The Ascent is an example of brilliant, and I really mean brilliant, game design. The coalescing of a whole host of small decisions, together add up to an incredibly fun experience which not only satisfies, but definitely leaves you wanting more. So just what is it? Well, in simple terms it’s an isometric Action-Role-Playing-Game (aRPG – sadly that doesn’t stand for ‘advanced rocket propelled grenade’, but we can hope) in the vein of games like the Diablo series or the Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition - Martyr games, but set in its own unique cyberpunk universe.
Specifically, it’s set in a massive super-structure known as an ‘Arcology’, owned by the titular Ascent Group – one of several mega-corporations competing on the planet of Veles. Players start off as a lowly ‘Indent’ (indentured laborer) investigating a fault with the Waste Disposal Management system in the charmingly named Deepstink. Over the course of the next 16-20 hours, the Indent will literally climb all the way to the Pinnacle of the Arcology, and full-blown freedom (something which most Indents never achieve). And all thanks to a major, major disaster which sees the mighty Ascent Group go bankrupt, the AGI (the super-advanced AI which runs the Arcology) going silent, and the board disappearing. As the various Habitations which make up the lower levels of the Arcology attempt to build alliances simply to survive, and rival corporations move in to violently seize assets, the player is thrust into a brilliantly engaging story involving no small amount of intrigue. It’s one heck of a ride, and together with the story, three main things come together to make it so compelling an experience.
The first is the visuals. This is, hands down, one of the most impressive looking games around. The sheer level of detail the developers have put into this game is simply mind-boggling. Hundreds of strange aliens line the streets and go about their business. Strange, moving gubbins festoon buildings – their work a mystery (but kind of like the bits of an X-Wing: you feel they all do something, but you don’t know what). Service-bots weld broken bits of machinery. Hover cabs zoom around the skies. Basically, if you took the most insane sets from the film The Fifth Element — from the towering cities to the junk-filled space port — and extended that to the entire game, you’ll get the idea. Frankly, it’s amazing that they’ve created such a detail rich environment which doesn’t overload the viewer.
Backing up this insane level of detail is that the world reacts to the player. Launch a rocket into a nearby concrete column, and bits will blast off it. Come thumping into a new area in the Deepstink, and a swarm of cockroaches (or cockroach-like creatures) will scatter. Start a firefight near civilians, and people will be running for their lives. Even more impressive is the fact that the developers consistently deliver this level of detail across quite a few different styles, from the squalor of the Deepstink and the clutter of Cluster 13, to the sterile environment of the dNexus and the clean elegance of the Pinnacle. Also, if you have a card with RTX capabilities, it looks absolutely stunning. It all adds up to deliver one of the most compelling and complete-feeling game worlds out there. It feels like a living, breathing city, and not a backdrop for a game.
The second main feature, working hand-in-glove with the visuals in terms of world-building, is the amount of character and detail they’ve included in the world. Most of this takes the form of one of the most impressive and comprehensive codices around. Nearly everything and everyone you interact with – whether it be characters, enemies, and locations – has a codex entry. Even the lowliest quest-giver will have at least one line in the codex, adding more flavour and detail. What’s more, it also doubles as a model-viewer, with each codex entry showing a fully rotatable 3D model of the item in question (provided it’s not a location). There’s even more information outside of the codex, with each of the dozens of weapons, sets of armour, augmentation and cyber-modules having their one line of text.
Then there’s the characterization for the main quests. Each character has a distinct personality – from the cold, clinical and disparaging Kira, the gruff and obnoxious Poone, or enthusiastic computer hacker who is more in it for the thrill – which gives them all way more depth than being a simple quest giver. (Also worth a mention is the player’s personal computer – an IMP – which develops an amusingly disturbing personality after linking with an AGI.)
Thirdly, the combat. The bread-and-butter of the gameplay. It’s fast, fluid and in the vein of the very best twin-stick shooters, with players moving using the WASD keys, and aiming and firing with the mouse. Combat will really keep you on your toes, and victory is dependant upon not only stats (for example, some areas of the game world are effectively gated by high-level foes who can be beaten by a low-level player, but can often kill the player in one shot), but intelligent use of abilities, the right weapons, and maintaining situational awareness. For example, some foes are virtually invisible, and will merrily gut your character if you’re too fixated on your current target to notice the distortion of their cloaking field. Cover can be useful, but the game will throw both ranged and melee foes at you, as well as ambush you from behind, in order to keep you moving. Also, each of the dozen or so weapons in the game has a situation in which it excels, and I found myself switching back and forth as weapons which I had initially dismissed really came to the fore. This in turn forces you to switch up your tactics, always keeping combat fresh.
It also looks spectacular. Glowing tracer zips through the air. Sizzling energy bolts light up the environment around them, smoke trails follow homing missiles as they zip past your character and zoom around for another go. Explosions sends smoke, particles and bodies flying. It’s pure spectacle of the very best kind.
These would be enough to produce a great game, but The Ascent goes further, with a ton of little touches, like how the laser from your gunsight refracts and blurs through smokey air as you wildly swing it about. The soundscapes of each location are excellent, the UI is brilliant (especially how it makes it hard to accidently sell an item you didn’t intend to), and fast travel prevents tediously trekking over huge distances. Even if you want to go the long way, there are plenty of goodies and hidden stashes to reward your exploration, as well as special foes with bounties which give rewards of both money and valuable upgrade parts. Lifts summon almost instantly, and long lifts often have two platforms, so there’s always one waiting for you. Also, while you can play it online with a friend or couch-coop, it works brilliantly as a single-player game, and will even work without an active internet connection (so you never have to contend with server errors). In short, the developers have taken a lot of care thinking about what can slow a game down, what can rob it of fun, and then fixing it. It’s clever, and it really shows.
This is, without question, not only one of the best games of 2021, but also one of the best games out there. An absolute triumph of art, design and story, it is fun, engaging, and a masterpiece of design. If you like aRPGs, this is probably the best there is. Even if you don’t, it’s well worth visiting just for the world-building alone (and it may just get you into a new genre). While we only ever include games which can be recommended to players, if we gave scores, this would be a perfect 10. ■