Review: God of War: Ascension is polished, but pointless
As the seventh installment in the God of War series, there's little left in the way of Kratos to slice and dice. That's why Sony Santa Monica has ventured into Kratos' past, choosing to tell the story of his life before the events of his all-out war against Ares, the Greek God of War. Throughout the series, we've grown accustomed to Sony Santa Monica's take on Greek mythology, but Ascension does little to offer a fresh take on Kratos' story.
Ascension takes place roughly six months after his decision to break the oath he swore to Ares in the original God of War game -- one that would spare his and his army's life in return for his lifelong servitude. In the God of War universe, when you break an oath to a god, you are to be hunted down by a trio of vicious Furies and forever tortured. Not that we knew of Furies before this game, but it's important to note that if you haven't played at least the first game in the God of War series, you'll be pretty confused while playing this. The frantic storytelling in Ascension doesn't make things any easier.
The idea is that by going back to the beginning, it would allow Sony to explore Kratos' past. But the deeper, more emotional Kratos we were promised was nowhere to be found as I mindlessly hack and slashed my way through massive environments revolving around a loosely constructed premise that fails to draw interest. Kratos is still angry. Kratos is still vengeful. Ascension does little to offer -- in a series of confusing flashbacks -- further explanation than what we've already seen in the past six games. Ascension's story is just unnecessary.
Ascension makes up the lackluster story with impressive visuals and tight gameplay -- a staple for the series. As I mentioned, Kratos is still the same angry badass we've seen in the past, though his arsenal of weapons has been somewhat simplified. His trusty Blades of Chaos make a return with some fancy elemental upgrades that you'll spend the majority of the early portion of the game acquiring. Spending the early hours gruesomely dicing your enemies into pieces to obtain these upgrades is as entertaining as ever, but we're left questioning the purpose -- other than accumulating special powers. Ascension has no lack of repulsive enemies, though with many of the Greek heroes, gods and titans already disposed of, the Furies in Ascension are hardly of the same terrifying caliber.
Combat is as smooth as ever, with a tremendous emphasis on landing combos. While his chains are imbued with new elemental damage types -- in an attempt to diversify your attacks -- you'll rarely have to switch from Ares' fire. It's just sickly overpowered. However, there is a fun meta-game purpose to the various types. Slaying an enemy with a certain element will yield you different orbs that regenerate health, restore mana, and things of that nature. Santa Monica attempted to create the illusion of complex combat, while watering down the actual combat system.
In place of Kratos' arsenal of weapons, you'll encounter World Weapons, which function similar to power-ups. You'll occasionally stumble upon a spear, hammer or shield and use it for a few attacks. Combos flow seamlessly into the signature God of War Quick Time Events. These events are designed purely for spectacle and only require a simple press of a button to see Kratos decimate an enemy. The animations are bloody and brutal, and we wouldn't prefer it any other way. There are definitely some questionable animations, like face-stomping a Fury, which is a little unsettling. Thankfully, these few seconds of questionable gameplay don't detract from the overall fun of brutally mutilating these creatures.
Although combat is quite enjoyable in Ascension, the game's boss encounters leave something to be desired. Perhaps Sony set the bar too high with God of War 3, but many of the boss encounters fail to live up to expectations set in place by the game's predecessor. Rather than offering unique engagements, the game attempts to create larger encounters with smoke and mirror camera angles and constantly evolving environments. In many cases, Ascension falls victim to its own need to create a massive environment. Zoomed out camera angles make it difficult to keep track of Kratos and the onslaught of enemies, oftentimes resulting in your death.
The other half of Ascension's single-player gameplay rests in its puzzles. Early on, puzzles are fairly easy to figure out. Then, about halfway through the game, you're introduced to the Amulet of Urobotus -- a tool that allows you to highlight pieces of scenery and either heal them into their former usefulness or reduce them into rubble. This item leads to some of the most challenging puzzles I've seen in the series.
The environments you'll explore in Ascension are alive with beauty. The game's impressive visuals leave nothing to desire, except the want to further explore them. Unfortunately, you're contained to the strict, linear path and can hardly stray from it, except when briefly searching some side alleys for hidden chests. Ascension's art may be some of the most disgustingly beautiful work I've seen in a game. Gutting a cyclops has a realistic look and feel to it, while the combo finisher animations are extremely unsettling, yet completely fulfilling.
This game, however, is not just about the single-player. For the first time in the series, there is a multiplayer component, and while we've had previous beta sessions with the new system, this was the first time we've been able to test the servers live. The multiplayer certainly adds a level of replay value as you can partake in two-player endurance runs against hordes of enemies, or compete against others in team or free-for-all battles. These battles take place on trap-laden stages that take inspiration from the single-player experience. With several multiplayer gameplay modes and weapon, armor, item and magic unlocks tied to experience points, dedicated fans of the series will find some enjoyment in the newly implemented system.
God of War: Ascension is an unnecessary sequel -- at least from a narrative perspective. We don't need to see Kratos' back-story, especially when we've had six other titles clearly establish why Kratos is the way he is. While the game doesn't make too many advancements in terms of innovative gameplay, there's a certain sense of polish to Ascension's presentation that definitely makes it a worthy play. You may be mindlessly hacking and slashing your way through grand environments, but you'll certainly have fun doing it.