God of War: Ascension review
Ordinariness is next to godliness
The God of War developers have missed a great opportunity.
In fact, all these years spent by Sony Santa Monica in the business of video game development now seem foolish, considering they could’ve been raking in the millions with what surely would be the greatest self-help book on anger management ever written.
Diluted down from a game series that built everything good about itself on anger and vengeance, God of War: Ascension is a neutered prequel that sees an unwelcome change in the perpetually enraged protagonist, Kratos. Ostensibly coming to us fresh from some sort of twelve-step support group where he wasn’t ashamed to share his feelings, our hero now feels disappointingly docile, and while his latest adventure is not entirely terrible, the conspicuous lack of the series’ driving force permeates all aspects of the game to create an instalment that’s passive-aggressive at best.
It’s a difficult catch-22: develop an origin story for a character whose very essence is that of vengeful hatred built from a lengthy and troubling history. The narrative gives it a good go, however, and although a bit flimsy on the details there’s a plausible foundation for the ‘forthcoming’ games here. Kratos begins his saga freeing himself from the Furies, a group of mythical prison wardens who are punishing him for breaking his blood oath to Ares. Vowing to destroy those responsible, Kratos must break his bond to the God of War and set in motion the events that began the original game.
Only, despite a lot of modern technical wizardry and the series’ outstanding pedigree, Ascension never really feels like it comes close to the lofty bar set by even the first game (circa 2005). Where there was once the sense of one small human taking an epic trek to conquer insurmountable odds, this is more like a string of combat arenas haphazardly strung together by colossal set pieces, with bland art direction and staccato pacing betraying the clear lack of a unifying purpose. Combined with little advancement in gameplay, most notably the few and far between puzzle sections, it’s no wonder that Ascension just feels like it’s all bark and no bite.
This is not helped by the combat, the backbone of the game mechanics and the reason most of us are playing the thing in the first place. Along with a small selection of spears, hammers and slings one can confiscate from unwitting enemies, Kratos now wields the Blades of Chaos as his main weapon of choice, and these can be imbued with elemental effects – fire, ice, lightning, or the powers of the underworld. While extra attacks and magical firework shows can be unlocked for each of these incarnations of the Blades, attacks are not married to particular types of enemies or situations, meaning your choice of foe-dispatching powers are entirely superficial and thus offer little incentive to pursue previously desirable upgrades.
When it comes down to the actual dismemberment bits, the combat ends up feeling stiff and rote, a somewhat flawed system that becomes most apparent when the difficulty is ramped up and cheap deaths come thick and fast. I found myself winning some battles purely on luck and repetition, and most of the sense of anger I felt came from the urge to smash my controller rather than Kratos’ urge to vanquish his enemies.
Where’s that anger management book when I need it, Sony?
Speaking of, if I had to pin down exactly where the lack of appropriate rage lies in Ascension, it’s most likely from the aspects of Greek mythology which have been surreptitiously watered down with each progression of the God of War series. Here, the ties to the vengeance themes and characters from the source material are thin, and recognisable elements from this history are replaced by creatures designed more with shock value and sheer size in mind.
Yes, there are the trademark impressively-enormous monsters to slay, but with no real motivation to do it coupled with some borderline torture and misogyny, Kratos seems more like a misguided playground bully that revels in pulling the legs off live spiders rather than the brave underdog fighting for a proper cause. It takes away from the sense of maturity established by the series, turning the kind of justifiable gratuitous violence found in a Tarantino movie into that of a grainy snuff film finale.
In the MyGaming review for God of War 3, I praised the game for almost everything apart from its innovation, and Ascension has unfortunately let itself down in this regard too. New gameplay mechanics include the Amulet of Uroborus which grants the ability to decay or heal objects like bridges or contraptions, and the Stone of Orkos which allows duplicates of Kratos to be spawned, but the use of these items is linear and uninspiring and a complete shame considering the possibilities for integrating them more into the puzzles or combat.
So, should you play God of War: Ascension, or should it be imprisoned in the depths of the bargain bin?
As a veteran fan of the series, I can’t help but feel disappointed. Again, while not an awful game overall, it’s just not the next God of War epic we were hoping for. While things pick up noticeably to offer small glimpses of brilliance in the game’s second half, there’s no single element of the overall game that feels as great as it should, and playing it gives me the nagging feeling that there’s that AAA-title magic missing somewhere.
Newcomers will doubtlessly be impressed by the scale and graphical magnificence of the whole experience, and some might have no complaints at all about the generic landscapes, cheap violence and arena-like combat, but anyone looking to revel in the engrossing anger and tragedy expected from a God of War game will unfortunately feel like this is an entirely wasted opportunity.
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