The Ascent is a game that should be sponsored by blood pressure medication. Everything about this game is tense, even walking through a place I know is safe gives me anxiety. This is a dangerous, tough world that my Indent--in-game lingo for "indentured servant"--has found himself in, and leading him through it is a stressful experience. That said, the game is a ton of fun, letting me blast through hordes of enemies as I progress through a story of political intrigue and corporate squabbling. It's rough around the edges--which somehow fits into the overall setting--but The Ascent is a dang good romp for the 15 hours I spent in there.
First I have to talk about Veles, the world of The Ascent that is beautiful in its dinginess. Trash-ridden streets are dotted with light, panoramic views of the city stretch over the horizon in a mixture of dull greys and bright neon. The game does a good job of leading me through it as well, throwing in areas where enemies are purposefully overleveled to let me know organically I'm not supposed to be in that place yet. It's equally foreboding and inviting, the kind of city that will lull you into a false sense of security with its warm glow before shoving you into an alley and stealing your wallet. If my character didn't put his gun away in safe areas, I would think there were always enemies coming to get me.
A big reason for that is the collection of NPCs that populate every area of the game, including the dangerous ones. Normal denizens of Veles are seen going about their normal dystopian days when all of a sudden an enemy takes a shot at me, sending the nearby populace into a petrified frenzy. If they're caught in the crossfire? Oh well, wrong place wrong time. If that crossfire is from my gun? No repercussions, off I go. There's a certain "No Russian" feel to it, watching these panicked bystanders running for their lives, that immerses me into Veles, but not in a good way. It's all part of the "realism," sure, but it's not a realism that I feel great about.
Which is a shame, because the action in The Ascent is damn fun. Hordes of enemies swarm at me from every direction, and I have to manage the crowds before getting overwhelmed. The aiming system is super smart, giving me the option of raising my gun for headshots but running the risk of me shooting over a crouching enemy. When I'm behind cover I can use that "raise gun" mechanic to "pray and spray," getting some shots in without putting myself in danger. Then again the AI is smart too, perhaps too smart, attempting to flank me while behind cover or spawning a group of feral monsters right near where I think is safe. Every battle is hectic, fast-paced and filled with adrenaline, perfect for a guy like me who loves blowing things up.
The RPG elements are pretty straightforward, giving me skill points for leveling up my abilities, augmentations for further improvements, and different armor options for defensive stat boosts. What's not ideal is the labyrinthine menu system all of these upgrades hide behind and the finicky nature of the controls in those menus. The multiple dropdowns are cumbersome on the screen, and navigating through them can be an absolute mess.
Here's a small example: in a standard inventory screen, there are categories at the top (think "map", "equipment", "abilities", etc.). If I've chosen one, I can navigate it to my heart's content, and I can only change categories when I'm at the top of the menu. For some reason that's not the case in The Ascent and I constantly find myself tabbing over to another category instead of choosing an upgrade or setting a waypoint on the map. It's a tiny annoyance, but when it happens over and over again it's frustrating all the same.
The menu isn't the only difficult part of The Ascent, not by a long shot. This game is difficult, especially when playing solo. The hordes of enemies I spoke of earlier are relentless at times, particularly during boss battles with a massive baddie that can kill me in two shots. I want to keep my attention on the big bad, but I have a dozen minions firing at me from all sides and I can't focus on a single one of them. This of course isn't a bad thing, difficult games have their audience, but I can see this becoming overwhelming for a lot of players even at smaller difficulties.
The game's lack of technical polish doesn't exactly help the difficulty either. There are times where I'm in a firefight, thinking I defeated the last enemy, only for a brand new enemy to suddenly appear right next to me out of thin air. I don't mean the enemies that climb over fences or out of sewers either, I mean reverse Thanos snap "it wasn't there but now it is" spawning. That, to be frank, really sucks, and it's caused a fair share of Game Overs that the game didn't earn correctly. I don't mind a challenge in my games when that challenge is fair--for all the talk of games like Dark Souls at least the difficulty there is realistic--but things like randomly spawning enemies in The Ascent made me want to launch a controller across the room.
When the game didn't seem out to get me though, I really did enjoy my time with it, enough to pursue a few sidequests while I played. That 15-hour mark I mentioned at the start is the main game and a smattering of side missions, considering what I skipped there's probably a 30-hour game in here for the completionists out there. None of the side missions I completed served a definite story purpose, they were more for world-building and letting me know how life on Veles really works. For a brand new game that's exactly what I want, so I was happy to oblige.
That said, some side missions are going to become necessary while you play, because the grind in The Ascent is very real. You are going to run the same stretches of missions over and over again, dying multiple times and going back to the thankfully forgiving checkpoint system. Each time you respawn your experience carries over, but the enemy placement will be completely different. Eventually you'll either level up enough that you can get through or you'll get a lucky break with enemy spawns and won't have as much resistance in the first place. It might be in different places for you than it was for me, but you will be grinding during your playthrough of The Ascent. There's no doubt in my mind.
The Ascent equally frustrates and impresses me, one moment dropping my jaw with the city's neon-soaked beauty and the next making me clench my fists in anger. Veles is a brutal, unforgiving world, but it's one I enjoyed blasting my way through...when the game was being fair about it. Navigating the menus is a chore, but building a character is fun and the story is interesting enough that I don't mind the technical issues that pop up. It's not a perfect game, but if this is the beginning of a new franchise then it's a solid foundation from which to make its Ascent.