God of War: Ascension
I should say at the outset that I’m a huge fan of the God of War series, and in many ways, the difficulties with reviewing God of War: Ascension as a fan of the series are the same faced by the game itself: it’s hard to avoid comparisons to previous games in the series. God of War and God of War 2 redefined ‘epic’ gameplay, and God of War 3 showed us how much further the PS3 was capable of pushing that. Many hoped that Ascension would show there was still life in the PS3’s old bones yet, but it doesn’t really push the series forward in any meaningful way. There was only so far that Kratos’ feud with Olympus could be escalated, and that point turned out to be when God of War 3 closed with Kratos beating Zeus to death with his bare hands. God of War: Ascension dials things back and attempts a more intimate, personal tale, set prior to the events that led to Kratos becoming the God of War.
The game opens with Kratos imprisoned by new antagonists the Furies for disavowing his oath to Ares. The prison is located in and around the gigantic, many-armed, Aegaeon the Hecatonchires, the original traitor to the Gods, who suffered the unfortunate punishment of being turned into prison for traitors. This opening is stylistically similar to that of previous games in the series – a multi-part boss battle across steadily destroyed environments. In this case the environment being destroyed is the Hecatonchires and his prison (which is a great environment) and it’s an entertaining sequence; part introduction to gameplay mechanics, part introduction to the story, and part showcase for the ever-more-ridiculous ways that Kratos can kill things. It’s visceral, epic, and has a hugely satisfying conclusion that makes Kratos feel like he’s already the God of War that he’s destined to become.
Sadly, the standard set by strong opening isn’t really continued across the rest of the game. The story is weak, and combat takes a step back from the standards set in previous games in the series. Sony Santa Monica’s attempt to go back to the start of Kratos’ ascension to God of War to define the journey that led him to the whole Zeus/fists affair is admirable, but it’s not particularly effective. Ascension doesn’t change or deepen Kratos’ motives from where they were at the outset of God of War (stunningly, he’s not a fan of Ares making him murder his own family), and there’s rarely any suspense with regard to the outcome we’re heading towards.
Beyond that, the storytelling is confused, jumping back to before Kratos’ imprisonment by the Furies without ever particularly justifying this narrative choice (a choice which also removes any momentum the story manages to generate). The Furies aren’t memorable characters either. In some way that might be due to suffering by comparison to the characters that Kratos has killed in previous games; those were the main characters of a mythology that has survived for over 3,000 years, while the Furies (the Erinyes in mythology) are minor characters at best.
A game of this genre can still be great without a strong story or characters, as gameplay will always be king, and Ascension’s core gameplay is mostly unchanged from previous games, which guarantees a minimum level of quality. Frantic melee combat against mythological creatures, interspersed with puzzles and traversal sections, usually in massive environments, will always be quite good fun at least, but the gameplay still feels like it takes a step back from previous games in the series.
The traversal sections in the series have never been great, although the addition of high speed sliding (similar to flying sections in previous games) at least makes things a bit more action packed. Similarly, puzzles have never exactly been the main reason to buy a God of War game, but they’ve always been creative and interesting, and Ascension is no different. That’s especially true late in the game when a couple of gadgets add new dimensions of complexity to the puzzles.
But the reason to play God of War will always be the combat. Combat still consists of strong attacks, weak attacks and quick-time event finishing moves. A special mention for the QTEs: they are probably the most violent, brutal and downright fun in the series to date. By this point in the series your opinion of QTEs is probably pretty well defined, and there’s nothing that Ascension does that is likely to change your mind. Without resorting to cut scenes, they allow the player to pull off spectacular moves that wouldn’t be possible within the core gameplay, but the disconnect that exists between the QTEs and the core gameplay remains jarring. God of War has a history of using QTEs better than any other series, and that continues in Ascension: a QTE sequence in the latter stages during a fight with a kraken is arguably the standout moment of the entire game, and the QTE to kill Gorgons will never, ever stop being fun for fans of over-the-top violence.
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