During the final moments of God Of War: Ascension, a villain attempts to strike a back-room deal with Kratos, the game’s lead character. “Offer us your loyalty,” the villain says, slithering about as villains typically do in God Of War games, “and you shall live in blissful illusion.” Sony’s Santa Monica studio, longtime keepers of the God Of War series, offer players the same deal: Let’s collectively pretend that this toothless, uninspired installment in the series—the fifth God Of War game in eight years—is better than it actually is, and we promise to keep the old Kratos train rolling along.
Back in 2005, the original game introduced us to the bare-pated Kratos, a man who, the first time we meet him, delivers a spoken suicide note—“The gods of Olympus have abandoned me. Now there is no hope”—and launches himself off the side of “the highest mountain in Greece,” leaving gamers to wonder how this moody depressive could possibly be our hero.
Kratos was a character who housed the neuroses of Woody Allen in a WWE wrestler’s body. Here was a character who had no love for anything, least of all himself. Kratos didn’t merely dispatch his foes; he didn’t politely chip away at their “life meters.” He outright annihilated his enemies, leaving their entrails and eyeballs strewn about, and, for good measure, a circle of scorched earth where they once stood. And thanks to the Bulfinch’s Mythology milieu, the God Of War games always had the added effect of making me feel smarter. Because names like “Ares” and “Athena” were always being bandied about as I fought the likes of the hydra, the games made me feel like I was participating in something that my 10th-grade English teacher might find appealing. Most importantly, instead of telling me how angry Kratos was feeling, the first God Of War game let me feel that anger. It traveled along my forearms like an electrical current. After some of the game’s more brutal battles, I could taste a satisfying bitterness on the back of my tongue.
Which is what makes God Of War: Ascension such a heartbreaker. Playing the game is akin to watching a 38-year-old, pre-Parkinson’s Muhammad Ali, still biting his lower lip and pretending to be held back by his entourage before his fight with the much sprier Larry Holmes. Over the 10 or so hours of the game’s creatively fallow single-player quest, I kept waiting for the real Kratos to appear and take the place of this hollow-eyed cipher who had hijacked his game. I wanted him to reclaim his old, deserved glory, the same way I wanted Ali to come through in 1980. Ali would go on to suffer a savage beating. Kratos fares better in Ascension, but he still winds up with the stink of failure on him.
The game’s boldest stroke comes in the form of an unlikely multiplayer mode—unlikely because “beat ’em up” games of this type don’t naturally lend themselves to online group play—which allows players to build their own Kratos-like warriors from scratch. Win or lose, the more you play, the more points you earn, and the more goodies you unlock, which can be used to trick out your warrior and to give you a leg up on the competition. During my time with the game, I unlocked the “Cloak Of Boreas” and a “Relic Of Protection.” Though it has its moments—parrying an opponent, which renders him temporarily vulnerable to your attacks, is particularly gratifying—multiplayer too frequently devolves into a cluster of ersatz Kratoses blindly whaling away at each other.
The paper-thin story revolves around Kratos’ battle with the Furies, a trio of floating witch women who are out to get him for some vague reason and who appear to be the distant cousins of a praying mantis. The game bills itself as a prequel, one that aspires—at least initially—to reveal some new information about Kratos’ past. It doesn’t. Instead, whatever grand narrative designs the game’s makers may have had at the outset go sailing out the window when the story nervously devolves into a series of ridiculous battles against increasingly ridiculous beasts.
There is The Giant Gila Monster That Emerges From The Decrepit Hand. There is The Giant Corpse Head With Spider Legs Surrounding Its Giant, Old Mouth. Everything is relentlessly super-sized in Ascension, as if every design problem the team encountered could be solved simply by making Kratos smaller and making his adversaries larger.
There is also no shortage of ugliness on display here, not only in the poorly designed puzzles, which made me feel like a crippled, half-blind flea trapped inside the works of a broken clock, but also in the game’s absurdist thrill-kill violence. Many of the “Finish him!” animations—like the “here, let me air out your brains, that’s better” moment when you take out a bipedal elephant man—no longer seem appropriately vengeful. Instead, they’ve lapsed into puerile sadism, turning an experience that was once a borderline sophisticated meditation on Greek mythology and revenge into an extended gross-out moment.
The final bit of bad news is that the misogyny that has always lurked in the background of the series steps into the spotlight in Ascension. The most egregious example occurs about halfway through the game. After defeating a female foe, Kratos continues to beat her mercilessly, delivering blow after unnecessary blow for no discernible reason. When it seems things can’t possibly get any uglier, a notification pops up on screen, indicating that you’ve “won” the PlayStation “Bros Before Hos” trophy. I would go on to complete the game after this, mostly out of a sense of professional obligation. But that was the moment when I would have parted ways with a series that I had previously revered. I’m left wondering if Kratos still knows the way back to top of the highest mountain in Greece.