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So God of War is a pretty good game. It's got a big shiny presentation, a nice balance of flashy combat, puzzles, and a story that doesn't suck. It was actually a pretty good story, considering the medium, and it introduced Kratos, an anti-hero protagonist who was fairly complex and somewhat sympathetic while still being a badass.
It was a really good game. The story, while it wasn't mind-blowing, was decently-told for what it was, and it had a very nicely-defined beginning, middle, and a conclusive ending that put a nice little bow on Kratos's story.
Then they made sequels. Of course they did - the first game was a huge hit that everyone loved. But the problem is... God of War shouldn't have had one. For one thing, God of War's gameplay mechanics weren't very unique. They weren't supposed to be. The design philosophy called for a very streamlined experience that polished existing gameplay ideas (a spectacle combat game a la Devil May Cry) rather than coming up with new ones. And the sequels continued with this by contributing nothing gameplay-wise. Sure, you'd get a different set of spells and some new weapons, but for the most part, the games are all pretty much identical.
But that's not the problem. The problem is the story sucks.
In the first game, you have to stop Ares, because he's stomping all over Athens. But Kratos has a personal stake in it because of his own past and relationship with Ares. Come the start of the second game, and Kratos is doing exactly the same thing Ares was doing in the first game. It's a small detail, but it undermines the first game by showing that at the end of all that he learned absolutely nothing, and the entirety of the second game is him trying to get revenge against people who were only stopping him from murdering people.
That sums up why the sequels stink: they take what was one of the most acclaimed new video game protagonists in years, and turn him into one of the worst characters in the medium. Goodbye, tormented history and arduous struggle for redemption, hello being a whiny crybaby throwing an extended temper tantrum.
To say nothing of the series's shameful treatment of classical mythology or how the entire third game is drawn out and only possible because the protagonist is an idiot.
In short, a decent game followed by pointless, stupid sequels.
I'm not here to talk about how the God of War games play. The style is down to an art form at this point, with many subsequent games/franchises aping the light attack/heavy attack system and the Go W games themselves always flowing smoothly in combat, and the later games look gorgeous. Not much to discuss.
I'm here to talk about the story, and more specifically Kratos.
Kratos is not a good man. He has a tragic past that helps explain why he's so callous and amoral, and to be honest he goes through even more shit throughout the franchise by losing more people he cares about and slowly realizing how bad he's become. However, I don't think this excuses how he disregards the lives and safety of his fellow man at roughly every chance he gets (save for Ascension) and as the games go on, he dooms more and more people to a life of suffering or death just to have revenge on those who have wronged him.
But even though he is by all rights an asshole (and the games don't even try to paint him as a good guy beyond "this is who you're playing as"), this doesn't make me dislike him; rather, I find myself appreciating him more due to the few moments when his humanity shines through.
Every game has at least one - God of War has him repulsed by the slaughter of soldiers in the temple; II has him legitimately regretting killing Athena, even if only for a bit before focusing on attacking Olympus; III has his entire relationship with Pandora; Chains of Olympus has the heartbreaking scene with his daughter in Elysium; Ghost of Sparta has his quest to rescue his brother; and Ascension has, well...every interaction with allies or neutral characters. In fact, Ascension shows him at his most human, when he would still help his fellow man survive even if only in the most minimal of ways.
And that's what prevents me from labeling him as a complete monster. In all the games, there is evidence that Kratos is still a man, even if a sad and broken one, underneath his raging exterior, and the fact that he finally realizes the hell he's wrought on the world at the end of III cements this. He's not uber complex like Dio or Guts, but at the end of the day he's more than your average angsty badass hero.
Oh, and the storyline is astonishingly close to that of an actual Greek myth, in which Kratos would undoubtedly be considered a hero, so there's that too.
I'm going to make this review short and to the point: I cannot stand God of War. I've always seen it as a self-important, needlessly mean-spirited series that desperately tries to be Rated M For Manly. The series fails in this regard, if not every regard. The only thing I can really compliment the series for is its mechanics, and even they are not unique.
The game's writers try to make Kratos seem like a Byronic hero, a bad ass who rages against the system that has taken everything from him. In theory, this could make for an interesting character; I'm reminded of Guts from Berserk, who fits a similar mold but is ultimately far more sympathetic — he's aware of his flaws, but has trouble overcoming them, and he tries to do the right thing despite the brutality it may involve. Kratos, on the other hand, is more like an unintentional parody of this trope: he has no redeeming qualities, he's incredibly selfish, he's childish, he slaughters innocent people, and he manipulates other victims of the gods. This last point is especially troubling, because it shows what a hypocrite Kratos is. I doubt the creators meant to portray our "hero" this way, but it's interesting that Kratos spends the whole series wangsting about how the gods betrayed him and trying to get revenge for the things (he believes) they've done to him, and yet he has no qualms with murdering people who are trying to achieve the same goal, or are simply trying to survive the horrible circumstances they've been given.
Apart from Kratos' Complete Monster status, there's also the rampant sexism prevalent in the series. Yes, I know that women (and men) were heavily sexualized in Greek mythology, and are often portrayed as nude or semi-nude; however, in a series that strays so far from the source material that it might as well change the names of the mythological figures, I won't accept that it's "being true to the source." Female characters rarely wear more than panties (or the Grecian version thereof) or a shift. I would be more accepting of this if the men were just as sexualized (after all, it is Ancient Greece).
In the end, God of War is an ultraviolent foray into an adolescent boy's fantasies, where the hero treats other people like garbage, kills for the hell of it, is an all-around Marty Stu, and doesn't have to answer for his misdeeds.
The ancient Greek myths were very violent and family unfriendly, full of twisted morals and backstabbing with humanity as the collateral damage. While to many, the ancient myths are little more than an academic subject regarding a bygone era, they actually make the perfect backdrop for a Rated M For Manly video game series.
Kratos is angry. Kratos wants to kill the god of war. In so doing, he's going to kill the many things trying to kill him. And anyone who gets in his way.
Kratos is, quite simply, the most unlikeable character I've ever seen. He randomly kills villagers who happen to be in his way, which is encouraged by the game, such as when he's climbing along a wall and the only way to get past a scared villager who's clinging on for dear life is to throw him to his death. And he's nasty in the plot, too. When he kills a hydra and goes inside its mouth, he finds a sea captain hanging onto the hydra's throat to avoid slipping down into its stomach. As the captain thanks Kratos for rescuing him, Kratos's response is, "I didn't come back for YOU!" as he takes something the captain was carrying on-hand, leaving him to fall back down into the hydra's stomach.
This, of course, makes him Bad Ass, does it not? As do the dark colors, the Real Is Brown visuals, and the self-important orchestrated music.
While I have to say that I hate the style of this series and hate Kratos himself, this probably is how the ancient Greeks and Romans saw their heroes - as tough, mean, clever men who did whatever they had to in order to get ahead. Their heroes and gods had many glaring character flaws, and heck, the gods fought amongst each other for supremacy all the time. Which is precisely what Kratos does once he becomes the god of war himself. The God Of War series' story might actually appeal to the ancient Greeks and Romans if they were transported to the present day and given a chance to experience it.
So despite my personal dislike for the Rated M For Manly style of the series, I will give credit where credit is definitely due: This is the video game equivalent of the stories that ancient people themselves told and enjoyed. And for that, I have to say that it's very well-done.
But it just ain't my thing.
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