I’m embarrassed to mention this, but I went through this … short phase in my early teens where I was morbidly fascinated by violence. I remember watching movie scene compilations of gross-out gore with people dying in the most ludicrous or creative ways. Final Destination, Ghost Ship, Kill Bill, Saw – films like that. I’d tell you that I’m an introspective guy who tries to understand everything about myself, but I couldn’t tell you what drove this uncharacteristic curiosity for about a month or so. Otherwise, I’ve always been disinterested with violence in entertainment unless it’s empty and cruel (think Hatred, Postal, and taking evil routes in videogames like Mass Effect or Infamous). I even get squeamish when people describe real injuries or show me minor ones. A lot of people still don’t get it today, but it’s just one sign how there’s a massive disconnect between people’s attitudes toward violence fictionally and realistically. For example, I’m the biggest softie and goody two-shoes you can imagine. If I win a chainsaw duel in Gears of War, however, you bet I’ll be excitedly cackling in triumph as my Lancer lacerates my opponent’s torso in a shower of viscera. You see? Dissonance, and I imagine that’s completely normal … I hope.
So maybe it was me being edgy during that phase or something, but I won’t lie that violence can always be rightly entertaining. Mortal Kombat and Doom use it as satisfying catharsis by giving weight to impressive feats, whereas The Last of Us and Spec Ops: The Line frame violence in emotionally powerful ways that force players to reflect on their actions. When it comes to God of War … ha, that franchise falls into the former category, being goofily excessive and mindless … but sometimes not. I remember thinking I’d never play the games when I was younger, so I watched all of the main trilogy’s cutscenes just to see what happens with Kratos. I wish I hadn’t because … well, I got around to playing them all in time to play through the latest game that’s proven to be a watershed moment for action-adventure games, boldly moving the franchise forward in every conceivable best way that I’m not going to talk about now. That’s for another day.
It’s a good one. That’s all I’ll say for now!
Until then, I’m going to review each game with a new angle on A.D.P. Reviews. The acronym has long-stood for “Analyze, Diagnose, Prescribe,” but I’ve never taken those three pillars to heart. That changes now with this series dividing any future videos into three sections. The first, “Analyze,” provides a historical overview of a title’s conceptual development and impact on the game industry. The second, “Diagnose,” will be like my usual reviews without a rigid structure separating my thoughts on gameplay, visuals, and whatnot; points will flow naturally into one another. The third, “Prescribe,” will be a simple recap of my opinions with overarching pros and cons. No score.
That being said, God of War rests among the most critically-acclaimed and financially successful Sony franchises. Does the genesis of its success hold up today? Let’s find out by recounting the origin of the man, the legend: Kratos, and see how he became a digital myth of epic proportions in his first outing.
Santa Monica Studios didn’t start out making its own projects. The 12-person team was founded in 1999 to assist other developers like Polyphony Digital (Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec) and SCEJ (Siren) with polishing, localization, and more. It wasn’t until 2001 that Santa Monica’s in-house team finished its first project Kinetica: a slick, futuristic racing game with characters wearing motorcycle suits. You compete against rivals on gravity-defying tracks, but what made the game stand apart was how players perform acrobatic combos in the air or on long stretches of road to boost speed. Kinetica received favorable reviews and proved to Sony that Santa Monica could ship a full-fledged product, especially since the game had its own engine built from scratch. During that time and shortly afterward, the studio assisted Incognito Entertainment with Twisted Metal: Black. That’s where David Jaffe comes in.
This creative director designed the prior two Twisted Metal games since 1995. He originally was an English major who wanted to direct films, but unwittingly stepped into the game industry for life starting as a Sony game tester. So, after Santa Monica scratched Jaffe’s back with Twisted Metal: Black, he scratched theirs by helping in the final development stages of Kinetica. Before that, Jaffe had squandered funds and freedom to craft a new IP called Dark Guns. The shooter involved piloting a UFO to abduct and experiment on humans, and though it sounds as promising as Destroy All Humans, the team and concept that Jaffe had didn’t pan out. He also admitted that the game was “designed out of fear and anxiety,” but vowed to let passion guide his creativity next time. He got that chance when he became the creative director of Santa Monica’s in-house team around 2002 while the other half of the studio continued collaborating with other developers. What had been a “contract job” for Jaffe at first was the start of anything but.
Jaffe had always wanted to create a game that didn’t put you in the shoes of the protagonist, but the gawking, awe-struck kid watching them. At the 2006 DICE Summit, he said, “You look at something like Zelda, and I think it puts you in the shoes of the adventurer. Which is both good and bad. You have to go around and travel and talk to people and figure things out, like a real adventurer would probably have to do, and I wanted God of War not to feel like that.” He desired a no-holds-barred experience where the player feels like an unstoppable BA on a grand adventure taking place within Greek mythology. The thematic angle came from reading Mythology by Edith Hamilton while he was on a trip in Japan. He dreamt of turning Greece’s mythological icons and their gods’ abilities into mechanics. He said, “I went through the book with a marker and anything that seemed like a cool player mechanic or story mechanic, I marked. By the end of the trip, my book was just filled with little check-marks or boxes saying things like ‘SO COOL!’ and ‘WE MUST USE THIS!!!’”
The game was codenamed Dark Odyssey for a time and aimed to show that the West could do right by the action-adventure and hack and slash genres. Dynasty Warriors, Devil May Cry, and (especially) Onimusha were the kings in the early 2000s that heavily influenced Dark Odyssey. Jaffe wanted to combine their fluid action with greater exploration and puzzle-solving, something that he admired in Ico and The Legend of Zelda. Other sources like the original Clash of the Titans film, Conan the Barbarian, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, brutal fight scenes in movies and real life – these core influences formed the groundwork for God of War. From there, it took over a year to solidify Kratos’ design. Reworking Kinetica’s engine for a completely different game wasn’t easy. The animation and combat were difficult to nail down. Jaffe said, “I gained 40 pounds on this game. I did irrevocable damage to my marriage. It was a stressful experience, it was a hostile environment.” In the game’s developer diaries, several team members remarked how there was much frustration that sometimes threatened to boil over into fist fights. They laugh it off. I don’t think it might’ve been far from the truth on some days.
The now head of studio Shanon Studstill said that in the middle of development, she asked Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida for more money to finish God of War. He told Studstill that her career was on the line, but the faith she claimed to have in Jaffe and her team at the time weren’t misplaced. The game became the eleventh best-selling PlayStation game of all time. It not only received several awards at its E3 2004 showing, but also multiple game of the year awards and over 4 million dollars in worldwide sales to date. Jaffe was right in observing that, “Part of [the hardship] is what led to God of War being as successful as it was, but it was a real challenge.” As unfortunate as it is, some of the most innovative, groundbreaking creations arise from extraordinarily tough circumstances. That’s what God of War was for the action-adventure genre near the closure of the PlayStation 2’s life cycle. How so?
God of War wastes no time taking you off guard. The story begins with Kratos committing suicide! After you’ve got your hands up waiting for answers, you’re cast backward in time with none, instead being put into the Spartan general’s sandals to fend off hoards of the undead at sea. You’ve got to save what’s left of your naval fleet and, oh, there’s a multi-headed Hydra eating all of your soldiers, too. This intro takes you through the basic paces of combat, environmental puzzle-solving, platforming, and boss fights that lie ahead in an explosive sequence you’re meant to purely react to and roll with. It’s up there with my favorite game introductions found in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Battlefield One, and Dead Space 2. They don’t start with cute, breezy tutorial missions at the beginning of our hero’s journey, but via chaotic trial by fire in media res. It’s always been a great narrative hook to absorb players into a fictional world because it captures the emotional intensify of, say, being dropped into an unknown situation where you’re told to shoot first and ask questions later. That’s what God of War is like until you slay the Hydra. It’s memorable, to put it mildly.
You’re then treated to an impressive cutscene with Kratos speaking to the Olympian god Athena. She tells him that his former master, Ares, is leveling Athens to gain Zeus’ favor. Since the king of the gods has ordered his ilk not to wage war with each other, the only way she can subvert this rule is to assign a mortal to carry out her bidding. Kratos only takes Athena’s offer and sails toward Athens with the promise that she’ll relieve him of these nightmares that haunt him. After arriving and fighting his way toward the city’s center, Kratos finds an oracle who tells him the power to defeat Ares lies in Pandora’s Box, so the spartan departs Athens in haste for the artifact. From that point forward, this serves as the set-up for the rest of the game in Pandora’s Temple: an intricate maze of deathtraps and endless enemies meant to break any warrior who dares to reach the summit.
You’ll notice how big this game is from the get-go. You’re occasionally treated to panned out, establishing shots, which make Kratos look like a spec in comparison to larger-than-life places and characters. Sometimes you’ll sit back and realize where you are and how far you’ve come and think … wow. It’s the insignificance that further solidifies the power fantasy when you find out size doesn’t limit Kratos. The presentation of these set pieces is also aided by how the camera rarely cuts during gameplay. Cutscenes are the main exception, but when you’re transitioning to new areas, rounding corners, or initiating a close-up for a QTE, the camera usually follows you in a pre-programmed path. It’s a recipe for disaster since some encounters or crowded alleys could be set at poor angles. Even still, there’s rarely a moment where I found fault with the camera’s placement, which pulls in and out at all the right times. It should be said that God of War has visually aged with polygonal edges to character models and environmental objects, but the PlayStation 3 remaster thankfully does away with this through a boosted resolution.
Going back to Pandora’s Temple, it’s an unexpectedly long stay after being in Athens for a short while that culminates with a short return trip. I thought Kratos would be venturing to two or three more locales, so the temple outstayed its welcome after a few hours, though the environmental stagnation is mitigated by the temple’s depth and complex layout. Much like The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons, you’ll be reconnecting with prior areas and backtracking to unlock areas that have been taunting you. It’s partly why the game constantly feels like its flirting on the fringes of nonlinearity. I’m a big fan of linear experiences that let you veer off the beaten path a bit and complete some objectives in any order because you can explore without fear of being overwhelmed or lost. God of War isn’t a semi-open world by any stretch of the imagination, but these small branches help it feel less on-rails and artificial.
The game’s balance of challenges leaves much to be desired with puzzles. There’s the odd brainteaser here and there constructed around sorting or order, but these are vastly overshadowed by combat challenges disguised as “puzzles” that test your speed and versatility. You’ve got narrow hallways and big arenas, some of which are static while others are moving. One place requires you to sacrifice a hapless man by dragging him up a hill while pausing at strategic points to fight enemies. There are others with timed encounters where you’ll be crushed, dropped into a flaming pit, and good stuff like that if you don’t finish off enemies quickly enough. There’s even an area where you have to kill centaurs within these magical, moving circles or the brutes will endlessly spawn. In between the usual combat scenarios with no frills, these special variants are never replicated to ensure that too much repetition doesn’t set in. They’re not puzzles to me though, as they’ve been erroneously labeled before.
The lack of puzzles shows in how heavily God of War leans on its start-and-stop pace of fighting. There are enough enemy types for diverse groups that force you to play defensively on occasion, but this comes back to bite the fun of combat. Some encounters are so crowded and demanding that they stifle confidence in letting out a single move. This is especially true for groups of Cerberuses, Harpies, and Wraiths that rely on overwhelming numbers and taking turns attacking to force you into endless blocking or dodging. The severity is lessened on lower difficulties, but when the game encourages you to experiment with new moves that usually leave you vulnerable and unable to cancel them, you wind up resorting to basic combos that are safer and faster.
When you’re not stalled to make moves, combat really is a joy, especially with the banging percussion and male choir that chants to Kratos’ killing sprees. There are even moments of downtime with Grecian instruments like the toubeleki and lyra giving that ancient, Mediterranean flair to ambient music during exploration. That aside, it’s incredible how Santa Monica crafted such a smooth, easy-to-learn combat system with no prior experience in that genre. With so few core changes occurring over the franchise’s history, it was a Call of Duty situation where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You start with a simple sequence of button mashes and special moves like grabbing and magic, but as you gain red orbs from the fallen, you’re able to allot them to a simple skill tree that powers up weapons and abilities along with extra moves to learn along the way. It seems overwhelming, but you’ll notice there are no more than three or four button presses for the most advanced moves. It’s up to you to figure out which ones flow best into each other.
Jaffe called this the gameplay’s “micro system,” whereas the simple options of choosing to go for magic, QTEs, or straight-up kills is the “macro system.” The latter is straightforward since you always go for QTEs to gain more health or mana for magic, use magic when enemies are crowding you or too far away, and kills when you need to thin the herd. The former was touted as being deeply customizable and, therefore, strategic, but you can’t do more than three or four separate moves at a time with the blocking and dodging demanded of you. It renders much of the noble intentions of this freeform combat underused in execution. If I’m honest, a lot of it is just calling up random moves in my head and seeing what happens; there’s little rhyme or reason to which attacks I pick since they don’t afford particular advantages against certain enemies. That’s a recurring issue throughout the series making additional moves and abilities feel like, say, having different brands of screwdrivers in a toolbox. The feel and handling of them will be different, but they all accomplish the same goal with little variance in efficiency. it’s not like having a swath of tools like a wrench, hammer, plier, and what have you; they’re all unique and have equal yet varying purposes in application. Even though it’s cool to switch to the Blade of Artemis or do a ground pound on the fly, my reasons for doing so amounted to “just because” in the end.
That’s not to say the gameplay is boring. After all, if you want the player to feel like an unstoppable BA, it pays to present a myriad of actions to shroud the actual, simple execution of them. Jaffe admitted as much. “God of War is not innovative or unique, and that’s intentional. Our system was so shallow that it forced the team to constantly create new content to trapeze the player from one area of interest to the next. … I understand modular game design, and the value of that, but I was feeling that if we didn’t step outside those boundaries, at least for me, I was going to get bored. … And I think that’s where a lot of problems with the game came from.” I can see this design tension looking deeper into the combat’s core – you can get by and play well without mastering much of anything, which is a tell-tale sign of bloated features. Nevertheless, God of War manages to make that fluff look and feel exciting to master … “just because!” That’s a major key to its success.
The platforming was mixed for me. Walking across beams, along ledges, and climbing walls feels fine, but it suffers from a disease the action-adventure genre perpetuates with platforming being reduced to busywork. There’s nothing challenging about it half of the time, which is there to provide empty breathing room between combat. Exceptions to this are found in some areas with skillful maneuvering between obstacles and timed jumping across moving platforms, but long stretches of climbing walls or hoisting Kratos across a rope – with undead trying to knock you off in both scenarios? These are dreadful nuisances that get in the way of progress. If you’re going to give the player a series of mixed, moving obstacles to traverse interlaced with combat or a time limit, by all means! That makes the platforming worthwhile and memorable. Otherwise, it’s just there to be there, and God of War suffers from this half of the time. The level of Hades could be argued as an answer to these complaints, but it’s a shame how one-note in design this short level is, which proves to be annoying in its own ways, too.
I heard how boss-riddled this franchise has been and was shocked there are only three here! The Hydra at the beginning followed by Pandora’s Guardian and Ares near the end. It’s unfortunate how several platforming levels were cut due to the game’s scope and budget, and the same fate goes for bosses. There’s a dearth of them that left me hanging throughout the whole middle act, but with what there is, the game delivers on lengthy bosses that have multiple stages. This is best realized in the final battle with Ares, beginning and ending with mano-a-mano spars that feel like Tekken matches. What lies in the middle is an awesome wave-based battle against a horde of Kratos doppelgangers attacking his wife and child. You have to defend your family from being slaughtered by hugging them, which transfers your health to their own. It remains the most emotionally powerful blending of mechanics and storytelling in the franchise, demonstrating how the spartan would lay down his life and slay his demons if it meant protecting his family.
You know, I said how I’m not the biggest fan of the time spent in Pandora’s Temple, but think about it. The present storyline is easy to follow – kill Ares and get Pandora’s Box. There’s not much else that happens worth noting with the big exception of these tantalizing flashbacks. With Kratos committing suicide and allusions to his nightmares from the start, you’re pulled into discovering how he became such a violent, angry, loud man who don’t take no for an answer. You find out the spartan pledged his life to Ares so he could escape death on the battlefield, but forsook his humanity and was tricked into murdering his family. That’s how he wound up serving the gods by sailing to and fro across the Aegean Sea.
People have labeled God of War as mindless and indulgent, but I wouldn’t level these descriptors in full force. Kratos is a man consumed by rage and a lust for power, but the story shows how these traits bring him nothing but emotional and physical anguish. The gods only compound his mistakes by enabling and manipulating him for their own nefarious deeds. Even when he’s slain a god, he’s apathetic and wants nothing but death. God of War relishes in the thrill of chopping the undead in half and stabbing minotaurs through the mouths, but Kratos is a man wrought in deep layers of tragedy underneath his meat-headed one-liners. There’s awkward nudity and excessive violence, but kernels of lucid wisdom are found between the lines. Is that not like the Greek myths of yore? I don’t think that’s accidental, so I’d say the game’s immaturity can be partially forgiven for maturity in other places with a deeply troubled, flawed protagonist that I somehow feel pity for despite his horrendous actions.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. God of War goes beyond that by not only paying homage to its inspirations but also elevating their shared genre to new standards. The underlying simplicity of the game’s combat belies how fun and complex it feels all the way to the end. Its slick presentation and scope live up to Santa Monica’s hopes that it would feel like an epic, cinematic adventure. Even though the puzzles and platforming aren’t much to shake a fist at, there’s no doubt this game remains a technical marvel with a simple tale that genuinely surprises with its fascinating flashbacks and themes of tragedy. If anything, God of War succeeds because you can tell its confident in its own vision and design. Sometimes that turns out to mean nothing, but for Santa Monica, passion made the difference with Kratos’ ensuing legacy chained to a foundation that remains resilient.