God of War: Ascension Review
Platform(s): PlayStation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer(s): Santa Monica Studio
Release Date: March 12, 2013
MSRP: $59.99 (standard), $79.99 (Collector’s Edition)
If there’s one action series that made ripping things into gruesome pieces not only a lot of fun, but also gave it a sense of purpose beyond cheap thrills, it’s the God of War franchise. Filled with raw emotion and epic scale, God of War has always told stories that really make you feel for Kratos as you cheer him on during his quest for vengeance, but one thing we’ve never really seen is a more human side to the angry Spartan. Besides the fact that Ascension delivers more of the visceral fun we’ve come to expect from the franchise, that human side is one thing it does deliver us to make this prequel stand out from its predecessors, even if this entry feels familiar from a gameplay standpoint.
Ascension takes place before the events of the first game, putting you in the sandals of Kratos right after he’s decided he’s had enough of his blood oath with Ares. He also just killed his wife and daughter as part of said oath, but the problem is, Kratos can’t seem to remember that happening. This is because he’s now held captive by the Furies, three sisters who force those who make blood oaths to keep them, and part of the effects of the Futies includes illusions filling his head. Kratos soon frees himself from captivity and sets out not only to eliminate the Furies, but to reclaim his memories.
The plot jumps back and forth between the time of his freedom from imprisonment and the weeks prior to his captivity. However, it’s not as convoluted as it sounds, as the game makes it quite clear when it decides to jump back in time. While the plot explains the road leading up to the first God of War in a solid and meaningful manner, the greatest strength, as I mentioned, is the human element of Kratos.
See, this is before Kratos decides to defeat Ares, make himself a god, then go and start killing every titan and god in his path. Kratos is still just an officer in the Spartan military as well as a family man, and the story touches on that facet of him several times. You get to see his interactions with his family and how much he truly loved them. Best of all, you actually get to see Kratos smile. After all of these games, I cannot recall ever seeing Kratos smile as he’s usually wearing a scowl and yelling a lot. It’s rather uplifting and shocking to see such a thing, but it really hits the point home that Kratos is but a human. He made a mistake, like humans do, and thus makes him a more relatable character than ever before. For that, I give Ascension’s story a nod of approval, even if it won’t completely blow you away.
The gameplay doesn’t take too many gambles, as it’ll feel very familiar to anyone who’s ever played even a single title in the franchise. You still hack up tons of enemies in gruesome fashion, with context-sensitive sequences sprinkled throughout and plenty of clever puzzles to solve. However, a few changes have been made to mix things up. Where prior entries featured multiple weapons and items for Kratos to use, this one focuses on elements, meaning the only weapon you’ll be wielding are Kratos’ signature Blades of Chaos. You’ll be able to use Lightning, Water, Fire, and Soul powers, each with their own beneficial effects. For instance, Soul can grant you healing orbs when defeating enemies, while Fire will grant you gold orbs which fill the new Rage of the Gods meter (I’ll touch on this shortly). Each element also has its own magic attacks, as well as a special attack that can be used once the Rage of the Gods meter is filled up. You’ll likely gravitate towards on or two elements as the game goes on, as each one suits different play styles. I found myself using Lightning for its quick, combo-building potential, then using Soul once I had it developed for its additional damage as well as the healing orbs it provided from defeating enemies. In previous games, I never found myself using anything other than the Blades as a weapon anyway, rendering the rest pretty much as wasted slots, so I don’t miss having more than one weapon. However, with the varying abilities of the elements, I found them to be a satisfying change to the formula, as they’re far more useful.
If you really want different weapons to use, there are “world weapons” that can be picked up from the environment that range from spears and slings, to swords and more. Some of them only have limited use, but can grant Kratos some range, while others can give him a constant amount of red orbs with every strike, but aren’t terribly versatile like the Blades of Chaos are. He also gets a few items to use, like the Oath Stone of Orkos, which allows him to create a double of himself to aid in battle, and the Amulet of Uroboros, which can suspend enemies in the air, leaving them open for punishment. These items, as well as The Eyes of Truth, which blinds enemies, also play a part in the game’s ingenious puzzles, with emphasis on the Amulet of Uroboros. Outside of battle, it can bend time, and thus, destroy or repair objects in order to create new paths. Watching these puzzles in motion is entertaining, with some pretty clever uses, to boot.
Now, about that Rage of the Gods meter. While previous entries used a similar meter in order to power up Kratos for a limited time, this one, when filled, increased Kratos’ attack repertoire, opening new and more devastating attacks. The catch is, if you take damage or stay out of battle for too long, the meter will drop, meaning you lose those better abilities until you can fill it up again by either attacking enemies or collecting gold orbs from the use of the Fire element. To be honest, I’m actually torn on this new meter. While it does reward skilled players, if you take even the slightest bit of damage, which can be tough when you’re surrounded and happens often, you’re stuck using the same lower level attacks. These higher level attacks are ones that were freely usable upon leveling up the Blades of Chaos in previous entries, too. Essentially, unless you can keep the meter filled, Kratos’ move list is pretty much cut in half, which can make fights less thrilling when you’re stuck using the same handful of combos. Then again, using parries and evading will avoid damage, so it really comes down to mastery of balancing attacks and defensive maneuvers in order to keep the meter charged.
If there’s one element that’s unarguably fantastic, it’s the set piece boss battles. A series staple at this point, there’s no shortage of screen-filling bosses that will require every skill you can muster, with quick-time events sprinkled in as per usual. With the game’s vastly improved visuals, everything is magnificently detailed, making these fights a visual feast and even more intense and entertaining than ever before. The final boss fight in particular is awe-inspiring, making for a perfect end to Kratos’ journey.
I should note that I almost neglected to mention the much-hyped multiplayer portion of the game, which should already tell you how good it is. There’s nothing functionally wrong with the multiplayer here, and there are even some notable features at work here. To start out, you’re tasked with undertaking a tutorial, where you must select an allegiance to one of four Gods: Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, or Ares, each with their own advantages and perks. For instance, Ares emphasizes attack power, whereas Hades skews towards stealth. You can switch between allegiances, not unlike classes in standard shooters, so you’re never tied down to one allegiance for good.
From there, you can select from a paltry selection of four modes. Team Favor of the Gods puts you in 4 vs 4 matches where each team, Spartans and Trojans, try to gain the favor of the Gods by defeating other players, opening chests, capturing “alters”, which are comparable to nodes in standard FPS titles, and defeating large, mythical creatures that spawn on the map and must be killed with a certain item you can pick up. Match of Champions is the same, but it’s every man for himself. Trial of the Gods is a two-player co-op mode where you and a friend must survive five waves of enemies, and this mode can even be played alone. Lastly comes Capture the Flag, which is self-explanatory if you’ve ever played any multiplayer shooter ever released.
The issues with the multiplayer really lie with how easy it is to juggle people endlessly, and if you happen to run into people who enjoy double-teaming and will constantly move in a team of two, you have no chance of beating them, which can get frustrating. There is an escape move available, but it takes time to recharge and you can easily get caught in a juggle again. Capture the Flag is standard fare and has been done a million times, so there’s nothing special there, and Trial of the Gods is a missed opportunity. What could have been a four-player “Horde”-style mode that rolled on endlessly with a combat system as polished as God of War’s is wasted on a very limited two-player outing. It’s a shame. Perhaps the only facet I did find entertaining were the mythical creatures that show up during matches, although once you have the item needed to defeat it, taking it out can be pretty simple.
I can tell you right now that if you’re buying God of War: Ascension for the multiplayer, then you’re buying it for the wrong reason. God of War has always been a single player-centric experience, and should have remained so here, because the multiplayer is squandered with imbalances and forgettable modes. However, with all of the effort poured into multiplayer, it doesn’t detract from the quality of Kratos’ story, which is a huge relief. You can still expect to get a great experience out of it filled with intense boss fights, well-designed puzzles, gorgeous visuals, and a good story that emphasizes the human side of our favorite angry Spartan. When taken like that, the multiplayer can really be seen as a tacked-on bonus. It’s there if you want it, and if you enjoy it, more power to you. God of War: Ascension’s single player can more than stand alone, and even if it doesn’t quite push the envelope, it’s still a satisfying outing for fans of the series.