Boy howdy do I love me some cyberpunk. Action RPGs, top-down shooters, always-night cities, dingy everything — sign me up! The Ascent is distinctly cyberpunk. Artistically similar to the Shadowrun series on PC, The Ascent turns the visuals up to eleven. Not only is this a technically beautiful game, but the degree of detail in every single location is staggering and borderline intimidating. Match those visuals with astounding voice acting and engrossing vignettes from passersby as players explore the world, and what’s not to love? Well, the gameplay and bugs, for starters.
Odd bugs have absolutely assaulted The Ascent since release. As we all know, modern gaming gives developers the opportunity to right wrongs, especially when it comes to bugs; however, the degree to which this game’s bugs influence the gameplay experience is concerning. Some players have complained about black screens and crashes, though I haven’t encountered these. I encountered multiple — up to four — copies of bosses randomly spawn after cutscenes and elevators that glitch out during cooperative play and require one person to step off while the other player takes it. Entire questlines and enemies also disappeared until I rebooted the game. We’re talking ghost town here — no sprites, friendly or otherwise. The bugs don’t stop there, but these examples indicate the kinds of problems people are having right now.
Far from game-breaking, I find the bugs bearable. To be honest, if the quality of gameplay matched The Ascent‘s presentation, I wouldn’t care at all. While artistically marvelous, The Ascent struggles to deliver on the basics of sound game design. Throughout the entire experience, my brother and I had to walk ev-er-y-where. The metro exists, but only in certain spots and almost never where you need it (where you get or finish quests). You can dial up taxis from anywhere, but they’re oppressively expensive in a game where buying one piece of basic equipment depletes all funds you earn on your journey from level 1 to 12. Taxis also rarely take you where you need to go. The result is that after finishing a lab (i.e., dungeon), we had to backtrack to the entrance and then walk to the nearest metro or railway just to get where we needed to go. More than once, we spent our twenty or so minutes of mindless travel time bopping the same old enemies with bullets.
Unfortunately, The Ascent‘s gunplay isn’t too exhilarating either. Shooting enemies devolves into spray and pray — vaguely shooting in their direction and hoping something lands. It does control adequately, but sometimes getting caught on a fallen comrade creates frustrating moments in situations that are already intense. Combine this with the awkward aiming mechanic while ducking under cover, and the less-than-perfect controls only serve to exacerbate the poor gameplay.
Sure, the game offers three skill points per level that can increase accuracy — which I am so painfully bored by in modern games (why are we still doing this?) — but that’s an entire level’s worth of skill points to provide a modest boost to something that shouldn’t even be an issue in the first place. Leveling up is not the celebratory experience it should be. Leveling up one of eight different stats also puts numbers into sub-stats like cybernetics, but sub-stats don’t amount to anything meaningful until the end of the game. With sub-stats, the developers seem to be attempting to add depth to skill point allocation, but I’m fascinated that they declined to capitalize on this earlier.
Equipment is not only offensively expensive, but it’s vanilla as all get out. Several weapon types exist — think shotgun, SMG, assault rifle, pistol, etc. — and each offers a special property (fire, impact, electricity, etc.). Unfortunately, that’s about where the customization ends. Players can mindlessly toss “basic components” to upgrade said weapons, but these rarely boost anything of consequence, typically moving one number in a range of damage numbers up one or two points. Where’s the excitement? Can I change my bullets to nanomachines that talk as they fire? What about fire rounds that are insanely powerful as they leave the chamber but lose their fiery goodness as they fly? Could we get bullets that have different effects as they fly over different terrain types? Can we please do anything that might make me crack a smile?
Though, I did smile. While fetch quests and yawntastic bounties flood mainline missions and side quests, I adore some key characters. Our protagonists are indents — meaning indentured mercenaries — who serve a disgusting, lazy, dishonest, manipulative scumbag that always sits in the same booth at a bar, but that slug is probably one of the best characters in the entire game! The voice actor kills the lines, and the dialogue is exquisite. Tasteful, creative swearing matches the colorful personality each line delivers. This gentleman isn’t the only star in the show; diverse cast members frequently grace the stage throughout, offering a memorable experience, and not for bad reasons!
Similarly, NPCs litter the streets and alleys in each of the various towns and cities. Most engage in casual conversation that creates a sense of place. Two people talk about the recent bankruptcy of a megacorp in a way that could only be expressed in this cyberpunk landscape. Buddies harangue a friend for sleeping with someone outside of their relationship using slang reflective of the world. Someone sits slumped in the lobby of a transit station, talking about the other life they lived in cryosleep and crying over the fictional wife and kids they had while in stasis. Sure, none of these ideas are entirely new, but they’re tastefully peppered throughout the game so that this isn’t just a tired journey of going from point A to point B to execute targets who became liabilities for your corporate overlords. These NPC conversations add a distinct flavor most games don’t have, and they make the exhausting gameplay a touch less disappointing.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this confused by a game. The Ascent is an aural and visual masterpiece. Though cliche, nothing quite beats the beats of cyberpunk music. Synths and slow, thumping percussion complement the rainy, graffiti-strewn environments. The amount of detail in the world and the raw talent of the voice actors constantly shocked my brother and me. The little stories and expertly written dialogue create a sense of place with no-name people I want to have a real conversation with — please, tell me more!
If I’m brutally honest, I’ve played top-down shooter Flash games that have deeper design and play better than The Ascent. Playing it has been an awful experience that I dragged my brother through, and I feel guilty for it. While the vignettes are cool, the central plot completely falls apart. First, the game gives you no time to make sense of the giant conspiracy taking place. Second, player-controlled characters never talk or hint at having any motivation other than wanting to earn their freedom. And finally, the awful gameplay distracted me and led me to check out of the story halfway through.
This 10-15 hour journey at $30 on release is riddled with bugs and housed in boring game design and even worse execution. Nothing excites me about playing The Ascent. If only this were an adventure game.