God of War: Ascension
Developer: SCE Santa Monica Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: March 12th, 2013
Available on: PlayStation 3
Reviewer’s note: I am only reviewing the single player portion of the game
God of War: Ascension could serve as a great example of how not to change a franchise. Featuring new enemies, locations, items, and a reworked battle system, Ascension tells the story of how Kratos became the angry person that he is today.
Ascension takes place about six months after Kratos accidentally slaughters his family, and before any other game in the series. Kratos finds himself breaking his oath to Ares, choosing to stay at home and mope about his actions rather than continue to rampage across the world at Ares’ command. Angered by this, Ares sends the Furies after him, who are sworn to bring oath breakers to justice. One interesting thing about the plot is that it doesn’t take place in chronological order. The game skips between two time periods: the events leading up to the Furies capturing Kratos and when and how he breaks out of the prison they trap him in. Another interesting thing is how the game portrays Kratos. Since this is before he went on his rampage of revenge Kratos doesn’t spend the majority of the game screaming insults and threats at the sky. Instead we get to see him as a confused and broken person, hallucinating about his family and seemingly confused about the actions he is taking. While it’s good for the series and showing the overall character arc of Kratos, it doesn’t work very well for the game as Kratos just isn’t very interesting or fun like this. He comes off as just being very blah about the whole thing, and after a while I just wanted the old Kratos back.
Another old thing I wanted back was the game play. God of War: Ascension tries to mix up the formula by making it so Kratos starts every battle with only a small amount of attacks and a limited move set. It’s only by making combos and not getting hit that he can build up his rage meter and, once full, have access to his full attacks and combos. This isn’t a bad idea in theory, but some of the other changes seem to contradict this new design. The grappling system has been completely reworked, for example. Now the grapple button simply causes Kratos to latch his blade onto an enemy and drag them around with him. From here you can smack them around a little, toss them at other enemies, or slam them into the ground. The problem is that it adds extra steps to what was normally a very simple process and it leaves Kratos open to get hit, thus lowering your rage meter. Likewise, you now no longer parry by putting up a block right before the enemy hits you, but rather by hitting a button combo while already blocking. This puts Kratos into an unnecessarily long animation that you have no way to break out of and again seems to be designed to make sure Kratos gets hit.
There are other odd decisions made to the combat as well. Subweapons have been completely removed this time around. In Ascension you only have access to the Blades of Chaos, but you do get the ability to modify it with different elemental attacks. For example you can make them fire based which will raise your rage faster and let you stun enemies with shockwave attacks, or you can make them soul based which will give you extra health back upon defeating enemies and also send out a spirit to attack enemies at the end of combos. Unfortunately the differences are minor at best and it feels less like you have four different weapons and more like you’re just putting different passive boosts on the same one. A new system to the game is called world weapons. If you hit the circle button Kratos can punch and kick enemies and this has a chance of making them drop their weapons. You can then pick up these weapons and use them for a limited time and with your normal attacks. The world weapons feel limited though, as each of them only has one or two attacks each and using them doesn’t fill up your rage meter. There are a few other little changes to the game. Magic is no longer earned through the story but actually needs to be unlocked with experience points. This means I didn’t get magic until the end of the game and rarely used it at all. One positive change is that items now each have an individual cool down rather than sharing one big one. This makes it easier to combo items together, and opens up some new possibilities. The new problem here though is that you get items too late into the game to really matter. You seriously don’t have access to all three items until one of the very last fights of the game.
I know I’ve done a lot of criticizing here, but God of War: Ascension isn’t a bad game. It’s just that in a series of excellent games it’s only good. There’s still fun to be had here. While the boss fights never hit the same massive scales that the series is usually known for, there are still some interesting ones. One boss fight against two of the furies takes place in a shifting environment, as one fights you up front and the other moves things around. Another constantly collapses the floor, requiring you to constantly move around and relocate. The game also has some of the tougher puzzles in the series and a lot of them require creative thinking with your abilities to solve them. Of all the systems they added, my favorite is probably the new button-less mini game kills. Now when you go to finish off enemies, you instead play a little mini game that requires you to attack them while avoiding their attacks. It’s much more cinematic and interactive than the old quick time events from the other games.
The graphics continue to be a highpoint for the God of War series as well. The game is just beautiful. The animations and character models continue to be top notch, while the landscapes and backgrounds are equally impressive. While there’s nothing as good looking as the Titans from God of War 3, the new art design which lends almost sort of a Persian feel to the game helps. The new enemies are interesting as well, from the elephant-like juggernauts to the redesigned Medusas, which look more like hooded snakes now. The game actually doesn’t reuse many enemies from past God of War games, besides a couple appearances from Cerberus and Cyclopes. The audio design is very good as well and the game has another fantastic soundtrack.
As I mentioned before, God of War: Ascension isn’t a bad game. The design decisions it makes just has me wishing it would go back to the ones the older games used though. If you’re interesting in the series’ overarching story then you really shouldn’t miss out on Ascension as the character development for Kratos is pretty essential and interesting. If you haven’t played them yet, I would actually recommend playing the other God of War games before this one though.