There’s a certain comfort food quality to God of War: Ascension. It’s all very familiar, even though it’s pretty much run out of recognizable mythological trappings. The stuff I recognize is straight-up repeats from the previous games; the best of the rest of the stuff achieves a gratifying “WTF?” quality. The opening boss is named something like Heckle Donkies. He’s just a bunch of arms and a gross face that seems to have dropped in for a visit from Bayonetta. He’s funky, but ultimately no different from any other God of War boss. X X X X X X, circle circle circle circle, circle, square, X.
But what I like best about this newest God of War is how it’s willing to concede that Kratos is no longer what makes these games good.
After the jump, triangle, triangle, triangle.
Ascension isn’t as tactically gratifying as the latest Devil May Cry. The fighting has more of a splashy throwaway quality, often because it’s swallowed up by special effects or flailing character models or vast settings. God of War games love tiny Kratos in vast settings. Look how big this mountaintop temple is! It makes Kratos totally look like an ant! Is the fact that it’s hard to see what’s going on when Kratos is so teensy a gameplay shortcoming, or a philosophical statement about the insignificance of Man? Or am I just used to doing the camera myself in other games?
I mostly don’t mind. The stakes are low, the progress is inevitable, and the red xp chests are always backwards from where the camera wants you to go. Kratos gets to steal other people’s weapons temporarily. I suppose that’s new, or I forgot about it if the earlier games did it. Kratos himself doesn’t have much to say.
But the most pleasant surprise is how well God of War: Ascension works without Kratos. Early on, you stumble across some dude chained up in a prison. Heckle Donkies smashes the prison and just as he’s about to impale the hapless prisoner on his ginormous fingernail claw, the dude vanishes. Just ‘poof!’, and he’s gone, without explanation. Oh well, whatever. You continue on through the grand sets and familiar set pieces, a little traversal here, a new power there, yet another arena fight and boss battle, do you spend your red xp points on the lightning or the fire? Kratos is oddly muted throughout. I couldn’t really tell you what the story is supposed to be this time around. Something about the Fates. Didn’t God of War already do the Fates? Maybe that was the Furies? I can’t tell them apart. The Fates are buxom. I can tell you that much. There Will Be Breasts.
But when you enter the code for your online pass and then figure out how to get to the multiplayer — there is literally no indication on the main screen that there’s multiplayer, which you won’t find unless you accidentally move the analog stick to the right — you’re shown that early scene again. A random dude chained up in a prison, about to get impaled by the fingernail claw of Heckle Donkies, and then ‘poof!’, he vanishes.
And it turns out that dude is you! And now you’re picking the god you want to thank, presumably for rescuing you from death by Heckle Donkies. This god will be your class. Now you’re playing the quick multiplayer tutorial. And then you’re customizing your dude, picking his tattoos and armor color. Unlocking his powers, upgrading his equipment, finding bits of armor during matches, leveling up, spending points, and generally playing the sort of effective grind that makes good multiplayer these days.
Beyond not being Kratos, my dude has an identity based entirely on gameplay. He worships Poseidon and therefore gets water and ice powers (I can change deities at will if I want to level up the other “classes”). He just unlocked the second tier of Poseiden weapons. I found some scorpion armor and Athena armor, but I’ve also upgraded my gladiator armor, so I have to decide which stats I want to focus on. For now, I’ll take physical resistance bonuses. I can’t upgrade my healing power any further until I get to level 20 (I’m level nine right now), so I might as well unlock and upgrade a few alternate relics, in case I want to use them. I have challenges to track, so I might as well top off my “play ten Trials of the Gods” matches for the xp reward.
As a multiplayer game, God of War: Ascension reminds me of Super Smash Bros. These are simple move sets, but with a variety of powerful special moves, and objects you can pick up in the arenas, and simple blocking/countering trumps, and a whole lot of splashy action going on that you don’t necessarily have to be good at. Watch the ring-outs! Persistence will get you kills and therefore xp. In some of the best modes, teamwork is what wins the match. There’s even co-op, which is shuffled into the quickplay rotation. The co-op is ruthlessly time-based, and I all too often get dropped into matches with players who don’t seem to understand that. Hurry up, dude. That clock at the top of the screen isn’t for show! The capture the flag mode, played on large maps with up to four players on each team, never seems to come up during quickplay, but it’s well worth searching out a match for how differently it plays. You have to experience the Labyrinth of Daedalus to see the true range of Ascension’s multiplayer.
There aren’t many maps, and there’s going to be a lot of repetition along the way. That’s just how this grind works. But it’s a new and effective hook for a familiar series, and I never expected I was going to take to it as happily as I’m taking to it. As for the single player stuff with Kratos? Whatever. I’m busy with my own personal god of war.