It's hard to imagine a time in Kratos' life when he wasn't whipped up into a mad, revenge-fuelled frenzy. After all, if his last five outings have taught us anything, it's that whether you're a demon, or a monster, or even a god, Kratos isn't afraid to quench his bloodlust by severing your head. So it comes as something of a surprise to see a calmer, more thoughtful side to his character in God of War: Ascension. This isn't a story about revenge, or uncontrollable rage, but the tale of a tortured mind in search of the truth.
Sadly, that makes things a little less exciting. Sure, like in all God of War games, the action is bloody, over the top, and entertaining. And the sense of scale as you clamber over vast statues that stand as tall as mountains, or joust with the tentacles that topple entire cities is impressive too. But without that constant fury permeating every punch, kick, and bloody hack-and-slash dismemberment, God of War: Ascension doesn't deliver that same gut punch of instant gratification as its predecessors.
There's an element of series fatigue at play too, mostly because there's little mechanically in Ascension that wasn't taken to its logical conclusion in God of War III. The mythical beasts, the huge sense of scale, and the grotesquely violent combat are all here, but Ascension is not a fresh take on those things. Instead, it's mostly down to the story (set 10 years before the original God Of War) to provide a change of pace, charting as it does Kratos' descent from a regular, albeit uber-strong human being into an unhinged ball of rage.
It's a story that tries so very hard to have you relate to the mellowed-out Kratos. And sure, there are a few touching moments when Kratos reminisces about his deceased wife and child, but for the most part Ascension's emotional impact is limited to cut scenes of him looking moody, or getting a bit angry with one of the three evil furies he's chasing. It's hardly enough for you to empathise with his character, particularly since those scenes are surrounded by many hours of Kratos viciously tearing the heads off demons while he happily splashes around in their blood without a care in the world.
But it's those hours, gruesome beheadings and all, that prove to be the most entertaining. Combat is God of War's forte, and it's as exhilarating as ever in Ascension. Slaying goat men by snapping their spines in two, disemboweling a centaur, or tearing through the skull of a harpy are dark pleasures that few games can replicate with such ferocity. If you're a fan of the series, they're all things you've seen before, of course, and they're even performed using the same button-mashing quick time events.
That's not to say there haven't been a few changes, though. An enjoyable new minigame replaces many of the quicktime events, letting you take down larger foes without following a specific set of commands. Instead, you're free to stab away at enemies, only stopping to dodge attacks that are handily highlighted by a brief moment of slow-motion swinging. Dodge enough attacks and stab enough times and your foe is torn in half. Or its brains are squished. Or its jaw is turned inside out. God of War certainly isn't for the squeamish.
Kratos' blades of chaos make a return in open combat, letting you conjure up all manner of impressive looking combos with just a few simple button taps. After just a few battles you can hack, sweep, and hurl enemies into the air with a fluidity that's mighty impressive, and mighty rewarding too. As enemies get stronger, combat becomes more challenging, with a greater emphasis placed on the timing of blocks and dodges in order to avoid enemy attacks.
There's also elemental damage to worry about, with Kratos able to switch between fire, demon, ice, and electricity powers for his blades at will. Each of them doles out a different status effect, with electricity's ability to shock enemies for a brief period of time and suspend them in mid-air a particularly useful one. There's also the usual array of devastating spells to unlock, each of them linked to an elemental power.
It's all very slick and precise, and as you tear out the heart of a fallen medusa after a wonderfully skilful combo, it's hard not to be impressed. The simpler secondary weapon system does wonders here too. Now you can pick up various weapons, such swords, spears, and giant mallets, from fallen victims, which can be used for a brief amount of time to mix up Kratos' fighting style. Having a constantly cycled secondary weapon keeps the combat fresh and interesting, and the different effects of each weapon--the giant mallet knocking enemies to their knees, for instance--open up new ways to attack and string together combos.
Where the combat falters slightly is in boss battles, which remain formulaic and require you to memorise each boss's repetitive movements before launching an attack. And unlike the boss battles in previous God of War games, Ascension's boss battles aren't particularly taxing, thanks to simpler patterns and quick-time events. The battles do at least play to Ascension's impressive sense of scale, though. Whether you're attacking a giant bug that has sprouted from the hands of a decrepit statute, or are fighting a fire-breathing demon that towers above the city, you can't help but be in awe of the sights on offer. Plus, the final boss is one of the scariest to have graced a video game: those with a tender disposition may want to watch out for nightmares afterward.
Numerous puzzles break up the action to great effect. They start off simple enough, often just requiring you to pull a lever to open a door, or pull a block around to reach a tall platform, but they soon become complex, particularly during the latter half of the game. It's there that you pick up powers that let you rebuild and destroy sections of the environment and create a replica of yourself to pull switches or stand or blocks. Combining powers results in some excellent brainteasers that mix up spatial awareness with old-fashioned logic for some interesting challenges.
Less successful are the drawn-out platforming sections that make use of Kratos' blades to swing and leap across the environment. Awkward camera angles that don't quite line up with platforms make them trickier than they should be, while many of them simply go on for too long; you're itching to get back to the combat long before you leap across that final chasm. Fortunately, there aren't too many of these sections to deal with, and on the whole, the campaign moves forward at a fast-enough pace to keep you interested, even if it doesn't reach the exciting breakneck speeds of God of War III.
But there's more to Ascension than just a single-player campaign. Yes, for the first time, God of War has a multiplayer mode. And like most multiplayer modes tacked onto a largely single-player adventure, it's not something you're likely to play more than once, and only then out of morbid curiosity. The focus is on arena battling in matches of eight or fewer players. You pick a faction for your character--which mimics the elemental powers found in the single-player campaign--dress him up in some fancy coloured armour, and then get to killing.
Combat is similar to that of the single-player, although it has been noticeably slowed down, no doubt to give other players more of a chance to dodge, block, or parry attacks. Not that it makes a whole lot of difference when it comes down to battle. There's a certain amount of timing involved, for sure, but more often than not simply mashing buttons is enough to land yourself a kill. You can break up the physical attacks by performing impressive-looking special moves with cooldown meters or by launching magic attacks by collecting mana. Magic is useful in a crowded battle, but one-on-one physical attacks can rarely be beaten.
The vast majority of Ascension's multiplayer modes are based around Favour of the Gods. In these modes, you must collect a certain number of favour points by killing others, opening chests, and taking control of altars scattered around each of the arena-style maps. The maps themselves are pretty to look at, with plenty of cool environmental weapons for combatants to use, such as fiery flamethrowers and spikes that brilliantly impale multiple opponents at once. And for a brief amount of time, the mode is fun too, but there's little to hold your attention for long. Combat is slow, while the environments themselves are often too big, meaning you spend most of your time looking for opponents rather than fighting them.
Trial of the Gods fares better. It's an endless-wave mode where you and a friend are pitted against CPU-controlled enemies to see how long you can survive. Here, the arenas are much smaller, and each wave brings with it a new set of enemies, which keeps the action focused and exciting. It's not a particularly original mode, but it's well executed and challenging too. The reward for all your hard work is experience, which can be used to unlock new moves, magic attacks, and weapons for your character. The levelling system doesn't bring anything new to the multiplayer party, but it works well enough.
You're unlikely to play the multiplayer outside of a few practice sessions: it simply isn't deep enough to hold your attention for long. Fortunately, the single-player has a few tricks up its sleeve with a New Game Plus mode that unlocks after you complete the game, allowing you to use objects that give you unlimited mana, or dole out extra damage for some truly wondrous action-packed combat. There's a harder difficulty level too, should the single-player not be challenging enough, and there are plenty of unlockables in the form of artwork and behind-the-scenes movies.
The single-player is where you should spend your time. No, it doesn't quite reach the audacious and rage-filled moments of God of War: Ascension's predecessors, nor does it move the series forward in any way, but it's skilfully put together, and wonderfully satisfying to play. The mix of Greek mythology and lurid schoolboy fantasy still manages to simultaneously charm and gross out all at once, and that's a trait few games can boast, let alone execute with such confidence. Not to mention Ascension looks stunning, from the lighting effects that make for moody encounters in darkened dungeons, to the detail that has been thrown into each and every stab of a knife, and each drop of blood that flows from a downed enemy's recently spilled guts. Yes, it's all very juvenile, but boy is it fun.'