God of War: Ascension is an enjoyable adolescent power fantasy, but that formula is wearing thin
God of War: Ascension
Kratos is a bullet. He goes forward no matter what, and punches through everything in his path. While there may be reasons for his actions, and his back story has been well-developed through multiple games, the fact remains that if he’s going to stab, beat, or fuck anything you put in his way, and these acts are always shown to the player in graphic detail. There is no sexism in the God of War stories, as everyone except Kratos is treated as an object to be used to the protagonist’s own ends. This includes the game’s many gods.
The being said, watching him stomp on the face of a female character to earn the “Bros before Hos” Trophy is profoundly uncomfortable. It’s one thing for a game’s content to make you squirm, and Kratos has always been a hero who is fine with testing the bounds of good taste while you cheer him on, but when the game’s own developer makes light of the situation with a poorly named Trophy it brings the whole thing into sharp relief.
The God of War series has always been comfortable showing us just how hollow Kratos has become, but things get darker once the meta-commentary ceases to be critical of that fact and instead cheers it on.
What the hell is going on?
The God of War series usually takes advantage of the single-minded nature of Kratos to tell stories with relentless pacing: Kratos has something to avenge or someone to kill, and everything in his way is about to have a bad day.
Ascension messes with that formula by telling a sloppy, overly complicated story about breaking oaths to the gods, the role of the furies, and a timeline that bounces back and forth between the past and the present. It’s hard to keep everything straight, and many gamers will likely give up trying in order to simply enjoy the action.
And the action is just as strong as you’d expect. The rhythmic, combo-laden battle continues to feel great, and the camera swoops around to always show the action in its best light. Fans of gore and well-animated deaths will delight in the multiple ways you have of killing your enemies, and Ascension contains some of the most graphic violence you’ll see in gaming.
This isn’t meant as criticism, as it’s actually fun to see the creative ways they’ve come up with to dispatch enemies. There’s a reason gore and horror has such a following in the world of genre films, and God of War fits comfortably into that tradition.
That being said, the game asks you to spend a little too much time fighting bugs, baby dragons, and demonic dogs with glowing eyes. The game is filled with scenes of Kratos doing amazing things, so it’s always disappointing when groups of such minimal threat are thrown at the player.
The camera also has a tendency to pull way back away from the action to give you a sense of scale, but that often makes it hard to tell what’s going on during combat. When the characters are reduced to blurs on admittedly impressive moving set pieces, the act of playing the game is forced to take a backseat to spectacle.
The spectacle is, on the other hand, impressive. This could be one of the last few big-name first-party games on the PlayStation 3, and it’s an incredible achievement in art design and graphical flair. The game is filled with exquisite detail work, beautiful moments where the player is invited to enjoy the scenery, and impressive animations. If you buy the game just to experience what the PlayStation 3 can do at the height of its power, and to enjoy the combat, you won’t likely be disappointed by the purchase.
Ascension is a game that exists because the series is still popular, not because anyone involved had a strong story to tell, and the fact that we’re supposed to be put off by the actions of Kratos is starting to get lost in his supposed heroism. This isn’t someone we’re supposed to cheer on at every turn, he’s a cautionary tale about what happens when you give up everything to become something that is ultimately monstrous.
Once I made the decision to ignore the story altogether and focus on the visuals, combat, and level design I had a much better time, although the game felt like it could have used a little more time in playtesting. It’s easy to get stuck on “puzzles” that are ultimately dead ends, and there are moments where the game throws wave after wave of bad guys at the player in a way that feels excessive.
There are secondary weapons to pick up that are easy to ignore, and you can also now add an elemental effect to the Blades of Chaos, although the mechanic is under-used. There are many good ideas here that are too quickly pushed to the background instead of being fully developed. There is also a selection of interesting multiplayer modes that Sophie got a chance to try, but I passed on the Sony-run prelaunch testing sessions. We’ll revisit this once the game has been released.
God of War needs to be shaken up
Ascension is an enjoyable game, but it squeezed the last possible drops of blood out of the character and storyline. It barely makes sense, but there is still much enjoyment to be found in killing the bad guys, checking out the naked breasts, and enjoying the beautiful graphics. This is the power fantasy of an adolescent boy, with all the subtlety and often awkward content that entails, but that can be fun from time to time. This isn’t a bad game, it simply wasn’t able to justify itself in terms of story or leverage the new ideas in the combat in a way that adds something of worth.
I’m having fun with Ascension, but you can see the wear and tear on the series, and it’s doubtful anyone will be as forgiving of another sequel that refuses to move the game’s basic ideas forward in a meaningful way.