When you have a series like God of War, one that built its name on massive scale, fluid pacing and an extremely refined combat system, it’s tough to figure out where exactly it can go from there, especially since it has already become a fully formed trilogy with all loose ends seemingly tied up. What exactly could another game in the franchise add or expand upon when it comes to the already solid framework?
Well, how about the pale-skinned brutish antihero himself, Kratos? That’s what Santa Monica had in mind when crafting God of War: Ascension, a prequel that aims to explore the character of Kratos and delve into his psychology and motivations during the most important and tragic time of his origin. Did they pull it off and make a game that truly ascends, or are you better off stripping down to your boxers, painting yourself red and white, and running around town screaming to get your GoW fix? We’re about to find out.
Ascension takes place earlier than any entry in the series thus far, only six months after Kratos had accidentally murdered his family and well before he became an actual deity by defeating his master, Ares. However, it’s likely you’d only know that if you were explicitly told beforehand, because for all intents and purposes, Kratos is the exact same angry person here as he was in any of the previous titles. He still scowls, he still yells his lines frequently, he still totally pulls off a loincloth, and he’s still just as capable of performing dangerous swings and jumps as well as laying the beat down on mythological creatures.
The story kicks off with a bang as Kratos escapes from a prison, where he had previously been held by three Furies who uphold his bond with Ares. Sadly, the plot instantly becomes background noise until about an hour in, where the game flashes back to a few weeks prior. Only then do we get the slightest hint to back up the proceedings, and from there it quickly becomes incredibly clear that Ascension’s tale is a missed opportunity, one that is brutally underdeveloped and fails to deliver on Santa Monica’s promise of expanding upon Kratos in any noteworthy way.
By game’s end, you’ll learn next to nothing about him other than the fact that he likes his wife and kid. As you’re continually whisked to new locations that feel shoehorned in for the sake of set pieces, it’s hard to feel that the tale is in any way emotional or significant. The only story details you get tend to be from infrequent cutscenes that often serve as exposition dumps, while the characters are throwaway and the dialogue melodramatic. Honestly, the live-action Super Bowl trailer for Ascension gave more insight into Kratos than the entirety of this game does. As a result, the whole affair feels utterly pointless and lacks the narrative hook that prior titles had.
Thanks to the use of flashbacks and poorly explained context for situations, it also feels more than a little muddled and confusing, so I can’t even give it points for clarity. Why exactly is Kratos going to the Temple of Delphi and visiting a statue of Apollo? Beats me! I’m sure I’d find out if I jump onto the God of War wiki, but when I have to do that, it’s pretty clear the writers haven’t done the greatest job at making an intelligible plot. I will at least say that the text logs are refreshingly brief and occasionally interesting.
I’m happy to report that the combat, arguably the main focus of the series ever since the first game, holds up much better, if only because it’s been more or less copy/pasted from previous games. Once again, Kratos can dish out light and heavy attacks with his chained blades in a satisfying, impactful way that makes button-mashing more fun than it has any right to be. Emphasis is placed on dodge-rolling and blocking, and enemies are aggressive enough to make skirmishes genuinely challenging. Chests containing health and magic orbs are handed out at just the right times, and red orbs can once again be collected from slain foes to upgrade your arsenal.
That’s not to say there aren’t a scant few addition to gameplay, even though they don’t change the experience in any significant way. Grabbing is now assigned to a trigger and can be done from slightly farther than before, though it’s functionally the same. Kratos now has elemental variations for his blades that allow him to attain different types of orbs from enemies, though it’s largely impractical to switch between them in the heat of combat. There are now some sections where Kratos slides down slopes dodging debris, though they’re brief and infrequent. Finally, a few finishers let Kratos dodge and deal blows in a manner similar to Punchout, though they too are not very prominent, and most of the time you’ll dispatch foes with standard quicktime events.
Then we have the obligatory puzzles and platforming, which work well for the game’s pacing but are admittedly quite simple. Puzzles usually consist of straightforward lever-pulling and timed jumps, though a precious few do rise to the occasion of forcing you to use your gray matter, particularly the ones that ask you to use a ‘time relic’ that can age or decay objects. Outside of these sequences, the time ability is completely contextual and uninvolving, while the platforming often employs slow ledge-climbing sections that play like a neutered Prince of Persia and just feel like filler. The swinging portions, on the other hand, are considerably more thrilling.
By all accounts, Ascension feels like some sort of expansion pack to God of War III, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if Santa Monica still infused the game with their trademark creativity and masterful pacing. Unfortunately, while the game is mechanically polished and sports some imaginative level and boss design in its first few hours, the game starts to become seriously repetitive around the halfway point due to lazy design and a lack of inventive scenarios. It didn’t seem that Santa Monica went out of their way to make their dream game here like they did with past God of War’s, instead churning out another dish of their famous entrée in a workmanlike manner. It’s certainly not bad, as it’s still made with experience and competence behind the helm, but it all feels safer than a man in a bomb shelter.
Very little in the way of new enemy types are introduced, with the majority of the rogues gallery being shamelessly recycled from games prior, and before long the game is content with devolving into a series of generic combat encounters in sealed rooms broken up by straightforwardly linear paths or the aforementioned climbing and light puzzles that too often do little to challenge or engage.
Pretty soon, even the bosses become glorified standard enemies albeit with more health, requiring exactly the same dodge-then-hit tactics as practically every other baddie in the game. The pattern-based environmental attacks displayed by the Hecatonchires boss in the opening are quickly done away with, and likewise the levels themselves start to progress in a more rudimentary fashion, existing only to get you to the next situation rather than serving as enjoyable diversions in their own right. I should also mention the many invisible walls throughout, as well as occasional instances where the camera zooms out so far that it’s hard to keep track of our red-tattooed avatar. While not major annoyances, these could definitely have been smoothed out.
While I enjoyed most of my 8-10 hours with Ascension, I never felt utterly hooked like I was with previous entries in the franchise. I always felt completely fine with stopping at any point and taking a break, which while undeniably good for my health and well-being, made Ascension seem half-hearted at points and lacking creative drive behind its development and design.
It can at least be said that in no universe could Ascension ever be considered an ugly game. Thanks to exquisite lighting, texture work and animation, Santa Monica have succeeded brilliantly in making a technical achievement that looks just as good if not better than God of War III. The artistic design, however, is what usually steals the show, conveying gigantic environments that are brimming with detail and are imaginative in ways you wish the level design took more advantage of. A prime example is when you’re stuck in a box room that the Hecatonchires picks up and starts twirling; never does platforming or strategic movement come into play in this sequence, and instead you simply fend off bugs until the room is rotated and you fight another wave.
The sound fares decently as well. The score is appropriately low and trembling while the voice acting is delivered with grave seriousness. Sound effects are nicely impactful as well, even if Kratos’ blades unsatisfyingly ‘chinking’ off walls when you hit them is a bit questionable after so many games in the series. Unfortunately, a few sound bugs popped up while playing that caused music or effects to cut off, which while not game-breaking, definitley seem out of place in a game this late in the PS3’s life cycle.
You’ll certainly have some fun with God of War: Ascension, of that there can be no doubt. The combat’s still flesh-wrenchingly satisfying, the scale is still massive, and the pacing is still considerate. However, much of the energy and imagination employed in previous games is sorely missing here, and thanks to the underwritten nature of Kratos’ quest, the whole thing feels as if it were made more from obligation than from passion. Lacking the fleshed out story and confidently changed vision of DmC or the refreshing speed and style of Metal Gear Rising, Ascension is still an enjoyable action game that is good shallow fun to kill time with, but it’s also a formulaic and unremarkable one that’s far from the godly prequel many were hoping for.
(Reviewed on Playstation 3, obviously. Review copy provided by Sony. Many thanks.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 4.5/10
Gameplay/Design – 7/10
Visuals – 9.5/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting appeal – 7/10
Overall – 7.5/10
(not an average)
Platforms: PS3 exclusive
Developer: SCE Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Rating: Mature (ESRB), 18 (PEGI)