An elephant’s brain. A gorgon’s spinal cord. A centaur’s intestines. A hellhound’s tonsils. These are just a few of the things we’ve seen – and can never unsee, troublingly – while in the company of God Of War: Ascension. Sure, Sony’s Santa Monica studio sent a message when it forced players to watch Helios’ flesh stretch and tear as Kratos wrenched off his head, but that message isn’t so much reiterated or echoed here as bellowed and barked; bad things are going to happen, most enemies are going to need to get ‘some assembly required’ tattoos and lots of things that weren’t red before are going to be red. Very, very red.
So yeah, in case you somehow didn’t work it out from that, Ascension is brutal. The more the mythology pool dries up, the more the team has to get creative with its creatures and the more graphic the violence becomes. Kratos’ trilogy may have ended but his murder spree most certainly has not. Set prior to the events of the original game (but after its flashbacks, somewhat confusingly), Ascension follows Kratos as he looks to sever ties with Ares before exacting his revenge. For such a simple premise, it’s a rather confusing telling of the tale; both gameplay and narrative hop back and forth along the timeline, and while this affords the game a few novel moments, the fact that there’s room for head-scratching means it probably hasn’t done its job as well as it could.
That’s the only real fumble on Sony’s part, though, because in all other aspects, Ascension excels. The setup avoids the potential combat tedium of an unchained Kratos, yet the team also deals brilliantly with the fact that the signature chain blades should be the only weapon on offer. This is cleverly offset by a new system of temporary secondary weapons, akin to the bats and bottles of Streets Of Rage in that they’re employed as they’re found, each with their own move sets and practical uses. Equip nothing and Kratos resorts to a good old-fashioned boot attack, which can disarm some weaker foes, but, generally speaking, you’ll want something in that slot to grant you a little extra versatility should you get into a fight. Which you definitely will.
While the secondary weapon system can almost be ignored if you so choose, the changes to the Blades Of Chaos simply cannot. Several existing gameplay mechanics have been cleverly fused into one here. Although the chains are your only weapon, four types of magic now act as modifiers or, if you will, stances that alter how the blades behave. It’s a subtle but utterly ingenious change, and while it might frustrate returning players to not have access to their new magic attacks straight off the bat – these must now be learned by levelling up the power in question – the unique properties and special attacks now offered play a far greater role in combat than the show-stopping magical blasts of old.
Each of the four elemental enhancements almost turns Kratos’s blades into a different weapon – properties change slightly, as do move sets in order to match the particular specialisation. One places the focus on stunning enemies, thinning their numbers and in turn setting weakened foes up for powerful and practical grapples. Another emphasises speed, while others let you easily break through defences or lock enemies down while you wail on them. With all four switchable on the fly, Kratos’s single weapon is somehow his most versatile arsenal yet. This is the biggest change to the core combat system in the series’ history, but it’s so natural and well-implemented that you may not even notice it at first. Each element is introduced with a trial that subtly teaches which enemy types are most vulnerable to its unique effects, and if you notice combat getting tougher than expected it’s probably because you’re not mixing up attack types enough. Not that there’s any shame in that – it’s a mechanic that takes some getting used to in order to get the most out of it, but when it clicks you’ll be unstoppable.
This elemental infusion bleeds into the game’s rage mechanic as well, resulting in another interesting and practical evolution. Whereas Rage Of The Gods used to be a stockable damage boost that was best saved for boss battles, this new version requires far more strategy and far more skill. The meter is effectively a style gauge with purpose, quickly filling as your blades cleave through the flesh of mythology’s finest but dropping whenever you take damage. Max out the bar and a tense risk/reward element comes into play; carry on fighting well with Rage capped out and it significantly improves the damage and properties of many of Kratos’s special attacks, but a single scratch will dent the meter and cancel the buff – making it important to know when to cut your losses and burn a full Rage gauge to unleash a potent, element-specific super attack. Again, you’re forced to tailor your play-style to each individual fight, but once you start to learn which elements and attacks benefit most from a full Rage meter, it’s enormously satisfying.
As too are the puzzles, actually. Demanding clever use of both environments and powers, these require an agile mind and nimble fingers, but are far more logical and fair than some in the franchise’s history. With every piece of the puzzle laid out clearly, it’s a matter of working out how they interact with one another – and how, if at all, you can alter them – before putting everything you’ve learned together and proving that your brain is capable of more than just running towards anything that moves and spamming the Square button. Despite how frequent these breaks from combat are, Ascension is brilliantly paced. Whereas God Of War 3 blew its load early, here there’s precious little downtime and outside of a few scene-setting wide angle shots that show off the game’s ludicrous scale, either mental fortitude or physical dexterity are almost constantly being tested.
Said scale demands further discussion too, since any concerns about the potential for a prequel to impress are adeptly batted away by set piece after stunning set piece. Just when you think things are as epic as they’re going to get, the Santa Monica team always seems to manage to find yet another gear; sprawling settings and over-the-top boss fights are up there with the franchise’s best, while clever little changes to the regular format make the action feel even more cinematic. The best of these is the ‘buttonless minigame’, a feature that evolves the usual QTE kills into a far more organic and exciting full stop to a fight. Each is like an additional phase to the fight, where move sets and attack patterns are changed up once the finish line is in sight, and with so much of the game played out from a distant camera angle, pulling in for a gruesome close-up as a fight winds up makes the action feel that much more impressive.
With Sony so laser-focused on the multiplayer component since Ascension was announced, we were understandably worried that the single-player side of things may end up a rote retread of old ground. But we’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong, and from its gorgeous visual and evolved combat to its lavish presentation and tight pacing, this is arguably the best God Of War yet. It takes a class act to follow Dante and Raiden so closely and match both for pace, but Kratos clearly still has what it takes. Just ask anyone or anything that stands in his way. Actually, don’t. Because they’re fictional and probably in pieces. Many, many pieces. Raiden would be so proud.