Developer: Santa Monica Studios / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / Played on PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Strong Language, Nudity, Violence]
Sisyphus was the Greek king who defied Zeus and was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill again and again after it had fallen. And though this character from Greek mythology never appears in the God of War series, he serves as a metaphor for what many critics believe to be the games’ weakness: repetition. As the sixth installment to the series, God of War: Ascension successfully builds upon what fans of the series have grown to expect and love. Acknowledging the old adage that people like what they like and they like it often, Toddy Pappy and team have constructed yet another prequel to the complicated saga of Kratos and his tragic torment over killing his wife and daughter.
The story takes place only six months after the death of his family and 10 years before the events of the original God of War. You begin in the Prison of the Damned where one of the Three Sister Furies, Magaera, is tormenting you for breaking your oath with Ares. Neither mortal nor god, the Furies are the keepers of justice and punish traitors who break their promises with the gods. Upon breaking free, Kratos begins his path of vengeance to find the Eyes of Truth so that he can defeat the Furies, break his bond with Ares, and exact revenge. Through a series of flashbacks, Ascension reveals the more human side of Kratos and gives backstory to the rage that drives him through the entire series. They combine to make this the most compelling Kratos we have ever seen.
Because this is the earliest we have ever seen Kratos, his powers are limited to the Blades of Chaos, a clever narrative device designed to reset the player’s abilities. One of the greatest improvements in the combat design is the introduction of Elements. In previous games, a number of weapons were granted to you upon defeating certain bosses as a means of diversifying combat. But in most cases, simply upgrading the Blades of Chaos fully allowed you to easily destroy most enemies. In God of War 3, the secondary weapons that you acquired became necessary, as they possessed unique abilities to vanquish certain foes. Elements of the gods now grant your blades with specific attacks for specific levels and enemies.
Additionally each element comes with its own rage-activated moves and magic attacks that can be leveled with the use of orbs. This allows you to primarily use the Blades of Chaos throughout the game, while at the same time creating a more varied combat system. Combined with the addition of new World Weapons like swords, clubs, javelins, and shields, there have never been more options to create combos with devastating effects.
Many of the familiar mechanics make their return, like the infinite combo stringing grapple and the stick and move evade that make the series so much fun to play. Unfortunately, the parry was changed from a well-timed L1, which blocks when held, to L1 plus the X button. Requiring two-button inputs disrupts the flow of combo to parry to combo in a way that you find yourself hardly using it at all. And of course it would not be a God of War game without QuickTime mini-games. However, the addition of “unprompted” mini-games during Brutal Kill sequences makes you feel more in control of the character and less scripted. You can now choose your type of attack and dodge, making them immersive. And the kills have never been so brutal. From splitting the elephant heads of Juggernaut Elites to eviscerating a Cyclops until his entrails spill to the ground, the graphic violence juxtaposed with Kratos’ lamenting his lost family creates the perfect canvas for the torment exacted upon him by the Furies.
Because this story takes place before his war against the gods or the titans, the boss fights are fairly sparse, with a large emphasis on waves of smaller enemies. However, the opening battle against the Hecatonchires and the use of scale throughout the sequence is equally epic to the opening fight against Poseidon in the last game. There are moments when the camera pulls so far back that you lose Kratos amongst all the enemies and that makes the gameplay a little muddy with some guesswork. But overall the sweeping cinematic effect adds more than it detracts from the experience.
The addition of multiplayer for the first time in the series offers up several fun modes that are variations upon classics (capture the flag, domination, horde mode, deathmatch). You play as either Trojan or Spartan in a class-based form of combat styled according to the format for each of four gods: Zeus, Ares, Hades or Poseidon. Each class offers up specific attacks that complement each other particularly well in team-based play. With controls as responsive as the single-player and a rich upgrade system, the multiplayer is a great addition that fans will love.
While many find the God of War series to be repetitive in its formula, it continues to deliver a refreshing take that satisfies the core fan base. And though the campaign is shorter and the number of epic boss fights leaves you wanting more, this is the most human we have ever seen Kratos and the story compels you to him unlike ever before. Ascension sets out not to reboot the franchise with a prequel but to add yet another layer of depth to one of the more complicated characters Sony has ever created.