Xbox Game Pass, getting extra players shouldn’t be an issue.)

It does mean, however, you can have a blast of an experience by spending some time in co-op and then going back to singleplayer. It’s effectively the only way to over-level your character. It’s totally unnecessary, but also, the experience of walking into a group of enemies and one-shotting them at will is endlessly entertaining. That’s especially true once you start to unlock more powerful augments, particularly the one that causes enemies to do AOE damage upon death, triggering a glorious on-screen effect.

But for all the performance issues and my earlier gripes, it’s hard to fault how hard The Ascent nails the vibe. I’ve already mentioned the game’s impressive density, but the lighting, constant effects and slick animations are a delight. It’s not hard to see how Neon Giant got a grant from Epic. If you wanted to advertise the potential of a video game engine, this is exactly the game you’d pick.

Sometimes it’s the small animations, like the way a body explodes into several pieces when set alight, or the cascading electrical effect as your energy cannon brings another robot to the floor. But what’s most impressive is when the game slows down, either adjusting the camera slightly for one of its cinematic views or panning ever so slowly to highlight the structures in the background.

It makes for the kind of backdrops that Cyberpunk 2077 would be proud of, so much so that I’ve been itching for the review embargo to drop all week just so I could show you these GIFs and screenshots. (Note: all of this was captured at 4K using DLSS, sometimes on Performance mode and sometimes on Quality mode.)

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Even just going to a ledge and standing there is pleasing. Watch how — realising my character isn’t moving — the game’s camera smartly shifts outwards, giving me a full view of the pharmaceutical megacorporation in the background.

Even a simple elevator transition like this becomes a sight to behold when you have art directors and designers that are really thinking about the player, what their eyes will be drawn to, and what the most important element in any given scene is.

Even a fairly mundane, simple firefight like this one is a pleasure to watch because the small things are done so goddamn well. Watch how the first body recoils against the railing — note that none of the other bodies react to the environment this way throughout the clip.

Then watch the enemy climb up from underneath. Watch the items from the second enemy once they fall. Watch how the blue civilian’s body – the only one not affected by the burn — ragdoll slightly as my character runs into them. Watch the civilian fall to their knees, then get up and turn as I snipe off the last henchman. And, amidst all of that, have a look in the foreground at just how detailed the graffiti mural is; the amount of detail in the signage and buildings underneath all of this; the drones flying past at the very start of the clip; the smoothness of the swing from the enemy melee attacker; and at about 8 seconds in, the soft light of the flying car deep in the far right, through the fog and behind the neon electric blue sign. (I’d recommend slowing the playback speed below so you can spot all of this out.)

I wrote earlier this week how much detail there was in The Ascentand that much was evident just from one deep-dive video. But it’s instantly apparent the second you leave the sewers. It’s not just the amount of NPCs hanging around the cityscape, their frequency of conversations or what seems like some exceedingly clever procedural generation that’s populated all of this. It’s all of it in the same scene, and outside of the fights when the stuttering issues aren’t a factor, it’s astonishingly impressive. And while it’s hard to pick out in the GIFs above, the soundtrack is incredibly fitting, with strong Ghost in the Shell vibes as you wander through the city.

And even accounting for the reality of game development — Neon Giant might only have 12 people, but the credits list several VFX, sound design, motion capture and outsourcing studios that bring the true headcount much closer to 100 — it’s hard not to be impressed by the production levels.

It makes you wonder how, or why, Sony or Microsoft isn’t publishing this directly. You can see why Microsoft at least went all-in on the exclusivity deal: as far as Game Pass games go, The Ascent is easily one of the best things Xbox owners will get this year.

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The twin-stick shooter controls don’t change when the game switches to this type of cinematic view — and because enemies don’t run in single file, it actually becomes annoyingly tricky to aim properly when this happens. But hey, what a view. Image: Kotaku Australia

The surprises don’t stop there, either. I wouldn’t ordinarily expect much in the way of writing or voice-acting from The Ascent, largely because it’s a smaller production that has very specific ideas about what it wants to achieve.

And while most of the characters and writing is fine, I’d be deeply upset if the team that brought Poone didn’t get some kind of industry recognition. Poone’s your stackboss, who marshals you and the other mercenaries to guarantee some measure of security for the lower levels after the initial corporate collapse. You’d expect a character like this to be crass; you’d expect a character who looks like Poone to have a gravelly, almost raspy voice, with little patience for anything in life.

Poone delivers all of that, but the delivery and script is good enough that I wanted to spend more time with Poone. He’s the kind of slightly shitty but loveable character you expect from a cyberpunk game: someone managing more plates they can handle, doing underhanded deals where necessary, but with enough of loyalty to their community — or at least their power base.

It’s one part of many, many small pieces that bring Veles to life, much the way the best parts of Night City brought Cyberpunk 2077 to life. The fact that all of this was accomplished in three years is even more staggering.

All of this doesn’t paper over some of the game’s bigger design issues, particularly around the attributes system. It’s not immediately clear why I would want 900 percent weapon reduction spread over, say, 800 percent, or what investing another 10 points into that stat could possibly bring. Buffing my evasion cooldown speed doesn’t appear to actually buff how fast I can roll, so what exactly is it buffing? It also seems staggering that investing the maximum amount of points into your critical damage nets an absurdly low 20 percent chance to crit. And your character’s cyberdeck seems like a woeful afterthought for most of the game, especially since your weaponry will often handle turrets much faster than your cyberdeck ever could.

But I’m obviously nitpicking here out of professional courtesy. If I wanted to draw more criticisms, I’d also note that the game’s not especially long, capping out at about 18 to 20 hours if you want to complete everything. (The game would be even shorter if the map, or the supplied waypoint marker, was a little more helpful.)

And even that’s not really a criticism: it’s more a note out of sadness that there isn’t more content. Because for all the flaws, the regular stutters, quirks with the UI, the bug in co-op where you can’t mute your microphone and occasional restarts to get a quest door to open, The Ascent is astonishingly good fun. I’d be stunned if it didn’t end up on many game of the year lists; I’m absolutely certain it’ll be on mine.


The Ascent is out from July 30 Australian time for PC (through Steam), Xbox One, Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X. It’s also coming to Xbox Game Pass from July 30.

Comments

  • Alex can you stop putting new game pass games on my radar please, my backlog is bad enough as it is!!!

  • Been waiting for this and only played a couple of hours on Series X, but it has run beautifully well for me so far. Graphics are incredibly detailed and it is a blast to play. It almost feels like something Housemarque might’ve made if they kept on with the games they were making.

    I would say it is more like Dead Nation crossed with Diablo. The controls almost mimicking an FPS (left trigger to aim high, and reload/crouch buttons similar to standard fps layout) I thought would put me off, but if anything it makes it super simple to pick up.

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