After the conclusion of God of War III, it was a little bit unclear as to how the series would continue in later installments. While its ending was somewhat ambiguous and suggested there could be more to come, it was announced that the next title - God of War: Ascension - would be the first home console entry in the series to be a prequel, whereas Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta were both originally PSP titles that told sub-plots set in-between main entries.
Not only that, Ascension would be the prequel, set before any of the other games thus far, looking deeper into the roots of Kratos’ lust for vengeance. This idea excited me, as Kratos’ humanity is always something that the series could expand upon – the more we understand Kratos’ sense of loss, the more we can understand his rage. Chains of Olympus was perhaps the best example of this so far, focusing on Kratos’ relationship with his daughter, Calliope. The live action trailer for Ascension focused on his wife, child and the Spartan army – before they dissolved before his very eyes, leaving him broken and alone. I was ready to see how ‘Vengeance is Born’.
The game begins by explaining that in a time before Gods and Titans, there was a war between the Primordials - the beings who forged the Earth. From the Primordials were born the Furies, guardians of honor who punish those they deem guilty of betrayal. After the orchestrated deaths of his wife and child at his own hands, Kratos’ decision to break his blood-oath to Ares calls upon the wrath of the Furies, who seek to stop him.
Rather than a linear storyline, the game’s plot is actually told by flicking between two separate timelines - the game begins with him already captured in the Furies’ prison, a huge fortress built within and around the deformed and tortured body of the giant Aegaeon the Hecatonchires, the first of the Furies’ victims. This storyline tells of Kratos’ fight to escape the prison, battling the Furies as he does so. However, the game switches at points to the events leading up to his capture. Set three weeks before the prison, these sections feature a being called Orkos who originally informs Kratos that his mind is being bent by the illusions of the Furies, and sets him upon his path on a quest to seek truth and free his mind from their visions.
Working on the same engine as God of War III, the game of course looks great. You can expect the usual set-pieces and such, with giant contraptions, some puzzles and of course – brutal combat. Fans of the series will feel right at home, as Kratos returns as always with his Blades of Chaos, familiar combos, and of course plenty of grizzly QTE kills.
However, there have been a few adjustments to the game’s combat. While the Circle button usually focused on interaction and grabs, this has now been re-assigned to the R1 button, with the Circle button now assigned to unarmed attacks, and also utilising enemy weapons. While the unarmed attack itself is not really anything special, it does have the ability to disarm opponents at times, leaving one of four weapons available for Kratos to use temporarily – swords, spears, shields and hammers. Each one has a basic attack, as well as a special move that also discards the weapon – usually with the added effect of being able to stun an enemy. While these weapons are a nice extra, they don’t really add much in terms of diversity and sadly become pretty useless once Kratos’ blades have had a few upgrades. Perhaps my favourite enemy weapon was the spear, as it functions as a long ranged throwing weapon with a limited amount of throws. I liked the idea of a shield, but its actual function didn’t really do anything that made combat more interesting – serving as a simple melee combo.
Perhaps the other noteworthy change to the combat is the grapple. While some grabs function the same as always – utilising a QTE to perform a brutal kill, Ascension introduces a free-form mode for some enemies. Kratos will dig one of his blades into the enemy, and you can freely slash away with the other blade by mashing the Square/Triangle buttons. However, enemies will retaliate with their own attacks, meaning you must use the analogue to dodge counterattacks at the same time. Do enough damage, and Kratos will perform a fatal finishing attack. I found this new mode to be a bit hit-and-miss – while it works well in some cases, allowing for a mix of QTE and real-time combat (such as the game’s start, which sees Kratos fighting one-armed against a Fury whilst bound in chains), these sections can confuse combat sometimes when mixed with regular QTE kills. Regular QTE’s require reactive button presses to on-screen prompts, while free-form has you button-mashing and watching for enemy movements to react to – while individually they work well, I was sometimes unsure of which type of attack was being performed. I would be waiting for a button-prompt when I was supposed to be mashing, or sometimes my attempts at mashing would screw up an attack where I was supposed to be reacting to an on-screen prompt. The two types of attacks feel quite different - and in the heat of combat it occasionally caused problems.
Thirdly, the next big change is to Kratos’ primary weapons. While each game in the past has featured multiple weapons with their own set of upgrades, Ascension utilises only the Blades of Chaos. Instead, however, are four elements that are unlocked as the game progresses, imbuing the Blades with additional effects and can be switched on-the-fly, giving Kratos access to a few different combos. While Kratos’ basic combos are upgraded by improving the actual blades, and are shared by all elements, upgrading the elements themselves open up new L1+Square, and L1+Triangle moves that are unique to that element. Additionally, by filling the Rage meter (which fills when you hit enemies, but drains if you are hit) you can access Rage Mode, which gives you access to a few additional combos, and also access to that element’s Rage Attack. By clicking L3 and R3 simultaneously, Kratos will perform an attack that applies the element’s effect to an enemy – the Fire element will burn an enemy, doing extended damage, while the Ice element will slow an enemy’s movement making them an easier target.
Upgrading an element to its maximum level will unlock a magic attack for that element – allowing Kratos to perform an area attack using that element at the cost of MP, much like Kratos’ usual magic attacks he unlocks in previous games. They are a little harder to access than usual, but once you do, they can of course deal a good amount of damage, as well as applying the additional effect of that element to any that get caught in the blast.
Sadly though, the combat never seems to reach the standard of the older games in terms of variety. Perhaps it’s my personal love of finding and upgrading mutiple weapons, but the elements never quite felt as exciting as the selection of weapons from previous games – every game beforehand, including the PSP entries, had at least one other primary weapon, and a ranged weapon (or similar magic) as well. While there are of course temporary weapons available, they never really make up for the lack of solid, upgradeable gear – perhaps if the Shield and Spear (for instance) had been built upon as permanent gear with more combo options, I would have had a lot more fun. The elements are a nice idea, but I feel that the game’s combat has lost more than it has gained in the process, especially compared to the variety of God of War III.
One thing that really disappointed me was the game’s platforming sequences. While every God of War game has had elements of climbing and traversing ropes etc. Ascension’s climbing takes on a feel more like that of Uncharted or Tomb Raider - with Kratos jumping from ledge to ledge as you hold the direction you want to traverse – whereas in older games their were climbable surfaces which would allow you more freedom to control Kratos’ exact direction and move him more freely. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the big deal was, to start with – of course, the areas still look great with vertigo-inducing camera angles and the like as Kratos defies gravity. But then it hit me – usually, these situations come coupled with enemies, with Kratos having to deal with combatants even whilst scaling huge edifices, their relentless assault a constant hindrance to Kratos, no matter the circumstance. Instead, Ascension takes the pressure off, making the combat and platforming feel as though they are two separate gameplay elements entirely. Perhaps some may be glad of the change, but I felt it was a change for the worse.
I can’t really review this game without mentioning the already infamous Trial of Archimedes chapter, which has sparked something of a debate among the community. Basically, it’s a long, checkpoint-less section with some of the hardest enemy groupings in the game, and there’s quite a big spike in difficulty at this part. While most of the game can be played through only using a few basic techniques (on Normal difficulty), many players found themselves struggling at this section – and I was one of them. I’d by no means consider myself bad at video games, but the combination of opponents combined with the lack of checkpoints and healing opportunities meant that it was easy to get worn down before too long. It’s said that the developers will be responding to complaints with some sort of patch – and while I’m not here to debate the patching argument, I’ll just say that personally I felt the difficulty spike was a bit sudden and frustrating, though I did manage it after looking into some online strategies. Not my proudest moment, but I’m not sure I would have worked out a good strategy otherwise – though it wasn’t too bad once I’d had a couple of pointers. Bad game design? Maybe. Just be warned – or in any case, it might be patched by the time you play it.
That said, the games’ puzzles were enjoyable when they appeared – and this was one area where I was glad not to see too many enemies. Luckily there was no “push a heavy box up a slope while a never-ending supply of bad-guys try to knock it out of your hands” puzzles to complete. Rather a nice mix of tasks that actually made me think about how to use the tools at my disposal to progress. One very clever tool allows you to decay and restore certain objects, allowing an element of time manipulation to mix into the puzzles, such as breaking and restoring chains when manipulating mechanisms, as well as creating platforms or breaking down barriers. Definitely one of the better titles in the series in terms of making you think, and less infuriating tasks than some.
Sadly, the game’s story tries to match the scale of previous installments, but never really hit the mark for me. While the story is told in an impressive, cinematic way that screams God of War, the Furies feel like something of a footnote in comparison to other enemies Kratos has dealt with in previous games. Kratos has to deal with them because they are in his way – but I felt no emotional investment in his struggle against them as they held little personal value to him, even as they attempt to mess him about with visions of his life before becoming Ares’ pawn.
My biggest complaint, however was in the storytelling itself. The constant switching between past and present made the game feel somewhat disjointed. I honestly believe the story would have been better if told in chronological order. Rather, it felt that the story was twisted around the sake of gameplay – each time Kratos recovers an item from within the prison, there’s a flashback scenario leading up to him obtaining it initially before his capture and having his items confiscated. In gameplay terms, this means that once you obtain an item, you have access to it for the rest of the game, rather than obtaining them all, losing them all half-way, then re-obtaining them after imprisonment. The cost, however is that the story line is overly twisted, and I felt as though I wasn’t as connected with Kratos as I wasn’t seeing things in the same order that he had experienced them. Also, the parts of the game set before his imprisonment are all basically a fetch-quest – Kratos’ only goal is to find out “the truth”, and is sent from one place to another in hopes of finding a person or artifact – and that’s about it. It wasn’t particularly compelling, and Kratos’ capture would have perhaps been more exciting if we didn’t already know it was coming from the start of the game.
Additionally, considering the game is focused on Kratos’ wish to break his bond with Ares, I was disappointed with the fact that we see next to nothing of Ares during the storyline. He is mentioned a few times, but the game feels very separate from the rest of the series, focusing almost purely on the Furies and Orkos. This is fine in terms of the game’s main plot, but I’m sure many fans would have loved to have seen a little of Kratos and Ares’ relationship – especially since Ares’ actions are the root of Kratos’ need for vengeance. The game’s story also feels shorter than the previous home console titles – which may or may not have been due to the introduction of a multiplayer mode. If so, I hope we won’t be seeing a decline in length of future titles.
I suppose a large part of me was disappointed that this wasn’t really an origin story as I felt it was advertised to be. The very first teaser spoke of a time “before Kratos became the monster known as the Ghost of Sparta”, while the Live Action Trailer focused on his family and his position as a Spartan General, whilst seemingly focusing on his transformation into the Ghost of Sparta. However, the game starts months after his transformation has already taken place. Instead of seeing the very human Kratos that I’d hoped for, this game felt like just another day in the life of the Ghost of Sparta – and really, it felt as though it was a story that didn’t need to be told. My only assumption is that the developers intend on expanding upon the concepts of the Primordials in later titles – in which case the events of this game could have deeper ties to the rest of the series than it initially appears.
In terms of Multiplayer, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with it. I play God of War for its epic stories, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. However, I did have a go at it, and it’s nice to see more non-FPS games trying to incorporate decent online modes. You can align yourself with one of four Gods of Olympus (Zeus, Ares, Poseidon or Hades), each coming with its own set of ability bonuses and unlockable weapons and armour for your champion. The modes allow for a good mix of challenges, including usual death match/team modes, as well as Team Favour of the Gods – perhaps the most exciting idea. Players can play on the side of either Spartans or Trojans, and must compete for the highest score. While killing opposing teams will of course earn favour, you can also focus on other things, such as capturing altars, opening chests or setting traps – which adds a bit more variety for players who don’t just want mindless death matches. There’s also single player and co-op modes, where players can fight waves of the game’s monsters against a time-limit, which is a great inclusion for people who dislike PvP – still allowing you to earn XP and build upon your character. Multiplayer is a nice addition, if it’s something that interests you.
+ Usual God of War dose of impressive visuals and brutal combat
+ Some of the better puzzles compared to the rest of the series
+ Multiplayer seems quite solid
- Elements and temporary weapons aren’t as fun as previous weapons and abilities
- Story doesn’t really feel a necessary part of the God of War storyline
- Story lacks a real driving force, Kratos’ quest isn’t as exciting as older games and the way it is told spoils the flow of things
God of War: Ascension is by no means a bad game – it’s got all the basic elements that make it God of War, and is of course one of the better-looking games in the series given that it uses the engine of God of War III. It’s just a shame that behind the beauty lies a relatively boring plot, with its few twists spoiled by its strange way of telling the story. The combat works as it should, and is filled with the usual brutality, but there’s little surprise to be had or exciting new abilities to unlock. Worth a play, but my least favourite entry in the series so far.
God of War: Ascension is out now exclusively for PlayStation 3.
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