It’s been a long and mostly blood-soaked road for gaming’s angriest Spartan since his initial debut in 2005’s God of War. Since that time, Kratos has ventured to practically every corner of the Ancient Greek world and, along the way, has slain pretty much every creature, god, and person of note in the entire pantheon of Greek Mythology. So, when developer Sony Santa Monica officially unveiled Kratos’s sixth adventure; God of War: Ascension, two questions undoubtedly popped into many people’s minds: where else can Kratos go? And who is left for him to kill?
Ascension follows in the vein of PSP series entries Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta, being set roughly ten years before the events of the original God of War. For defying Ares and breaking his oath to serve him, Kratos has earned the ire of the Furies; a trio of female beings whose sole purpose is to punish those who break oaths pledged to the gods. By inserting the Furies into the mix, Santa Monica tries to inject more substance into the details surrounding Kratos, Ares, and the other gods (of which anyone who’s played the original trilogy already knows) but, despite the efforts, Ascension’s story still feels like a convoluted and unnecessary detour.
Not to say that Ascension isn’t worth playing, it most certainly is. What it lacks in story and narrative it makes up for with other treasured hallmarks of the series: breathtaking environments and visuals, elaborate combat sequences that are as brutal as they are beautifully choreographed, and enough mythological creatures and characters to make any fan of Greek Myths giddy with glee. These combined with new refinements to the combat system and environment-traversal are the weight that keeps Ascension anchored within the realm of fun.
When pitted against the various monstrous denizens of the world, Kratos can now use physical attacks (mapped to the O button) such as punches and kicks to disarm his foes and use their weapons against them. In addition to his trusty chain-blades, Kratos can grab and wield a variety of secondary weapons such as swords, clubs, and spears, each with their own combos and special attacks. Many of Kratos’s new foes must also be dispatched via a new “dodge and strike” mini-game in which, after weakening them with standard attacks, Kratos pins them down and must continue attacking them while dodging their retaliatory strikes.
Along his journey, Kratos also acquires the powers of four different gods; Ares, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon, and can infuse his chain-blades with their essence, thus further increasing his repertoire of attacks. Each essence comes with its own signature area-clearing super move but, sadly, none save Ares’ are useful enough to see frequent use. There’s also really no explanation given as to *why* Kratos is granted these essences, he just finds them, nabs them, and goes on his merry way.
Lastly, new tools such as the Amulet of Uroboros, a fun little device that allows Kratos to both unmake and remake sections of the environment as well as lock foes in a time vortex, serve Kratos both in combat and in helping to solve some of the game’s many puzzles. Ascension strikes a good balance between combat scenarios and puzzle-solving, sometimes even crossing them over into each other. The puzzles themselves, while challenging at times, can be figured out relatively quickly for those who have a little patience to spare.
In addition to his standard exploration techniques of shimmying across narrow ledges, zip-lining down ropes and chains, and climbing along precarious overhangs and cliffs, Kratos must also brave new sliding sequences in which he careens down a steep cliff or incline and must swerve and jump to avoid obstacles in his path. These new sequences manage to break up the standard platforming formula by offering a tense yet refreshing change of pace but are also utilized sparingly enough that they don’t feel overused.
Despite all these new innovations, Ascension still falls short of excellence in several key areas. In addition to the weak story, the game recycles content by sending players back to previously-explored areas in the later chapters, making it painfully obvious that Santa Monica ran out of inspiration rather quickly. Most of the game’s second half takes place within the entirety of a giant statue of Apollo which, while nice to look at, kills the sense of expansiveness and immersion garnered in the early levels.
Other small issues such as Ascension’s portrayal of the Greek Heroes Castor and Pollux (two of my personal favorites) may not bother many players, but to someone who cherishes the original versions of such heroes, it could be a bitter pill to swallow. Then there’s the issue of the controversial Trophy title (Bros Before Hos) which is obtained at the end of a rather brutal sequence in which Kratos mercilessly pummels one of the Furies with his bare hands. Despite Santa Monica’s promise to change the Trophy’s title with a day-one patch, it remains unchanged at the time of this writing.
With a seemingly equal balance of issues and innovations within the single-player campaign, it’s left up to Ascension’s brand new multiplayer mode to tip the scales. Fortunately, not only is Ascension’s multiplayer a well-crafted homage to the series’ theme, it’s also incredibly fun and addicting. After a funny little single-player cameo in which he is saved from certain death by the gods, your character must pledge his allegiance to one of his four saviors (Ares, Zeus, Hades, or Poseidon) before setting out to champion their cause through carnage.
Combat in Ascension’s multiplayer uses a rudimentary “rock-paper-scissors” format; light attacks can be blocked but not dodged or parried, heavy attacks can be dodged or parried but not blocked, players glow red when executing an unblockable attack, white when invulnerable, blue when they’re recovering (and thus exposed), and amidst all this, other tricks such as grapples, juggles, magic attacks, and items are thrown in just to keep things interesting.
As players fight and rank up they unlock new weapons, abilities, and armor sets both generic and tailored to their particular god. While different weapons from the three base categories (spears, hammers, and swords) all have roughly the same attacks and combos, they each have their own special attacks that are tailored to your chosen god and, much like the allegiances themselves, come with unique benefits and drawbacks. Unlockable armor sets are more than just cosmetic, they can alter a character’s stats such as damage output, available magic, and total health, adding on another layer of strategy and planning to the seemingly chaotic nature of a typical multiplayer match. Those who prefer a more cooperative approach can test their skills in the two-man Trial of the Gods (it can also be attempted solo) in which you and your teammate must work together to defeat increasingly difficult waves of NPC monsters and other opponents.
All in all, I’d say God of War: Ascension is a worthy attempt by Sony Santa Monica to keep the series relevant. Despite being a bit rough around the edges, there’s really nothing within Ascension’s core framework that would keep me from recommending it to a fan of the series. The single-player campaign offers another 8-10 hour campaign starring the furiously beloved Ghost of Sparta and the multiplayer, while off-putting at first, manages to extend the game’s lifespan long after Kratos’ new journey has concluded with tense and unique competitive and cooperative options.
That being said, I do feel after having played Ascension that Kratos’ odyssey has now completely run its course. Many fans have been crying out for a new God of War game set within an entirely different mythology; perhaps Egyptian or Roman or even Norse (imagine a Viking version of Kratos fighting Thor….) and I can’t help but agree with them. As fun as it has been venturing alongside Kratos on his bloody road to revenge, I think it’s more than time to give him (or at least the Greek version of him) a rest.