As we learn in a voiceover that precedes our playthrough of God of War: Ascension, before the Golden Age of the Titans and the rule of the Olympian Gods, there was a great battle between the Primordials, the beings who forged the Earth. That battle lasted an eternity, and from it were born the Furies, the guardians of honour and the enforcers of punishment to the guilty.
Three sisters who were goddesses from the netherworld, the Furies sought vengeance on those who swore a false oath. Their first target was the hundred-handed giant Aegaeon the Hecatonchires. Aegaeon had betrayed Zeus, so the Furies captured and tortured the him, finally turning the massive creature into stone.
Like Aegaeon, Kratos too broke his blood oath with Zeus, and thus Ascension begins with him chained up by the Blades of Chaos and receiving his daily punishment from the Fury Megaera, a one-armed woman with four large spider legs protruding from her back. As usual, it’s a bad idea to anger the Spartan general, and when Megaera accidentally shatters one of his bonds, Kratos is able to break free.
From there the game begins proper, and our playthrough sees Kratos pursuing a wounded and fleeing Megaera through a series of mountaintop temples. It's quickly apparent the convoluted, epic storyline is not the only familiar element that is returning with Ascension. The franchise’s winning formula of brutal combo-based combat and multi-tiered battles against huge bosses remain undiluted as Kratos murders his way through new Egyptian-influenced enemies in tombs adorned with oversize statues, cauldrons, and Gothic imagery. Some cat-sized Scarab Beetles are up first, and are easily grappled and pulled in half. However, they are able to grotesquely burrow into other prisoners of the sisters and will them into battle against Kratos.
Kratos’ move set is very familiar by now, but there have been small additions, such as the ability to use enemy weapons against them. A short sword proves excellent for quick strikes against closing mobs, for example, but the most fun is still to be had with the Blades of Chaos, or with tossing enemies at their mates or from cliffs. Elsewhere, impudent goat-legged dog men who level javelins at the Ghost of Sparta have their heads pulled off or are ripped in half with the series' typical disregard for body structural integrity.
The chase moves on through sewers where a small section sees Kratos sliding down a waterway while dodging obstacles before he emerges outside once again for the first boss fight. It turns out the entire temple is built upon the hundred-handed Aegaeon, and the beetles invade and awaken one of his many arms, transforming it into a thickly armoured beast that resembles a centipede with elongated jaws. Its attacks are screen clearing swipes that must be vaulted, paired with stabs with its cruelly sharp front legs. Its eventual demise is typically hilariously nasty and awakens many more of the giant’s limbs, which wrench the temple Kratos is in from its foundations, forcing him into a series of battles while perched on a precariously small section of airbourne rock.
It’s clear from our 30 or so minutes with the game that developer SCE Santa Monica hasn’t looked to dramatically alter what has made its flagship series so successful. The franchise’s trademark ultra-serious tone, quick-time events, gore, imaginative creature design, cinematic flourishes, and free-flowing combat have returned looking better than ever on a modified version of the God of War III engine.
The franchise has never been about massive evolutionary steps after all, but instead the gradual honing of a set of excellent foundational mechanics. The inherent risk with such a strategy is player fatigue, but for now the spectacle, hard-hitting melee, and over-the-top mythos of God of War appear to have kept things from going stale. As such, it’s hard to imagine anyone familiar with the plight of Kratos being particularly surprised or especially disappointed by anything on offer in Ascension come its release on March 14.