The Ascent Hands-on and Q&A #2 – No Max Level, Narrative ‘as Immersive as You Let It Be’

The Ascent

Roughly a year after its announcement at the first next-gen Xbox showcase, we finally got our hands on The Ascent, the promising debut title of Neon Giant, a Swedish indie studio founded by industry veterans who've previously worked on games like Bulletstorm, Gears of War, and Wolfenstein.

It was a preview build played on PC via Parsec. Even via streaming, though, the first thing we noticed while playing The Ascent was how genuinely stunning it looks. We've seen some great visuals in indie games lately, but this one might just top them all thanks to its combination of great art style and high-quality, triple-A-like details enabled by the Unreal Engine technology. Even with its top-down view, The Ascent easily manages to fully convey the feeling of a living, bustling cyberpunk megalopolis, and you're free to roam it the way you want, exploring Veles both horizontally and vertically.

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In more populated areas, you'll encounter dozens of non-hostile NPCs, civilians who will scatter at the first sound of gunfights. The physics and destruction are top-notch as well, but the real surprise is how this actually plays when combat kicks in. At its basics, The Ascent should be considered a twin-stick shooter, though one with extra depth thanks to the cover system and the ability for the player character to aim above cover objects if they want to. This gives it a slightly more tactical vibe than your average twin-stick shooter.

The shooting feels fun, thanks to the punchy weapons that provide excellent feedback when squashing your enemies to the ground, and it's also rather challenging even at low levels. Of course, running underneath The Ascent there's also a thick layer of RPG mechanics, though we didn't really get the chance to scratch that surface during our brief gameplay session.

For the same reason, it's hard to pass judgment on the game's story, though we did note full voiceovers already in place in all the quests we tried (a rarity among indie titles) and a healthy amount of side content available to players.

We don't know the specifications of the PC used in this remote preview, but the game already runs smoothly from what we could see, minus the lag spikes due to Parsec. This certainly bodes well for the final version.

Getting to play a slice of The Ascent only left us really eager for more, as this game looks like it could be a blast to play, especially in co-op with some friends. Luckily, we won't have to wait too long as the full game is only a couple of months away.

Following our hands-on, we were able to speak again with Neon Giant's Game Director Arcade Berg, this time in a live chat following the recent email Q&A we published earlier this month. Here's the full transcript below.

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How much would you say that the story matters in The Ascent versus simply the gameplay action?

We made a point very early to not make a game that will stand and fall with the story. If it's a good story that people enjoy, that's fantastic, and that will enrich the entire experience. But we didn't want to say that, well, if people don't get emotionally hooked and they're really into it, that the game will fall flat. Of course, we've done our best with the narrative, but we've also made sure to deliver an independently strong gameplay. We're not playing the super emotional hooks to get you to where you need to go. We have been getting feedback this entire year, it's been a very positive thing. For the people that care about the story, it's there to carry you through the entire game. Every main mission has several cutscenes, full voiceover, that whole shebang. But for the people that care less, and they want to get to the shooty bang bang bits, they can focus on that. Also, we know for a fact that if you're going to play four-player co-op, it's very likely that you're not going to be as immersed in the story as a group, as someone who plays single player, that's just a fact and we're perfectly happy with that. So, the narrative is there. It will get as immersive as you let it be. But even without the narrative, you have a very solid action shooter RPG to play.

That makes sense. Are there any choices to be made in the story, though, or is it just linear and the same for everyone?

It's the same for everyone. It's linear when you play through the main story, then there's a bunch of optional content that you can play when you see fit, so not everything is lined up in a linear path. But you don't make huge player choices on how to affect the story.

In the email Q&A you mentioned several inspiration sources for The Ascent coming from other games, movies, comics even, but do you have any one in particular that you'd like to single out as something that you had at the forefront of your mind?

There are definitely several ones, but a few that keep coming up. We often land back on Dredd, both the comic books and the movies. Well, I'll say movies, because I like all of them, but Dredd is definitely a strong one. But we also reference things like Robocop, the old classics, because of how they're very action oriented but still have a lighthearted feel to them. And then, of course, we have the ones you would expect, with Blade Runner and some Akira in there, a lot of the cyberpunk things, but we're all over the place really.

Do you have difficulty levels in the game?

No, you can't set the difficulty in the options. What we're trying to do is we have what we feel is a balanced difficulty curve, and then we say that we want to reward the skill because since we are doing something to meet both the action enthusiasts and the RPG enthusiasts, they might have different skill sets. For someone who's very good at playing action games, we expect you to be able to tackle challenges earlier, smarter, better. And then we'll say, if the game is a bit too hard, that's where the RPG aspects of making sure you have a good build, maybe leveling up a bit more so you're ready to take on the challenge, come in. That's how we try to make the game meet you at your skill level.

Basically, you can go do some side content to level up your character, get better stats and come back to rock whatever hurdle stood in your way.

Yeah, exactly.

I just managed to unlock the hydraulic punch, which is quite nice as someone who loves melee. I'm wondering if you can upgrade it somehow and perhaps use it more often, something like that.

You can scale its efficiency. Every single augmentation ability in the game can be scaled, they scale based on the attributes your character has. That one I believe is driven by your motor skills. So if you put your skill points into for example weapon handling which has to do with your arms and your motor skills, then your hydraulic punch will also scale and then there are other abilities that will scale with other attributes. Depending on how you assign your skill points, different abilities will be better, or rather you will be better at using them than your co-op buddy. If you both have maybe the spray missile augmentation installed, maybe your friend can only fire three missiles but you can fire 18 because you've spent your points like that.

Since you mentioned the RPG aspect of The Ascent, can players build a support-like character if they want to?

Yes, some weapons are much more suited for single player, others are much more suited for multiplayer co-op and that goes for the abilities and tacticals as well. For example, when I play co-op I tend to use more of the healing stuff, making sure we can stay alive, whereas I don't do that as much in single player personal life because then I want to have more of the aggressive, damage-dealing stuff.

Is there any way to be a tank and perhaps 'aggro' the enemies away from your co-op pals?

Yeah, if you put your points into health more than anything and you get good armor. You also have some abilities for that build, like there's one that calls forth a huge robot with a shield who is basically an additional tank beside you. So you guys can be the ones taking the enemies and the enemy aggro while the other ones stay behind.

Do you have set a max level in the game? And if so, what is it?

We don't have a set max level now. But at a certain point, you will have maxed out all your skills. I don't even know what level you would need to be for that to happen.

Does the game actually scale when you're playing in co-op? Is it tougher than when you're flying solo?

Yeah, so it scales differently depending on how many players you are. But the main thing scaling is that the enemies deal more damage to you because we need to remember that in co-op you can revive each other, so we need to balance that. The enemies have more health. Again, the more players the more health. It's not one-to-one, so you don't have enemies that take four times the amount of HP when you have four players, but it's more, and we also have more as a number of enemies so everyone has stuff to shoot at. It definitely scales, even if you do drop in, so if you and I are playing together and then two friends join during the game, the game from that point adjusts again to make sure that it's always on par with us.

How does The Ascent work in terms of dropping in and dropping out of co-op, mission progression et cetera? 

So you play one player's game world, so everything you do, leveling up, finding loot, that's you. And even if you leave the game, it stays. But where you're playing, if I'm the host, you're playing in my world and the mission I've set currently.

But of course, when you go back to your world, you get everything you've picked up in this.

Absolutely, yeah.

Since it is a cyberpunk-themed world after all, how important is hacking going to be in The Ascent?

Well, it's important both in gameplay and in the story. There are hacking abilities as part of the augmentations. For example, you might have seen footage where you can hack enemies. If you kill them while they have this debuff they will explode when they die. And then you have other things, which is just hacking the environment to get into special doors, or open special locks or hack ATMs for money, or vending machines for free loot, hacking turrets so they shoot for you. That's then driven by the cyberdeck that you carry. You might come to a door or a chest that you can't open because the security on that door or chest is too high. Then you need to find more cyberdeck upgrades to give your cyberdeck that ability.

Can you also temporarily control enemies via hacking?

That's one of the abilities, yes.

Cool! I'd say that's everything I can think of. Do you have anything left to add about The Ascent?

As a whole, we are super excited to finally have people play it. We're super excited to hear what people think. You might have noticed that lately, we started talking more about the RPG aspects of the game as well. So that's really exciting. And I think the most exciting thing for us now when people start paying more attention is that we can show everyone what the game really is. Because for a year now people have been guessing what it's like. But now with people actually playing it, you can see how it really is.

Thank you for your time.

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