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God of War: Ascension review

God of War: Ascension
“A decent, but forgettable step back for the God of War franchise”
Pros
  • The gameplay you love returns with new tricks
  • A few incredible new sets
  • The multiplayer is surprisingly addictive
Cons
  • The prequel story adds nothing to the whole
  • The levels are bland
  • Nothing really new

My name is Ryan, and I am a God of War addict.  If could collect and reassign all the time I spent playing the previous God of War titles, including playing through the game multiple times on every difficulty setting, and replays on the recent HD re-releases, I could have read War and Peace. Seven or eight times. Hell, I could have written War and Peace. There is something sublime about the way these games play. It’s among the most responsive and intuitive series ever made, and the story and setting fit like a bloody glove, giving the games a sense of swagger and purpose.

God of War: Ascension doesn’t lose that pseudo-telepathic connection between controller and on-screen action, but the swagger is missing this time around. Kratos’ attitude has always been part of what made it fun to be such a brutal SOB, but in Ascension he feels like a passenger in the narrative more than the brutal, driving force.

Part of this watered-down attitude is the inevitable result of the game being a prequel. Part of it comes from a story that lacks the bombastic, wildly over-the-top plots of the previous games. The levels lack that flair and sense of wonder from before, as well.

god of war screenshot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ascension doesn’t really come close to hitting the highs that its predecessors reached. The memorable moments it does deliver are few and far between.  But the combat remains the star, and the new multiplayer mode makes an interesting edition for fans of the combat style. In that regard the game is a success – albeit a conditional one.

There once was a homicidal maniac named Kratos

The story of Ascension‘s protagonist Kratos is already familiar to most gamers, but to recap, Kratos is a Spartan general who strikes a deal with Ares, the Greek God of War. Things go swimmingly – Ares sees his armies dominate under Kratos, while Kratos helps control the population of the planet.  But Kratos soon learns that you shouldn’t trust a guy with the title God of War, when Ares sends him to massacre a village of Athena’s supporters that secretly includes Kratos’ wife and child.  Ares thought that eliminating Kratos’ family would free him to become the perfect soldier, but instead it ends up with Kratos playing soccer with Ares’ head.

The original game was set 10 years after the death of his family, following a decade of Kratos serving the other gods as restitution. Ascension takes place just a few months after the death of Kratos’ family, after he has broken his word and turned against Ares.  In Ancient Greece, this was a very, very bad thing. Enter the Furies. 

In Greek mythology, the Furies were guardians of honor, punishing oath breakers. Kratos, having just broken his oath with Ares, becomes their responsibility.  Under their torment, pieces of Kratos’ past go missing, like memories of what happened to his family. Instincts take over, and Kratos decides the sensible thing to do would be to murder his way out of his predicament and kill the Furies.

Like all prequels, Ascension has narrative limitations. Kratos is a singular character in gaming.  His unrepentant anger and lust for violence is unmatched, and he continually managed to top himself in brutality. That is part of what made previous games so much fun; they were spectacle, and the deconstruction of Greek mythology was part of that. 

The story in Ascension, in contrast, feels like a forced footnote to a much greater story. Kratos is still a brutal SOB, but he has less motivation than in the previous games.  That makes it unnecessary, and even dull at times.  Prequels need to add something to the overall story to justify themselves, but Ascension does not.

god of war screenshot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The level design is also lacking a bit, but only by the standards of the previous games.  You still battle giant creatures and grotesque perversions of classical Greek monsters, but it all feels a bit too familiar.  There is very little innovation, and this bleeds through into the puzzles, which typically use the environment.

That said, the journey is one worth taking for fans of the series.  Kratos isn’t quite the force of nature that he was in previous titles, but he does still have his moments, mostly thanks to the combat. 

Thrust, parry, disembowel

As in previous games, combat revolves around wielding Kratos’ Blades of Chaos. You will need to master the block and roll, and know when to attack and counter.  Enemies give you visual cues as to when you can pull off a special or a finishing move, and the quick-time events are once again the fastest way to kill large enemies – but there are less of them, thankfully.

Magic returns, but in a different way than before. Rather than collecting magical abilities or different weapons imbued with their own magic, you now receive elemental attacks that augment the Blades of Chaos. There are four in total, and each one represents a Greek God’s signature: Lighting for Zeus, Ice for Poseidon, Fire for Ares, and Soul for Hades.  These elemental attacks each have their own upgrade trees, offering specific attacks and eventually a magical attack. 

The rage meter returns, but this time it fills based on how many combos you can pull off without taking damage. Once it is full, you can activate it, opening up new moves. You will also pick up key items along the way that you will use to solve puzzles and mix into combat, including one that lifts enemies in the air, one that causes a blinding flash, and another that leaves a decoy of yourself.  You can now also collect weapons that you’ll find lying around and use them for a limited time.

The changes in the combat are minor. They don’t feel like an evolution of the battle mechanics so much as just a different take on them. You could easily drop the mechanics from a previous game into this game without missing a beat. None of that makes Ascension a bad game, just an unnecessary one. The only thing that really feels fresh is the multiplayer.

Gods and monsters

Multiplayer is a brand-new addition to the God of War series, but one with a few issues.  When you first step into the multiplayer, you are asked to choose a god to pledge your loyalty to: Ares, Hades, Zeus, or Poseidon. Each god offers you a specific benefit, whether it be a defensive bonus, combat boost, or a team-stat increase.  The more you play in each faction, the more you level up and unlock custom abilities and weapons.  You can switch at any time, but experience doesn’t carry over between factions. 

Through experience and by completing objectives, you earn armor, weapons, magic, and abilities that also level up through use. Each piece of equipment affects your overall stats, so it’s a balancing act – for the most part. Ascension‘s matching-making abilities won’t be fully tested until the game is released and the servers are fully populated, but in early multiplayer demos, it was difficult to find balanced games. Going up against a higher level player with a powerful weapon was an exercise in futility. Scattered secondary weapons and blue orbs that grant you magic help – but the magic also levels up, so more powerful players will benefit from them as well.

god of war screenshot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Gameplay modes range from a four- or eight-player free-for-all deathmatches to capture the flag, and a modified version of domination with two competing teams of four that ends with the winning team slaying a giant monster.  There are also two-person team battles, and a co-op challenge mode that puts two players against waves of enemies as a clock ticks down – which is one of the better offerings.

Each mode has multiple ways to earn points beyond just kills and assists.  Opening chests, capturing altars (like domination points), and completing the goals for a given game mode all earn you points that will help to level you up.

The multiplayer has been tailored for people who play God of War obsessively – the types who will storm onto servers thinking they’re the best to ever play.  They’ll have fun quickly leveling up and competing against other diehards, but casual fans will have a tough time unless the matchmaking is balanced to allow new players time to grow. If not, they face a steep learning curve.

The imbalance isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it will require players to approach situations differently. You can’t just rush in and hope to win in a massive melee, but you can wait and pick off the wounded players. Still, leveling up should be a reward, not the sole goal of a multiplayer game.

Ascension‘s multiplayer mode needs a bit of polish, but it’s a good addition to the game, and a short gaming session can quickly turn into hours. It will also likely gain a strong (but small) following – not unlike the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer. It  may not reach the popularity of FPS multiplayer – but the fans it gains will be loyal.

Once the game has been released and the servers are properly populated, we will revisit this and update the review. 

Conclusion

God of War: Ascension is a small episode in the God of War saga rather than a true expansion of the story. The plot adds little to the overall narrative, and the 8- to 10-hour campaign (much less if you hurry) isn’t nearly as memorable as its predecessors. The combat, however, remains the star, even if it is just a different take rather than an evolution.  The multiplayer does add value, but it won’t have the mass appeal to convert people who aren’t already in love with the combat.

Despite all that, Ascension is still a better action game than most in the genre thanks to the combat mechanics.  Plus, while the story isn’t up to the standards of the other God of War games, it is by no means bad.  It just competes against its own legacy and doesn’t live up to it. When God of War IV inevitably comes out on the PS4, Ascension will end up as a footnote to the God of War saga, much like the PSP games. A good footnote, but still a footnote.

(This game was reviewed on the PS3 using a copy provided by the publisher)

Ryan Fleming
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Fleming is the Gaming and Cinema Editor for Digital Trends. He joined the DT staff in 2009 after spending time covering…
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