The Ascent could be 2021’s first great Xbox exclusive
If you’re feeling a little short-changed by a certain cyberpunk-themed epic, The Ascent might just be your neon-drenched antidote.
Set in a predictably grimy capitalist dystopia, you’d be forgiven for dismissing this Xbox and PC exclusive as yet another generic sci-fi shooter. Yet look past its familiar aesthetic and you’ll find something refreshingly unique — a Diablo-esque RPG reimagined as an atmospheric, story-led shooter. Diablo and its ARPG peers often lack the narrative incentive to keep players engaged. I was surprised, then, by just how much I enjoyed my two-hour session with Neon Giant’s The Ascent.
A mix of Dead Nation and Gears of War, it swaps the genre’s usual mindless action for satisfying, skill-based gunplay. Set in a gorgeous, lore-filled world teeming with intriguing side quests, bustling hubs, and power-trip upgrade paths, The Ascent completely sucked me into its hypnotic loop.
Neon Giant’s co-founder and creative director, Arcade Berg, says his team’s goal was to breathe new life into a dying genre.
“We saw a hole right in the matrix of games out there and thought we can do better,” Berg tells Inverse. “There's no reason for this kind of top-down game to be shallow, or to not get the proper attention. We really wanted to deliver something new and add more to this genre.”
Small but mighty
Put in the boots of your classically cyberpunk customized thug, the opening cutscene reveals that you’ve been lured to the glitzy-looking planet Veles with the promise of a better life. Offered a fully paid-up property and stable work by the galaxy’s ruling megacorporation, The Ascent group, it all seems too good to be true. Predictably, it is.
The price of your ‘free’ property and ‘aspirational’ new life is that you’re indentured to The Ascent group, saddled with a gargantuan debt that’ll take a lifetime to repay. Thankfully for players, you’ll be repaying that debt by riddling things with bullets.
While top-down games aren’t usually remembered for their visuals, the first thing you’ll notice while dodge-rolling across Cluster 13’s murky underbelly is just how detailed everything looks. Dosy maintenance droids amble around with a believable sense of purpose, an injured Kroganesque worker groans as he complains in a brilliant Mancunian accent, and scuttling feral creatures writhe towards you with skin-crawling realism. Not bad for a game made by a team of 12.
Founded by industry veterans that have worked on everything from Far Cry 3 to Wolfenstein, Bulletstorm, Gears of War, and, Doom, Arcade reveals that Neon Giant always had big hopes for The Ascent.
“We wanted to pick a fight that we can win, “ Berg says, “We're confident developers, we know we can make good games. But with that said, we can't compete with the big boys on scope, or amount of content. But what can we compete on? Quality. We know how to make gunplay feel nice, and the goal was to combine that with some really strong world-building.”
They certainly seem to have succeeded in the gunplay department. Aiming a ‘shmup’ inspired reticule with the right stick, combat in The Ascent is fast and furious. Tasked with reactivating some terminals in the city’s underbelly, it quickly becomes apparent that there are no friendly NPCs to help you in these sewer-like tunnels. As you turn each corner, swarms of the deadly but pint-sized ferals rush you without warning. A quick double-tap of ‘A’ sends you rolling just out of claw’s reach, giving you milliseconds to steady your aim before they rip you to shreds. It’s a stressful, fast-paced take on combat — one made all the more difficult by my initial pitiful gear. Yet like the thrills of recent PS5 roguelike Returnal, there’s a hypnotic cadence to combat that you don’t normally get from Diablo-likes.
Beyond the grind
Speaking of breaking genre norms, once I get a little further into my journey and ascend to the city level’s bustling hub, the level of detail is astounding. After the first hour roaming around the claustrophobic sewer levels, reaching the bustling neon-drenched hub above feels genuinely elating. The intricately detailed plaza of the series is teeming with NPCs. Towering insectoids converse with humans, armor-plated guards patrol and aside from a few eager to hire you, most are too exhausted to bother acknowledging you. It's all impressively detailed and ambitious for an indie title, yet Berg is keen to stress that storytelling won’t just be confined to these hubs.
“There are several of these safe areas or hubs where there's a bunch of emphases on mission givers, vendors and upgrades. But the main story will take you all over the world, with constant narration, voiceover, and cutscenes in new locations,” he explains.
It’s a refreshingly immersive take on a genre that’s normally concerned with the grind than narrative investment. “It really depends on how you want to play The Ascent,” adds Berg, “Because we also understand that while we're delivering the story that we just talked about, some people just want the shooty bang-bang part. And they are free to play it that way.”
In another welcome bucking of industry trends, Neon Giant has ensured that the entirety of The Ascent can be played in co-op. “Developers don’t bother with full co-op because it’s a lot of work,” agrees Berg, “But we feel that co-op is very important for games like this.”
Embracing both online and local play, up to four players can drop in and out of the action at any time, with the carnage around them scaling in scope and ferocity depending on how many friends join the fight.
Still, my experience with the Ascent was entirely solitary – and that’s a big part of what made the game so atmospheric. Stopping to take in the finer environmental details, focusing on the swelling, brooding synths providing the soundtrack. Yet all of that will go out of the window once you’ve got three friends skipping each cutscene and cracking jokes. It’s something that the team have chosen to embrace.
“We know that four players playing a co-op game together are not going to be as immersed into the story, and by embracing that, we can make sure that everyone running around shooting stuff is having a lot of fun.”
Shades of gray
At its core, The Ascent is about blasting futuristic beings into bits. Yet nestled between all the satisfyingly-slick alien slaughter lies a more serious message.
“The Ascent is basically hyper-capitalism manifested, right?” reveals Berg, “Everything and everyone here is owned by someone. and this particular place on the planet Veles - is owned by the Ascent Group, which is a huge mega-corporation that basically owns and operates their entire arcology, or city. It's not that everyone in this world is miserable, and poor and struggling, but everyone is hustling - and everyone knows their place.
As our own world grows increasingly wary of the insidious nature of the back-breaking gig economy, it’s hard not to see The Ascent’s attacks on capitalism as making an intentional (and apt) political point. Still, there's never been a better-suited genre to lamenting capitalism than the throwaway equipment of the loot-obsessed action RPG.
Yet Arcade is quick to point out that it’s less a black and white yarn about good versus evil, and more a story that shows how fragile our societal systems can really be. “All of a sudden, the Ascent Group that owns everything and everyone goes poof. So this story asks, what happens now?”
“It's not this one evil force – you’re not the good guys trying to take them down,“ Berg adds, You’re just someone trying to get through this societal collapse. I'm not gonna start spoiling it, but things start to unfold and there's a lot of moving pieces in the story.”
Still, whatever you make of its intriguing story, The Ascent looks to be the rarest of things in 2021 — a brilliant Microsoft exclusive. After the disappointing Medium elicited more shrugs than scares, The Ascent looks set to offer the most promising Xbox-centric experience since Gears Tactics.
The Ascent launches on PC and Xbox consoles on July 29.
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