After playing the new God of War, it made me nostalgic for the style of the older games in the series, so I picked up Ascension since it was the only one I hadn’t properly played already. It sure has been an… interesting time. It’s also been the worst experience I’ve had dealing with the PS3 UI and PSN store, but that’s another story.
First off, I’ll start off with the good. This game is actually pretty visually impressive still. It may have a noticeably lower resolution than most games these days, leading to a minor bit of aliasing, but overall, it still stands up really well. Fantastic attention to detail in environments, great texture and material work, and a brilliant sense of scale to the world. Although I think the new game threw in some extra tricks with depth of field and camera zoom to be even better in that regard.
Another thing that I appreciated was the audio design. This is a problem most of these pre-reboot games struggled with, but this one solves it. This might be something that GoW3 did okay as well and I just can’t remember, but regardless, this one does a good job of making attacks feel heavy and meaty. Heavier attacks also have a big booming impact to them which sells them well. A decent use of camera shake helps heighten the feeling too.
You get a couple of gadgets this time around to interact with the world through puzzles, which can also be used in combat. The first is a magic amulet that lets you rewind or progress time on certain objects, to either “heal” or “decay” them. In puzzles, this is quite a neat little gimmick. It’s satisfying to see how certain objects fit together, and what can be done with them when they’re halfway between one state and another. In combat though, it seems pretty useless. You use it to “decay” enemies, but I never understood what that was actually supposed to do. It made the textures on their character models look slightly different, but that’s the only effect it seemed to have. The other gadget is an item that gives you the ability to create copies of yourself, but they are very limited. Both in puzzles and combat the mechanic is very under-developed. For puzzles, you can use it to hold down switches and such while you go off and interact with something else, but it barely taps in to its potential. In combat is creates a doppelganger of Kratos that briefly appears to do a few random attacks. Again, much more could have been done with this idea.
One of the earliest and best uses for the amulet
But unfortunately, that’s where my praise has to end. Despite some improvement to the kinaesthetics, overall the combat is pretty bad, I have to admit. The controls simply don’t feel good. In particular when it comes to dodging and blocking. Both feel like they don’t come out anywhere near fast enough after pressing the button, and recovering from a dodge roll takes excruciatingly long. The attacks that require you to press one of the attack buttons while blocking also seem to have a lot of lag coming out. The game is also really picky about when it will accept inputs for a new attack after a combo. It doesn’t seem to stack up inputs to carry out after the current combo animation has finished, meaning if you don’t time things perfectly, and wait for Kratos to get back in to his neutral position after a string of attacks, you’ll just be standing there like a lemon for a few moments, mashing buttons to no effect. This is all compounded by the enemy design and camera work. Enemies often don’t have readable attacks, and frequently just repeatedly mob you over and over, making it really hard to get any decent flow going, as every attack staggers you. Out of all the times an enemy attacked me, the odds that I spotted the attack, was able to attempt to block/dodge, and actually executed that successfully, was pretty low. Getting up after getting knocked down takes a while too, and also has the same issue of eating inputs. On top of all that, this game seems rather fond of pulling out the camera really far to try to show the scale of events happening at that moment. Something that the series is already somewhat notorious for, but here it feels like they take it a step further and do it more in combat than they used to. It makes it so that on top of all the problems with the combat, it’s often too small on screen to even see what’s going on anyway.
Most of these problems have been things that I found somewhat hard to admit. They are issues the previous games have had as well, but I don’t remember them bothering me anywhere near as much. I’ve always enjoyed those games, even if I never thought of them as being masterful works of mechanical design. I’d like to say that the old games didn’t have these problems as badly, but I can’t honestly say that. It has been quite a while since I played those old games. I don’t think it has been so long that my feelings are outdated and inaccurate (I last played them in 2013), but I can’t say for sure without properly diving back in to them. That said, I did actually play a few seconds of one of the PSP remasters before playing Ascension, and the laggy feel to the controls was there too. I’ve always been pretty impressed with how closely the PSP games replicated the main console entries, so I would bet on them not being isolated in having those problems. And besides, with Ascension being so clearly based off GoW3, I highly doubt they would have taken a huge step back in mechanical quality.
The Blades of Chaos are the only weapons you get this time around
There is one major new addition to this game’s mechanics that definitely wasn’t a problem in the previous games though. In this entry, they decided to make big changes to how the Rage system works. In this game, the Rage Meter works much more like a combo meter than just being a resource you slowly build up over time, as in all the other games. It fills up more quickly than before but drops quite harshly if you get hit or don’t keep your combo going. For some baffling reason, the developers somehow thought it was a good idea in this game to drastically limit the range of attacks you have available to you unless your Rage Meter is at maximum. I really am at a loss as to why they would have thought this would be a positive move in any way. It cripples the variety in combat and is far too punishing. It reduces you down to only being able to use combos that are three attacks long. It doesn’t tell you exactly which moves are and are not available without a filled-out Rage Meter either. It’s not hard to work it out yourself but having nothing telling you what your capabilities are is pretty annoying. Combine this with the general sloppiness of the combat making almost every time you lose meter due to being hit feeling unfair and unavoidable, it feels like you’re being punished for something that isn’t your fault, and further destroys any combat flow. Just a truly terrible idea.
In light of that though, and the combat in general, I think it’s worth mentioning that I chose to play this game on the Easy difficulty setting. This is something I have done for most of these games, as when I played them before, I was more interested in simply getting through them to see what they were about, rather than wanting to get stuck up on some roadblock I didn’t know was coming. While I don’t think that was a bad decision previously, it did result in making those games a bit easier than I would have ideally wanted. If I was to play them again, I would definitely take things up a notch. With Ascension though, I was in two minds about it. I didn’t want to repeat the experience of it being too easy, but at the same time I was still approaching this game in same kind of mindset that I wanted to see what it had to offer without ending up in a situation where I got stuck and wasted my time and effort on a game I wasn’t invested in enough to finish. I was also aware of the infamous Trial of Archimedes, which was a massive roadblock to many people around release. So much so that it was patched to make it easier. I had heard people say that it was still a pretty bad sticking point after the patch though.
Upon finishing the game, I’m still not entirely sure if that was a good idea or not. It did make a lot of fights too easy. Often when they introduce a new enemy type, they do so on its own, so you can learn how it acts without having to deal with other enemies at the same time. I generally found these moments to be underwhelming, as I ended up tearing through them in no time. Fights against groups of exclusively lower level enemies were similarly trivial. These quick fights meant that even if I wasn’t losing Rage by being knocked off my feet all the time in combat, encounters were generally over before I had the time to build up enough to get access to interesting attacks anyway. On the other hand, when they do mix multiple tougher and weaker enemies together, all the problems I previously talked about rear their heads, and I can’t build up Rage that way either. It’s also worth noting that even though I found it easy to deal with stronger enemies in their introductory tutorial fights, I did also spend a decent amount of time going out of my way trying to learn the attack patterns and dodge/block timing of enemies. This never ended up being very helpful though, with both moves being so useless, and with groups of enemies attacking so frequently, I would never get a single opportunity to attack any enemy if I had worried about trying to avoid their attacks.
When I actually did make it to the Trial of Archimedes, it turned out to not be notably harder than anything else in the game. In fact, it was rather middling in that regard. So in that case at least, I can’t tell if Easy mode really did save me a lot of trouble or not. That said, there were definitely other points in the game where I stumbled my way through certain fights where it felt like I was being thrown around like a chew toy without much control over what was happening or being able to effectively defend myself. So in those instances, lowering the difficulty was probably beneficial.
A particularly annoying enemy that you can't hit when it's in a certain state
The story and overall structure of events is pretty lacking too. It obviously can’t hope to stand up to the reboot, but I think it also comes off poorly in comparison to the other older games as well. Overall the game feels pretty rote and aimless. Plot points feel rushed as you are unceremoniously ushered from one point to another, without much context to make events feel like they have weight. So much so that for a significant period of the game I was unsure what the overall goal was or why I was in an area that ended up being the setting for the majority of the game.
After the obligatory bombastic intro sequence, the plot is focused on Kratos trying to regain the magical eyes of an oracle that will restore his lost memories and hold the power to break through the illusions he experiences. Both of which are the work of the Furies, beings who punish those who break an oath to the gods with cruel torture. The majority of the plot is presented as a flashback, interspersed with shorter sequences following Kratos’ escape from the Furies’ prison to get his final revenge, which the intro is also a part of.
The problems arise with how the game tries to get you through events without much set-up. The Furies never come across as compelling antagonists, as the structure of the story never gives them a decent introduction. They come across as shallow and generic melodramatic villains, and not a significant threat that Kratos has any real involvement with, other than them simply opposing him. There is also Orkos, the son of the Furies who technically one of them, but is betraying them and helping guide Kratos on his quest for revenge. His relationship with Kratos doesn’t extent much further than momentarily showing up in cutscenes to tell him where to go next. These scenes are all very brief, as they hurriedly portray the minimum needed information to the player to move things along, with no ceremony or drama.
Orkos is boring and has a terribly contrived end
It’s a shame, because there are a few concepts in the story that could have been expanded upon further. Despite their woeful incarnation in the game, on a conceptual level the Furies could have been much more interesting. The setting of the prison escape sequences is pretty spectacular too. The prison itself is made from the corpse of an enormous primordial being called the Hecatonchires. A colossal mass of twisted limbs and flesh ripped apart and jammed back together with buildings and other structures. Yet all it is used for is a dramatic backdrop for those short interlude sequences. It only really moves in any regard in the introduction.
Kratos as a character feels pretty bland this time too. Again, coming right off the latest game may not be doing this game any favours, but he still feels pretty lacking regardless of that. Before his recent reinvention, Kratos was essentially one thing; angry. While I would maintain there was some level of depth, even pathos, to him in the original game, by the time Ascension came around I don’t think anyone would argue that he was anything more than just an irredeemable pile of thoughtless rage and hate. Except in Ascension, he’s not even really that. He’s angry, sure, but not that angry. Much like the narrative overall, Kratos feels like he’s just going through the motions, not that invested in what’s going on. He shouts and stabs like always, because that’s what he does, but it doesn’t come across like he really cares about what is going on. There are even a few cutscenes where he stops being angry for a few moments, and these scenes reveal that emptiness too. He comes across as apathetic. Sometimes even trying to act empathetic, but you can tell it’s hollow. Maybe this was the early beginnings of the developers experimenting with his characterisation, that would eventually end up being what we got in the reboot. Here it fails badly though. Instead of a version of Kratos with more depth and empathy, we got one that seemed bored with himself and simply playing an act. A characterisation that doesn’t make sense in context either. With this game being set at the earliest point in the timeline, Kratos’ personality and motivation should be similar to that as in the first game. Yet it’s not.
At least there are still fantastic environments
Playing this immediately after this year’s God of War, it has naturally brought up comparisons between the two games. It makes for an intriguing juxtaposition. They are almost a mirror image in many ways, some of which are quite counterintuitive. The most interesting of these I find is with the gameplay, and the combat in particular. While the reboot feels like it takes a system that shouldn’t work on a base conceptual level, and fights tooth and nail to make it work well (for the most part), Ascension feels like it takes something that should be an obvious good fit for the type of game that it is but executes it poorly. The former’s system of rigidly bolting the camera to Kratos’ back with barely any peripheral vision shouldn’t work. Yet thanks to well-designed enemies, precise controls, and decent crowd control options, it manages to overcome most of the problems inherent to that kind of system in a hack-and-slash action game. The latter’s structure of having Kratos always in the centre of the screen with a lot of room to see enemies approaching from all angles is a no-brainer for gameplay where you need to move and react quickly to hazards coming from all sides. Yet it fails in giving you the information or abilities you need to make the most of that system.
Some other games that comes to mind when playing Ascension are the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games. Lords of Shadow 2 in particular, due to it having the most polished and expansive combat of the series. Comparisons with the GoW games come up fairly often with the LoS games, and while I’ve always thought they are usually pretty reductionist (outside of the first game at least), they are not inappropriate. For a while I’ve had a feeling that I prefer LoS2’s combat over GoW’s, but not enough to say so conclusively. It could have just been that I hadn’t played the GoW games recently enough, or simply my own hipster-ish tendencies to prefer the thing that is less popular. But now I think I can say for sure that LoS2 definitely has a superior system. For starters, the dodge and block commands are far more responsive and reliable. They are quick and effective, and I’ve never felt like I got hit by an attack I shouldn’t have done because of laggy controls. LoS2 also has attacks that you access through holding the block button in combination with others, and this too felt much more snappy, practical, and far more varied in effect than in Ascension. Enemy attacks also have far more readable animations, and the camera position follows your character so that it is never too far to see what’s going on around you. It even has a much better system for rewarding long combos too. The Focus Meter, which plays a large role in the combat of that game, increases as you land attacks and rewards you with energy to use your alternate weapons. Gaining Focus isn’t particularly hard, and timing blocks to parry attacks (among other specific moves) gives you a big boost to the meter, so it also encourages skilled and thoughtful use of your abilities. It’s no Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but it definitely beats Ascension’s sloppy and punitive system by a huge margin.
Still finding new ways to win me over after finishing it
Even though overall my time with Ascension may have been a negative one, it’s a time that was unexpectantly enlightening. It made for a stark awakening that I suspected might happen but didn’t really expect. It’s rare to be so surprised by something you thought you already knew. If nothing else, it inspired me to write a blog for the first time in a million years, so there’s that at least. It’s perhaps an end of an era for me too. These over-the-top character actions games have long been a favourite genre of mine, and the first game to introduce me to them was the original God of War back on the PS2. I may not have played the rest of the series until much later, but I always had a soft spot for them for the kind of experience it opened up to me, and the later games I discovered because of that. As a result of that, I was always somewhat of a defender of these games against fans of other games in the genre who look down on them. Even if I would agree those games are better in many ways, I always maintained GoW had its own charms. But now I feel like I might be on the other side of the discussion. On the other hand, I might give the remaster of GoW3 a look to see how that compares these days. It’s also been good to put this game in contrast with others, to reinforce their qualities and remind myself what’s great about them. And to see clearly what the new God of War does so well too. While I did enjoy it a lot playing it recently, I was very sceptical going in. Now being able to compare it so closely to its predecessor, it shines all the brighter. It may now even be my favourite of the series, and I look forward even more to where things go from here.