The Ascent gameplay preview: The cyberpunk action RPG of my dreams

The Ascent preview
The Ascent preview (Image credit: Neon Giant)

The Ascent is an upcoming action RPG from new studio Neon Giant. Comprised of industry veterans, Neon Giant is just 12 employees strong, and the team is punching well above its weight with this debut outing.

Last week, I was lucky enough to get over an hour of hands-on time with The Ascent, which is heading to Xbox and PC on July 29, 2021, straight into Xbox Game Pass. If first impressions are everything, know that this is why The Ascent is now one of my most anticipated Xbox games.

A breathtaking world

Source: Neon Giant (Image credit: Source: Neon Giant)

The Ascent features some of the most impressive visuals I've ever seen in a game. I often wondered if those slick trailers we saw previously had been somehow faked — they weren't, and this was through the lens of glitchy Parsec streaming. I cannot wait to see what this thing looks like on a native high-end PC or Xbox Series X console.

The Ascent looks like high-end cyberpunk manga artwork come to life.

Set on the planet Veles, you're a small-time merc living in an exoplanet colony, run by The Ascent Group corporation. Like any tried-and-true cyberpunk game, life in the neon-washed arcology is not easy. Cyborg gangs roam the outskirts, mutant alien horrors stalk the city's underbelly, and all manner of corrupt gangsters are lining up to exploit you for a quick buck. You're not a superhuman with special powers, you're just a guy, and have to earn and scrap your way up the ladder of this violent, neon-doused world.

Veles is as gorgeous as they come, with painstakingly meticulous detail that is truly worthy of that old video game marketing cliche "living and breathing world." The game demo I played started out in the sewers, giving me tips on how to fight, scavenge, and progress. Despite being a literal sewer, the lighting, the detail, and sheer variety of the environment was already creating a big impression on me. Not long after this segment, the game opened up to the arcology city scape, filled with a huge variety of human and alien inhabitants. It was then I knew this game could really be something special.

Source: Neon Giant (Image credit: Source: Neon Giant)

The Ascent looks like high-end cyberpunk manga artwork come to life, with the kind of quality you'd sooner expect of something pre-rendered. Despite the top-down fixed camera angle, Neon Giant create a truly vast impression of scale, with skyscrapers fading into the smog, lit up by flying cars and gorgeous dynamic shadows.

As I entered a new area, a flying vehicle suffered some sort of malfunction, disappearing in a fireball as it slammed into the side of a building. A robotic authority blares over an announcement system that I'll be "fucking recycled" if I step out of line. The game's chaotic, violent atmosphere is on point from the start, making you feel small and vulnerable in a world that wants nothing more than to kill you.

Surprisingly tough action RPG combat

Source: Neon Giant (Image credit: Source: Neon Giant)

The Ascent will no doubt be tweaked further between writing and launch, but I was quite honestly taken aback by how unashamedly tough it is, although it's not what I'd consider unfair.

The Ascent is an action RPG through and through, with a wide variety of stats and progression, tons of weapons and abilities, and equipment you can loot and craft. You can create your own character, and design your stat weights around your playstyle as you see fit. You can team up with up to three friends, and take on missions with increased difficulty, and increased rewards.

The first segment took place in the arcology's undercity sewers, filled with angry monkey-like mutants. It was at this point I was trying to play the game a little like a Diablo Demon Hunter, kiting and shooting almost twin stick-style. I would discover later that The Ascent has far more depth, however, complete with a light cover system and surprisingly tactical enemies.

The Ascent preview (Image credit: Neon Giant)

The Ascent preview (Image credit: Neon Giant)

Source: Neon Giant

After the first segment, you're given a task to traverse the outskirts of the arcology and back up a local gangster, as he brokers some sort of deal. This is where you get the first taste of real human enemies, and that's when The Ascent stopped feeling like a typical action RPG, and a bit more like a tactical cover shooter with explosive sci-fi abilities.

The left trigger lets you shoot over elevation, which includes cover, or enemies that are on a higher platform. Taking advantage of this mechanic becomes paramount when you're facing several enemies armed as well as you are, crouching behind a wall or something similar can and will save your life. You can still shoot from this position of course, albeit at reduced accuracy.

Enemies may have strength in numbers, but your abilities serve as a great equalizer. One ability I unlocked in the demo was a power punch sort of attack, sending a shockwave of unfettered force, shattering enemies into a torrent of giblets if they were caught in the blast.

Source: Neon Giant (Image credit: Source: Neon Giant)

The Ascent preview (Image credit: Neon Giant)

The Ascent preview (Image credit: Neon Giant)

Source: Neon Giant

I was impressed by the 3D projected textures and volumetric smoke produced by the attack, which also caught the light dynamically. Explosives similarly create all sorts of environmental destruction that gave the game a truly elevated feel. This is exactly the sort of progress I want to see as we head further into "next-gen," with games that live up to their cinematic trailers for interactivity and visual quality. The Ascent simply does not disappoint.

With a trail of shattered gangster bones and viscera in my wake, I eventually reached a boss room, where two large alien armed with massive hammers chased me around an arena, while various lackeys sprayed bullets in my general direction. Managing cover simultaneously with the massive shockwave hazards created by the alien hammers presented an impressive challenge, leaving me dead multiple times before the stars aligned, where I was able to clip several enemies at once in a grenade blast. The challenge left me feeling incredibly rewarded at the end, and not just due to the loot. Too many action RPGs of this nature seem to reduce gameplay challenge in favor of giving the player a stream of endless shiny loot instead. I'm pleased that The Ascent is trying to create a balance of both.

Give me more

The Ascent Preview

Source: Neon Giant (Image credit: Source: Neon Giant)

The Ascent's early trailers looked so good, I couldn't help but be skeptical. Too many AAA games showcase gameplay that doesn't live up to expectations in reality, both in terms of visual quality and gameplay variety. It really did feel like The Ascent bucks the trend in this area.

The Ascent looks utterly stunning, with a world that feels lived-in and vast. I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of what the full game has to offer, given some of the trailers. I didn't get to try out any of the crazier abilities shown off in those vids, or the more epic high-end weapons like flamethrowers, particle beams, and beyond. Many AAA game demos at these types of preview events put you somewhere in the middle of the game, giving you access to the more "impressive" weapons to create hype in the content creator. The Ascent gave me the most basic tools and level 1 weapons, and I still had a total blast.

The developers' name "Neon Giant" is really apt. The Ascent may indeed be remembered as one of the best independently released games of 2021, if the full game is anywhere near as good as what I experienced with the fairly limited demo.

The Ascent will be released on July 29, 2021, on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC, and will launch straight into Xbox Game Pass.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!