Origin stories can be touchy subjects for fans when their beloved series receives the prequel treatment. Mention Star Wars and most fans reactions are to reveal a list of things absolutely wrong with the three prequels. Prequels divide audiences. Some claim they were stories that should be told one way or another whereas others simply see them as pointless; a simple cash in to make money off a franchises popularity. God of War: Ascension isn't a game that ruins important back story. It is, however, debatable whether or not this story needed to be told as Kratos' reason for who he is and how he came to be where he is, is explored within the original God of War. Ascension is here though and there is no dismissing it. It's fully fledged God of War title that explores of origins of everyone’s favourite God slayer – Kratos. The game itself is set 10 years before the original God of War and 6 months after the deaths of Kratos' family. Having broken his bond with Ares, Kratos is fleeing from the Furies, three demonic sisters that punish those that break an oath, more severaly to those that turn their back on a God. In order to be free of his oath to Ares, Kratos must find a way to defeat the sisters.
With the origin story, we were promised a different Kratos, one not so driven by vengeance and rage. While this is true, we don't see any more depth to Kratos than we did in other games. In the very few cutscenes the game provides, we simply see Kratos looking forlorn, a little glum and little down. We don't completely explore his grief, his pain and his regrets. There is also another conspiracy plot that plays a long side Kratos' but this plot is hardly worth being invested in and is rarely touched upon. This is a problem with an origin story, that there is nothing at stake as we know what is to come thanks to earlier games. As already mentioned, there is a distinct lack of cutscenes when compared to the previous title, God of War 3. It's a shame because the few cutscenes used rarely explore Kratos as a character and simply push forward a meandering plot you couldn't really care about. The antagonists of Ascension, The Furies, are at least a driving force to keep the game moving. But thanks the picking off and killing of the God's one by one in God of War 3, the Furies fail in comparison. Again, they're not an intimidating force because you know you're going to win so you're simply pushing on through a story with nothing at stake and nothing to gain.
The weak story aside, the gamplay is where God of War shines and Ascension is no different. This is the tried and tested formula used in previous games and, for the most part, it remains the same, with the battlefield becoming a blur of spinning blades, blood and floating orbs. A notable change is the new quick time events that have also morphed into a new mini-game. Instead of pressing a series of buttons when prompted, you'll continue to mash the attack buttons and use the analogue stick to dodge attacks from your pinned foe. It's a simple change but effective at keeping you involved in the action. The combat also looks fantastic. Killing enemies in gory finishes has never felt so satisfying, especially when some of the enemies here will, at times, offer a genuine challenge when facing different combinations. The new block and counter requires better timings than previous games and tough to time perfectly rather than the simple one, well timed button counter of God of War 2 and 3.
The weapons have also been significantly changed in Ascension. Whereas in previous games, the player would be given items and weapons they'd never use because the chains were so fun, here you are given different elements. The four elements, fire, ice, electricity and hades (whatever element that is) all offer their own rewards for using them. This coincides with the new rage bar. When fighting, Kratos' rage bar will fill up. Once full, apart from offering more combat moves, whichever element Kratos is using on his blade has a better chance to incinerate the enemy which rewards the player with orbs. Which colour orbs you get depends on which element you used. It's probably the most interesting and refined combat in the whole series and actually gives the player a reason to use new weapons, with the rewards of health, magic and golden orbs (rage meter) a good incentive to do so. These are also beneficial because later in the game, Ascension can become a challenge and full mastery of your weapons can be needed, in one area in particular towards the end. Secondary weapons have also been introduced. Kratos can now hold a sword, a shield or even a warhammer which is used with the ever changing circle button. While you may not use them much, they offer some variety to the combat, can be chained in with your combos and can even help get you out of a tight spot. They can also be thrown at enemies, which offers a great looking slow down moment before the moment of satisfying impact.
The puzzles are also enjoyable in Ascension. As the game progresses, they become genuine brain teasers that link and wove together. There is also a new ability in the game that allows you to restore items or decay them which is mixed well into the puzzles. Watching a collapsed bridge slowly re-assemble looks great and the attention to detail on the all the tiny broke pieces has to be admired.
It's also worth noting that God of War: Ascension looks fantastic. Santa Monica are truly getting everything they can out of the aging PS3 hardware and like with God of War 3, offer a jaw dropping experience visually. Add these visuals in with some epic moments, gory combat that reveals the innards of mythological creatures and an acute attention to detail, you have one of the best looking console games on the market today.
Where God of War Ascension falters when compared to the other games is, sadly, a few areas. The colour palette is one that can make it easy to lose track of Kratos in a hectic fight. He can sometimes blend in and often times will appear on the other side of the screen because you looking in the wrong area. The boss fights are also lacking in this game. Only in a few occasions do they reach the epic scales of God of War 3 and never do they test you like some of the boss marathons God of War 2 offered. The game also has a tendency to throw in one too many platforming sections that, while OK, tend to drag on a little longer than they should.
Personal Note: I genuinely love the God of War series. I've loved it since the original and was really looking forward to Ascension. Sadly the game just didn't live up to the others. Kratos didn't really interest me as a character this time round. The boss fights were lacking and the areas and use of colour meant it was frustrating and easy to lose Kratos in a sea of enemies. The combat can offer a genuine challenge at times though which is refreshing in today’s age of hand holding games. If you're a fan of God of War then I would wholeheartedly recommend this game to you. While the core gameplay doesn't change things significantly, it proves that it still works incredibly well and offers a satisfying, blood thirsty experience. However, I will add that, despite the great combat, I'd say this is the weakest console God of War game we've seen yet where many other aspects of the game fail to live up to it's predecessors.
A solid hack 'n slash for fans of the series. There is also additional multiplayer for those that like that sort of thing.