When is it time to stop? Call of Duty, Madden, and Just Dance don’t seem to get the memo. Other franchises like Dynasty Warriors and Monster Hunter are still going after stacks of sequels, but take long breaks so stagnation doesn’t set in. Other series like Assassin’s Creed and Guitar Hero learned the easy or hard way that you can’t ride the coattails of past successes forever, so after three console and two portable titles, this was the situation God of War was in. What more can you do to retain an iconic formula without straying too far? No matter how fun, do some franchises have seemingly undying longevity whereas others naturally lose steam? Santa Monica Studio’s answer took form with Ascension and proved the latter for the franchise. It wasn’t even a proper send-off according to the general gaming community. I’ve often heard that Ascension is plain unnecessary with a poor story and frustrating combat, so I prepped for the worst with this swan song for Kratos.

Is it truly the worst God of War game? In a couple ways, sure. Is it a bad game? If you’ve paid attention to Santa Monica’s consistent track record, I’d argue the team could never make such an egregious misstep, and Ascension is no exception … but not without issues.

However, I can see why people are quick to judge. I was over the franchise by the time I got to Ascension because I’d had my fill of everything that could be done. From the first game to God of War III, nearly all of my major complaints and suggestions for improvement had been addressed, so any further installments felt ancillary. Ready at Dawn’s contributions avoided this trap with compelling standalone adventures that came in during the series’ heyday. Three years later, Ascension is an odd one out burdened by the weight of expectation, thereby being the product of misplaced focuses and mixed execution. On the other hand, its positive critical reception illustrates my frustrations with people refusing to consider what it does right, arguably heightening some design elements of God of War to their greatest potential. How can this be? As always, I’ll get to that after we take a brief glimpse into its development.

Analyze

Santa Monica was considering new projects after God of War III. It’s only expected since anyone would be worn out working within the confines of the same world and gameplay for a decade, but the team – much like Ready at Dawn with Ghost of Sparta – felt the urge to give one last hurrah by telling the story of how Kratos broke his bond with Ares. After all, the Spartan was in the Olympians’ service by the time of Chains of Olympus, so how on earth did a mortal achieve this? It paved the way for exploring more gods and locations, but the prequel premise didn’t solely drive Ascension’s conception.

There’s been challenge modes in every God of War that haven’t been worth mentioning. They’re brief, fun distractions with unique arenas that give you time limits, limitations, or strange objectives to fight outside the box. The third game had a special arena taking place atop Mt. Olympus called the Challenge of Exile. The trials conclude with a shocking one-on-one duel with Fear Kratos: the black, nebulous version you play as when Zeus forces Kratos to confront his memories and guilt. Lead Combat Designer Adam Puhl is the culprit for this encounter, which got the whole studio wondering, “What if we could turn this into multiplayer?”

The early 2010s were a weird time when single-player developers (or their publishers) became eager to tap into the multiplayer craze. You’d see curious forays into online play with Dead Space 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Max Payne 3, Spec Ops: The Line, and BioShock 2, but more often than not, even the surprisingly good takes didn’t have lasting vigor. Just like most gamers, I was disappointed that studios were pulling time and talent away from core experiences to deliver competitive/cooperative modes no one asked for. The same concern broadly categorized the initial response to Ascension. Ready at Dawn actually considered multiplayer for Chains of Olympus and shut that down, but could this game deliver on that ambition? Should it?

It was new ground for Santa Monica that brought the team back to the old, intimidating territory of the unknown they’d faced with the first God of War. Fresh faces were needed with experience in coding, designing, and balancing multiplayer. Old blood had to overhaul and expand upon the single-player mechanics with new weapons and abilities. The team wavered on whether the game should be co-op or competitive up until the alpha build and eventually went for both. While leadership was better regulated, it was detrimentally split between two worlds. Senior producer Whitney Wade and director of internal development Chacko Sonny discussed how game director Todd Papy was caught between a rock and a hard place – when the multiplayer needed focus, the single-player went on the backburner, and then the opposite happened after E3 2012. But who’s Papy?

Todd Papy started his game development career in 1996 as an artist for San Francisco Rush at Midway Sane Jose. He continued with the 1998 sequel Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA and San Francisco Rush 2049 the following year. He became a designer for Dr. Muto: a strange 3D platformer with side scrolling and first-person elements where you transform into various creatures as a mad scientist. You may recognize that game from my God of War III review since director Stig Asmussen also worked on Dr. Muto as a lead level artist. From there, along with a couple other friends like him, Papy came onto God of War a year into its development as a senior designer. He actually made a 15-month exodus to work with Paradigm Entertainment on BattleZone for the PSP before returning to a similar role for God of War II. Like past directors, he rose within his department to become a design director for God of War III and took the director’s chair for Ascension. We’ve had artists (Asmussen and Ru Weerasuriya), a producer (David Jaffe … he’s hard to put a label on!), and designers (Dan Jan and Papy). One of the goals he brought to the table was “to take God of War and distill it down to an essence.” He not only wanted to home in on what made the gameplay tick, but also bring more humanity and quiet moments to this entry. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to go on to see how these principles guided the campaign’s production. Most of Ascension’s internally-filmed documentary was focused on the development pipeline of multiplayer maps and mechanics.

The game released on March 12, 2013 for the PlayStation 3 with favorable reception, but it sold poorly like Ghost of Sparta. Whereas God of War III sold over 5.2 million worldwide, the numbers for Ascension approximate to 2.4 million; God of War III sold over a million during its first month and Ascension around half as much. This is even worse considering how the game had a $50 million-dollar budget compared to God of War III’s $44 million. Fortunately for Santa Monica, the multiplayer was positively received by a small yet committed community. DLC nevertheless ceased production that year in October with ongoing patching that lasted for a little while longer. Todd Papy also left Santa Monica later that year to work on Star Citizen with Cloud Imperium Games as a design director in Frankfurt, Germany. He’s still there today … and Star Citizen is still in development.

Ascension is a fascinating if imperfect anomaly because of its divided approach, and it’d be remiss of me to ignore its stressed multiplayer component, so … yes, I bought the online pass and played a few hours of its modes for the sake of being thorough with my criticism. Besides, I was curious to see if my God of War skills from playing on harder difficulties translated well to this space. Did they?

Diagnose: Multiplayer

There’s nothing quite like Ascension’s multiplayer, so I’m going to walk through it slowly. You’re a warrior that’s been saved by the gods from the imprisonment of the Furies. You align yourself with Hades, Ares, Zeus, or Poseidon to gain exclusive magic abilities and items. Whereas Hades is more suited for a mode like capture the flag since adherents can turn invisible and increase their speed, Poseidon is better for team players since they can bolster defense and restore health. You can switch allegiances at any time to acclimate to the difficulties a mode or opposition poses, but if you stay committed and play well within a role, you’ll receive favor (XP) and skill points from the gods to unlock new armor, weapons, items, magic, and relics. All of these are different across allegiances, such as exclusive versions of weapons like the hammer or sword that have effects attuned to your role.

Without going into all of the abilities (items, magic, and relics), let’s just say they accommodate the roles of each allegiance, which prompts you to switch to, say, Zeus or Ares with free-for-all and Poseidon or Hades with cooperative modes. It’s overwhelming at first with all of the options presented to you, but if you take time with each allegiance, you’ll quickly know how to best serve yourself and teammates. One thing for sure is that players who are higher levels have clear advantages with increased stats and late-game abilities. Having any hope of climbing the ranks (with one allegiance, mind you!) would take a good dozen hours, especially with internalizing combos and particular kits that work best.

There are legendary weapons to purchase that I initially thought were pay-to-win, but thankfully, you can acquire every set through play by completing “labors,” which adds incentive to replaying certain modes, assuming particular allegiances, and so forth. What’s there to do? You’ve got deathmatches (team-based and free-for-all), capture the flag, and two unique co-op modes. The first is Favor of the Gods, which functions like domination modes where you have to capture and control points around a map to win. However, kills and opening chests contribute to your team’s score as well. That way, players aren’t avoiding each other but oscillating between objectives and player hunting to get the edge they need; it encourages moving around beyond capturing points to keep players tense and occupied. I didn’t get to experience this mode with the scant player base (the exclusion of bots is disappointing for those who want to practice or play solo), but from watching matches, I think it’s a great blend of deathmatch and domination with maps scattered across locations from the saga, such as the Labyrinth and Bog of the Forgotten. Every arena has unique environmental hazards, platforming, portals, and even background enemies that can disrupt combat if players get too close. You could say the small joys in solving puzzles is transferred here in the form of springing traps on hasty foes – a clever way to capture a feeling from the core experience in a new way. There’s a level of craft and attention put into these levels that make it plain why Santa Monica abandoned ship. They’re densely packed with layouts that come across more like playgrounds of death that are fun to explore and exploit.

Favor of the Gods is the greatest attraction that invites several playthroughs with each of its five, big maps. You can also play on (some) of the same maps and different, smaller ones with Trial of the Gods. This mode pits you against waves of increasingly harder enemies either solo or co-op. It’s Ascension’s answer to the lack of a challenge mode for those who love them, so it follows that once you beat them all, there isn’t much reason to repeat them ad nauseum unless you’re just starting out or desperate for XP. Favor of the Gods is where it’s at, but if you’re looking for a simpler time, the free-for-all and competitive team modes are a good test of your skills and ability to work alongside friends. I didn’t stand a chance in the short matches I played because I would open myself up once only to be caught in an endless combo. It’s similar to what happens with players who slip up in fighting titles, but it can be annoying since God of War has always been about constantly being on the offensive and recovering quickly. Perhaps an unavoidable consequence. Nonetheless, these modes are fun for a time with quick spars if you can master an allegiance.

Combat is similar to single-player gameplay with a far broader range of abilities to toy around with. Differences include the inclusion of sprinting and a more classical take on the Rage meter that allows you to use your grappling hook as a powerful weapon for a short time. What makes the multiplayer difficult is how rolling and parrying will leave you vulnerable to punishing grapples and heavy attacks, so you can’t be spamming these moves like you would against AI. There’s never been greater risk or deliberate intention to combat as there is in Ascension’s multiplayer, but the gameplay’s accessible, simple nature means that fights start to blur together and feel shallow, which doesn’t work in this particular game’s favor.

Still, the multiplayer is an ambitious, commendable conversion of God of War’s gameplay. Half of its modes lose their luster after completing them, but the Favor of the Gods and deathmatch options can easily provide a couple dozen hours of fun if you could get a group of friends together that are craving classic God of War. Honestly, I think the idea would prove successful today as a standalone multiplayer game. If Santa Monica ever considers returning to the old formula, I would be all over an experience designed from the ground up that actively provokes strategy and cooperation. Can you imagine combos that can be executed in tandem with a teammate to take down NPCs and players? A deeper parry system and more weapons to switch to? Competitive QTEs even more fleshed out than Gears of War’s simple button-mashing chainsaw fights? I can see why people still play Ascension to this day, and I’d wager the team (maybe Ready at Dawn?) could deliver on its original ambitions. Maybe set before humanity’s disappearance in Midgard where players fight on behalf of the gods across the nine realms? Oh, the possibilities.

Now that you understand how much of an investment in resources and time this mode took for Santa Monica, how much might it have adversely impacted the campaign?

Diagnose: Campaign

Six months. It’s been half a year since Kratos unwittingly murdered his family. Ares realizes that he may have been mistaken in believing the Spartan could be his greatest warrior, so he tasks the Furies to soothe his paralyzing grief with illusions. These Primordial beings are supposed to be servants of Hades but have pledged their loyalty to the god of war so they could bring an end to Olympus together. The Furies’ purpose is to eternally punish those who make and break oaths to the gods, but under Ares’ sway, they condoned his decision to deceive Kratos. It was an offense to the justice they were supposed to uphold that Orkos couldn’t stomach. He decides to secretly help Kratos break free of his mothers’ influence and start him on the path to freedom from his father. Yep, Orkos is their son – a failed attempt to create the warrior that Ares desired before he discovered Kratos.

But this isn’t how Ascension starts. If I thought Chains of Olympus was an unusual style of story, Ascension takes the cake with a plot structure that jumps from the past to the present up until the end. The journey Kratos embarks on eventually lands him in captivity by the Furies, and like the first God of War, this end is the beginning. Kratos breaks free from being chained up and tortured by one Fury that he chases and fights through her sisters’ nightmarish prison built into the huge, multi-armed Aagaeon: the first oath breaker. It’s a setup that attempts to build suspense and falls short with revelations that feel unnecessarily held back. God of War had the best kind of mystery because the opening shot of him committing suicide doesn’t reveal any spoilers. After Athena assigns you to kill Ares, you wonder if he failed or not. Why have the gods abandoned him? Did they take away his guilt or do something worse? The questions pile up when you realize Kratos has a colored past with Ares and Sparta. Why did the gods choose him to kill the god of war? Who murdered his family? Even though these mysteries are important, they don’t distract from the present journey or make it confusing. There’s plenty of reason and clarity to your current objectives, so the flashbacks add on top of the suspense for Kratos’ seemingly doomed yet uncertain fate. Even though the dialogue is campier than other entries in retrospect, it remains an engaging, well-structured narrative. On the other hand, cutting from the present to the past is awkward in Ascension. It’s hard to follow why Kratos doesn’t assume his family is dead if all he sees are visions of them. How are the Furies not aware of where Kratos is if they’re casting illusions on him throughout the experience? It sounds stupid to dwell on plot holes with a series as over-the-top as God of War, but that doesn’t mean suspension of disbelief still can’t be broken.

It would’ve been more effective to tell the story in a linear progression with Kratos being mentally and emotionally manipulated by the Furies. Illusions are rare and only come in the form of some enemies and cutscenes, even though Kratos confusingly remarks, “How can I defeat the Furies when all I see is illusion?” It would’ve been fitting to integrate his fight back to reality throughout gameplay as you progressively break free of their psychological shackles, making revenge all the more sweet. One of the greatest moments is when Tisiphone (one of the Furies) pits you against Spartan soldiers! There’s also a boss battle where you kill her … only to discover you’d bested a doppelganger. Even in combat with the Furies, there’s no actively shifting environments or trickery, yet bosses like Zeus and Perseus made use of these neat ideas. My point is that that the story tells you about Kratos’ illusion while your experience with him paints a different picture. In other words, illusion is a periphery matter compared to simply breaking the blood oath to Ares, when the frustrations and dangers of it should be the driving force behind why you want to pummel the Furies. Only at the very end does Ascension peak into the enthralling madness of being in the illusions Kratos speaks of.

Instead of only relying on a few cutscenes and the final boss fight to convey this struggle, it should’ve been an integral part of puzzle-solving and platforming. For example, the Eyes of Truth are an item you obtain within the last hour that disrupt illusions hindering your way, but it would’ve been better had this been given to Kratos from the get-go to slowly subvert and master fiction in conjunction with reality to progress. All I can think of is how The Evil Within did this masterfully to put the player in a constant state of exciting unease. Can you imagine the horror of navigating an alternate reality of Hades at random as you explore a Grecian village that forces players to confront intense enemies, timed platforming, and grotesque puzzles? This is the earliest time in Kratos’ life, so even though he shrugs his shoulders at the god of the underworld by God of War III, I think circumstances like this would have been perfect to break down Kratos and unveil the underlying insecurity and fear that motivate his rage, perhaps in conversation with Orkos as they work out their shared experiences and feelings. I tell you what, I honestly might have teared up after the credits rolled if they had developed a believable, deeper friendship.

On top of that, there’s the use of characters from his past during cutscenes that show how Kratos had a more soft-spoken, tempered side. It’s effectively jarring in light of who he is now, but these moments are few and far between and come at the expense of action that starts to wear on you towards the end. It’s a strange thing to admit with God of War, but it’s also hard to imagine some of the stunts he pulls off as a mortal here. Not to mention how I wanted to see more of his faults exposed with more naturally occurring, quieter moments that Ready at Dawn pulled off rather well.  Wade and Sonny wrote about how the story’s execution was hard to figure out: “As we closed in on finishing the game, we decided to retain our primary focus on the game’s biggest moments –those ‘epic’ moments and set pieces. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of narrowing our story-telling vision. We’re proud of so many moments in Ascension, but the finished game did miss many of the storytelling ambitions we had hoped to deliver to both ourselves and our audience.”

Even though there are some cringey line deliveries and cutscenes with the introduction of motion capture, I do like the characters in themselves. Orkos is a genuine, upstanding guy who plays a tragic yet compelling role in Kratos’ life. As I mentioned above, I sorely wish he had been more present since he’s not only an original invention of Santa Monica, but also one of the only friends the Spartan shows genuine respect and compassion for. Since he was despised by his parents and replaced with Kratos, he could’ve also had an internal conflict of jealousy to stand for what he believes in (helping Kratos) or prove his worth to his parents (betraying and fighting Kratos). I also love how the Furies clash in their goals, but again, there are missed opportunities to delve into their hatred of Olympus and involve Ares in the plot. After all, there has to be a reason why he doesn’t pursue Kratos to the ends of the earth after breaking his bond. What stops Ares from killing him? Maybe he fears Kratos from a hypothetical encounter? Perhaps the Olympians became involved with this whole debacle, which led to Zeus’ rule that the gods weren’t to fight each other? I’m practically writing out how this game could’ve been done and it’s heartbreaking that none of these ideas come to fruition. That’s why Ascension is far from pointless with its rich premise and characters, but it squanders them all nonetheless. As a side note, I will say the music would’ve fit right in with a better story. There’s a great assortment of beautiful and heart-pumping pieces from composer Tyler Bates. His score has a noticeably slower tempo that tones down the stereotypical bombast, but he definitely retains the heavy male choirs and percussion that musically define God of War.

Ascension is also a contender for having the best combat! It faces a similar problem like Chains of Olympus since Kratos can’t be going around touting a godlike arsenal. Santa Monica commits to that with nothing besides the Blades of Chaos. Instead of worrying about the ever-present issue of weapon balancing, they removed the problem entirely … for better and for worse. The absence is rectified with the rather innovative idea of picking up swords, spears, hammers, shields, and slings scattered throughout the world (one of the most obvious influences of multiplayer). I like how you can wisely use them to soften up particular foes quickly or toss them out to stun huge ones that you can use to your advantage. Despite these strategic affordances, it’s a shame the weapons are one trick ponies instead of being ones you can switch to with different combos until they break or something. It’s a clever idea that I just don’t prefer replacing more complex weapons that stay with you, but this makes way for emphasis on the Blades like never before.

Santa Monica extracts the latent power of the Blades with the tethering mechanic. It’s mapped to R1, which has only been devoted to environmental interactions (like opening chests) and shoulder bashing across titles. This time, Kratos can throw out a Blade like Scorpion, so instead of having enemies get over here, he gets to them. It doesn’t possess the same dangers as tackling enemies in Ghost of Sparta or grabbing one up close to ram others in God of War III because it’s fast. You can even execute simple attacks with your other Blade while tethered! The mechanic also removes the need to sprint or roll toward enemies to grab them, so the Blades are more practically applied beyond juggling grunts during combos. This is Kratos’ iconic weapons at their most satisfying, and even though the tethering can be a crutch to exploit during fights with lesser foes, it’s fun to assess the battlefield and use it when the time’s right since you can toss enemies, sling them around like a bludgeon, and more.

The grab mechanic is a melee now that lets Kratos briefly stun encroaching enemies with a punch or kick. It’s a good change to stun enemies up close, but one change I don’t like is how parrying is akin to Dark Souls. Instead of pushing the button just before an attack, you have to bring up your defense and press X before the blow lands. This makes parrying in the thick of a combo or group of enemies impossible because there are two steps rather than one (not to mention more enemies to pay attention to at a much farther distance than in Dark Souls). This small design choice is much more detrimental than you’d think for combat flow because if you’re about to take a hit, you have to absorb it with L1 and wait for an opening with a follow-up attack. The first God of War provided a small way to parry attacks with a late-game move called Hades’ Revenge. It was poorly implemented then, but it was something to gently lessen the constant game of stop and go. In Ascension, tethering invites you to dive into the fray. Heck, enemies – though lower in quantity than usual – are more aggressive with bigger pools of moves. The devolution of parrying violently works against these advances. There’s even this bizarre animation where Kratos falls and gets back up from certain attacks, which occurs often and costs precious health since you’re needlessly exposed. It’s equally frustrating.

Magic returns to its roots with Kratos being blessed with the power of gods. Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, and Ares bestow Kratos with their respective elements of lightning, ice, soul, and fire. Instead of themed, special moves alone that take up magic, the elements also add small foils to combos and yield different orbs. For instance, lightning accumulates blue orbs (magic) and can shortly stun targets, whereas soul grants green orbs (health) and sends out small amounts of, well, souls that inflict residual damage. You can do a move that sends out a ball of electricity or two devastating waves of soul energy, and I’m still not done! The rage mode has been changed to a meter that builds depending on your performance. If you don’t get damaged for long enough, you can activate another magic ability to send out a five-second stream of lightning (similar to the Eye of Atlantis in Ghost of Sparta) or spawn a flurry of souls that eat away at foes. Technically, there are eight magic moves total, two for each element, which makes this game feel like a thorough upgrade of the first God of War’s magic system. Did I mention none of the aforementioned moves take up any magic? Only these massive AoE attacks expend magic, which may just be simple button presses, but they feel exciting to pull off in the midst of overwhelming odds, as if Kratos gathers all his power and screams, “Enough!” All of these things sound great, but there’s not much reason to switch elements with the exception of AoE attacks because enemies aren’t weak or immune to particular elements. It’s another puzzling oversight because some enemy types seem made for weaknesses. I still switched often for the magic abilities, but did so more out of whimsy than intent.

There are two items as well! Both of them run on cooldown timers (no item bar) and are very useful. The Amulet of Uroboros slows down time around a target and the Oath Stone of Orkos summons a clone of Kratos that briefly fights alongside you. I don’t have as much to say about their application in combat as I do their wonderful part in puzzles. I can say without a doubt that Ascension has the most varied, thought-provoking puzzles in the saga, even if they don’t fold in the use of illusions that I suggested earlier. Good, mechanical puzzles are a dime a dozen, but you’ll be manipulating cool, complicated machinery and devices throughout this game. The items play into the puzzles so well since you can heal or decay objects to adjust one part of a device to pave the way for fixing another part. You need to think carefully about timing and placement with the Oath Stone since you can have your clone hold levers for you or stand on platforms in your stead. Puzzles come across as deeper and bigger than usual with one that requires you to move around and backtrack through several rooms. There’s more backtracking to the point where I realized Santa Monica finally took its original inspiration of Legend of Zelda to heart. The puzzles don’t match the sprawling, complex dungeons of a similar competitor like Darksiders, but Ascension shows the level designers at their best. The same can be said for the platforming … sort of.

The game takes a page from Ghost of Sparta and throws in the sliding mechanic with obstacles and cool camera angles to involve the player more. Opening the Temple of Delphi is one of the best examples of the platforming as you activate and ride across three giant, mechanical snakes to turn this massive gear. There’s a ton of suspense and action happening here, but the actual platforming isn’t as diverse and, on the bright side, removes fluff like climbing across ropes and beam balancing. Even the series staple of wall climbing with the Blades isn’t present, which has been switched to hand climbing that automatically moves Kratos across walls with the occasional jump you have to initiate, similar to Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. It’s an unneeded change with how platforming works, but I’m okay with it. Sometimes platforming will come to the forefront in splendor. Other times it recedes into the backdrop of gameplay until I almost forget it was there. It’s a strange beast to put it mildly.

I have confused thoughts with the art direction. I was in awe with exotic areas like Delphi that has a captivating clash of verdant trees and waterfalls amidst snowy mountains that you get tours of by riding those mechanical snakes. I also talked about how the puzzles are more mechanically minded, and this applies to their appealing visual design as well. All the contraptions you come across are gorgeously assembled marvels. There is unexpected, wild opposition like anthropomorphic elephants and Amazonian warriors, too (and if you’re wondering how elephants can be in Greece, it’s because much of the game takes place in or close to Persia). There’s a greater focus on more saturation, realism, and letting go of constraints for the sake of fantasy. I like what lead environmental artist John Palamarchuk had to say: “Doing research, we discovered they didn’t have arches back in Kratos’ time. That means no circle architecture. Visually it’s more interesting [to have arches], so we made a decision to have them because they make stuff look better.” As a result, the artists really shine in this entry with the places you explore.

However, these settings fall prey to the remnants of the accursed brown plague of late-2000 games. I’m reminded of Chains of Olympus since browns, tans, and blacks dominate environments with only a couple anomalies like Delphi. The impressive detail gets lost in the bland color palette, including Kratos during several combat and platforming sections. That brings me to the camera work. I’ve never had a problem with the programmed cinematography. Ascension gets it right more often than not, but there are unforgiveable zoom outs that had me fuming. Some design is at its best when it’s not noticed, and this is the first time Santa Monica fumbles with its otherwise perfect camera record.

As for bosses, this game actually starts with a Chronos-like battle with the Aagaeon. Isn’t he supposed to be dead with a prison complex integrated into his body? Well, one of the Furies brings him to life with these parasitic bugs that transform his appendages into monsters. What ensues is the most insane introduction to any God of War game where buildings are morphing and fighting against you. You have to see it to believe it, and while I didn’t find its execution as memorable as Chronos, it’s filled with exciting moments where you’re tossed and turned all about. Other than that, evidence of skimping because of multiplayer is evident since there are only four other bosses. One of them is more of a sub-boss, but the remaining three are some of the most complex in the franchise with my favorite being the conjoined pair of Pollux and Castor. This unusual pair seems to have no end to the tricks up their sleeve since they teleport, cast magic projectiles, and alter the floor you’re dueling on. You’ve got to give your undivided attention to this busy fight, and the same goes for fighting two Furies at once twice. I was getting Ornstein and Smough vibes with how they protect each other and make you cautious about making moves. These fights are nowhere near as punishing or methodical, but in God of War’s scope, they’re among the most unique and surprising in the saga. It’s no question these words define Ascension as a whole, but should they be framed in a positive or negative context?

Prescribe

One thing I’ve had to learn as a critic is to know when personal fatigue conflicts with objectively fine video games. A stellar, prescient example is Black Ops III. Sledgehammer Games’ WWII scratched a nostalgic itch for boots-on-the-ground gameplay that kept me around for much longer than usual, but just because I think Treyarch’s next multiplayer project seems like a watered-down expansion to Black Ops III that will bore longtime fans, I’d heartily recommend it to newcomers since the gunplay, operators, modes, and maps capture the best parts of the third game without becoming a gymnasium of wall-running and double-jumping. I think this critical approach is found lacking in hasty judgments of Ascension that even colored my own attitude settling into it.

After playing through five games in two months, I could feel the same fatigue that many players must’ve felt in 2013. You can tell Santa Monica was stretched for time and creatively spread thin for an addendum to their supposed finale, too. The story is ill-conceived and unsure of itself despite a phenomenal premise and cool characters to work with. The concept of illusion is a painfully missed opportunity to bring a memorable edge to platforming and puzzles. Elements of combat are also dragged down with new parts and changes that shouldn’t exist. It’s almost like you can feel Santa Monica was getting tired of God of War as well, but even if that’s true, there’s a lot to love about Ascension. The flaws that mar combat obscure how Kratos’ Blades have never felt better to control with the brilliant tethering mechanic and rehauled magic system. Illusion’s lack of influence over puzzles may be a sad waste, but they’re easily the most challenging and fun in the series. Other than these obscured positives, Ascension boasts an acceptable assortment of exciting boss fights, grand set pieces, and decent platforming you’d expect. Oh yeah, and there’s a whole multiplayer mode that’s actually worth taking a spin with for a spell. Ah, there’s so much to say because Ascension is a perplexing whirlpool of God of War elements at their best and worst. Fortunately, the former wins out in a hard-fought battle because, even at its lowest point, Santa Monica is incapable of delivering a bad game. Ascension is anything but that in spite of its scars.

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