Year of the Brawler Part IV: God of War Ascension

There's a cold war going on in the arena of the modern brawler video game - East vs. West. While we could say that the Eastern hack and slash games could be represented by Team Ninja and Platinum - with their manic inclination toward speed, insanity, and difficulty levels bordering on impregnable, we could just as well say that the Western brawler has its formidable war-chieftain in Kratos. A deicidal Spartan soldier who came pretty much out of nowhere, sold billions of copies of Playstation discs, and has spawned entire legions of imitators.

Though I may prefer the intricacy and steep learning curve of the state-of-the-art Asian brawler, there's no denying God of War's impact on the gaming world. If imitation is the best form of flattery, then consider Santa Monica Studio's Spartan brute the most flattered creature in the digital realm. Kratos's game has certainly had his share of clones. Dante's Inferno. X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Too Human. The best of the copycats being Konami's outstanding Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series. (which we will get into further once Lords of Shadow 2 is released next winter) God of War has taken the brawling world by storm, both financially and by pure reputation alone.

What the God of War series has lacked in complexity it has more than made up for in attitude. Kratos's adventures are plodding, bloody forays into the extremities of pagan horror and warfare. Someday there may be a character more celestially constipated than Kratos - but for now he's the angriest demigod running in the brawler genre.

Kratos is a hammer - and almost everything else in ancient Greece is a nail.

The God of War experience has mostly been a defensive game. Kratos scourges his enemies with his chain blades as they press in from all sides, beating them mercilessly and slowing their advance until a prompt alerts the player that they can move in for a QTE or finishing move. He can roll out of the way of attacks with the left thumbstick, and block, and that was pretty much the entire fight menu for the original - and still my favorite of the series - game. What we didn't know at the time was that God of War pretty much ran out of useful additions to its combat formula by God of War II. The Golden Fleece's parry was a terrific addition to Dave Jaffe's original system, and advanced the range of damage that Kratos could do, as well as give the demigod a much needed counter to ranged attacks.

There's been plenty of flair combined with the combat system Jaffe originally built back in 2005, ranged attacks, a batch of new weapons for God of War III, but as for God of War Ascension...?

Say goodbye to almost everything that got this franchise to a sixth title. We're back to basics in this prequel. Kratos has the Blades of Chaos, and only the Blades of Chaos, to help him on his path to butchering man, beast, and godling. He can still counter moves, but because for the first time in the franchise the parry requires two button presses (L1 and X) it's a stingy feat to pull off correctly. What makes the new counter even worse is that Kratos takes a second to recover after a misfire - meaning that a blown parry will lead to a beatdown by every enemy in his vicinity. It's not so much risk versus reward as it is pure risk. Take it from a guy who finally tamed Metal Gear Rising's much maligned parry system - I couldn't nail a counter with any degree of success in Ascension, no matter how many times I tried it. And you'd be surprised by how many times when I managed to tag the timing correctly Kratos's counter-attack would completely miss his opponent, rendering it a neutered move entirely.

There's been some discussion about a certain section of God of War Ascension labeled "The Trial of Archimedes." It's a triple-tiered fight with Ascension's cheapest collection of heavy hitters, and no health restoration until completion. Kratos is given very little ground to stand on as wave after wave of enemies assault him with tactical strikes that can cover the entire area of the battle arena. Meaning: There is no safe ground during this difficult portion of the game. I took a run at the Trial of Archimedes at least thirty times before figuring out the secret of defeating it...

Spamming the magic will get you to the finish line.

Brawling purists usually avoid battering opponents with magic attacks - or at least this one does. There's not much fun in tapping the win button to get a player out of trouble. Usually mastery of a smart combat system is all a skilled player needs to defeat most obstacles a game might put in front of him - even something as indomitable as the Trial of Archimedes. But because the enemy variety by this point in the campaign cannot be grappled with, (and one of this game's cooler additions where Kratos can "leash" an enemy with one of his Blades and still beat back other unfriendlies with his second Blade is completely nullified by the second half of Ascension) and their attacks take up the entire breadth of the battleground, surviving without beating on the magic attack button is pretty much impossible. It's the cheapest section of the game, so players need to think cheap to win. Which means hammering the magic attack over and over again until the trial is conquered.

We talked a great deal about why the sense of personal accomplishment is essential in gaming in Year of the Brawler III. Frying whole packages of bad guys with the magic button adds little to a sense of achievement.

Santa Monica's given Kratos the ability this time around to decay and rebuild ancient structures using the Amulet of Uroborus. Like everything else in this game the use of the amulet is pretty much fashion over function - meaning that it looks fantastic, (and if Ascension gets points for anything it is her looks and amazing enemy design) but as a function grows needless and tiresome quickly.

It's in this game to enhance the puzzles the player is forced to solve along his route to the conclusion. Not only are the puzzles in Ascension too numerous, (it feels like this game is 65% combat, 35% riddle solving) they're too - for lack of a better term - puzzling. Coming fresh out of playing Square Enix's Tomb Raider, (an early contender for game of the year if I have a vote) where the puzzles are both complex and logical, I hit a wall in God of War Ascension every time I ran into an area that Santa Monica Studios forced a puzzle on me. I've never really liked puzzles dampening the fury and flow of my brawler gaming experience anyway, and I really don't like it when I feel like I'm at the mercy of a game developer who hasn't yet grasped the delicate art of enigmatology, causing me to waste hours better spent gutting centaurs moving blocks around and decaying rubble in the desperate hope that something I do will unlock the route to the next battleground.

And since I brought her up...

The God of War franchise has much in common with Tomb Raider. I believe we're at the point of critical mass with this series as we were about twelve years ago with the Tomb Raider series. God of War feels too old hat. Too glib. Too perfunctory at this point.  This series needs an overhaul much like Square Enix provided for Lara Croft this year. Just like Lara, Kratos is a great character, but you can't help but feel that with every game we're treated to the same dish Sony served us back in 2005 - but with different garnishes added to the plate to give us the illusion of progress.

We've had a bit of a brawling bubble in 2013, after DMC and Metal Gear Rising it was foolish to believe that every brawler released this year was going to knock the ball out of the park like those two games did. God Of War Ascension isn't a misstep as much as it is a reminder that even the most successful franchises can get stagnant if left complacent. It's too early to call the Brawler Cold War in favor of the Eastern gaming masters just yet, but with God Of War's limp addition to the year in brawling, this is the East's war to lose.