Video Game Review: God of War: Ascension
What do you tell a Harpy with two black eyes?
When the credits rolled on God of War III it felt like Santa Monica Studio had written a fitting conclusion to the legend of Kratos, the Spartan turned god. Of course, like Halo, Gears of War and pretty much any other series that is still thought to have life left it should come as no surprise that Sony is dipping back into the mythological well to bring forth God of War: Ascension. It tries a few new things, but ultimately this is classic God of War through and through.
Kratos’ primary tool of destruction is once again the Blades of Chaos, though this time you’re able to imbue the blades with one of four powers: fire, lightning, ice and undead. Each element is upgradable via red orbs (as are the blades themselves) with additional combos, damage and magic becoming available. Unlock past games, and there are no supplementary weapons to acquire. Instead, you can find temporary weapons in the environments that degrade, and eventually break, with continued use.
Beyond his weapons, Kratos also has access to a few relics, two of which (the amulet and the oath stone) have additional uses during combat — well, technically the eyes do as well, but only in a scripted manner. The amulet can slow an enemy and suspend them in a bubble while the stone creates a shadowy version of Kratos that attacks your foes. These additions are especially helpful later in the game when the enemies multiply and fights get tougher.
One thing the God of War series has always been known for is excellent graphics, and Ascension is no exception. Environments are strikingly detailed with plenty of moments when the game pulls back so you can bask in the enormity of your task. Enemy variety is a bit of a weak point, but the actual design is excellent with some inventively vicious, gory kills on larger foes. Kratos’ movement is smooth and the way he dispatches foes is slickly rendered as usual.
All this visual power does come at a cost, and it’s one series vets are all too familiar with. The camera remains static, allowing for a cinematic experience, but one that can land you in some serious trouble in certain fights. During these moments it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish Kratos from the numerous foes surrounding him, and in tight quarters where there’s nowhere to escape to it can lead to some serious frustration. Thankfully those instances are rare, though it’s not uncommon for enemies to go off screen when you’re evading to create distance.
Terrence Carson returns to lend plenty of bass to Kratos’ infinite rage, growling his lines angrily as various immortals once again run afoul of the Ghost of Sparta. The rest of the cast does a solid job as well, and the score is suitably epic. After a while the constant shouts and grunts can become a little tiresome, but there’s not much to complain about with the game’s presentation.
Set before the events of the original God of War, Ascension picks up with Kratos imprisoned by the Furies — three sisters that act as enforcers, punishing those that fail to live up to their word — for breaking his blood oath to Ares. Kratos is not one to accept captivity, however, and quickly finds a way to escape and take the fight to the Furies, though much of the game actually covers the events leading up to the Spartan’s imprisonment, jumping between the present and three weeks earlier.
Relative to previous installments in the series, Ascension settles in as the weakest link when it comes to the story. Sure, it’d be tough to match the scale of an all-out war with Olympus, but it feels like a missed opportunity nonetheless. With the tag line, “Before he was a god, he was a man,” Ascension was uniquely positioned to humanize Kratos by making him vulnerable in any number of ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Instead, the differences between the mortal and immortal versions are scarcely distinguishable as he’s still supremely powerful, fearless and largely bereft of emotion.
Beyond the story, God of War: Ascension is also lacking the memorable set pieces that have been such a staple of the series. Battles, while generally enjoyable, tend to bleed together with a formulaic feel that recycles enemy types and combinations liberally. The boss fights, while grandiose in scale, aren’t very difficult, either. In fact, by far the most challenging battle is the “Trial of Archimedes,” which was so tough that it was actually patched to make it more palatable.
Despite these complaints, I remained engaged throughout the 30-chapter story (figure somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 hours on the default setting) as there remains a very real, visceral satisfaction to shredding enemies and ripping them apart. The puzzles deftly walk the line by being neither too obvious nor too mentally taxing to solve, and the various platforming and quick-time events keep things from ever getting overly stale on your journey. We’re now six games (four console, two PSP) into the series and I’m still having fun with the formula, so Santa Monica must be doing something right.
At the heart of that formula is the combat, which has both the simplicity to appeal to button mashers as well as the depth to keep more seasoned gamers awash in dozens of combinations to mix and match. On that front, Ascension remains satisfying with each of the aforementioned powers available to Kratos offering up unique combos and magic attacks. When you really get rolling it can be quite a sight.
While the campaign may be old hat, God of War: Ascension introduces multiplayer to the series, both competitive and co-operative. Here you’ll create a warrior with similar abilities to Kratos, albeit on a smaller scale, and unique attributes based on which of the four gods (Ares, Zeus, Hades or Poseidon) you pledge your allegiance to. As you rank up you’ll unlock better armour and weapons, and the rank points allow you to purchase new skills and relics for in-game buffs and magic.
On the competitive side is the team-based “Favor of the Gods,” which combines Team Deathmatch with domination as you earn favour by capturing alters, killing enemies and looting treasure chests. There’s also four- and eight-person free-for-all matches along with Capture the Flag. Matches are decent fun, though even during prime gaming time it seems like there’s a lot of waiting for them to start. Superior numbers seem to always rule the day as well as, unlike a Halo or Call of Duty, it seems nearly impossible to ward off more than a single opponent at a time.
Trials of the Gods is the last online offering, and it can be tackled solo or with a partner. Here you try to make your way through a gauntlet of enemies in a race against the clock with kills and other actions placing precious seconds back in the hourglass. The entire multiplayer package is competent, and it offers a nice change of pace to the litany of online shooters, but I’m skeptical that it’ll attract a very active community down the road.
If you enjoyed the previous games in the series odds are you’ll enjoy God of War: Ascension. It’s well paced, combat heavy and features a multiplayer that should at least tack some extra hours onto the overall package. Still, with the PlayStation 4 looming, it’d be nice to see the series branch out a bit when next we catch up with Kratos.