Note: In the time since this review was written, God of War: Ascension was patched to make the Trial of Archimedes easier by rewarding the player with health and magic orbs after a wave of foes is defeated.
Ancient Greece was the center of Western science, philosophy, drama, sculpture, and architecture for centuries. Today, the gods of Mount Olympus have little influence, the Wonders are all but gone, and "rocky ruins" describes not only the remaining ancient sites, but also the Greek economy. What happened?
Having played through four God of War games, I know the answer. It was Kratos. Clearly, only a rage as powerful as his could have torn down all that cultural majesty.
God of War: Ascension pulls back the curtain on Kratos's fury, providing more insight into how this mortal-born man could ascend to the top of the holy mountain and defeat a pantheon of gods, including Zeus himself. This prequel begins with our antihero in chains, being slapped around by one of the legendary Furies, punished for breaking his blood oath to Ares (and for other actions to be revealed).
This time around, the task is simply to defeat the Furies and free Kratos from his blood oath to Ares. That sounds like a hell of a lot, but Ascension feels somewhat more humble than previous God of War installments. Besides the scarcity of marquee names on Kratos's hit list, there are fewer weapons and items than you might expect if you're coming off of God of War III.
Kratos, of course, retains his dual blades, which he wields on the ends of two long chains. Littering the game world are various weapons - like swords, hammers, and slings - that map to the Circle button by default. These are handy in different situations but can be largely ignored if you're just trying to get through the game. A handful of magical items is also accumulated over the course of the adventure. These can be useful in battle, but they are mainly of use in unlocking the next area.
Ascension isn't all that difficult, or really all that new, if you're a veteran of the God of War series. There are plenty of puzzles this time, and a regular smattering of quick-time events, with very generous timing. Combat is not friendly to pure button mashers, but it is more than happy to spend the night with button mashers who've learned to flick the evade stick every few seconds.
In fact, there is only one difficult battle to be found in the entire game: the Trial of Archimedes. This comes along toward the very end of the eight-to-twelve hours you can expect from Ascension's story. I have read some major complaints about this area from players, but I don't feel there's anything too bad about it. There are some differences between the Trial and the other parts of the game, but that just means it stands out, not that it is an anomaly that should be patched.
In a nutshell: Kratos stops at three different floors on his journey up the inside of a giant statue of Apollo. Difference 1 is that there is no checkpoint for a little while. Whereas the game is pretty liberal with autosaves normally, this time you might have to fight for a bit before you get thrown a crutch. Difference 2 is that the enemies' attack patterns will likely force you to (gasp) actually use your parries and/or magical items. What it boils down to is that the Trial of Archimedes is maybe the best, and for me the most memorable, part of God of War: Ascension. Any talk of patching it to make it easier is blasphemy. (Granted, the whole series is based on blasphemy.)
Previous God of War games allowed you to step down to an easier difficulty level during the course of your playthrough. If a patch is made to accommodate the outcry against the Trial of Archimedes, that would be an acceptable one, I suppose. What I'd rather see is the modification of encounters earlier in the game such that parrying is more essential. The best weapon you have during the most difficult part of Ascension is the parry, but it is extraneous at any other point in the game. The developers' failure here is one I've fallen victim to before: a failure to properly introduce your character's arsenal and require you to use it progressively so that you really get a feel for each ability.
Developers should know that the average player will always blame them if he is forced to leave his comfort zone. The fact that God of War: Ascension is so easy for 95% of its length is the problem; it's not that the last part is too hard. Before the final sections, I was far more likely to fall from a great height than fall in combat. Sony Santa Monica could have avoided a lot of the complaints by asking more of players throughout the game instead of saving it up for the end.
Speaking of gradual progression, God of War: Ascension's biggest differentiating feature is its multiplayer modes, where you can take a character from a level-one weakling to a decked-out war machine alone or in a team.
The multiplayer "story," such as it is, branches off the single-player narrative in the most diaphanous of ways. A warrior who Kratos discovers in the Furies' prison and who is in the campaign for all of several seconds turns out to be the character you control in multiplayer. There are player-versus-environment and player-versus-player options for up to eight participants. Items and abilities can be gained and leveled up, both by opening treasure chests and by trading in skill points. Plus, your avatar is really four characters in one, with swappable attunements to four different gods granting you various advantages in battle.
Loners can level up without interacting with another human soul if they wish, as there are plenty of goals to achieve just killing monsters. Players who want some online interaction but don't fancy being killed by some gloating kid can tackle the same PvE with a teammate. And the flag capturers and deathmatchers out there have their modes, too. It's not quite Gears of War, but the other "GoW" online experience is a lot of fun.
If you have never played God of War before . . . well, I really suggest that you start at the beginning with Part I. But Ascension is the second-best option for beginners, with the multiplayer component possibly putting it over the top for some fans. If you are a fan of the series and are craving more of the same, God of War: Ascension will scratch that itch. Between this and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus, this has been a great thirty days for action fans.