God of War Ascension Review
Genre: Action Shooter
God of War Ascension is close, but cannot seal itself off from the temptation of trying too hard to please. It is a solid entry as the opening salvo of this massive narrative (despite confusion), yet cannot grab hold like its predecessors
Kratos has taken down giants, mountainous gods who have seized him in his quest for vengeance against Ares. God of War’s enormity is a hallmark, and in Ascension, Kratos fights… bugs. Middling insects prey on the weak, sapping them of life while repurposing them as insectoid beings. For Kratos, he shrugs them off, and it’s a wonder why they were ever included as foes.
Ascension languishes in pacing, fitted with battles at each turn that cry out to be shortened as to not reveal ludicrous birthing rates of villainous goat men. Ascension has them by the hundreds, and each fight becomes noxious to the thrills, battering down the familiar fluid enjoyment of the combat system. This is a prequel, and within his later quests, Kratos would snatch varied weapons of total devastation. That does not happen here, Ascension content with the chain blades that swipe around the frame, almost casually catching beings foolish enough not to block.
Blades are upgradeable though, fitted with lightening, fire, ice, and souls of the damned. This is all very sharp in terms of particle and lighting effects, menial in the instance of brawling. Core combos, the usual flips and lifts that slide into additional strikes, never changes dramatically. Differences come in the form of magic – bold attacks with sometimes structured inputs – and in rage. A meter takes residence in the bottom right, building as the assault rallies unchecked. A taken hit will knock it down, while a full series of bombastic hits spur up all of Kratos’ might. Impact may be only slightly elevated when activated, but there is no question as to their awe-inspiring power as mythology’s creatures are expelled faster.
This is supposed to be a more human Kratos, blissfully unaware of the crimes committed by his own hands as he seeks to break his bond with the gods. In-game, there is no change in behavior. It is arguable this is a Kratos depicted even fiercer, with a penchant for snapping heads, splitting open bellies, and gleefully exposing the interior of craniums. Blood is not only spilled, it is doused in gallons across the floor that plays host to combat. Ascension is not only violent, it is direct about it as these fleshy anomalies are split open.
His fiercest foes are the Furies, shape-shifting hell spawns with lurid methods as they expose Kratos to his family as they once were in his own mind. The story bleeds out as it whips between time frames, uncaring if it leaves the audience behind, expecting the veracity of the violence to soften the narrative shortfalls. In the midst of high-end clashes with Furies or their lesser demons, Ascension is allowed to breathe a little. Even with the monument to scale that God of War 3 so often was, this prequel works within its own sizable frame. Elsewhere, especially in the back half where (often illogical) puzzles begin to slip in with dull frequency, one has to wonder why they need bother with any of this.
Story is what drives these games; it always has. Capable structure means explaining Kratos’ purpose and reason for the assault, busted skulls, and switch pulling. Ascension does not do that, and lighting furnaces, backtracking through previous locations, or pushing statues comes across as busywork. There is only so much you can hide within scale, and most of that is blown before the third act commences. Not only is it time-filling rumbles with goat men and meaningless bugs, it’s also the sagging narrative dump.
Now in the sixth total game in the series, Ascension has becomes routine, dangerous territory for any gaming franchise. Worn thin on ideas, tracking hidden chests has become a laughable game of pushing against the cinematic camera. If the game leads one direction, go the opposite way and surely a chest resides there. There is no sense of adventure when the hidden are this familiar. The same goes for Ascensions’ raised debauchery, putting Kratos amidst a lesbian fantasy as other woman fawn over him with reworked breast physics. The game seems obligated to place its lead here, yet at this stage in the story, comes across as puerile.
Something about the game feels guarded, less willing to take any risk as to appease what has become ingrained in gaming culture. We expect Kratos to act like this and rip off heads, but there is also an assumption that he do so under the guise of fresh ideas. Maybe that is harnessing the technology like God of War 3’s immeasurably bold introduction or taking a softer approach like the PSP’s second sequel, Ghost of Sparta. Kratos here is gimped with a foursome of middling found side weapons that lack the range necessitated by the 3D fighting, and gifts of the gods which are useful for puzzles, not much else. Even then their abilities, which include cloning Kratos or removing the Furies’ spells, feel utterly arbitrary. Puzzles could function just as well without them were the designed restrictions not in place.
With all of that, Kratos’ reason to be is strained. His fiery streak is extinguished, yet he is no less personable. He shows no remorse, and the score still sees a need for boisterous horns and booming war drums. If the purpose is to make Kratos human before he sends people into pits of fire for his own purpose, that needs to be seen, not insinuated. It begs the question as to what Kratos is actually ascending.
In either an attempt to brighten the series or find a purpose for the consumer unfriendly online pass, multiplayer has been worked into the mixture. If nothing else, it does reveal how God of War’s central engine can work without the blades: swords, hammers, and spears are all differentiated, yet still adequate for a 360 degree melee rumble. In execution, the ideas partially mix with the basic template of mixing and matching attacks to counter one another. Within the frenzied (and rapidly changing) maps, glowing weapons, and mess of color, actually countering these moves properly comes across as guesswork. Newcomers are slaughtered by those with a keen eye for animation routines, or those who can see the framework of the engine clearly. Those people will not be many.
Multiplayer games are often successful because of their simplicity, a general point-and-shoot mechanism or co-op rush. Ascension is implied simplicity, and breaking it down across three modes (varied by the number of players) merely reveals how cluttered it all is. Activity is high without much being accomplished, and performing fatalities slashes into the pacing while leaving the player defenseless to an opposing assault. The ripped out heart of God of War may be here, but it is mostly lost in a shuffle of weapon clashes.
One thing remains, a survival mode that offers bonus time in exchange for enemy death, a perfect example of cooperative escapism if only the campaign had not burned out its fire with obvious repetition. This is Kratos’ first adventure in the timeline of the franchise, so it is a wonder why he seems so tired.
God of War: Ascension was reviewed on PlayStation 3.