God of War (PS2) Review

The Short


Pros

– Bloody, fast-paced third person action game

– Absolutely gorgeous PS2 graphics, if a little dated

– Incredible setpieces and locations

– Cut through a slew of mythological Greek creatures

– Fantastic soundtrack

– Kratos’ story of revenge is both horrific and heartwrenching

– Never a dull moment; the game keeps spurning you to keep playing

Cons

– Smaller enemies and Kratos have a bit of a low polygon count

– Balance with XP seems a bit off (especially with the Medusa head power)

– Hades is one of the worst levels in any game, ever

– Violence, sex, and nudity can be a bit much and feel tactless

– Not a whole lot of depth to the combat or systems involved

– A distinct lack of boss fights (only two in the entire game)

– This birthed the quick-time event craze that is ruining game design

Meet Kratos. He’s not a nice person.

The Long

I have a long-running affinity for Greek mythology. As a child I poured through book after book of these myths, reading The Iliad and The Odyssey long before I probably should have been able to. I always felt it was a fantastic setting to mine for movies or video games: you have the pettyness of the gods, the variety of monsters and myths, and a fantastic roster of heroes and villains.

Then God of War happened, and man did it floor me.

God of War is an action adventure game set in the world of Greek myths. The gods are very much real, minotaurs, cyclopses, and all sorts of other nasties are out there to mess stuff up, and heroes are made and broken on a regular basis. And in this setting we toss a new myth, one of bloody violence and revenge.

I’ll not pretend this game isn’t well known: after it’s release it became a staple in Sony’s coveted first-party franchises, earning loads of awards and spawning a whole host of sequels. So, years later, how well does this game hold up when compared to other third-person action games, including it’s own sequels? Read on.

This game is rated “M,” by the way. In case you missed that.

Kratos is not a happy man. Slave to the gods of Olympus for an unknown reason, the game starts with him throwing himself off a cliff to commit suicide. Flash back three weeks, where he has been tasked by Athena to do one final favor. That favor? Kill a god. Ares, in particular, the titular god of war, who is ransacking Athens and it’s pissing Athena and the other gods offs. Sworn to not intervene (something that is quickly forgotten in the sequels, but we’ll address that when we come to it), they require a mortal to stop Ares’ reign of terror. And thus Kratos, the Ghost of Sparta, is tasked to find Pandora’s Box, the only weapon that can kill a god, and use it to defeat Ares.

Let’s get one thing straight: Kratos is an awful person. People use the word “antihero,” but usually that implies some subtlety. There is very little to like about Kratos as a person, at least on first glance. He is brutal, cruel, and only thinks about himself. When he kills enemies, its in the most painful, bloody way possible. He roars and yells and revels in the slaughter. He’s a grade-a douchebag.

Pictured: Grade-a douchebag

And, weirdly enough, I kind of grew to be sympathetic for the guy. Firstly because he’s competent (and has two swords chained to his wrists that he uses to slice-n-dice anything that gets in his way), and second because you realize throughout the story the awful mistake he’s made. I felt that all his brutality was trying to cover up the one big mistake he made, the one that will be spoiled in later reviews because it becomes pretty much his only character backstory.

Regardless, I liked the Kratos of God of War. I felt bad for him, both because of what he did and because he was trapped in a cycle of violence I felt he couldn’t break free from. One thing I will point out is that this game ends very neatly, with everything tying up. They then completely ruin that because they made a God of War 2, so looking back this ending is really…it doesn’t make sense. I guess they figured they weren’t going to make sequels.

That doesn’t stop this game from being any less epic, though.

Kratos’ quest to recover Pandora’s Box and use it to kill Ares is one wrapped in the trappings of a third-person action game. The game gives you the false illusion of exploration when really it is a very linear experience: the game funnels you through the right places in Pandora’s Castle until you reach the end, with very little room for deviation. However, it does it so well you are tricked in thinking that you are actually exploring of your own free will, so I’ll say it works.

I’ll say this: the pacing is God of War is probably one of the biggest things that makes it so appealing. With the exception of two stages (the Desert of Lost Souls [which is thankfully short] and Hades [which is not]), the game keeps sending you forward, tossing new things at you frequently. Just when you get tired of combat, the game throws a new enemy or weapon at you. Just when you get tired of that, you have a puzzle room. Just when you are bored with puzzles, a new batch of enemies shows up to test your mettle. All this wrapped in some gorgeous setpieces, incredible graphics, and dripping with a Greek Mythos flare. It’s a very complete package.

This is a very good looking PS2 game.

Of course, the main part of an “action-adventure” game is the “action” part, and here God of War delivers in spades. Kratos is armed with two blades which, as previously mentioned, are seared to his arms with chains. This means he has a very long range as he can toss the swords and swing them about, and this makes you feel very empowered when fighting hordes of enemies. Combos are quick, easy to learn, and snappy, but probably the best feature is the ability to break them. During any combo you can roll or block out of it at a moment’s notice, meaning if you are quick you can land hits fast will still dodging. Removing any delay from that was a brilliant move, because I never felt frustrated with the controls. When I got hit, it was my own fault (most of the time), and I’d own up to it.

The simplicity of the combat is also a bit of its downfall: God of War never even gets close to the technical level of difficulty as such contemporaries as Devil May Cry 3. It’s meant to be played fast and loose, which makes for a very accessible and rewarding game, but also one that isn’t particularly challenging. Even on the hardest difficulty the game feels more cheap than skill-based, with the mechanics breaking down a bit as the difficulty ramps up. It’s ideally played on Normal or Hard, with the ultimate difficulty left forgotten.

I should also point out that this is the game that (between it and Resident Evil 4) introduced the concept of “quick-time events” to the gaming industry. I’ve already gone off about them in my Ninja Blade review, but let’s just say that, while they are overused now, at the time they were a unique idea. Using a combo of button presses to do awesome finishers isn’t a bad idea, and it adds flare to some boss fights as well as a risk/reward for doing finishers. I’ve actually never minded it in this series (perhaps because it started it), but it must be noted that this game was the start of that awful trend.

You’ve got red on you.

When you are murdering an extremely wide variety of enemies (and some of these enemies are huge, let me tell you!), you are participating in some basic puzzle solving, exploration, and platforming. Puzzles are hardly brainteasers, with most being just as linear to the solution as the game is in general, but they still feel rewarding and do well to not outstay their welcome. The same can’t be said for the platforming however, especially during a rather radical shift at the end of the game. The platforming is reasonably fine up until the final stage, Hades, where it shifts from a combat-heavy puzzler to a game where you jump on spinning, bladed logs over instant-death pits. Then you have to climb a super tall bladed tower with poor climbing controls and one hit knocking you all the way back down.

This Hades sequence is one of the worst things I’ve ever played, and it isn’t any less frustrating today. After enjoying the platforming, puzzle solving, and exploration, they try to use systems clearly not intended for precision to do some very difficult jumps. It’s punishing, aggravating, and left quite a sour taste in my mouth. The same goes for the final boss, who is a literal war of attrition and doesn’t use any of the combos or abilities you learned throughout the game. Bad form here, guys. Oh, and the desert where you wander about trying to find a specific enemy you can only find based on sound, so I really hope you have a stereo TV. The first time I played this game I didn’t, so you can imagine how well that went.

I guess it’s hell for a reason.

There’s one thing I’d also like to point out before I talk about the visuals and sound: God of War revels in its M rating, probably more so than any other game I can think of. As stated, Kratos is absolutely brutal. He doesn’t just behead stuff, he kicks Medusas to the ground and (as you twist on the analog stick), twists their heads from their shoulders. He rips people in half, tearing off arms and limbs in brutal finishers. He murders innocents for health or to just solve puzzles, all while everything spouts tons of blood everywhere. It’s…gratuitous, to say the very least. Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that much (even if that makes me sound like a psychopath), but it needs to be mentioned.

The same goes for the gratuitous nudity. I don’t mind monster topelessness (it’s Medusas and Sirens, I kind of expected it), but I swear every female character in this game needs to buy a shirt (or get one that isn’t see-through). This game also was the start of the infamous “sex minigame,” a comical and (frankly) stupid series of button presses that is all off camera and mostly just serves to earn you free xp. That became a series staple, and the nudity only became more prevalent in later games. It’s very clear who the audience for this game is, so if you are one easily offended you should look away.

Let’s just say there’s no black bars in the actual game.

Graphically, God of War looks absolutely fantastic, even today. Replaying it I am still amazed at the amount of detail put into every texture, environment, and effects. The lighting is also exceptional, but the highlight has to be the effects and animations. Each brutal dismemberment animates fantastically, and monsters move with tons of tiny little details. It really shines.

That being said, the smaller sprite models do look a little dated, especially when compared with the rest of the series. Kratos’ arms are a little polygonal, as are the smaller enemies. Big enemies, however, look downright fantastic, filling the screen with one or two at a time, lumbering about and just looking straight up great. Again, even today this game looks next-gen.

Sound is also incredible, with fantastic voice work from the entire cast and a decent script to back it up. The music, however, is really something else. Booming orchestral numbers are memorable, powerful, and downright epic. It’s one of the few games that isn’t made by Square-Enix that I got the soundtrack to, and it’s tunes are catchy and pound themselves into your brain.

Quite booming.

So what made God of War such a rousing success? I’d say because it did a lot of the little things right. The game is a graphical wonder, made better by sticking to a theme and embracing its on version of greek myths and monsters. The soundtrack and voice acting are of exceptional quality, really driving home a “Hollywood” experience. The combat is visceral and extremely satisfying while still being accessible enough for anybody to jump in and feel like a badass. While it still has some very glaring flaws (mostly in the level design side), the game’s parts are just so well polished the sum is really something you can’t ignore. It was released the same year as Resident Evil 4, another game that I felt did all the little things right, and both it and that game were fantastic end-games for their console’s lifespans.

It might not be the deepest game in terms of combat or story, and it might be gratuitous and pandering in the violence and sex department, and Kratos might be the worst human being alive, but there’s no denying that God of War is an incredibly satisfying and addicting experience. For all it’s flaws (most of which were refined in the sequels), it is still a must play game to this day.

It was Euripides who said, “Whom the gods would destroy, they must first make mad.” I’d say Kratos has that, and in spades.

Four out of five stars.

This is the first boss. You fight him about two minutes into the game.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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