The Ascent review – A breathtaking cyberpunk RPG bogged down by frustrating flaws

The Ascent reviewNeon Giant

Stunning twin-stick shooter action in a rich cyberpunk RPG may keep you and a few friends engaged with The Ascent, but a number of painful flaws hold the experience back from ever reaching its full potential.

For a first outing by a small dev team at Neon Giant, the technical achievement on display throughout The Ascent is nothing short of spectacular. Despite its cheaper price point, the top-down action game provides some of the best visuals today with a stable performance, no matter how chaotic a scene you may find yourself in.

It’s in the title’s twin-stick action gameplay where critical issues rise to the surface, however. From deep balancing oversights to frustrating bugs, The Ascent can often fluctuate from a thrilling joyride to a painful wreck.

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If you can look past its aggravations there’s a fun, if fairly forgettable, cyberpunk RPG ready for you and friends to unravel. Just don’t expect a flawless journey through the arcology.

The Ascent – Key Details

  • Price: $44.95 (AUD) | $29.99 (USD) | £24.99 (GBP)
  • Release date: June 29, 2021
  • Platforms: Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, & PC

The Ascent trailer

A true technical marvel

As you venture through The Ascent’s dystopian universe, it’s impossible not to be taken back by the consistent level of detail throughout. Every thriving social hub, all the grimey alleyways, and the many gang-controlled territories are realized with an extraordinary degree of polish. Whether it’s your first time trekking through some downtrodden slums or your tenth time visiting a crowded city center, it never gets old taking in the rich and varied environments. 

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Gorgeous lighting breathes life into every corner of these sprawling locales as the developers make full use of stunning ray-tracing effects. The cyberpunk aesthetic shines bright here: vibrant neon signs and immense digital billboards illuminate the brutalist architecture and keep you hooked through every twist and turn. As gameplay breaks through moments of peaceful exploration, this remarkable detail only ramps up.

At any given time you could find yourself in the center of a densely populated area before all hell breaks loose. In the blink of an eye, you’ll see hundreds of particle effects and animations come into play as NPCs scatter, enemies begin to unload, and chaos ensues.

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The Ascent gameplayNeon Giant
The amount happening on-screen at any given moment is always a sight to behold.

Every time an encounter kicks off in one of the game’s busier environments, it’s always an astonishing sight. Not purely due to the level of polish, either, but also due to how seamlessly it all functions.

Even in the most absurdly hectic moments, with countless foes attacking all at once, it never became overwhelming. Many similar titles can often suffer from such visual clutter as you lose your place in the world, or have difficulty tracking down targets. Fortunately, thanks to the aforementioned lighting, great camera placement throughout, and even some finer UI details, The Ascent never struggled in this regard.

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Not once throughout the experience did frame rate become an issue either, even on fairly dated PC hardware. Considering the sheer amount happening in every single frame during The Ascent, it’s a commendable accomplishment that its quality never became a hindrance.

Bang for your buck

While The Ascent may be a more affordable title, it certainly never feels like a cheap experience. Crammed full of meaningful content that takes around 20 hours to get through once the many side-missions are factored in, you rarely feel as though your time is being wasted.

The main storyline has you rising through the ranks in a world gone mad. A central mystery ties everything together as you engage with various factions to uncover the truth behind a greater threat. With well over a hundred lore tabs to sift through detailing different areas, characters, gangs, technology, and everything in between, there’s plenty to learn. If you’re just interested in beelining through the main narrative, however, it’s safe to say you’ll be lost rather quickly.

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The Ascent gameplayNeon Giant
If you want to get invested in the story, you’ll need to learn things quickly in The Ascent.

Right out of the gate The Ascent hits you with new terminology for every little thing.

From your place in the social hierarchy to various corporations and their goals, there’s lots of new language to wrap your head around. While this serves as neat worldbuilding, especially for those willing to dig through the dozens of intricate lore entries, the early hours can definitely be a little tough to digest.

In the moment-to-moment gameplay, you’ll find yourself dipping in and out of combat as you push through new regions to advance the story. As a top-down twin-stick shooter, The Ascent throws waves of randomly generated foes at you while mixing in a handful of curated encounters along the way.

It’s your goal to avoid incoming fire while dishing out damage by any means necessary. Through an assortment of weapons, tactical equipment, and unique power-ups, you’ll be mowing targets down with miniguns, throwing explosives, and dashing through crowds as a heart-pounding techno score makes it all the more exciting.

One of the unique ways The Ascent differs from similar twin-stick shooters is with its focus on elevation. The game offers a fluid cover system that allows you to duck behind terrain to avoid incoming damage. Not only that, but various enemies are also designed with height in mind.

You may only be able to damage smaller critters with a standard method of fire, but for drones circling overhead, you might need to focus your aim and shoot upwards instead. This can drastically change the pace of any encounter and provide a fresh approach from the usual destruction.

The Ascent gameplayNeon Giant
Elevation is everything in The Ascent.

After clearing a room full of enemies, you’ll see the floor scattered with health and ‘mana’ pickups, along with a wide range of new armor, weapons, and the like. As a loot-driven RPG, you’re always chasing that next item to push you over the line and give you an advantage in tense situations.

In this style of game, too many titles fall into the trap of constantly feeding you objectively superior gear as you progress. In The Ascent, while there are certain intervals that provide a significant bump, things aren’t always black and white.

Even if you’ve leveled up a few times and reached a new area, that doesn’t necessarily mean the loot you stumble upon will be better. Rather, new weapons, armor, and augments often provide you with options. Do you want the headpiece with low damage protection but a boost to accuracy? Or would you rather the headpiece with a massive armor boost but no other benefits? 

This encourages you to consistently alter your build and thus, your playstyle on the whole, rather than just mindlessly equipping the latest drop because all the stats were one or two points better than the previous set.

The Ascent gameplayNeon Giant
New loot gives you new options, rather than a mindless stat boost.

Although it’s a loot-driven RPG, there’s no real ‘endgame’ to speak of, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case. While you might not be grinding for hours on end after the credits roll, the content that is there feels substantive and well worth your time when all goes according to plan. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. While The Ascent can definitely shine, a good chunk of the experience can also be painfully frustrating.

Frustrating gameplay issues halt the fun

The Ascent can provide plenty of enjoyable moments through its stunning visuals and exciting gameplay, but it falls short of consistently meeting that mark and reaching its true potential due to a range of bugs and design flaws.

Take for example, the game’s open world. On one hand, being able to freely explore the huge map lends itself to some fun moments of discovery. On the other, it also punishes you for going down the wrong path, despite your limited knowledge.

Walking down a single street, you might start by encountering a group of thugs well beneath your current level. You can either one-hit all of them or choose to simply walk through, ignoring the gang entirely as they deal minimal damage.

Continuing down that same street, you may then bump into a larger crowd of foes 10+ levels ahead of you. Without explanation, without any real context, the game will drop different tiers of opposition seemingly at random around the map. There’s no noticeable level creep as you progress so that you know to gradually avoid certain high-level areas.

Making matters worse, you can’t even tell that you’re in trouble until it’s too late. Enemy levels only come into focus after you shoot at them, meaning you could start a gunfight against a max-level target without knowing, only to be eviscerated in a single shot.

The Ascent gameplayNeon Giant
The Ascent does a poor job of encounter balance throughout the full 20-hour experience.

On that note, leveling issues are prominent throughout the entire experience, not just open-world exploration. Rarely does The Ascent strike that perfect balance between ‘impossibly difficult’ and ‘laughably easy.’

Even when overleveled beyond the recommended point for certain main quests, the game tends to do its own thing and ignore the basic experience system. Some boss fights may be at your level and outrageously difficult, while other boss fights might be above your level yet prove to be a walk in the park. Oftentimes, it simply doesn’t make sense.

A number of particular fights, which we won’t spoil here, almost prevented a full run through the game due to this very issue. When targets are near-invincible bullet sponges and capable of wiping your squad in a few hits, any form of strategy goes out the window. It doesn’t matter what loot you may have or how advanced your armor is. These frustrations are only compounded when other factors are added to the mix.

Trying to play through the game solo means every single enemy is immediately aggroed to your character. This makes the more challenging fights even more excruciating. Certain targets also happen to glitch upon spawning in, causing them to enter an ‘invulnerable’ state and thus, preventing you from clearing the room and moving on.

That’s exactly what happened during the very last boss fight, as dozens of unhittable targets flooded the screen and forced a restart countless times. It took almost three hours of smashing heads into walls before a lucky run finally saw the boss encounter draw to a close.

The Ascent GameplayNeon Giant
Certain boss-fights were frustrating enough to tarnish much of the experience.

As an aside, while the game never had any true performance issues, the key fast travel system was completely broken on this version of the title. Upon using the feature, the game crashed without fail, every single time, forcing players to manually move around the map instead and therefore adding to the overall playtime.

Rating: 6/10

While The Ascent brings a beautiful cyberpunk world to life with astonishing detail, gameplay issues hold it back from being a thoroughly enjoyable adventure from start to finish.

It certainly has its high points and for an affordable co-op title, the good can outweigh the bad if you’ve got a group of friends along for the ride.

Ultimately, The Ascent has some true potential but never really reaches its pinnacle thanks to the deadweight of glaring gameplay issues, and a few fundamental flaws.