There are hundreds of thousands of beings from all over the galaxy present at the Arcology: a giant, monolithic skyscraper. A vertical city would look like this. The screen seems to be an amalgam of Kowloon Walled City’s dense, chaotic crowds and neon-strewn Neo Tokyo, which is similar to the infamously dense, overcrowded Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. And the setting is among the most impressive, seen in a videogame. In terms of game mechanics, it is a brutal, satisfying action RPG with a meaty combat system that is fierce and satisfying. Arcology’s intricate details, with its different districts and palpable atmosphere, are what really engaged everyone’s imagination.
In The Ascent, your character is a migrant worker whose passage to the Arcology on Veles, a distant planet, has been paid by a megacorporation. You’re asked to work for this corporation, the Ascent Group, to pay the ticket back, a huge expense. The blimp in Blade Runner advertises a chance to begin again in a land of opportunity and adventure. The glittering promise of a better life, but in truth the corporation is just looking for a way to get another employee for life, forever crippled by debt.
You rise to the pinnacle of the Arcology, where the wealthy enjoy a life of luxury and space as you progress through the story, making a name for yourself as a mercenary. You will find that the aesthetic and vibe of the city changes as you ascend the structure. One of the most striking moments comes a few hours after gaining access to Highstreet. Until then, you had been moving through low-level areas like Deepstink, but suddenly you found yourself surrounded by an expanse of skyscrapers and neon billboards.
This is a magnificent piece of world-building and scene-setting, which reappears numerous times throughout the game, exuding a real sense of scale and highlighting the city’s unique geography, history, and social divides. Coder’s Cove is a smoky hacker hideout in the Black Lake district, the lavish Golden Satori casino, dominated by giant golden Buddha statues, and the Onyx Void gang’s HQ, hidden inside a massive smiling cat.
In addition to being treated to one of those spectacular cyberpunk landscapes while playing The Ascent, the setting is also impressive at the micro level. There is clutter, bustle, and convincing signs of habitation throughout. Streams of flying cars streaking between buildings, noah’s arks fixing streetlights, garish television commercials looping, mountains of trash… Every inch of the screen is filled with so much information. There’s not just density to be impressed with, but the art as well. Everything from the costumes to the logos to the vehicles to the machinery is insanely detailed and crafted with such care.
That’s cool. There’s no doubt this setting is a favorite. One can’t help thinking of Cyberpunk 2077 while playing The Ascent. Last year, it was written about how players found Night City to be shallow and superficial despite first impressions. As hours passed, gamers had a nagging feeling that they had little faith in it: a feeling that only grew stronger as time went on. In the Ascent, you’ll encounter a totally unique type of game. There are no big open world RPGs in this game. Instead, it’s an isometric shooter. The setting is more evocative and captivating, however, which speaks volumes about its author (and, honestly, a little bit surprises me).
In contrast, the idea of cramming a city into an enormous building is more imaginative and interesting. You could easily substitute any modern city for Night City if you removed some of the video billboards and holographic neon signs. The future is familiar and futuristic at the same time. It is fascinating to imagine this towering, multilevel Arcology, teeming with life from every corner of the galaxy, whose levels each represent a social stratum. In that vein, I find it amazing that Veles is so filled with them; that this Arcology, alive with drama and life, is just one of many vertical cities littering the planet.
The Ascent’s inclusion of some science fiction elements, namely a variety of weird and shady aliens, adds something unique to the well-worn cyberpunk genre. This is a mixture of the seedy, scuzzy corporate underbelly of Star Wars with cynical, anti-corporate 80’s cyberpunk. Besides, it has the grimy, punky tone of an old 1980s comic book, like something you’d find in old, yellowed copies of Heavy Metal or 2000 AD.
As well as being a game that tries hard to be cool, Cyberpunk 2077 is also a game that takes itself very seriously. The futuristic fashion and street slang of Night City feel forced and contrived — they feel forced and unnatural. However, The Ascent is much better at creating a sense of immersion and convincing you that it exists without feeling forced. There’s a certain understated style to it that Cyberpunk might not have. The Arcology is one of the few things that gamers accept without question. This is a setting that feels thoughtful and fully formed. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, has an inconsistency and a feeling that the developer tried too hard.
Its only real failing is that there isn’t enough of a role-playing game involved in it—certainly not to the level one would expect from a setting of this caliber. There are a few chatty NPCs and a few sidequests, but they’re all pretty inconsequential. Night City holds a distinct advantage in this regard. The Arcology is really just a beautiful, fast-paced shooting game backdrop, where players can interact with things and uncover stories. Ascent should make a future CRPG game (if they make one), with a much more complex role-playing aspect. I still consider it to be my favourite cyberpunk city on PC despite its limited level of interaction.