Now available on Steam, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Game Pass, The Ascent places you in what would be a familiar future - one giant, amoral corp owns everything from the water supply to your nostril hairs, neon lights are popular - except that giant, amoral corp just went under.
What happens when a typically cyberpunk world from the William Gibson Neuromancer mold loses the only bit of governance it had? We can field that one, actually: it’s shooting. Loads of shooting.
Developer Neon Giant uses this beautifully realized backdrop to tell the story of Veles, a planet you and thousands of other migrants arrive at looking for a better life, and are subsequently stuck on forever by the weight of the debt your ticket earned you.
It’s a world that rewards exploring, and also one that can be taken at an unbroken sprint from one blistering fight to the next.
Here’s why you and your co-op cabal will be playing it for the foreseeable.
1. Twin-stick combat with a Diablo twist
Quite a lot of people, and things that were once people, and things that were probably never people but are brilliantly suited to bloodshed, want to hurt you here. As, such, the twin-stick shooting is a crucial component of The Ascent.
Hold down LMB and you burst forth a volley of bullets at low height - these will catch most enemies for standard damage. RMB sends the gunfire up high, where it staggers many enemies, and when combined with a handy bit of waist high scenery, can be used to shoot safely from behind cover.
Character abilities also join the fray, a la Diablo, and up to four slots for these unlock as your character levels. What begins as straightforward twin-stick run-and-gun in the opening level quickly becomes something more considered and challenging as the enemies multiply in number and viciousness and you’re dodging, lobbing nades, popping off abilities and varying your level of fire constantly.
2. No one’s done cyberpunk better than this
We all know the broad strokes of cyberpunk, thanks to decades of games that took Philip K. Dick and William Gibson’s novels, a tabletop RPG universe and a certain Ridley Scott film and fleshed them out.
But somehow, it’s never felt more /right/ than here in this isometric plane, this skyscraper full of clutter, steamy vents, gaudy shopfronts, grungy industrial sectors and seedy cantinas. It’s something about the sheer level of detail and activity in the non-combat areas, the sense of everybody living on top of everybody else and no benevolent governing body to worry about clearing away trash or cleaning the streets, that breathes life into The Ascent’s signature vision of cyberpunk.
3. Get lost in the story elements.... Or don’t
There’s a flexible approach to storytelling here. Many of the unfortunate denizens of Veles have a conversation waiting to spout or sidequest to dispense, so taking the world at walking pace and poking about in it often yields rewards, whether material like mission XP or loot items, or narrative.
This being a co-op game though, not everyone in your group might want to play at that pace. So much of the depth in The Ascent is optional - you can tackle it at a sprint, breaking pace only to circle-strafe particularly nasty wads of health bars spewing bullets and harsh language at you.
4. There’s a proper RPG in here
Perhaps it’s the constant sense of progress that massages our dopamine receptors. Maybe we just like looking in menus and seeing the numbers on our trousers go up. Either way, the equipment and ability slots, along with the ability to splice your own DNA and upgrade your fleshy form makes it easy to get invested in your character.
5. A true challenge
Try as you might, you won’t find the ‘easy mode’ option in The Ascent’s options. The difficulty is intended to be organic here, guiding you towards the areas that are appropriate for your level with the difficulty of a given fight - if it’s too tough, take off, tool up, level up, and return to turn your once untouchable adversaries into a fine paste. Always satisfying, that.
True masochists might choose to take the whole thing on solo, with no friendly firepower to thin out the crowd. It’s absolutely possible to play The Ascent as a single-player game without signing up for a hefty difficulty level, though - just spend some time investing in your character’s level and gear and explore the side quests, rather than going route one.
The whole thing’s playable in a group of up to four, locally or online. Imagine that. What an age we live in. And it really is tailored to scale up or down, depending on how you’re playing and who with. Story can recede, as it tends to when you’re all chatting on Discord over the cutscenes anyway, the character upgrade options create that unspoken but white-hot sliver of competition between you all, tinkering in minute detail to create the most efficient killing machine build. And with a fistful of abilities to pop off in each fight, it lends itself to a bit of playcalling too - communication while certain abilities are on cooldown or co-op buddies run low on 'nades, ammo, health, can turn the tide of an initially unsurmountable scrap.