At face value, God of War: Ascension is a wholly unnecessary game. To be blunt, it’s a prequel to a prequel, and doesn’t really offer up anything new for the franchise outside of the multiplayer component. In that regard, people who have grown tired of the God of War formula will find nothing to sway them here.
Everyone else however, will find a solid bit of entertainment ripping apart hundreds of virtual abominations.
Taking place before the original God of War, Kratos has just gone back on his blood oath with Ares. He has been sentenced to an eternity of punishment, to be carried out by the three Furies — mystical creatures who are capable of manipulation and mental torment, dubbed the “Guardians of Honor.”
Ascension, to be blunt, is a basic paint-by-numbers revenge tale like the third game, but on a much smaller scale. Revenge against the Furies, set against the general rage against Ares (who is barely in this game, and only shown in cutscenes) is basically the crux of what you’re going to get. You briefly see some key moments in Kratos’ past through visions of trickery by the Furies, but that’s about it.
What you’re going to get out of Ascension is everything you already knew — Kratos is capable of immense acts of violence, and he has nothing left — end of story. There’s an interesting narrative to be explored in terms of the legitimacy of blood oaths, fealty to Gods, and subjugation, but that is completely thrown out of the window in favor of Kratos seeing visions of his family for thirty seconds and accepting their deaths.
Sadly, the opportunity for a poignant story involving the time before Kratos had skin colored from the ashes of his dead family was completely missed. It would have been really cool to play an intro stage so that we could actually see Kratos kill his family and fall to Ares’ tricks and betrayal, so that we could sympathize with him and feel his rage.
Heck, even a brief recap of the events shown in Ghost of Sparta involving Deimos, Kratos’ beloved brother, would have been a good reason to root for him. Instead, we get a few vignettes of events we’ve already seen time and time again in God of War I-III spliced over a quest to kill the three Furies. You’re basically thrown into the game after a brief intro on the concept of blood oaths, and tasked to stab your way to the top from there.
The potential here for a true prequel that sets up the events of every game after it was extremely high, and it doesn’t truly deliver. While one may argue that the God of War games were never big on story, I’d contend that at the very least, the first God of War and Ghost of Sparta had interesting and engaging narratives — especially when juxtaposed to the rest of the action genre.
Ghost of Sparta in particular dealt with Kratos’ mother and brother, and the complex relationships that go along with it. Somehow, that was spliced in-between the events of God of War I and II, without the ability to utilize a prequel as a blank slate, and it succeeded — so it’s definitely possible.
Of course, narrative aside, Ascension proves that Santa Monica can still bring it in terms of straight action. QTEs (called “minigames” in this franchise) are as fast and as entertaining as ever, and the beautiful backdrops and vistas present in the game are so breathtaking that it feels like the next generation already. In terms of violence, Ascension isn’t on the same level as God of War II or III, and honestly, could have been a bit more over the top at times. Still it manages to provide enough heart-pumping moments to keep you entertained through the seven to eight hour adventure, and also provoked a few jaw-dropping moments from yours truly.
Gameplay remains relatively unchanged from prior entries, but there are a number of additions that help make it a smoother experience. Most notably, a new grapple system that lets you grab other enemies from afar, “world weapons,” which allow you to utilize extra tools of destruction strewn about, just like a beat ‘em up, and the ability to change the properties of Kratos’ blades.
Magic is also more streamlined (in a good way), as four elements (fire, water, lightning and death) are mapped to the direction pad, allowing you to quickly improvise moves on the fly (although not mid-combo, sadly). In terms of pacing, Ascension is a smooth ride that is pretty consistent throughout, even if it’s a tad easier than you’re probably used to.
Basically, other than one small portion near the end of the game, it isn’t all that challenging, so you may want to go straight in with the Hard difficulty if you’re used to God of War games. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but for the most part, the game’s enemies and bosses don’t really require a lot of adaptation or mastering of the mechanics like a number of key foes were in the past.
Strangely enough, although Ascension looks fantastic, it has lots of weird little technical hiccups. There are lots of sound drops, especially when the game is auto-saving (since the classic JRPG-style manual save system is gone). Normally it’s just a minor annoyance, but to drop voices during a particularly action packed scene or bit of gameplay is very jarring, and since it’s not found in any other entry in the rather polished franchise, it makes it all the more curious.
So, how about that multiplayer? When it was initially announced, there was a ton of backlash due to the fact that God of War “doesn’t need multiplayer” — and in many ways, I agreed with that sentiment..at first. Sony Santa Monica easily could have just thrown in some half-assed competitive mode and called it a day, and that’s what so many people expected.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case, and the game’s multiplayer component is actually fairly deep, and skill based. There’s modes for domination (take, hold, and capture points on a map), capture the flag, good old fashioned deathmatches, and a coop mode for up to two players.
The maximum amount of players the game can support is eight, but the levels are the perfect size, where you won’t feel overwhelmed with players, or feel like you never get into enough skirmishes. At all times, I felt like I was part of the action, and through multiple outlets of positive reinforcement such as earning points through kills, objectives, and smashing red chests, I always felt like I played into the bigger picture.
The game’s arenas are not only built around famous locales in the series, but they have neat stories within them, Power Stone style, like giant boss creatures you can interact with, or environmental traps.
There’s also a deep level of customization within the game, which allows you to change everything from your character’s armor set, to the abilities he uses in combat. You can pledge your allegiance to either Ares, Hades, Zeus or Poseidon, all of which feel fairly different from a gameplay perspective.
Dropping into a multiplayer game works pretty seamlessly, and I didn’t really experience any drops during my lengthy play sessions. I really enjoyed leveling up and seeing what other abilities Ascension had to offer, as most of them require a decent amount of skill to pull off. I never thought I’d say this, but I would be interested in a fully fledged, fully featured multiplayer God of War game.
Without multiplayer, Ascension would be a weaker package. It’s only slightly above average on the grand stage of action, and is marred with technical problems, a lack of polish, and a lack of a poignant narrative. But overall, the experience is still a positive one, and Sony Santa Monica did a great job bringing competitive play to the franchise.
This review is based on a physical copy of God of War: Ascension for the PlayStation 3