The Ascent: Combat RPG with an Exhilarating World and Exciting Story
Previous Branching Narratives
Developer: David Shaw, Inductance, LLC Publisher: Inductance, LLC Format: PC, Switch (reviewed) Released for PC: 16th of June, 2020 Released for Switch: 29th of July, 2021 Time Played: 4 hours, 59 minutes Copy received free, courtesy of sassygamers.com
Puzzles are a mechanic that usually comes as second nature to me. They’re something that I’ve always appreciated ever since I first experienced some basic examples of the format across a multitude of Adventure Games, Point & Clicks, and Visual Novels back when I was a child. The simple mirror puzzles found in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker spring to mind as some of the earliest puzzles I can recall doing, along with the logical deduction puzzles that serve as the foundation of the gameplay within the Phoenix Wright series.
Yet, as I’ve aged, I’ve also found plenty of enjoyment within more focused and in-depth puzzle-oriented games, such as The Talos Principle, The Room series, and even 2016’s number one head-scratcher: The Witness. These days I sometimes find myself whittling away the hours by also doing puzzles with no narrative substance, like a Sudoku puzzle here and there, a small word search from time to time, and an occasional game or two of Minesweeper. It’s always nice, regardless of the circumstances, to feel the satisfaction of solving a difficult puzzle or problem. I’ve always found that it helps me feel a little bit more accomplished and intelligent in the moment, which has been useful whenever I’ve been stuck in a rut or have needed a little bit of a boost to my sense of self-efficacy. Unfortunately, The Long Gate did not give me any sense of intelligence, capability, accomplishment, or satisfaction…
Instead, it made me feel dense and vapid.
The primary difference between the aforementioned games and The Long Gate is that the latter doesn’t take the time to guide you or explain its mechanics to you in any substantial or comprehensive way, even on its easiest difficulty setting. There’s no real difficulty curve to speak of, you’re just sort of dropped into the world at the deep end and expected to completely understand how to progress, thanks to the aid of some extremely short-form hints which describe the individual rules for certain puzzle types. When compared with the scope and difficulty of the puzzles, on the whole, these brief and vague scraps of guidance are never enough to help you internalize exactly what it is that you’re supposed to be doing… With that said though, we do have a lot of ground to cover with this game, so let’s split this review into some more easily digestible chunks, shall we?
I’ll be honest and say up front that I didn’t beat The Long Gate, or rather: I couldn’t beat The Long Gate. It was just too obtuse for me… Too difficult in a sense that; Rather than expecting me as the player to gradually learn the game’s mechanics as it taught them to me piecemeal, instead it expected me to have prior knowledge of how certain mechanics work within their real-world counterparts. For example, having some prior understanding of how amplifier graphs work goes a long way towards more easily making progress, as does understanding how an equivalency of the “IF-THEN” coding logic would work when presented in the form of a circuit, with its elements altered to be presented in the form of “NOT-OR-AND-THEN” nodes. If you feel this sounds a mite bit overwhelming as a starting point for this review, then ten points to you, because you’re completely right! And yet these are some of the earliest concepts that a player must contend with upon beginning a new game of The Long Gate.
It’s not just amplifier graphs and “IF-THEN” coding logic that’ll help you though, as every single one of the puzzles found in The Long Gate is based on real-world technologies in one way or another, and whilst you certainly don’t need full education in each of these topics to understand how to progress in the game, it certainly does help, as they’re extremely obtuse otherwise. In fact, the convoluted nature of the puzzles should be made clear from this excerpt of the game’s description on the Steam store page, which states that at one point, the game “… contains accurate depictions of quantum circuits and a 4-bit quantum computer, verified by scientists at D-Wave Systems, the world’s first commercial quantum computing company.” (Source found here)
Honestly: “Insanely complex”, “unclear”, and “formidable” are the best descriptors I can think of to describe difficulty levels of this extent. Although does that make it a bad game by default? Not by any means, but it does factor into making the game quite inaccessible and esoteric. Three different difficulty settings may be available to you but they don’t make much of a difference, altering the puzzle areas to either only include symbols within the hardest difficulty setting, to have both symbols and labels in its moderate option, and to include the vague hints I referenced earlier in its easiest setting. Each one of these additional modifiers serves as a nice touch and a welcome feature, but they never feel substantial enough to definitively make the experience more accessible.
With no tutorial to speak of, The Long Gate begins at the start of a lengthy series of rooms with a mysterious device lying at the end, placed carefully within the grasp of a mechanical pedestal. Once you’ve attained this device, you find yourself upon a walkway with an interactive button that somehow rotates the ceiling and floor around, putting one in the place of the other. Several points of interest can be seen nearby: A door lies up ahead of you with two glowing glyphs around it, yet the walkway doesn’t reach far enough for you to approach it. Two more markings are engraved upon the ground in the form of a convoluted hint; “Either symbol A, or, symbol B.”
Meanwhile, glancing above you reveals a giant swirling pool of particle effects, glowing a deep red that implies you should steer clear if you know what’s good for you. Embarrassingly, it took roughly twenty minutes before I managed to work out where I was meant to go at this point… As it turns out, just beneath the walkway, (completely invisible from any point atop it), there was another swirling pool of particle effects which glow a much more welcoming blue. You must jump into this blue haze despite the fifty-foot drop feeling like somewhat of a hazard. Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a puzzle, but the unclear nature of it certainly didn’t grant me a good start to the experience.
Once you’ve gone through either the Blue or Red portal, you’ll find yourself delving into the actual gameplay by tackling one of the three major puzzle types that The Long Gate has to offer: Digital puzzles, Analog puzzles, and Quantum puzzles. The digital puzzles tend to involve the “IF-THEN” logic mentioned earlier, by creating input-output circuits using a variety of modules that change the behavior of the current running through them. ‘NOT’ nodes, for instance, mean that if a binary input value of 1 is running through a wire into a ‘NOT’ node, it will then no longer be a value of 1, changing to the opposite value of 0. Meanwhile, an ‘OR’ node dictates that if both binary input values going into it are 0 then the output will be 0, although if just one of the two binary input values going into it becomes 1, then the output will always be 1. You get the idea… Digital puzzles also include a multitude of other component types like buttons, levers, binary value registers, etc.. It’s a lot to take in and process.
Analog puzzles consist of multiple mechanics, including but not limited to placing amplifier graphs in a circuit in order to alter the graphs they display; The end goal of which is to ultimately output a graph that exactly matches a predetermined image at the final stop of the circuit. It’s sort of like an equation: Adding and subtracting different amplifier filters so that you reach a preordained result. These are probably the easiest of the game’s puzzles but as you reach the endpoint of their dedicated wing within the building, you’ll be dealing with dozens of amplifier receivers per puzzle. To make matters harder: Some of these connected puzzles also have over a dozen amplifier receivers of their own, which often leads to some confusion regarding where in a room you should be starting your deductions. Elsewhere in the Analog puzzle category, you’ll be dealing with switches and buffers in order to transfer power from one area to another in staggered stages and literally inputting code commands into a giant computer, in an attempt to make it run a particular program to spin a giant mechanism.
Finally, there are the Quantum puzzles, which concern QBits and coupler values. Honestly, the less said about these, the better, as the start of this last act of the game is the section that dissuaded me from continuing, as it is directly related to the accurate 4-bit quantum computer mentioned earlier in the article. Whilst I’m not exactly going to go in-depth with how each mechanic of every single puzzle variant works, this basic level of detail should give you a good enough idea of whether or not you want to play the game. From this information: You, as an individual, already know if you’ll be utterly fascinated by what The Long Gate has to offer, or if you’ll be bored to tears by it. That’s a good thing, in my mind… It means that the game may cater to a very niche audience, but at least they’ll be 100% satisfied with the depth it has to offer. Meanwhile, people who would find such an experience to be too intimidating won’t be misled into purchasing it, as they will understand not to expect the game to be more simple than it is.
To talk briefly about how these puzzles are dealt with in the actual gameplay for a moment: The controls are fairly formulaic. You can move around, sprint, crouch, jump and interact with various buttons and levers, all from a first-person perspective. Some sliders are a little finicky to use in the Switch version as they are surprisingly small and hard to aim at, given some slightly imprecise aiming sensitivity which rears its ugly head every once in a while. Thankfully this issue is a rarity, and moving the actual nodes across a room, (by using the mysterious device found within the intro), is a mechanic that controls smoothly and precisely. Movement on the whole also feels satisfying enough; You never feel lacking in speed, thanks in part to the sprint mechanic, whilst the jumping and crouching options never require you to do any form of precision platforming, meaning they only serve the purpose of giving you more maneuverability. Besides that though, there isn’t much to talk about here, as it is a fairly standard and familiar control scheme for anybody to pick up and play with.
Graphics & Performance
There is no distinct narrative to talk about in The Long Gate, but that doesn’t mean that the game lacks style. Far from it. The game is filled to the brim with unusual visuals on account of some realistically textured yet conceptually outlandish architecture. The facility you find yourself in boasts a wide range of structures and overgrown nature, both in the throes of overtaking one another, which leads to a plentiful amount of immersive sights.
Thankfully, these visuals never interfere with the puzzle side of the game; The actual nodes, (along with any objects that are integral to the riddles at hand), are very cleanly designed. This in turn means that the visually striking areas around you are never intrusive or off-putting to your focus. A single minor accessibility option is also present in the Switch release in the form of a FOV slider, which is something of a rarity in console gaming even amongst AAA experiences. It was certainly a pleasant thing to discover as I initially found the game to be a little too zoomed in and a tad strenuous on my eyes — A problem that was easily resolved by adjusting the FOV.
One of the biggest contributors to the immersive nature of The Long Gate, however, is the spellbinding soundtrack that haunts each and every nook and cranny of the facility around you. Seriously, do yourself a favor regardless of whether or not you’re interested in the game, by taking a look at some gameplay footage on YouTube and listening carefully for the music in the background. Or, alternatively, take a more attentive approach by purchasing the soundtrack directly from its Steam page, as I must say that listening to certain tracks is like a euphonious, dream-like adventure, in and of itself.
Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Switch version is fraught with some very serious performance issues that proved to be very distracting during my time with the game. There are certainly a few graphical bugs to be spotted, such as some extremely blocky shadows, (particularly when cast by foliage), that jerk about in a rather clunky manner every time they move. There are also a number of textures that could be viewed from the wrong side with some simple positioning, wherein I found them to be untextured, undetailed, and clearly not intended to be seen… I’d say that these issues are fairly understandable given the limitations of the Switch’s graphical capabilities, particularly for indie developers, but the large number of framerate issues found throughout the game is a much less acceptable issue.
When running on a TV via the Nintendo Switch’s dock, the game ran with a 30fps lock but at an unstable framerate that, depending on the room I was in, would occasionally drop as low as 17 frames per second for large periods of time. Unusually, when undocked and in the handheld configuration: The game retained its 30fps lock but proved to be completely stable, never dropping below its intended framerate. I found this to be quite bizarre given that most Switch games have the polar opposite issue… Perhaps the game is designed in such a way that, when docked, the graphical fidelity is raised higher than it is capable of being run, whilst undocked lowers the graphical fidelity further than necessary, resulting in better performance. Or perhaps not? It’s unclear, but I can say with certainty that the Switch port certainly needed a fair bit more QA testing in that regard.
Switch performance aside, I’m afraid that I can’t say much in regards to the game’s PC version. From what I have researched it appears that the game has fairly low system requirements for PC, and I’ve read plenty of accounts that the game is shockingly well optimized on the platform when compared with the Switch port. It’s certainly a lot more detailed in terms of visuals according to the gameplay demonstrations I have watched of it, but having never gotten hands-on experience with it myself I don’t have much to add, so take those accounts with a grain of salt.
The Long Gate is a hard game to recommend given my own personal experience with it. It’s largely inaccessible without a significant amount of prior knowledge and the information it gives you to aid you on your journey is vague and infrequent. Alongside this, the lack of narrative gave me very little reason to endure more hardships and see it through to the end. At the same time though: This is a perfect example of a game simply not being suited for me. If you personally enjoy excessively difficult puzzles based on real-world concepts and knowledge, then I see no reason why this game wouldn’t be one of the best options available to you.
The visuals and soundtrack can be stunning at times but the limitations of the Switch as a console hinder the game’s performance greatly and lowers the graphical fidelity somewhat. This doesn’t exactly ruin the deeply engaging visuals, but it certainly doesn’t compliment them as much as the PC version appears to. This is all to say that, if what I’ve described of the game does appeal to you, then the Steam version would be the better of your two options for experiencing it, should the opportunity be available to you.
Ultimately, it’s a game designed for a very particular player base to enjoy. That player base may not have included me, but that’s okay because perhaps it does include you.