Kratos has always been portrayed as an angry, violent man. A man who stops at nothing to destroy those who have betrayed him. A man whose temperament is coarser than the finest grades of sandpaper and Brillo pads. But Sony Santa Monica was determined to give us a prequel (to a prequel) to show the more “human” side of Kratos. They said they would show us that Kratos has emotions other than anger and feelings outside of pure rage. We were supposed to see who he was before and how he got to where he is now.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that God of War: Ascension fails at this task and wholly fails at meeting the expectations that come with being a God of War game. On the surface, it appears to be God of War, but digging deeper proves that appearances can be deceiving.
The narrative is a mess from nearly all angles. The three Furies are the primary antagonists in Ascension and they had the potential to be interesting, but they (along with another major character) were never fully fleshed out. The opening cutscene is about the extent of their back-story, and that’s a shame because we’re never given a reason to be invested in fighting them.
Kratos faces a similar (though less exaggerated) lack of depth. Instead of the Charmin-soft side of Kratos we were promised (okay, maybe not that soft), we get Kratos going from upset to his traditional irate. The primary issue is the story’s starting point is about six months too late; at the beginning, his family is already dead. To show a more emotional Kratos, we need to experience that event with him and the sadness that accompanies it, not another tiny increment of the story we already knew.
While development of the characters falls flat, the story itself would be difficult to navigate on its own. It jumps soullessly back and forth between past and present settings; it’s extremely difficult to know which one you’re currently playing in. The only times I knew what time I was playing in was when it transitioned back to the other while I’m thinking “so that stuff was all the past?” It feels like multiple ideas were haphazardly implemented and thrown together in a way that barely works; there’s more jumping through time in Ascension than all the Prince of Persia games combined.
From a gameplay perspective, this is still God of War. You will flail your chained Blades of Chaos at your enemies, rip their weakened bodies in half, and complete quicktime events to finish off bigger enemies and bosses, all while grunting feverously and collecting red orbs for upgrades. Ascension only grants you one weapon (there are disposable subweapons I didn’t find much use for), but you’ll gain magic throughout the campaign to imbue the Blades of Chaos with four elemental powers. While they do offer some variation for tactics, it’s not evident until much later in the game exactly what effect they have on enemies aside from smashing and a few pretty animations.
Aside from magic, you’ll get two other items that help out in combat and with puzzles. Problem is, you get them so late, you barely have time to get used to using them effectively before the game ends. There is very little variety in combat, and having these much sooner would have helped alleviate this issue. Rolling is still mapped to the right stick, but it’s accompanied by a slight delay, making utilizing it effectively more difficult than it should be. You can still block attacks, but there’s been a curious change to the way you parry. Instead of a well timed press of the block button, you now must hold block and press a face button. I don’t know what brought on this change, but it caused me much frustration. My entire combat experience with Ascension was that I spent my time surviving battles, not thriving the way a grizzled veteran should. Every battle after the beginning, I was wondering when it would end, hoping I wouldn’t run out of life before I ran out of enemies.
Typical puzzles and platforming sections are still around. For the most part, they’re not too intrusive and offer a break from the aforementioned combat struggles, though at times I felt they overstayed their welcome. One puzzle in particular took longer than I expected; the answer was relatively simple, but not clear how I would initially achieve that resolution without extended trial and error. Platforming sections were littered with very generous checkpoints, so missing a jump didn’t require retreading through any long sections of gameplay a second time. I was thankful for this, since I sometimes spent my time gazing at all the imagery in the background. Ascension is a very good looking game.
For the first time, a God of War game features a multiplayer mode. In it, you’re able to form an allegiance to the God of your choice (I chose Ares…) and customize your Spartan’s look and abilities. There are few options available from the start, but plenty to be unlocked. There are four modes available: Team Favor of the Gods, Match of Champions, Trial of the Gods, and Capture the Flag, covering your standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, a co-op Horde-type mode and, well, Capture the Flag.
While not particularly deep, each mode is functional and it’s interesting to face-off both with and against other God of War players for the first time. While it’s likely not polished enough to encourage long term play, I can see this being iterated upon and improved in a similar manner to the Assassin’s Creed series’ multiplayer. Personally, I thought this was the best part of the Ascension package (unless we’re being real cynical and saying that The Last of Us demo is the true prize).
In a series that has spawned countless wannabes and clones, it’s a shame Ascension couldn’t emulate its own prior glory. Kratos bound by his own chains in the opening scenes is fitting, as the entire experience is held back by the grand nature of his previous (future?) exploits and the inability to convey the emotions we were promised. God of War Ascension is a serviceable game, but in a series where scale is everything, serviceable isn’t grand enough.
Full disclosure: I purchased this game for review. I spent approximately 25 hours with it, completing the game and spending several hours with the multiplayer.