Neon Giant, an independent developer made of only eleven people, made their debut in the gaming industry with cyberpunk action RPG The Ascent. The things you’ll see here will boggle the mind considering how small the team is. This is a fact I kept thinking about while working on the review.
So what exactly is The Ascent? Is it a breakneck cyberpunk action game like Ruiner or Ghostrunner? Is it a grindy, dungeon crawling, loot-focused RPG? It’s like a combination of those things, but if I really had to bottle the essence of The Ascent, I’d say it’s the neon-drenched offspring of Diablo, Ruiner, and Blade Runner.
Developer: Neon Giant
Publisher: Curve Digital
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S (Reviewed)
Release Date: July 29, 2021
Price: $29.99 USD
From the very beginnings of your indentured servitude within The Ascent, it’s absolutely dripping with cyberpunk aesthetics and atmosphere. Presented from a top-down perspective, it’s easy to think you’ll lose details in this meticulously built world.
Thankfully, this isn’t the case. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be overwhelmed with the insane details and gorgeous visuals. The level of detail in The Ascent is truly something else.
The entire overworld has been hand-crafted, methodically set up as a living and breathing cyberpunk realm. The main town of Cluster 13 is where you make your start, and right from the get-go you’re thrust into a dark, wet, dreary, cyberpunk dystopia; and it looks absolutely stunning.
The Ascent is built within Unreal Engine 4, and one of the immediate things you’ll notice along the extremely layered and detailed locales is that yes, there’s ragdoll physics too. With a game as visually impressive as The Ascent, you’d think the devs would want to avoid dead enemies or random trinkets flying around the world.
Despite how seriously huge the overworld can look, you generally won’t find any one place that feels copied from another. The world genuinely feels unique and fresh anywhere you go. I kept finding random little pockets that had very unique and detailed bits, literally for no reason other than the devs flexing their design prowess.
Neon Giant should be commended on their clear adoration of the cyberpunk genre and its aesthetics, they totally nailed the cyberpunk I and many others grew up with: wet, dirty, depressing, and drenched in neon corporatism. I cannot stress enough how fantastic The Ascent looks, even if what you’re looking at is a disheveled NPC puking on himself under a big neon sign.
My only gripe with the visuals is how generic the DIY-character models are; it’s kind of shocking compared to the rest of the game. This is a complaint about a character whose face and hair you’ll rarely see, but it’s goofy to only have a handful of face and hair styles while the rest of the game is overflowing with aesthetics.
The first thing you need to get through your chrome skull is that The Ascent is definitely not a looter shooter, or a loot-heavy RPG like some kind of dungeon crawler taking cues from classics like Diablo. The Ascent is more like the other indie darling cyberpunk game Ruiner, but with an expansive open world for you to flop around in while collecting a modest amount of weapons and gear.
As the world in The Ascent is more or less totally open, you’re free to go wherever you want, whenever you want – although different levels of the Arcology are locked until you progress further in the story. This had me exploring literally every nook and cranny, searching for secrets and enemies everywhere in its dystopian and dilapidated world.
This freedom in the game comes with a cost, however, as the nonlinear progression can leave some players feeling there are difficulty spikes. I’m not averse to grinding, so I purposefully found enemies ten levels above me and kept trying to kill them until I became stronger than them, and also got some kickass gear early on. Generally though, the difficulty was fine the entire game.
While I started my playthrough and welcomed any challenge the game had, I saw reports of others that wanted a lower difficulty mode. To be clear, the game originally only had one difficult,y and after enough complaints the devs patched in lower difficulty settings. I’ll reiterate that the majority of the game was fine, only a couple boss fights were tough.
I played the majority of The Ascent by myself and had a fantastic time. I only had to bring in a bud to play co-op for the final boss fight – which is the only time I legitimately needed to grind more, or bring in help. If you play the game on anything lower than normal, it will be entirely too easy. Progression was fine, although the inclusion of bugs sometimes made things weird.
The Ascent was made by a small team and is remarkably polished, however there are bugs. These include audio bits going on loop, odd or unfair enemy spawns, and even a few game-breaking bugs that halted progression. I only had a couple full game crashes, however one time my character got stuck in a weird abyss during a co-op session and I had to reload.
One mission has you fight dudes on a rooftop – only the dudes never spawned, and there was no way to get out. I had to reload the game to get out and then the thugs appeared. This also happened with a side quest where you had to clear a building of baddies, only some never spawned.
The achievements to explore all areas, kill all enemies, and fill your codex are also bugged; and possibly unobtainable if you met criteria while playing the game in online co-op. The co-op is definitely bugged and obtuse sadly. You have to re-host your save game as an online game for anyone online to join, and then you can run into lag or weird bugs, even disconnects.
I wanted to touch on the RPG aspect of the game, as I don’t want people to jump into The Ascent thinking it’s a shooter RPG. This is definitely an action-adventure game with a more RPG-lite amount of skills, gear, and customizations. There’s enough to keep your appetite fed, but if you’re like me you’ll just want more stuff to unlock or collect.
The overall gameplay is a very meaty, appropriately challenging, and rewarding experience. I’m honestly sad that I’ve basically done everything in the game as that’s my only major complaint. I just wish there was more content in The Ascent. Again, this is a game by a small team with a modest budget.
The music is just incredible, with the entire soundtrack composed by legendary Paweł Błaszczak of The Witcher, Dying Light, and Dead Island fame. You can definitely hear inspirations from both Kenji Kawai (Ghost in the Shell) and Vangelis (Blade Runner) in The Ascent’s soundtrack, and that’s just with the ambient and world pieces.
The soundtrack shuffles things up once you hit combat, throwing extremely heavy, synth laden rhythms that match the combat. I feel like there may not have been enough combat themes to add variety to battles, but it never really gets stale. Some favorites include “Galactic Scrapyard,” “Everything Has a Price,” and “Synthetic Spirit.”
While only having a small team and a modest budget, The Ascent manages to have a good amount of voice acting for the main and supporting characters you run into. The voices you do run into, whether its alien language gibberish or English – it’s all well done. It’s another layer of the game’s methodically crafted aesthetics.
One of the only other complaints I have is that its story is a take-it or leave-it corporate espionage type romp. This is not necessarily a complaint, as your mileage will vary pending your love of cyberpunk fiction. If you’re expecting some kind of mind-melting take on the nature of reality and human consciousness, you’re not going to get that here.
The entire gist is a very plausible and probable future of our species, that is if we manage to become a multi-planetary species before we destroy ourselves. Humans have colonized other worlds alongside aliens from our galaxy. The majority of people are poor, so they enter contracts to get shipped to other planets… In exchange for indentured servitude to pay off their debt.
The lives of the “indents,” indentured workers, are insignificant compared to the future of big megacorps like The Ascent Group. This hard truth is made very clear from the beginning. The entire game has you carrying out the bidding of your corporate masters, and getting wrapped up in their schemes and power plays.
Considering this and avoiding spoilers, I actually enjoyed this realistic approach to a cyberpunk story. The events that unfold keep you strung along, wondering what is actually going on behind the scenes. It feels like this was more satisfying, as it simply kept the game moving – nothing more, nothing less.
Overall my time with The Ascent had me feel like there was just enough loot and content to feel satisfied. However, I really wish there was more content, and less bugs. That’s the overall feeling with the game – it’s an indie game after all, with a limited budget and a small team. If only they had a bit more budget and time.
Despite this, the amount of content you get in one package whether free on Xbox Game Pass – is completely insane. There is a lot of content here in a very slick and meticulously designed package. All of it left me having completed it begging for more from developers Neon Giant.
The Ascent manages to create an unbelievably detailed and dirty cyberpunk world for you to explore and find your place in. All the while you’ll unravel cyberpunk-esque corporate schemes. I couldn’t stop playing the game, The Ascent is absolutely dripping with cyberpunk aesthetics and is a true love letter to the genre by clear lovers of cyberpunk fiction.
The Ascent was reviewed on Xbox Series X using a review copy provided by Curve Digital. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.