It’s a good thing the Greek pantheon is so expansive, or Kratos would have been out of a job long ago. After all, gaming’s angriest man has been butchering gods since 2005, and it’s not like gods are the sort of things that can just be imagined into existence.
That said, God of War III did paint the popular series into something of a narrative corner, so with Ascension we go back in time – Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta style – to check in with Kratos back before he was the bane of Olympus.
Ascension takes place before all five prior God of War games, a mere six months after Kratos was tricked by Ares into murdering his own wife and child. Kratos has turned his back on the God of War, which has brought him to the attention of the Furies, a trio of ancient justice dispensers whose existence predates the gods themselves.
Goddesses from the Netherworld, the Furies capture and torture Kratos for breaking his oath to Ares, until his inevitable escape sees him – you guessed it – seek vengeance upon everything that looks at him sideways.
It all sounds rather familiar, and that's because the series settled into a comfortably brutal groove early on and has spawned more polished iterations of it ever since. As such, Ascension is a spectacular – not to mention spectacularly violent – hack ‘n’ slash platformer that features excellent graphics, a mountain of quick time events, gratuitous nudity, endless lever-pulling and climbing, huge ancient machines, bonkers boss fights, and a crazy storyline that bogarts about 95 per cent of the gaming universe’s quota of scowling and screaming.
Instantly familiar as a God of War game in both presentation and execution, there isn’t a fan alive that won’t have a blast playing this game, even though it isn't the series' strongest entry. Like its predecessors, it riffs hard on the frantic, brutal combat, but tweaks enough to avoid player fatigue and accusations of laurel-resting.
The most obvious change is to God of War’s weapons system. Rather than a multitude of options, Kratos uses only the Blades of Chaos and one weapon scavenged from the battlefield at a time. Those weapons include a quick short-sword, a long-range javelin or sling with limited uses, a club that disarms some enemies, and a shield with a charging attack.
Meanwhile, throughout the game the Blades of Chaos are imbued with the elemental powers of fire, lightning, ice, and black magic. Each of these elements has its own unlockable move set and magic attack, and each reaps differing orbs from slain enemies. Lightning attacks yield magic orbs, fire attacks boost Kratos’ rage meter, ice attacks boost health, and so forth.
The Rage Meter has also been altered – it fills quickly but subsides equally rapidly, and now once activated will leave Kratos in rage mode until he sustains damage.
Two new items are useful both in and out of combat. The Amulet of Uroborus may be used to manipulate time around an item, effectively aging or reverse-aging it. That means it may be used to rebuild crumbled structures and degrade them once again, or even half-rebuild them to provide platforms for Kratos to climb on to. With the Amulet only working on select structures at obvious times, this doesn’t expand the puzzle possibilities quite as much as one would expect, but it does add a welcome dimension to a few, and watching a demolished building slowly crawl back towards structural integrity is great. It's better utilised in battle, where the amulet shoots out a freeze ray which has a cool down of 30 seconds or so.
The second item is the Oath Stone of Orkos, which creates a clone of Kratos that may be used to hold a lever or crank in place, or very briefly fight alongside the player in battle. Like the amulet, it opens up a few more possibilities within the game's many puzzles, but the places it is required are generally equally obvious, so its best application is in battle.
The series’ equally loved and loathed quick time event kill system has also been overhauled, and some of the QTE's have been replaced by promptless minigames. That is, Kratos grabs his target and the player mashes fast or heavy attack until a death animation occurs, dodging the odd feeble counter along the way. Unlike the other combat changes, this is a clear step backwards as it’s never clear when the camera zooms in what one should expect – a cutscene, a minigame, or a quick time event – but also because the mini game itself is so boring and easy.
Series-standard grappling quick time events also irritate, as the grapple point is sometimes obscured due to poor camera placement or movement, leading to unfair deaths. There are also problems seeing what is going on in the larger battles in Ascension, with Kratos diminished by a wide-angle camera and buried under a plethora of magic attack effects and charging enemies. That his colour palette matches that of a common enemy grunt doesn’t help matters, and often executing multiple dive rolls is the only way to distinguish him from the masses.
Fortunately there is so much Ascension does well that it's hard to be too critical. Dull indoor arenas are nearly always elevated by terrific boss battles, setpieces, or puzzles, and the outdoor environments – a so-so snow level aside – are inspired. The God of War franchise has always been great with scale – at wowing the player with the sheer size of its enemies or verticality of an intricately designed tower or Titan – and the same applies here. Kratos' ascent of a gigantic Statue of Apollo is fantastic, providing the most breathtaking and varied sequences in the entire game.
Santa Monica also excels when it comes to creature design, and there are some nasty new enemies present, including the hulking Elephantaur, whose grisly death is one of the series' most graphic, and an insect-limbed Empusa, who is content to lob lightning at Kratos from afar. The Furies themselves are also an entertaining foe, but – to avoid spoilers – the less said about them the better.
Also brand new to the franchise is a surprisingly comprehensive and successful multiplayer component, which contains the expected deathmatch and flag capture modes along with a co-op wave survival variant whose time allowances will defeat players before their enemies do. Up to eight can play the team-based modes as a Spartan or Trojan, and the pick of them is probably team deathmatch, which sees experience awarded for opening chests, capturing altars, and killing enemies.
Each player begins multiplayer by pledging allegiance to one of four gods, who in turn bestow abilities that effectively equate to selecting a warrior, wizard, assassin, or support class. Characters may then be outfitted with a weapon (spear, hammer, or sword), armour (for legs, head, and torso), a relic (passive bonus), and item (recharging special attack).
Weapons and armour are unlocked and levelled up as the game is played, and – along with player stats such as magic resistance and special attack cool downs – improve as experience is accrued. Special weapon and armour sets are also unlocked for completing various achievements, which include interacting with the Titans shackled to each level. The levels themselves are a big reason why the multiplayer works so well, and the best arenas are complex, morphing, multi-level affairs that feature portals, grapple points, and turrets, as well as discarded weapons and traps that may be set by players to ensnare others.
The combat itself is as furious as the singleplayer – if not as varied – with a series of tells betraying an assailant’s intent a split-second before they strike, preventing an out-and-out button spamfest. This allows for parries, dodges, or quick counters, and along with the class system mixes things up nicely. Whether the game’s matchmaking separates out high-level characters from those just starting out remains to be seen, and it's probably too thin to sustain players for long, but overall what's here is a fun if marginally repetitive addition. In a small way it inadvertently highlights just how much of God of War’s charm is down to its outlandish narrative.
It’s impossible for God of War: Ascension to be groundbreaking the way the 2005 original was, or even for the series to really surprise players after so many years of plot twists and full throttle violence. But it does provide what the series has always had: a slick, technically accomplished, and highly enjoyable hack 'n' slash experience that is buoyed by a gleefully over-the-top story and a few decent puzzles. Some might be disappointed with the streamlined weapons system, and the narrative isn't as compelling as that of prior God of War games, but factor in a solid multiplayer mode, and Ascension does more than enough to justify its existence.