"God of War: Ascension" has a bad case of the late-generation blahs.
Santa Monica Studio's follow-up to "God of War III" looks jaw-dropping, plays with smash-mouth abandon and even introduces a not-bad multiplayer mode to the series, but the game still can't shake the feeling of being busywork for the studio while it sizes up "God of War IV" for PlayStation 4.
The name says it all. Subtitled installments of a franchise do lower the intimidation factor for new players ("'Final Fantasy X'? — you mean I have to play nine of these games to even know what's happening?"). But they also tend to suggest that they're less important than the numbered entries — even optional.
And "Ascension" is most certainly optional. This prequel to the first "God of War" finds Kratos trying to end his allegiance to Ares, which means defying the Three Furies, "those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath," in Homer's immortal words.
The story is a little more personal than previous "God of War" games. At this point in time, Kratos has no idea he's killed his wife and daughter, but the Furies use their absence to haunt him with seductive illusions of his former life. Surprisingly, seeing the big lug in such a bind actually earns your sympathy. It also helps that "Ascension's" Kratos is not the jerk of the first three "God of War" games, who'd just as soon rip your head off as look at you.
What hurts, though, is the loss of magnitude and scale that ensues when you go from killing Poseidon, Hades and Zeus in a single game to fighting... who? Heck-a-something? Hecatonchires? OK then. (I must have slept through that 10th-grade English class.) The first three "God of War" games were like bloody rampages through "Greek Mythology: Greatest Hits" at some swanky museum; "Ascension" feels like scrounging through the basement archives for a name you think you maybe read once in Dante's "Inferno."
When it comes to the vicious, limb-ripping, blood-by-the-bucket action for which "God of War" has become known, however, "Ascension" does deliver. It tweaks the weapon and magic system by branching Kratos' signature chain blades into god-themed versions; Zeus' electrifies, Hades' summons swatting violet arms from the underworld, etc. Along with javelins, clubs and other weapons Kratos can grab off the ground, the different blades give him a lot of toys to play with — though the game doesn't mix up the opposition enough to coax a full sampling of the many pointy options.
The enemies are as tenacious and gorgeously foul-looking as ever in "Ascension." The jellybean-scaled Gorgons and roaring Elephantaur bruisers are fun to watch and really fun to assiduously dodge with the right analog stick before exposing their brains to daylight. You finish these bigger foes off in the series' typical quick-time events, which "God of War" still does better than 99 percent of the action titles that started using them in the wake of the 2005 original. Except "Ascension" uses them a bit too much, even for a "God of War" game, and edges near that much-bemoaned "interactive movie" territory toward the finale.
(The Gorgons also evince a pretty off-putting trend in "Ascension's" design: every female enemy, sans the Furies, is bare-breasted. And, for some reason, Kratos finishes off most of his foes with vaguely vaginal incisions. Playing this game would make Freud salivate.)
The bloodless parts of "Ascension" are as well-designed as they've ever been in the series. The Amulet of Ouroboros, which lets Kratos destroy and rebuild massive bridges and other structures, is used to clever effect in constructing some of the game's puzzles. The platforming is a bit less stellar. Grappling is still a mild rush and the new slide sequences are smooth, but Santa Monica doesn't explore either's full potential for player challenge.
Despite being the newest part of "Ascension," the multiplayer is the one that screams "placeholder game" most loudly. Its combat is decently balanced and its environmental objectives are a smarter direction than free-for-all bloodbaths, but the package doesn't come together in the kind of accessible and rewarding way that it does in great online game experiences. It thoroughly feels like a first draft.
But there's always "God of War IV." And that seems to be the real story with "Ascension."