I'm just going to say off the bat that it pains me to write this, but I need to get it out of my system. God of War: Ascension held so much promise and could have been such a phenomenal game, but it sadly fell short of the mark that I - and from what I've gathered, many others - was expecting. In many respects, my reactions to the game have been mixed - some positive, some negative - but it is for that reason, that I have any mixed feelings at all, that I am disappointed. Let's break this down:
Story: Kratos has just murdered his family after being tricked by his god of War master, Ares. As the horror of what he has done consumes him, he relinquishes the oath he has made to Olympus. As punishment for his rebellion, he is taken by the Furies to Aegaeon, a Titan oath-breaker and living prison, where the living are tormented for their treachery. Kratos must escape his captivity and destroy the Furies if he is to ever be free of the oath he swore to Ares. During his journey, he is aided by Orkos, the keeper of oaths, who himself rebels against his own mother - Alecto, the Queen of the Furies - for what he sees as unjust punishment. As he fights to free himself from his past, Kratos must combat not only earthly beasts, but confusing visions of his past life which threaten to drag him into madness.
The potential for great story-telling, especially by video game standards is immense here. Some of the ideas which the game sets to incorporate are a 'more human side of Kratos', as well as exploring what exactly a hero would do immediately after killing the only people he ever cared about. Unfortunately, in execution, the game falls short.
First of all, the narrative of the game continuously switches between Kratos' escape from the prison of Aegaeon and the events which led to him being put there in the first place; The first chapter of the adventure has Kratos fighting his way out of his cell to the outside of the prison. The second chapter then flashes back to him talking with Orkos in a small, secluded village and beginning a venture to find the Oracle of Delphi. After a bit, it changes back to the 'present' in the prison again. There are a number of problems with this flashback/flashforward flow, but I'll highlight the two main ones:
1. The story becomes a confusing mess, as the player finds themselves wondering why they are encountering characters they have already killed and other characters appear with little to no explanation. Other God of War games have made extensive and effective use of flashbacks, because they were used only during cinematics and to explain plot points and backstories. As a gameplay and main story narrative element, the fractured timeline does not work.
2. Kratos' equipment upgrades through time. To be more specific, when the game first begins in the prison of the damned, Kratos has only his Blades of Chaos. During a flashback chapter, he may acquire new abilities or artifacts to use, which he suddenly has at his disposal when the narrative returns to the 'present'. While this makes gameplay smoother, it makes absolutely no sense in context. Of course video games do not always have to 'make sense', but a continuity problem this glaring in a game with such a developed setting and context is just ridiculous.
Next, the story elements themselves are not fleshed out in any compelling way. While we wouldn't expect a battle-hardened Spartan, Kratos in particular, to be giving out man-hugs and kissing babies, his 'softer, human side' is shown only through him reflecting on his past life in very brief visions and holding the Oracle of Delphi's hand as she dies from internal injuries after being crushed beneath mortar and stone (uh, spoiler alert). While this is not a terrible blow to the game, it would have been nice to see Kratos in a different lens. This, primarily, because as an all-around character he is hard to relate to. While his defining personality traits of guilt, aggression, and rage are things everybody can understand and appreciate, by the end of the series with God of War III, he had become such an asshole it was hard to like him even for that, making enemies out of every god, every titan, and every human alive (or heck, even dead).
Ultimately, while the potential in the story of God of War: Ascension was great, its execution resulted in a confusing and un-compelling mess.
Graphics: There is little to say negative to say here, but also little to say positive that has not already been said. As typical of the series, the textures, backgrounds, animations, cinematics, and so on in Ascension are breathtaking.
Enemies: This was one area of the game that garnered mixed feelings from me. To start positive, there is a large addition of many interesting new foes in Ascension. Undead Legionnaires and their kind have been replaced as the primary grunt enemy by the more nimble and agile Satyrs, and many enemies - in keeping with a theme of the game - are elementally-based, drawing power from fire, ice, electricity, or souls. The Juggernaut (aka Elephantaur) is one of the coolest of the new enemies, with adornments to its trunk and tusks which make almost every major part of it a dangerous weapon. Charybdis, the huge sea monster who is a transformed Alecto, makes for an intimidating boss battle, her appearance echoing that of a prehistoric Dunkleosteus. Furthermore, appearances by enemies that have been seen throughout the series helps tie the game in as part of an established timeline.
Some of the enemies present in the game feel out-of-place and would seem better suited to game in a sci-fi setting, not a Greek mythology one. Exemplary of this is the Fury Megaera and the enemies associated with her. Her own appearance and locomotion seem more akin to a Xenomorph from the Aliens series, as does her technique of infecting living things with parasite bugs that leech forth from her skin. "Satyr fiends", as they are called, are humans who have been infected with such parasites and have mutated into half-human, half-bug freaks straight from David Cronenberg's The Fly. Where this is most disappointing is in the opening boss battle. Every other entry to the God of War series has opened with a monumental battle against a huge creature instantly recognizable from Greek Mythology; Hydra, Colossus of Rhodes, Basilisk, Hippocampus, Scylla. Instead, in the opening battle of Ascension, Kratos fights a giant hand that has been mutated to have claws instead of fingers and a giant, grotesque head. Finally, Pollux and Castor, the boss(es) of the temple of Delphi, are conjoined brothers who are clearly a reference to Total Recall, a science fiction film set on mars!!
On a side note, the limited presence of some enemies was also a disappointment. The Manticore, for instance, is fought in recurring skirmishes, but most are limited to quick-time events and only two appear in the game. Similarly, as Kratos nears the temple in Delphi, he encounters a Chimera - one of the coolest enemies from GOW III - that is infused with ice and has ice powers. This leads the player to believe that more Chimeras will appear later in the game, with their own elemental powers, but this is the only one encountered throughout. Quite a disappointment.
Audio: While the voice and sound effects audio is just fine, I didn't notice any issues with the game's score. That's because the game's soundtrack is, for all practical purposes, not present. What orchestral music there is is played so quiet and non-forcefully that it blends into the background and goes relatively unnoticed. A big step down from the thundering and powerful musical scores of the rest of the series.
Gameplay: This. This is where the development team, and Todd Papy, the game director, in particular are to blame for dropping the ball. While the fundamentals work just fine and gameplay is smooth and playable, the fun-factor of the entire game absolutely suffers because of changes made to the the core combat mechanics.
The combat system in the God of War series is one of its biggest staples, if not the biggest staple of the game. It takes skill to master, but it is accessible and user-friendly, allowing anyone to quickly get the hang of slaughtering dozens of foes with effortless ease and breathtaking precision. In light of this, God of War: Ascension takes the main elements that form the foundation for such gameplay, namely Kratos' main chain-blades combo and his parry ability, and throw them out the window. Now Kratos' main attack combo consists of only four moves, rather than six, which are used to build a Rage meter. When the meter is full, Kratos can use all six of the combo moves, which he has formerly always had at his disposal, or he can perform a single special attack which drains the Rage meter. Further complicating this sequence is the fact that almost any unblocked hit by an enemy drops the meter down to almost zero, making a fight with any more than four enemies agitating and frustrating rather than fun and exhilarating. I was initially hopeful that this mechanic would only last for the introduction of the game and that after upgrading his weapons, Kratos would have regular access to his most basic moves and the Rage meter would unlock bigger and more powerful abilities, but this is not so. Instead, for the entire duration of the game, Kratos has to earn the right to use attack combos that have been his most basic moves for every other game in the series. And while he can still upgrade his weapons, the new attacks he unlocks are stand-alone abilities which do not even help build the Rage meter when executed.
The change to the parry move was also a big mistake. Formerly, if Kratos blocked an incoming attack a split-second before it hit, the attack would be parried, leaving the enemy open to a counter-attack. Now, the player must first block, then hit the X button at the right time to parry an attack. While this mechanic works fine in multiplayer - the part of the game it was clearly designed for - it makes Kratos' formerly fluid countering abilities extremely clunky and practically useless.
I was planning on getting into the pros and cons of multiplayer, because it actually is quite good, but I'm so sick of thinking about how Todd Papy ruined the combat system for the single-player campaign that I can't go on.