One gets the feeling that Santa Monica Studios is scared of moving on from their flagship franchise. Fun, but familiar.

User Rating: 8 | God of War: Ascension PS3
It's remarkable to think that Kratos has been around for eight years, slashing and hacking his way into the pantheon of legendary Playstation exclusive heroes. With Ascension, the series -- which is now on its fourth iteration (on the major consoles, and more on the PSP/Vita) -- has gone as far as it can. I very much enjoyed playing through this prequel to the main trilogy but, at the end, found myself hoping that this is truly the end.

To fans of the series, I'm happy to report that the gameplay model here remains extremely entertaining, and it's truly been honed to a fine point -- as sharp as the Blades of Chaos -- for this ten to twelve hour orgy of relentless and (almost entirely) remorseless violence. Basically, Kratos clears a room full of bad guys, solves a puzzle, moves on to another room of bad guys, acts out an epic set piece on a stage of truly titanic scale, and then tears through a boss before executing him or her in the most brutal fashion imaginable. We've all done this and seen this before, but I was surprised by how viscerally fun it still is. The graphics, which astonished in God of War III, remain excellent here, and the fiendishly clever and gory executions are still something to admire or be appalled by.

There are a few notable improvements from prior versions, and one flaw. The improvements mostly reside in the improved balance of attacks and the inability to spam certain abilities (e.g., L1 + Square) to conquer all foes. Rather, this game places a greater emphasis on dodging and timing attacks to build up combos. The major flaw, however, lies in the difficulty. While this has been ameliorated by a recent patch, the most difficult segment of the game by far is the "Trials of Archimedes," the second to last chapter of the game. Nothing that comes before it is even remotely close, while the major final fights that follow it are laughably easy. All in all, this uneven patchwork difficulty disrupts the flow of the game toward the end, inspiring a little frustration on the Trials and then a letdown when the game concludes so abruptly and simply. (For what it's worth, on Normal with the latest patch, I beat the Trials the second time I played it.

As for the storyline, there isn't much to write home about here. It is a decent backstory to Kratos's quest of vengeance against Ares in God of War: essentially, after betraying Ares, the three Furies -- who punish all those who break an oath to a god -- imprison Kratos and torture him with illusions and visions. Kratos must collect a set of relics that enable him to defeat and kill the Furies, so that he can embark on the quest that forms the narrative of the main trilogy.

Overall, I'd recommend anyone play this for a good, solid game that is as much fun to watch as it is to play. But this is no longer the mind-blowing, AAA experience that the God of War series once provided.