A perennial favorite franchise among the PlayStation crowd, Sony Santa Monica’s God of War series has raged on for eight years. Over that span, we’ve seen six games released across various platforms, all with a new wrinkle to add to Kratos’ story. With God of War: Ascension, the sixth game in the series, Sony Santa Monica has gone back to where Kratos’ troubles all began. A prequel to the entire series, Ascension has little wiggle room to bring something new to the table outside of some refined combat and increasingly impressive graphics. Ultimately that’s all that we do get, and God of War: Ascension is the first time Kratos’ act starts to feel a bit tired.
Sony Santa Monica dug itself into a pretty big narrative hole with God of War 3. There certainly didn’t appear to be any more space left in Kratos’ story for a new adventure to fit in for a sequel. Instead of washing away the conclusion of that game however, the developers went back to the beginning to tell another tale of Kratos’ early days as Ares' right-hand man. The new twist on Kratos’ origin has him on the run from the Furies, who are intent on making sure he keeps his blood oath to Ares. This game takes place in such a narrow window of opportunity, and it’s almost impossible to tread any new narrative ground. The familiar beats are all there, and everything feels very been there, done that. Despite the inclusion of new mythological characters into the fold, Ascension’s story feels hollow since you already know how it will all play out. Sure, there are set pieces that are purely outstanding to take part in, but every single one of your actions in this game lacks the weight to make you care about what Kratos is doing.
Fortunately, Ascension’s combat is the tightest and most complete the series has seen, and does a great job keeping you interested and engaged in what’s happening on screen. God of War’s combat has always been one of the franchise’s strongest suits, and that trademark easy-to-learn, hard-to-master system is back again. The standard Blades of Chaos button-mashing has also been enhanced with four new elemental effects based on the pantheon of the Greek gods. Zeus gives you lightning-based powers, Hades gives you soul-sucking abilities, Ares gets Kratos fired up, and Poseidon grants you some water-based abilities. It’s a good way to reintroduce the magical abilities that have become so familiar over the years, and does actually add a bit of strategy into the combat. You can swap in and out of the abilities with the press of the d-pad, and build up some truly impressive combos with careful and precise timing.
While most of Ascension’s combat has just been fine-tuned a bit (which is perfectly fine with us), there are a few new features that do help keep things fresh. New mini-game battles with enemies are fantastic. Before, most mini-games merely relied on button combos needing to be hit at just the right time. Those do return, but some grapple finishers are also more interactive. Instead of just going down easy, monsters like gorgons will fight back, and you’ll have to dodge some close-combat attacks in order to finish them off properly. It’s a very small touch, but one that makes combat all the more thrilling.
Additionally, secondary weapons like swords, clubs, and shields can be picked up in the game world, and repurposed for your own use. While it isn’t wholly necessary to use any of the new armaments, they do offer a way to break up the monotony a bit. Some of the secondary attacks they provide can be extremely helpful in certain situations, and you’ll find yourself acclimating to weapons that suit your playstyle very quickly. The puzzle-solving items you’ll earn along the journey are also suited for combat. The Uroboros stone (freezes enemies), and the Orkos stone (creates a self-sufficient clone of Kratos), are incredibly useful in completing some of the more difficult areas. The Eyes of the Oracle aren’t really that great for combat, but since they appear so close to the end of the game, you won’t really mind their uselessness.
Now much has been made of the Trials of Archimedes, and it’s worth pointing out that this section of the game is poorly balanced, at times frustrating, and very much the worst part of Ascension. Completing this section of the game had little to do with skill and proficiency, and much more to do with luck. Normally, Ascension would be about an 8-10 hour game. The Trials can inflate that time by at least a few hours, if not more. Fortunately, it’s being patched to not be a broken burden on future players. This is a good thing. Sony Santa Monica may be taking some heat for doing the patch, but when a part of a game is horribly unbalanced or broken, it should be fixed. The ability to deal out updates like this is part of what has made this generation so great, and the developer’s willingness to deal with the issue shouldn’t be seen as a dumbing down of content in the least.
God of War 3 was one of the most amazing looking games ever produced on the PlayStation 3. With the console's life cycle coming to a close, it looked like no one would be able to top the previous entry in this series. Somehow though, Sony Santa Monica has done just that. The animations are more fluid. Kratos looks absolutely ridiculous (in a good way). The caked on ashes that give him his whitened appearance look stunning up close, and the musculature of Kratos and other monsters in the game simply must be seen to be appreciated. The scope of the world is just as big, if not bigger than that of God of War 3 and presents some truly jaw-dropping visuals. Oddly enough, the same can’t be said about the sound design. The score is fine, and so is the voice work, but effects are often timed incorrectly. There were large gaps where no sounds other than Kratos’ heavy breathing were heard at all. For every one of those instances though, there were hours that would pass without a noticeable error. It’s strange for an otherwise polished game to have such a glaring sound issues.
Since it’s also now customary to include multiplayer in as many games as possible, even if the franchise isn’t well suited for such a mode, God of War: Ascension does indeed feature a multiplayer component. It’s unfair to the development team to call Ascension’s multiplayer tacked-on, as time was undoubtedly spent on trying to craft a multiplayer arena suitable for God of War’s incredible combat. However, all of the modes offered are quite boring. They offer no real substance, and while the co-operative and competitive game types are fun in short bursts, there’s no real hook to keep you coming back for more. The combat in the main game is far more enjoyable, and you don’t have to deal with other players interrupting your fun.
God of War: Ascension had the unfortunate role of being the most recent entry in the series. As a result, there really wasn’t much left for the developers to do but refine what already existed in one of the PlayStation 3’s greatest games, God of War 3. Though it features some nice improvements, there’s just not enough here to make this sequel stand out amongst its peers. Ascension is a good game, but the franchise is built around greatness. This game just couldn’t live up to that pedigree.
This review is based on a retail copy of God of War: Ascension.