Remember the first time you were appalled by the gratuitous violence and blatant sexism of God of War? OK, so maybe you—specifically—were not appalled. Maybe pressing plastic buttons while listening to the sounds of ancient mythological love-making felt like the pinnacle of the maturation of videogames as an art form back in 2005. Maybe the muscle-bound protagonist, swords firing from his arms in a dance with bare-breasted demons, seemed cool in the same way keg-stands once seemed like a great idea.
But eight years have passed, and Kratos is the perennial senior who just keeps showing up to the same frat parties with the same old tricks. Everyone else has grown up and moved on to a new life, but the Ghost of Sparta calls you up every couple of years promising he’s really changed this time.
One could argue God of War: Ascension is afforded a pass for trotting out the tired, well-worn path blazed by three major console releases, two handheld titles, and even a dismal mobile game. After all, Ascension is a prequel—you know, that place stories go when they’ve run out of gas. Kratos is only starting his adventure as an incredibly angry dude who will apparently spend his entire life ripping the heads off of pretty much anything. He’s been in a perpetual bad mood for almost eight years, but Sony thinks we should still love him.
Unfortunately, even if the sneering anti-hero is unaware of his fate, you know how this tale ends. You would probably scream at the screen, letting Kratos in on the secret if you cared about him whatsoever.
And frankly, the future looks awfully redundant. Take the admittedly stunning set pieces of the first three God of War games, the simply gargantuan boss fights, and the combo-driven hack-and-slash swirling of blades, and you have basically experienced the whole of God of War: Ascension. Jump on this weird beast plucked from some obscure mythology book because the developer already exhausted all the better-known monsters. Marvel at the exhilaration of pushing the X-button at the precise moment. Swoon over the obligatory scene with topless women talking in gross phone-sex voices.
But it’s unfair to act as if Ascension is merely a line-tracing of its predecessors. A change definitely worth noting is the inclusion of the worst camera to ever grace the God of War series. Occasionally, Ascension seems to forget you’re even in the room, with Kratos disappearing far into the background on the back of some vaguely Greek abomination. Landing perfectly timed combos and parries takes some patience, and the experience is somewhat diminished in appeal when the proceedings are akin to observing a flea circus from a mile away.
Mercifully, Ascension does dredge up a couple of new and enjoyable ideas. During one sequence, the time-shifting Sacred Mist of Delphi alters Kratos’ surroundings, eventually leading to a new ability which changes Ascension’s otherwise lackluster environmental puzzles into something worth talking about—it’s essentially a manifestation of Prince of Persia’s sand, letting you manipulate time without altering Kratos’ physical location. The unique ability is a welcome adjustment, despite its appearance halfway through a relatively short 8-hour campaign, if for no other reason because it’s something different.
Once the uninspired single-player mode comes to a close, Ascension does introduce multiplayer, which is a first for the franchise. The battle-arena action and its upgradable heroes are a blast. Matches play out quickly, with your avatar earning points through unlocking chests or brutally taking out an opponent. It’s easy to lose a couple hours in the thrall of this simple yet immediately appealing combat. Strangely, it’s almost impossible not to discern the clear polish and care afforded the multiplayer mode, which makes the primary story feel like an afterthought.
God of War: Ascension is a whirling, maniacally violent journey still entrenched in an era of blood-soaked action games which are, in many ways, beginning to show their age. To be fair, maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe God of War is starting to show the age of its players—a demographic that thinks splitting open the heads and stabbing the oozing brains of elephant-like creatures with a quick-time event is the height of entertainment.
But for anyone who remembers Kratos at the beginning—the real beginning eight years ago, not the manufactured origins of Ascension—the whole thing is just depressing now. You tell yourself maybe this is the last time, maybe the Ghost of Sparta is finally ready to grow up and move along. And if not, well, maybe it’s time to stop answering the phone.
God of War: Ascension was developed by Sony Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony. It is available for the PlayStation 3.
Matt Clark is a freelance writer covering videogames, tech, and all manner of pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @ClarkMatt.