With six games over the course of eight years, is it possible to keep a series fresh? That’s precisely the question Sony’s Santa Monica Studios aims to answer with God of War: Ascension, the latest in the PlayStation’s god-killing franchise that began in 2005. While Santa Monica could have easily just produced another single-player adventure by building on the foundation laid in God of War III, the developers have seemed to go the extra mile by not only reworking the series’ tried and true combat system, but paving new ground by adding multiplayer for the first time in the series. What results is an inventive and original game that, though never quite reaching the heights of previous entries in the franchise, certainly can’t get docked points for trying.
With 2010’s God of War III more or less capping off the story put forth by previous games, there wasn’t much room to head forward with the series chronology, so Santa Monica has taken the safer route by making God of War: Ascension a prequel. Taking place before all other games in the franchise, ten years prior to the first game, Ascension follows Kratos shortly after his decision to break his blood oath with Ares, leading him to become imprisoned by the three Furies, who serve as the game’s main antagonists. Throughout the course of the single-player narrative, we follow Kratos as he tries to escape from his imprisonment and break his blood oath to Ares, and really not much else.
The plot is the first misstep in God of War: Ascension, and this is largely due to its status as a prequel. It’s simply hard to care about Kratos at this point, since we already know how his story plays out from seeing it in the previous five games. Ascension doesn’t really provide Kratos with a goal rather than “go here, kill these enemies, just....because.” The other two prequels in the franchise, the PSP titles Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta, were able to succeed by providing Kratos (and thus the audience) with characters to actually care about, and Ascension largely forgoes this. We get it: Kratos is angry and he misses his family. You think that after six games, we would have moved on from this by now. Furthermore, the story is told in an odd, non-linear structure, jumping back and forth between past and present for no discernible reason.
Though God of War: Ascension’s narrative beats prove to be somewhat redundant, the combat is anything but. One of God of War's biggest criticism has been its rather stagnant combat system over the course of the franchise, so I’m happy to say that Ascension gives the combat its biggest evolution in the series. Ironically, this is achieved by somewhat of a devolution, bringing the series’ combat back to basics. The use of multiple main weapons has been discarded, leaving Kratos with his Blades of Chaos throughout the entire game. However, Kratos’ signature chained blades can now be infused with four different elemental statuses: fire, ice, electricity, and soul. While your primary move-set will stay primarily the same over the course of the 8-10 hour campaign, switching between your various elemental attacks provides unique ways in which to approach each combat scenario.
This new feature alone would be enough to make Ascension’s combat feel fresh, but Santa Monica has added even more features to make the combat feel truly distinctive from previous games. Kratos’ patented brutal finishing moves can now be initiated from afar with his chains, providing even greater mobility and combo-building potential. The quick-time event-laden mini-games that defined past entries have also been reworked. While many enemies are still dispatched with a few scripted button presses, a new dynamic finisher mini-game keeps Kratos close and personal with his enemies, simultaneously grappling with them and dodging their attacks. It’s an interesting take on the series’ combat and adds even more viscerality to an already visceral series.
Not all of the combat additions are for the better, however. While the Blades of Chaos will serve as your main weapons throughout the single-player, Kratos can pick up a number of sub-weapons scattered throughout the levels, such as a sword, a shield, throwing spears, and a hammer. With the exception of the ranged spears, these ultimately don’t add anything interesting to the gameplay, feeling like they were added in for the sake of having something new. Thankfully, you can get through the game without having to use any of them, but the potential for something more substantial feels wasted.
It's not only the combat that has been reworked, but the puzzles as well. Up until this point, puzzles in the God of War series have generally been overly simple and kind of a bore to get through. This is not the case in Ascension. Puzzles have been completely reworked to provide more cerebral challenges, mostly by incorporating the new “Life Cycle” ability, which allows players to either heal or decay the environment around them. This leads to some of the most creative use of puzzles in the series, providing a welcome reprieve from combat rather than an annoying distraction.
As much as I appreciate the game’s reworked combat mechanics and greater emphasis on puzzles, it results in a trade-off in general lack of polish compared to the previous games in the franchise. Kratos doesn't seem to respond as quickly to inputs, rolling out of combos is less seamless than before, and enemies lock you into attacks with a greater ferocity than seen in the prior games. I enjoy a good challenge as much as the next guy, but God of War: Ascension’s high difficulty stems from tweaks in what used to be a flawless system. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the game for attempting something new, but often times I found myself thinking “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” would have been a healthier, if less risky, approach.
This lack of polish also carries into the game’s presentation. While graphically this is the best the series has ever looked, frequent dips in framerate, collision issues, and awkward camera placement bring Ascension below the high standard set for the series. I hardly ever feel compelled to mention sound in when reviewing games, but there’s a disconcerting lack of sound that permeates throughout the entirety of God of War: Ascension’s single-player. Music and ambient sound effects appear to cut out whenever Kratos isn’t in combat, resulting in a weird, eerie, uncomfortably quiet game. It happened so often that I couldn’t tell if it was a glitch or a conscious design decision. Either way, it just feels awkward and robs the game of the “epic” feeling that it should otherwise have.
Almost all of my complaints levied towards the single-player are abolished by the multiplayer modes, making their debut in the series. Many cynical fans, including myself, were worried that the addition of multiplayer to God of War would feel tacked on. Thankfully, God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer has been given the same amount of effort and care that we have come to associate with the franchise. After an introduction that cleverly ties into the single-player, Ascension’s multiplayer mode asks you to pledge allegiance to one of four gods -- Ares (melee), Zeus (offensive magic), Hades (stealth), or Poseidon (support) -- before thrusting you into online matches against other Greek warriors.
It’s just a shame that there are only a handful of modes offered. Deathmatch, capture-the-flag, and co-op horde modes are all well and fine, but they do little to elevate the otherwise incredibly unique way that Santa Monica approaches God of War multiplayer. Combat in God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer revolves around a type of “rock-paper-scissors” system. Blocks counter quick attacks, strong attacks break through blocks, and quick attacks parry strong attacks. It’s an intuitive system that rewards teamwork and wit, and a combination of magic attacks, items, and incorporation of objectives into the environment makes God of War: Ascension’s multiplayer a feature that I can tell I’ll continue to revisit long after I’ve finished writing this review.
God of War: Ascension has the weakest single-player experience in the franchise. There is simply no getting around that. Changes in the combat and an evocative art style are welcome, but many of the single-player elements feel tired at this point in the series. Surprisingly, it’s multiplayer that proves to be the main selling point of God of War: Ascension, providing the polish and creativity that I had hoped to see in the single-player. God of War: Ascension may not be the best game in the franchise, but it’s certainly the most ambitious. And that, for me, is enough to ascend it to godhood.