Once again technically impressive, the ever amazing visuals can’t save God of War: Ascension from being a rather tepid and disappointing game. Lacking a true sense of soul and direction, Ascension seems to be all over the place with pacing that never finds its footing, combat that is riddled with small issues that prevent it from feeling refined or evolved, and a story that literally does nothing to advance or deepen the existing God of War mythos. Aside from a surprisingly deep and fun multiplayer mode, this latest entry in the God of War series sadly shows major franchise fatigue that will likely have the biggest fans of Kratos disappointed with what has been delivered to them.
+ Beautifully rendered worlds with varied art design.
+ Set-piece moments are impressive for their sheer size and scope.
+ Voice acting is solid as always, even in the case of Kratos being scaled back.
+ Multiplayer mode is implemented well and is rather addicting.
- Pacing feels uneven and in some cases comes across as padded to lengthen the experience.
- Story is disappointing as it fails to expand the lore and further build up Kratos as a character.
- Combat feels uneven due to weak sub-systems and frustrating enemy habits.
- A lot of the puzzles and even the boss battles feel like they’re on autopilot since there’s no spirit to them.
- Sound design is horrendous and the soundtrack is lackluster compared to the works of Gerard K. Marino.
The ever fierce warrior that is Kratos has returned for battle once again, yet this time the adventure he embarks on isn’t as memorable as his past efforts. As gamers I think we always have a lingering fear in the back of our minds that one of our favorite franchises may grow tiring, even if it maintains a level of quality that puts other titles to shame. Rarely do we see top-tier games fall into a rut of things seeming complacent, but with God of War: Ascension such a thing is apparent in a game that despite the stunning visuals feels a bit stale and simply tired.
Thrust into an adventure that doesn’t have him thirsting for blood and immediate vengeance, Kratos goes forth on a journey that well… to put it simply feels poor even by the popcorn cinema/over-the-top Greek mythology standards. Say what you will about the past God of War games, but for the most part they’ve always had a cohesive story that in some ways did justify Kratos going on a mass killing spree all while sporting a constant frown that would give Judge Dredd a run for his money. With GOW: Ascension an emphasis does seem to be placed on providing a story that is more mature and is riddled with less “I’m angry and want to kill you” moments, though it ultimately makes little to no sense.
Certain plot beats of Ascension’s narrative are indeed easy to follow since the main hook is that Kratos is being sought after by the Furies – a group of female deities who are neither Immortal nor are they Titan; they’re simply a force of nature stuck in between whose power is dangerous for mere mortals to test. Set prior to the events of the first God of War game, Ascension fails to create a sense of lore that makes the universe seem more robust – as GOW: Chains of Olympus and GOW: Ghost of Sparta did. Having some new baddies thrown into the mix that aren’t C-tier Gods is nice, though the Furies aren’t entirely memorable as coming across Hermes, Poseidon, or even Hercules for the first time since they’re just there to move things along until the final meager resolution comes around.
Ever bordering on being incoherent to follow due to the lack of cutscenes to flesh things out and the occasional jumping back and forth between time periods (no, there isn’t a post GOW3 time jump), the narrative in Ascension is easily one of the worst entries of the core GOW games by Sony Santa Monica. Stripping things back is fine in the wake of the overly epic finale the God of War series received in its third installment, but in the end Ascension merely plods from one area/set-piece to the next (however beautiful and epic they may be), and even then there’s a distinct lack of cohesion as to why Kratos is riding atop mechanical snakes other than the fact that it looks cool. Such lack of explanation/narrative drive makes certain scenarios in the game feel arbitrary and obvious that it was thrown in for the wow factor rather than serving the story and having a longstanding purpose to it.
Worst of all, Kratos as a character does suffer in the thematic direction taken by Ascension. While most people, both fans of the series and regular gamers alike, became tired of Kratos being ever pissed off at the world, he comes across as extremely neutered and near mute in Ascension. Throwing away the blood curdling rage of Kratos is fine since he hasn’t yet entered his second key pissed off phase, even post accidently killing his wife & daughter, but he hardly talks in Ascension and has no vibe as a character. That issue alone results in Kratos feeling more one-dimensional as ever since the few rare moments in which emotion is actually attempted to be elicited by the game fall flat since there isn’t an immediate connection with the legendary Spartan warrior.
The narrative/thematic failings made by God of War: Ascension are also reflected in what we care about the most: the gameplay. Amounting to a situation in which new things are attempted but don’t come across as well as they should’ve, Ascension is riddled with issues that range from small to big, and in the end such things result in the game feeling rather flat.
At first I couldn’t tell what was to blame for Ascension feeling as it did, whether it was simply a case of the game being made to feel different as to represent a slightly nerfed, albeit thematically logical, version of Kratos or because the new elements feel like a pebble stuck in a gear system – things are moving ever so slightly but there are small hitches here and there. Once again equipped with his Blades of Chaos, Kratos has his usual combat tricks which made me feel at home more or less. But what caused Ascension to pale in comparison to the combat of GOW3 is that not only does the combat feel off, in part due to the new mechanics, but it just isn’t that much fun.
Now an immediate amount of vitriol may soon be on its way towards me from God of War fans out there, but let me say this: I’ve been with the series since day 1 and absolutely adore it. Seriously, I’m a huge GOW fan and I’ve always enjoyed the combat and how it felt impactful and skillful at the same time without requiring me to do constant blocks/rolls or have the timing of Zeus himself to pull off a 75 hit combo. What made me less than enthused about the combat in Ascension is that it feels muddled and misdirected.
Throwing in new elements such as secondary weapons scattered around the environment and/or enemies is a nice touch, but the system feels like a gimmick as opposed to a viable system. With each of the secondary weapons only having a brief life span before its useless, there’s really no immediate skill or level of freedom as to how I could pull off combos and what assets I had in my arsenal. Now it may seem like the Blades of Chaos are enough to get Kratos by whilst in battle and while they are I did yearn for the weapon switching featured in GOW3 which allowed me to go between heavy weapons like the Cestus Gauntlets or Hades’ ever deadly Claws.
A look at the single-player campaign.
The lack of character in the combat through poorly implemented secondary weapons is also felt in the magic system; a component of the game that makes little to no sense other than being pretty to look at. Instead of allowing me to have unique attacks that I could call upon, the Blades of Chaos have merely been imbued (by the Gods of course) with abilities whose sole goal is to have a different color and slight combat variation. Despite some of the abilities having elemental properties, there’s no counter system in which using a fire weapon will weaken ice centric enemies or vice versa. This new magic system did allow me to do things like light my foes on fire or briefly freeze them, but it once again paled in comparison to what was done in previous God of War games, both in respect to how it looked and what impact it had during gameplay.
Playing through Ascension I did feel that this certainly wasn’t a regular God of War game, mostly for the fact that the combat feels repetitive and is slightly rooted in cheap tactics that suck out any excitement that’s to be had. Bordering between easy and annoyingly difficult, the enemies in Ascension aren’t just tiresome because there’s a dearth of variety (at least for the first half which almost exclusively features small bugs and Satyrs), but because they can be overly cheap.
With the revised parry system slightly playing a part in things, the timing of the enemies I encountered seemed to be uneven as I only had a small window to counter before both my combo and Rage meter was knocked down; thus ruining any momentum I had going. A perfect example of the flaws found in Ascension’s combat design comes in the form of the new Rage Meter and how enhanced attacks are automatically unlocked once I reached that pinnacle.
It’s easy enough to charge up the Rage Meter, but if I suffered one mere lash from an enemy I instantly lost all the bonus attacks I had going. So what’s the point of that exactly? Is it to instill a sense of skill within the player or is it merely uneven game design? Based on the tone of the game, I think it’s the latter since a lot of elements in Ascension feel slightly cobbled together; a perfect example being how an Analog stick QTE combat move was thrown in for the first time mid-way through the game in a boss battle. Exactly what’s the logic behind doing something like that?
I know it can be easily perceived as babyish to complain about combat, especially in a God of War game considering it’s not Bayonetta/Ninja Gaiden 2 tier difficult, though I did find the experience delivered in Ascension to be uneven compared to past entries in the series. All together it’s odd why the game had such radical, however small, changes made since it really doesn’t strengthen the experience as it only weakens things.
Even elements such as the boss battles fare poorly compared to past GOW entries; not because of their scope but because it’s the same tired thing with no real spark this time out. While there are a few interesting battles in the game against smaller opponents, one of which has a nice Total Recall Trophy reference, the game design follows the same tropes of hack, slash, stun, QTE, rinse & repeat. Following an expected formula may be expected, but in Ascension it borders on being tiresome by the end of the first stage; which despite the epic scale feels like a been there done that moment compared to scaling Mount Olympus in GOW3.
Having gameplay that feels different is only the start of the problems I found while playing Ascension since the pacing itself feels incredibly off most of the time. Perhaps in part due to the story failing to kickstart things properly, the pace of Ascension is often plagued by small interludes in which everything is brought to a standstill either due to a puzzle or a platforming section. Never a strong suit of the series, the platforming featured in this newest God of War entry fares well but at times it does feel forced or simply lacks an immediate spark due to the somewhat automated nature of the controls and linearity of the path I had to take.
The puzzles on the other hand were a constant source of ire for me as they ranged from simple in their block pushing glory to blindingly annoying in how vague they appeared on the surface. Running dangerously close to being a parody due to their inane nature, the puzzles featured this time out don’t pick up until the last quarter of the game, during which a certain ability is acquired by Kratos that allows him to be at two places at once. I can applaud Sony Santa Monica for attempting to have more quieter sections that feature light puzzle elements as I greatly enjoyed the Cronos stage in GOW1, but in the case of Ascension the game is constantly dragged down by these interludes, both by the pacing coming to a halt and the design being similar to what we played nearly a decade ago.
However flawed the combat and design choices of God of War: Ascension may be, the beauty present in the game is undeniable. Perhaps not enough to save the game from the rut it fell into, the visuals of Ascension are truly on another level and are easily some of the best graphics to be rendered on the PS3. Not quite having the same immediate punch and wow factor as God of War 3 did, there’s a very refined feeling to how everything looks in Ascension – right down to how Kratos’ skin appears and how sleek and realistic some of the textures, such as marble statues, look within the game.
One area that is a marked improvement in Ascension is the art direction as it strikes a more balanced diection this time out his time out as opposed to the slightly uneven God of War 3. Things may be more reserved in some instances, but Ascension doesn’t feature the same immediate dull spots that GOW3 had which were a stark contrast to the more stunning locales that were featured. Far more colorful as well, the environments may have left me desiring for more immediate narrative substance to them, but overall I was once again wowed with the technical and artistic mastery that the team at Sony Santa Monica has shown.
When thinking of the drawbacks found in the single-player portion of Ascension I was utterly blown away by how good the newly added multiplayer component was. Once believed never to be appropriate for a God of War game, the multiplayer action within Ascension is refreshing - both because of where it takes the longstanding GOW formula and adapts it, but also because it’s something different to play in the arena of multiplayer games.
With action that ranges from 4 vs. 4 team based bouts in which control points need to be captured to more traditional deathmatch modes, the amount of attention paid into the multiplayer component is staggering. The combat does get some getting used to since the direct simplicity found within it is matched with a careful attention as to how moves are executed and which elements chosen to be upgraded. But over time I simply became addicted to killing my foes through brutal finishers or helping my team win a key battle.
The multiplayer mode is surprisingly fun and addictive.
Gaining XP for every battle, along with my outfitted armor/weapon leveling up as well, the combat in the multiplayer mode makes a smooth transition to what the base of the God of War series has been known to have. Even without having two blade weapons be my default tools of death, I grew to enjoy mixing my combat strategy up by using a sword alongside the magic and secondary items I acquired in a stage, such as the Ouroboros Amulet or even Hermes’ boots.
It’s the flow of the combat and design of the stages (which have loads of interactive elements) that really drew me into Ascension since it borders on the verge of being openly accessible to new players but still having the depth to make it a longstanding mode for people to actually play rather than discarding after two weeks. While it may be easy to spam attacks or catch an opponent in a juggle animation/stun phase to deliver five quick hits, Ascension’s multiplayer debut really does make a good first impression unlike the rest of the game.
Somewhat stuck in a weird place since it was first announced, God of War: Ascension sadly rests in this middle-ground between mediocre and simply disappointing. It’s nice to see Kratos appear once again and for Sony Santa Monica to further refine their graphics engine, but other than some eye catching visuals Ascension leaves a lot to be desired through a plot that feels forced and fluffy, a combat system that isn’t entirely satisfying, and pacing that prohibits any immediate sense of excitement due to poor design decisions.
Not hitting the bottom of the barrel quality wise, God of War: Ascension still has a lot going for it compared to other run of the mill offerings, but the series has certainly seen better days and if anything Ascension serves as a sign that it could be time for Kratos to finally venture off in a new, and possibly daring, direction instead of being stuck in the past.