By now, we've all heard how God of War: Ascension will finally allow fans to free friends of their entrails via an online multi-player mode. What we haven't heard, however, is how Kratos will retain his reputation as gaming's most pissed-off protagonist in the title's single-player story mode. This was remedied at a recent Sony media event, where I learned the Ghost of Sparta's also got some new tricks tucked into his loin cloth.
A prequel to all previous entries, Ascension opens with Kratos having a bad day—big surprise—in the Prison of the Damned. Captured by the Furies, a trio of female bird-like baddies who are doling out justice on the Gods' behalf, Kratos is bound at the wrists and neck. I'm not sure why he's here, but breaking his blood oath with Aries probably has something to do with it. In terms of the series' timeline, this scene unfolds shortly after Kratos has been tricked into slaughtering his family, but before he begins his vengeance-fueled quest to tear Aries a new one.
My hands-on demo officially begins when I'm prompted to dodge one of the Furies attacks. A few stick flicks later, and Kratos is free of the chains and on his way to busting out of the big house. His escape is cut short, though, by some Greek mythology menaces who apparently don't know what a bad idea it is to make Kratos mad. This first threat, oversized creepy crawlies swarming from all sides, don't pose much of a challenge... until they sink their pincers into nearby prisoners and transform the clueless humans into crazed attackers.
Thankfully it's around this moment I'm introduced to Ascension's tethering system; an evolution of previous games' grapple mechanics, it allows Kratos to weaponize lesser enemies. Following an R1 press, which sinks his blades deep into a target's chest, face-button inputs perform one of four moves. The triangle button turns the unfortunate soul dangling from Kratos' blades into a human wrecking ball capable of cleaning the floor with oncoming attackers; X sees him body-checking whoever he's tethered to; circle reels targets toward him before he tosses them like an empty beer can; and square holds targets at bay while Kratos buries his free blade into surrounding baddies.
On top of treating enemies like Kratos' personal yo-yo, I'm also able to pick up their weapons. While this feature was explored in previous entries, it now plays a significant role in Kratos' arsenal. Entrails-spilling implements such as swords, spears, and mallets can be grabbed and organically worked into his combo-crazy repertoire. Players can keep these death-dealers as long as they like or toss them aside until they find something better suited to satiating their blood lust. In the absence of using a weapon—triggered with the circle button—spamming the input results in Kratos' unleashing his fists and feet into enemies.
Before I can get too comfortable behind these new toys, I'm met by one of the series' signature, screen-swallowing bosses. Apparently the prison was built on the back of its very first guest—a monster who happened to have 100 arms—and the Furies are able to bring its angry appendages back to life. Retaining the franchise's very mature reputation, this act involves bugs, the same type I battled earlier, burrowing out of the Furies bare breasts and into the multi-limbed menace.
The ensuing battle plays out much like you'd expect: when not evading the enemy's attacks, Kratos sneaks in to siphon some of its life away; this ultimately leads to a quick-time event that brings down the beast in a gory display of gushing bodily fluids. Despite the familiarity of these David and Goliath-like encounters though, Ascension manages to bring some new tricks to the battlefield. One of my run-ins with the lethal limbs, for example, leads to the arm breaking off a chunk of the prison and toying with it in the palm of its hand. The camera pulls back during this sequence, revealing a tiny Kratos battling enemies within this box that's crumbling beneath the pressure of the beast's fingers. Complemented by some amazing camera trickery, this effective manipulation of scale makes Kratos seem small in the same way he did next to the Titans in God of War III.
A very different, but equally effective environmental trick sees Kratos sliding down parts of the prison's architecture as it shifts and contorts around him. Packing a thrilling, rail-grindling-like sensation, these sections also task me with dodging dangerous objects as Kratos hurtles down walls and floors that have been betrayed by gravity.
While this opening level offers a taste of Ascension's ability to evolve some of the series' staple systems, it's only a tease of the bigger picture. Sony Santa Monica's also promising an enhanced Rage system that will allow players to weave elemental powers into combat more organically, as well as the ability to mount more beasts. I did get the chance to wreak havoc from the back of a cyclops, but according to game director Todd Papy this fan-favorite feature will reach new screen-clearing heights in Ascension. Papy also promises a peek into Kratos' kinder, gentler side. My hands-on time is preceded by a live action trailer of Kratos sharing a tender moment with his daughter, but he wasn't exactly baking cookies and filling out greeting cards during my demo.
I'm hoping the final game does dig deeper into what Papy calls Kratos' "human side", but if that doesn't pan out I can always satisfy myself by opening more baddies from brains to balls with style to spare.
A veteran freelance journalist covering the video game industry for nearly a decade, Matt Cabral contributes regularly to a variety of enthusiast and print outlets. You can find his work on the web, in print, and, if you look carefully, in the foam of your latte. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gamegoat.