The Ascent Review: Cyberpunk Fantasies Held Back by Frustrations

The Ascent's got plenty of exciting building blocks propping up its foundation. It's a twin-stick shooter set in a sprawling cyberpunk landscape with promises of hordes of loot for players to acquire from chests, missions, and the remains of their inventories. Too often, however, the game's more frustrating moments get in the way of the possibilities to the point that it's difficult to enjoy what The Ascent excels at.

Set within a multi-tiered arcology, grime and low-ranking indentured servants fill the bottom levels of The Ascent while pristine settings and clouded skies wait at the top. The game features a by-the-books cyberpunk setup where you start out as one of those menial "indents" as they're called in The Ascent before you see your glimmer of hope: A way to ascend the ranks of the arcology's hierarchy. It's more of a situation where you're taking care of yourself as opposed to being focused on rising above others, though that part's open to interpretation depending on how into roleplaying you are.

The setting itself is one of The Ascent's greatest strengths even if it sometimes seems too big for its own good. Streams of NPCs flowing in and out of populated areas, different species effortlessly mixed into everyone's daily lives, and vibrant, distracting signs and backgrounds truly make the world feel alive while making you really feel like a cog in the machine as the narrative suggests.

It does take forever to get from Point A to Point B though. You unlock fast-travel mechanics relatively early in The Ascent, and after doing so, it's hard to justify trudging through the streets at the slow pace your character progresses. You'll also start to see NPCs – particularly the vendors – reused more and more during your travels. Zoomed-out, cinematic moments are offered occasionally during exploration to really put into perspective how grand the world is, but it's best you don't look too closely at it or else you'll notice its cracks.

The Ascent Gameplay
(Photo: Curve Digital)

Those cracks are much more evident in other parts of the game that manifest far too often during important moments. Some of the game's most cinematic and fantasy-fulfilling moments were upended by bugs that immediately deflated any sense of urgency or payoff. I'd imagine they were impressive, but I won't know since I didn't get to see them.

One moment, for example, put players in a nightclub setting following a cutscene of hordes of gyrating clubbers, busy bars, and a big baddie surrounded by intimidating creatures. The bad guy puts a bounty on your head, and as the music heightens, you brace for a fight in the club to the tune of crashing music and pulsing lights so that you can stop his ship before it leaves.

And then … nothing. No enemies came. I walked through a door and was told through urgent voice comms to make sure he didn't get away. No enemies appeared until I arrived at a boss fight where the boss didn't spawn after a cutscene which was finally a confirmation that something had gone wrong. Reloading the game put me outside the boss arena with a few enemies around to confirm that enemies were indeed supposed to be spawning. It was probably one of the game's more memorable moments, but it wasn't one I got to experience. It was only memorable in the sense that it continuously made it difficult to get excited for whatever else The Ascent offered.

Whether because of bugs or lackluster effects, loot occasionally felt underwhelming, too. After building my character's stats up to be a high-health, cybernetic-minded damage sponge, an automatic melee mech seemed like the perfect companion to take up one of my ability slots. My mech never really could get the hang of attacking, however, and would instead swing wildly and miss enemies. Even when it backed someone into a corner and attempted to clobber them, the enemy simply never registered any damage had been taken. Automated turrets similarly chose not to target any enemy at times, though they did prove to be nice distractions. Some enemies – particularly the shotgunners – were simply untargetable by my normal weapons, too, and could only be killed by AOE abilities. It's a good thing The Ascent gives you plenty of loot options, because some of them simply don't work nearly as well as their descriptions suggest, assuming they work at all.

The Ascent Characters
(Photo: Curve Digital)

When your weapons do work, the gunplay in The Ascent is commendable. Regardless of the loadouts you choose, two simple mechanics are at play: Crouch behind cover to protect yourself and aim high while crouching or standing to deal with different enemy types. Most games' cover systems are ignorable, but The Ascent's benefits even the tankiest characters. Dashing from cover to cover while peppering enemies with bullets and lasers as you wait on cooldowns to reset is a truly exhilarating and tense moment The Ascent offers time and time again.

Those moments are memorable and are unfortunately far less common than The Ascent's pitfalls. I'm right near the end of the game's main story after crossing off plenty of side missions, but with the charm of The Ascent's firefights and scenery long since expired, there's nothing much left to inspire confidence in what remains.

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Rating: 2.5 out of 5

The Ascent was reviewed on the PC with a review code provided by the publisher.