God of War: Ascension
I’m always skeptical of prequels. Unlike a new game or a sequel, a prequel has a much more difficult time justifying itself. When I first learned that God of War: Ascension took place before any other games in the saga, I was slightly disappointed, but, given my love for the franchise, I felt fairly confident that the game could offer more of the over-the-top action and visuals I expect from Sony Santa Monica. On that front, the game succeeds exceptionally well. It’s a visual stunner with a fantastic combat system. Nevertheless, I find myself a bit disappointed by Ascension, and I’m struggling to justify my dissatisfaction.
I’ve been a staunch defender of the God of War series, even as complaints have been levied against it for its stubborn refusal to veer too far from its established formula. For these detractors, Ascension will hardly impress because it does not offer much in the way of reinvention. It is, however, a good game. I can recommend it easily to anyone looking for an epic adventure game with brutally satisfying combat and dazzling visuals.
Yet I have many reservations about the game, whether from my own prejudice about what I want from a God of War game or from my attempt to discuss the game on its own terms. But therein lies the crux of my experience with the game: there is not a single aspect of it I can earnestly laud without immediately offering a counterpoint to undercut it.
The story takes place soon after Kratos commits the grievous sin of murdering his family in a blinded rage due to the machinations of Ares, the God of War. Seeking to rid himself of his duty to the treacherous deity, Kratos is pursued by the Furies, three primordial guardians of sworn oaths and the eternal torturers of those who break their bonds. Here we have a younger, less rage-fueled Kratos, and the plot lacks the initial urgency and drive of the other entries in the franchise.
The game starts out in media res with Kratos already captured by the Furies, filling in the exposition through flashbacks of the journey leading up to his imprisonment. Though Ascension does not launch with the adrenaline of its predecessors (despite an admittedly impressive-looking boss fight), once Kratos journeys to island of Delos to explore a massive statue of Apollo, the story and set pieces seem like classic God of War. Still, the game never really nails that laser-focused balance between combat and puzzles that works so well in the other entries. What’s there is good (especially those puzzles that require time manipulation via the Uroboros Amulet), but the designs would run from brilliantly inspired to downright obtuse.
The puzzles, though, play second fiddle to the combat system–one of Ascension’s strongest aspects. Gone are the different weapons of previous titles, as Kratos has different upgrades for his blades: the fire of Ares, the lighting of Zeus, the ice of Poseidon, and the souls of Hades. While I do miss the variety (even if each was just another chain weapon), Ascension may have the most nuanced combat yet as you learn which attacks work best against certain foes. Since magic powers are tied to each version of the blades and only unlocked at the highest level, you have to become quite proficient in each set of blades.
Other changes to combat are more superficial, yet still welcome. The Rage meter is now different and uses different attacks depending on the blades equipped, though in latter sections of the game the meter becomes quite difficult to fill. Kratos can now pick up swords, spears, shields, clubs, and slings from fallen enemies, or he can use his fists. All of them are pretty useless, except throwing some weapons at enemies stun them, opening them up to grapple moves. Speaking of which, you can now grapple an enemy and tether them to you with a chain, allowing you to keep your enemy on a leash while you fend off attackers. It works really well, and, though the other weapons and Kratos’ fists lose their impact when you have Kratos’ blades at maximum power, it’s damn satisfying to punch a satyr right in his goat face before ripping him apart.
While quick time events still abound, a few enemy executions weave them in organically; killing a gorgon or elephantaur involves a minigame sans button prompts in which you actively dodge attacks while stabbing your enemy. It’s a much more elegant solution, but there is a problem in that sometimes it’s difficult to discern whether or not your button presses will be prompted or not. Still, I’d much rather have these more organic kill moments than see the gigantic Playstation controller symbols flash on my screen, as they draw attention from the spectacle of the kill.
There are moments when the combat is less than satisfying. At times the camera zooms out so far that you can barely see Kratos among a group of similarly sized specks. Thankfully, these moments rarely include powerful enemies, so you can just mash buttons and enjoy the sights. Its worst moment, though, surfaces in the Trials of Archimedes in which you are swamped rather unfairly (so much so the Sony announced a patch to fix it), and, while the challenge is not insurmountable, the difficulty spike comes out of nowhere.
There is, however, one change that I find unforgiveable. The parry function has changed from an automatic reaction with a well-timed block to holding down block and pressing the x button. It seems like an innocuous change but that one extra step breaks the flow of combat; there’s nothing organic about the parry move, almost negating its use completely. Every time I tried to parry, I did so at the expense of fulfilling my rage meter. Whereas in other entries I could easily block, parry, and dodge seamlessly in a dizzying array of Spartan acrobatics, attempting to parry in Ascension slows combat to a crawl.
The choice to map the parry mechanic this way was undoubtedly prompted by its use in multiplayer, wherein combat is understandably slowed. To be honest, I’m quite impressed with the multiplayer suite, though the only mode worth playing is “Favor of the Gods” in which teams of two or four players battle to please the Olympians. Your character swears fealty to any one of four gods that determine gameplay (kind of): Ares (offense), Hades (stealth), Zeus (magic) and Poseidon (defense). The differences between the four are only semi-apparent, as each match can devolve into button mashing. Nevertheless, in those rare moments when you find yourself fighting one-on-one with an opponent and you outplay him/her, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Though the parry move makes sense in multiplayer, in the single-player campaign, the change is altogether unnecessary. And therein lies my feeling about the game: I just don’t see enough here to validate its existence. I know that seems a bit harsh, but, if I’m being fair and can put my own love for the series behind me, God of War: Ascension is a fun, but kind of hollow experience.
From a gameplay perspective, there’s not exactly an evolution so much as few tweaks and one terrible, terrible mistake. In terms of story, I learned nothing about Kratos that I could not have already inferred, and even the plot points that are genuinely new do not add all that much to the already established canon. Regarding spectacle, it certainly has its wow moments, especially in a beautifully epic final encounter, yet nothing here is quite as satisfying as storming Olympus on the back of an enraged Titan. Even the large scale boss fights are few and far between, as the game clearly favors combat against large groups of smaller enemies rather than epic encounters.
There’s something oddly appropriate about the game’s beginning: Kratos in shackles at the behest of angry forces constantly trying to get what they want out of him. As the sixth release in the series, Ascension is finally starting to show its age to this very loyal fan. If the series wants to remain relevant, it needs to move forward either mechanically or narratively; this latest iteration maintains status quo on one end and leaps back on the other. There’s a lot here to enjoy like the brutal combat, the decent multiplayer, and some of best visuals of this generation. Ultimately, God of War: Ascension is unable to break away from the binds of its position as a side story, a fun but unnecessary romp through the world the series has so fully realized.