God Of War: Ascension Review
Pointless. Cynical. Money-grabbing. Why bother?
Even Kratos himself would have bowed his head at the onslaught of abuse that came his way when God Of War: Ascension was announced. Cynicism was the easy option. The question many asked is how far could the formula be pushed?
The short answer is: not very far. The slightly-less-short answer is: not very far but just about enough that it gets away with it. Just.
One of the big selling points of Ascension is how it’s an origin story of sorts, charting the journey of Kratos as he loses his humanity and becomes the murderous God we’ve come to know throughout the series.
Ascension is not quite ground zero for Kratos, as he comes into the story already carrying some obvious baggage, but the point is this – for all those promises, Ascension is still a game where Kratos wonders into empty homes and smashes pots for red orbs while growling and grunting.
Subtlety has never been a strength of God Of War’s narrative. Ascension doesn’t change that. After all, this is a game that opens with Kratos in chains, slashing at a harpy-esque demon who has insects crawling out of her chest. It’s not exactly God Of War: Emo Edition.
And with that selling point discounted early on, there’s a worry that the sense of scale would no longer wow us to the point where it can overcome the story’s lack of impact – how much bigger could God Of War realistically be on this creaking generation of hardware?
What Ascension shows is that it’s the design of the gargantuan creatures that excites as much as the size.
Without ruining things too much, the opening section of Ascension shows you what to expect. The way to fight a giant creature is to take command of another giant creature and pit them against each other, with an inevitable, bloody conclusion to the fight.
Other battles are similarly impressive, even against smaller foes, and it’s mostly due to the strong design of the creatures themselves and the satisfying, crunching feedback of the combat.
Kratos still has his Blades Of Chaos and in Ascension he can unlock four different elemental powers for them, which can be switched on the fly. They’re designed for use in different situations.
Quick example: Poseidon’s Ice powers is useful for breaking through blocking while Zeus’ Thunder attacks are fast (some might say… lightning quick! No? Okay, we’re sorry).
You can get through Ascension without ever really switching between weapons (at least on default difficulty) and even with those elemental powers, the combat framework is still very much what you’d expect from God Of War. Quick attacks, heavy attacks, launchers, kill moves and special weapons. So far, so usual.
Kratos’ New Parry
The big change is that Kratos now has a parry move, deflecting incoming attacks and stunning opponents, giving you an opening to do damage.
It’s easy enough to land in combat, thanks to its generous design. The active frames during which the parry is triggered last longer than you’d expect, it works on all angles (you don’t have to be facing the attacking move for the parry to work) and the parry also counters projectiles.
The only real drawback of the move is its recovery period if the parry doesn’t connect with anything, as Kratos staggers before he’s able to move or attack again.
That stumble initially makes the parry clumsy and furthermore, it’s never really essential thanks to the evasive roll being an easy answer to the majority of tricky combat situations.
That changes on higher difficulties, when you need both the attack boost and brief invincibility of a successful parry to get through. Without it, you’re having to fend off awkward combinations of enemies (witches who can summon lightning spells from distance plus shielded minotaurs) and the increased damage you take dramatically trims the margin of error.
Ultimately, whether you’re playing through on default or forcing Kratos through the higher difficulties, learning the parry adds a new level of mastery to God Of War’s combat.
Those who felt God Of War was the button-spammy cousin of genre rivals Devil May Cry and Bayonetta finally have a new toy to play with to show off their skill.
God Of War: Ascension Has New QTEs
Given the progress with combat by adding a parry, it’s a shame QTEs aren’t treated with more care, especially as there’s an interesting new idea behind them.
When you’re fighting a larger creature, you can activate a QTE of sorts after weakening it, where Kratos is free to attack with Square and Triangle but also has to dodge any attempts by the creature attempting to swipe him away.
It’s half-QTE, half-actual player input. A smart way of having cinematic kills without reducing players to bystanders watching out for button prompts.
The problem is the existence of traditional QTEs alongside that, and it’s never really clear which one you’re in until it’s started and, often, it’s then too late.
Mash Square to get a headstart on the new style of QTE you could be in the traditional style of QTE, so you fail. Wait for the button prompt of a traditional QTE and it may never arrive because it’s actually the new type of QTE, leaving Kratos and boss both pose at each other, waiting for a button push that never arrives. It’s never a massive issue but it’s still a problem that adds a needless layer of clumsiness to combat.
And speaking of clumsy, the platforming is something that’s tolerated rather than enjoyed. Four games on and the lumbering Kratos is still not quite up to some of the more ambitious level design.
There’s one section a few hours in that sees you traversing huge, metallic snakes that are part of a gate mechanism leading to a temple.
It’s a visual feast as Kratos swoops through cliffs and valleys while battling enemies but awe is counteracted by frustration at missing jumps linking the various sections together.
By the time you hit solid ground an hour later, you’re exhausted from frustration as much as you’re invigorated by spectacle.
God Of War Puzzles Are Still Great
The clumsy platforming is redeemed by the puzzles, which pop up with satisfying frequency and are perfectly pitched exercises in head-scratching and experimentation to find the answer.
As with other games in the God Of War series, puzzles are mostly about manipulating huge objects in the room to create new platforms or gaps – pulling levers to see what they do, pushing blocks to see where they go and so on.
Without spoiling things too much, Kratos gains an item that changes the dynamics of the puzzles and forces you to think more than you’d expect of a game starring a man famous for shouting and scowling.
Just like with the bosses, there’s a clear, clever approach to design at work here that’s both consistent with the series and just about tricky enough to provide satisfaction when you find the solution.
Ascension Multiplayer – The Best Addition
The addition of multiplayer was an easy target for cynics questioning the point of Ascension existing but it’s surprisingly well done.
Multiplayer combat is built on a rock-paper-scissors system of priority. Quick attacks interrupt heavy attacks but lose to block. Heavy attacks beat block but lose to quick attacks. Evade beats all attacks but loses to throw while throw beats evade but loses to attacks.
It’s not quite that black and white as there are also magic attacks, environmental traps, parry and special pick-ups to consider, plus other players.
But the rock-paper-scissors idea is a solid foundation for the combat that strikes a healthy balance between panicked button-bashing and strategy. It retains the manic, chaotic feel of God Of War’s combat without becoming tiring or tedious.
The life of multiplayer is tied into the usual system of gaining experience, levelling up and unlocking new moves. You can also find treasure during online matches that unlocks new customisation pieces, and there are four Gods to pledge allegiance to, who offer various stat boosts and moves.
There’s enough content to play around with to keep Ascension players busy and there were no issues when we played online (although it was strictly against other Europeans).
Most importantly is that thematically, multiplayer works. The map design isn’t particularly organic, the chunky block design clearly catering to balance as a priority over gorgeous looking levels (probably a good thing), but there’s no sense of multiplayer being tacked on for the sake of it. It’s clearly been thought about and treated with care.
God Of War: Ascension’s multiplayer is similar to that seen in Uncharted 3 or Mass Effect 3 – it won’t be the main reason you pick up the game but it provides another compelling reason to stay.
Just Another God Of War?
The tricky question to answer is how much you’ll enjoy God Of War: Ascension, which is an enjoyable addition to the series but doesn’t show any real ambition to change things up. It’s refining the formula rather than pushing it. It doesn’t feel stale but it does feel familiar and in places, predictable.
The parry helps freshen up the combat and multiplayer is a strong and worthy addition. It’s just a shame that there’s little else you can point to as evidence of progression.
Games don’t necessary need to provide checklists of where they’re pushing things forward (as this does lead to gimmicky innovations) but as said, Ascension feels predictable and it does so a little too often. It’s fun but it’s a journey we’ve been on before.
Ultimately, Ascension is another hearty slice of God Of War. Nothing more, nothing less.