The Ascent Review
One of the most captivating sights in The Ascent is the labyrinthine layout of its cyberpunk city. From a distance, its underbelly—one place you’ll spend a lot of time in—looks like densely packed circuit boards, with buildings and other structures housed together across several districts, until they all meld together into one congested urban hive. Then there’s the non-stop chattering of its ill-fated denizens and squatters, as they bemoan and grumble about their misfortunes amidst a backdrop of an ultra futuristic cityscape.
All these are, admittedly, par for the course for most cyberpunk cities, and The Ascent really doesn’t stray from this formula much. What underlies the sordid appeal of cyberpunk, despite its ubiquity in games and pop culture, is still in watching the disparity between a powerless populace and its squalid city, versus the undercurrent of clandestine, corporate power that courses through it. It’s almost like a modern parable, a chilling prophecy of our very near future.
But as a brutal top-down action shooter, The Ascent excels at capturing the excessive violence of surviving in this cyberpunk hellhole. This is a place overrun by crime lords and their petty squabbles, as they struggle to get a foothold over the politics of this less-than-flourishing city. It’s poignantly reminiscent of one of the genre’s biggest inspirations: the turbulent social dynamics of living in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City in the early 70s, and it shows in every interaction in the game. Every moment in The Ascent is punctuated by violence and firefights, every other encounter beginning with a faceless henchman of a rival gang pointing their guns at you, demanding your subservience or snarling at you to step away from an off-limits area. Then you’ll whip out your guns, engaging in rapid spasms of gunfire and violence for a few brief minutes, while passers-by frantically scramble away from the senseless crossfire.
This is a loop that takes place over and over again: you just have to keep shooting at waves of everything before they can kill you. Even innocents get killed too—an unfortunate collateral damage in all these mindless bloodshed—as they make a haphazard escape towards safety, sometimes inevitably running into your line of fire. From The Ascent’s top-down perspective, it’s hard to tell the difference between a panicked face and a gang member taking a few cautious steps backwards so that they can take better aim at your head. And that feels like a deliberate decision: you’re not supposed to care that much about who’s getting hurt.
Going on a loop
This isn’t necessarily an awful thing; I do admire the lack of pretension from The Ascent. Unlike other cyberpunk games that gorge their narrative with a glut of moralising that quickly deflates under scrutiny, The Ascent is unpretentious about its motives: it’s tightly focused on the joy of clicking and shooting shit up. To an extent, it’s a lot like the point-and-click mania of Diablo, but set in a generic but grandiose cyberpunk city.
Here’s the gist of it: you begin, quite literally, at the bowels of the city, clearing out manure for a small-time mob boss who’s just yelling at you incessantly over the intercom. He talks a lot about being neck-deep in piss and spews a whole load of bile, but wants you to sort out some problems by shooting at things, and flipping a few switches. You’re given a gun, and then you shoot at some vicious, underground ferals that are only too eager to gnaw off a chunk of you. Then you rinse and repeat, until you shoot all the evil beings. You eventually display a knack for shooting, and your crime lord boss instructs you to meet him, so you can carry out more gunning. Of course, there’s actually a whole lot of context in between all these encounters, but it really doesn’t matter; while the city itself can be enthralling in its intricacies, everyone else living in here is too one-dimensional for any sort of nuance.
The joys of shooting
For the bulk of The Ascent, the shooting is frantic and punchy. Dispatching the countless goons, ferals and other high-tech machinery standing in your way is a matter of aiming your sights towards them and unleashing a hailstorm of bullets in their direction. In lieu of narrative depth, there’s a surprising amount of versatility in combat; you can crouch behind obstacles and walls, or even pull off a nifty maneuver, in which you’ll raise your gun slightly to shoot over obstacles, deal a bit more damage, and stagger your opponents. There are also additional attacks you can perform by installing cyber augmentations in your noggins, some of which will let you pulverise your foes with a hydraulic powered punch, or summon a battle droid to snipe at enemies alongside you. Then there’s also the usual trappings of most RPGs: killing more levels your character up, resulting in skill points you can assign to your character, which essentially makes you better at killing. You can upgrade your firearms and rocket canons with components—an uncomplicated currency you can trade in with gunsmiths in the city to improve your weapon’s lethality.
And, as the game progresses, you’ll find that there are more of the same to do. You’ll collect an inordinate amount of loot from crates and chests littered everywhere in this universe. You’ll pick up bounties on unique variants of the same enemies you usually encounter, who will drop better loot and more cash. You’re obliterating an entire city’s worth of scumbags under the direction of your mob boss. There’s a very specific set of routines you’ll find yourself getting hooked onto: shoot baddies, find equipment, hoard loot, sell stuff. Getting into the rhythm of The Ascent never gets too complicated, even if combat itself can be brutalising and challenging at times.
These all goes to say that The Ascent is mostly a mindless, violent jaunt through a meticulously rendered cyberpunk city; what little portrayal of the themes of depravity and inequality are merely set-dressing for the game. Yet for all its facelessness, what was most indelible was still its city, the disparity between the powerful and powerless depicted in its spaces: from the cramped, unsanitary alleys home to the ceaseless chatter of its most downtrodden, to the shine of the marble floor in the wealthier districts, soon to be sullied by the dead bodies you leave behind.
However, all these are merely incidental to the game’s main conceit: to turn you into an efficient killing machine amidst the metallic skyscrapers of its city, morality be damned. Just like the trite aura of exoticism in its neon billboards and signages—you get zero context behind the prominence of the Asian characters and smiling geishas—The Ascent is content with using cyberpunk as another playground for its violence, rather than to present an alternative vision of the genre. Which is fair, and still makes it very enjoyable. I, too, can always use another few hours reducing meatbags into blood and guts.