The Ascent review (Xbox One)

The eagerly anticipated action-shooter RPG The Ascent has arrived. Neon Giant’s debut title is available now for Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X and PC, and we powered up the Xbox One for a trip to the cyberpunk world of Veles.

Swedish studio Neon Giant has roots in franchises like Far Cry, Gears of War, Wolfenstein and Doom, so the fact that The Ascent wasn’t a first person shooter was a bit of a surprise when it was announced. It was a pleasant surprise though, because early footage of the game looked great and the mix of a convincing and atmospheric cyberpunk/sci-fi world and gunplay was one we hadn’t seen much from an isometric perspective. Publisher Curve Digital had a possible winner on their hands here, we quickly thought.

We still think that, but have to place some emphasis on the world “possible” in that claim after having played it. The fundamentals are definitely there though, and start with a gorgeously realized game world – rich in characters, settings and audiovisual detail. The core gameplay is also a lot of fun, and the twin-stick shooter mechanics work great thanks to a few modern conveniences. Chief among these is the ability to dodge behind cover and alternate between cover, something that Gears of War is obviously known for but which works just as well from an isometric perspective. Combine that with an ability to dodge and you’ve got some dynamic firefights on your hands that are tense and exciting to play and watch.

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Part of that is also due to the availability of a large roster of weapons you can use and deploy, which even includes automated turrets you can deploy. Combined with the controls outlined before, this gives you opportunities to strategize and try different approaches – and this wouldn’t be a cyberpunk game if that didn’t include the option to add augmentations to the mix. Passive stat-boosting ones are included, but some will also unlock active abilities.

Narratively, The Ascent is set in a world where giant corporations build giant cities and run many aspects within it. Nothing new within the genre, but when The Ascent Group that runs your particular district suddenly crumbles you’re thrown into a narrative of survival and figuring out what happened. The story isn’t as strong as some of the better action scenes, but cyberpunk fans will certainly enjoy the mix of a novel plot and familiar tropes.

Taking a bit of inspiration from games like Diablo, you can also find plenty of loot within The Ascent – though the loot system has been simplified and will likely appeal less to those who enjoy that aspect in games like Diablo and modern looter shooters. Collecting loot isn’t so much about picking up rare items that will suddenly bump your abilities, but more about gradually upgrading over time – something you’ll also do through skill points that let you level yourself up.

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You can still explore the world of Veles and try to grind your way towards improving, and unfortunately the game forces you into this direction if you’re mainly interested in the core story campaign. Stick to it, and you’ll at some point run into a steep bump in difficulty during a confrontation – forcing you to do a bit of grinding. That wouldn’t be so bad, but without an interesting loot mechanic it does feel mostly like a grind where the rewards come too slowly. Side quests are a good way to alleviate this and are a good way to add to the world building as well thanks to properly defined characters and quests, but The Ascent would be more enjoyable to all players if balancing was more dynamic and didn’t force a certain play style upon players.

With the ability to play the game in co-op mode both locally and online, The Ascent is close to being everything we hoped for, save for the technical issues that are present at launch. Needing a bit more time in the oven, the game sometimes fails to trigger certain events and crashed a few times during online co-op sessions. Add that to the balancing issues mentioned earlier, and you’ve got a game that’s steeped in potential and could be one of this year’s best, but is held back by issues. Let’s hope they get it fixed in the next few weeks and months, because this is a game we desperately want to praise but have to score lower because of its state at release.

Score: 7.5/10

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