The beginning of a misunderstood saga
July 17, 2022
God of War: Ragnarök is on the horizon, which continues the drastic overhaul the series underwent in its predecessor. However, the franchise produced an acclaimed trilogy several console generations ago. Since the release of God of War 2018, the original trilogy received backlash for its toxic main character and unpleasant story. This is disagreeable as it always dealt with heavy themes and dilemmas beneath the buckets of blood. Even several developers who worked on the 2018 requel recalled fond memories of the early games. So, I’m going to argue why it still holds up against these accusations. This trilogy dissection will delve into spoiler territory if anyone wishes to play the games themselves.
Created by David Jaffe, whose contributions include Mickey Mania and Twisted Metal, the series started as a PlayStation 2 exclusive. Going under the name Dark Odyssey during development, the bloody combat and grand story took center stage thanks in part to Devil May Cry, Ico, The Legend of Zelda, and Prince of Persia. Sony gave Jaffe a large budget and creative control to make the game he wanted to play. Following the positive reception at E3, the game sold one million copies in a year and eventually four million by 2012. So, what kind of game did Jaffe create?
Kratos, a high-ranking captain in the spartan army, battles the eastern barbarians only to face a near death experience. As a last-ditch effort, he pledges his soul to Ares, the God of War, in exchange for defeating his enemy. Branded with the blades of chaos, Kratos leads a crusade in the name of his new master, only to be tricked into killing his wife and daughter. Haunted by his actions, Kratos vows to kill Ares by locating Pandora’s box, which contains the power to kill a god.
The story is simple yet complex in conveying Kratos’s elongated suffering at the hands of his master. Many claim the story has no depth and the main lead is a mindless killing machine. That is not true. Granted, he is an angry individual, but considering that he’s dealt with regret over his deceased wife and daughter for over a decade shows the profound effect this would have on anyone. In fact, he attempts suicide in the beginning to rid himself of the memories. It shows his feelings buried beneath his skin and how much his conscience is burdened by the tragedy.
It’s not like the gods are moral characters either. Near the end of the game, Ares attacks Athens in petty spite towards his sister, Athena and his father, Zeus. He’s even willing to use Pandora’s box against Olympus. If anything, Kratos is justified in his mission after Ares tricked him into killing his family. This is more evident when the gods refuse to rid Kratos of his memories at the end, instead dooming him to a fate worse than death by crowning him the new God of War. And in doing so, they seal their fate in the sequels.
Another factor to keep in mind is that this series originated in a time when story didn’t take center stage over gameplay. By that logic, many of the greatest games in the past forty years would be considered obsolete because they don’t contain Oscar worthy narratives. In fact, this pioneered cinematic gaming before Naughty Dog popularized it with Uncharted and The Last of Us. Before then, people cared about gameplay instead of plot. The story seems unnecessarily cruel at first, but there is much more to it when delving deeper into the Spartan’s past.
Playing the collection edition on PlayStation 3, the graphics still hold up to this day. This utilizes Greek Mythology to its advantage compared to the 2018 game that reuses one species multiple times. The camera emphasizes giant settings to make one feel like an ant. From the outskirts of Athens to the pits of Tartarus, each location is unique in the journey towards Ares. Additionally, the bosses and enemies are varied and detailed since the developers pushed the PlayStation 2 to its limits. Some graphics like the low polygon models stand out in retrospect, while others like the water effects and the floor reflections were ahead of their time. Plus, the lack of loading screens at 60 frames per second speaks volumes on the power of CDs compared to cartridges.
Gerard Marino’s score also adds to the grand scale as enemies surround you like a swarm of bees and attack from all angles. Tracks like “Vengeful Spartan” are now synonymous with power trips in gaming:
Meanwhile, Terrence C. Carson conveys both ferocity and empathy as Kratos. One minute, he yells at the top of his lungs against a foe who challenges his dominance. The next minute, he whispers to himself on his life decisions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Christopher Judge took a lot of inspiration from him going forward with the series.
Older games like these tend to lose the battle against time when striving for realism, but this holds up incredibly well after two console generations.
Falling into the beat-em-up category, Kratos relies on the blades of chaos to slice and dice his foes. He’s also given powerups from the gods like Poseidon’s rage, Zeus’ fury, Medusa’s head, and Hades’ army. All of them rely on magic which Kratos accumulates from chests. Rage of the gods, accumulated during combat, increases your attack power. Red orbs are used to upgrade these powerups, gorgon eyes increase your health, and phoenix feathers increase your magic. Returning to this after playing the sequels shows its age as some powerups take too long to either charge up or execute.
There are complaints that the gameplay embodies the toxic masculinity associated with gaming. This accusation is based on out of context observations rather than an in-depth analysis of the entire package. Is it because of the amount of violence leveled against the player? The gaming landscape may have changed over the past decade, but plenty of franchises that came out before and after God of War give players the skills of a one-person army: Wolfenstein, Resistance, Batman, Uncharted, Rampage, Duke Nukem, Infamous, Dead Rising, Just Cause, Star Wars, Halo, and Bayonetta. By that same logic, the recently rebooted Doom series would fall under this same criticism, and yet both installments are critically and commercially loved to the point of receiving game of the year nominations. If anything, the Greek mythology sets God of War apart from the competition.
Despite being labeled as a beat-em-up, this is also a quasi-platformer and quasi-puzzle game. The platforming gets creative every now and then while the puzzles contain that element requiring logical thinking. They also serve as quiet breaks between the bombastic action. That’s not to say it doesn’t have problems.
Later down the line, platforming gets harder with the abundance of plank balancing, even with checkpoints reducing the frustration. These sections slow the pacing to a crawl when going back to the first game in the series. There are also quick time events that have declined in popularity over the years. To its credit, they’re only implemented as finishers to both enemies and bosses. However, the input is noticeably broken as the game will read the wrong button or analog response. This gets annoying when trying to finish off enemies. Other than that, wielding the blades of chaos is immensely satisfying and even the post-game content contains one of the best easter eggs in gaming to this day.
2005’s God of War is a fantastic start to the series. The story is simple yet complex with the revenge quest, the remastered presentation showcases the best of the PlayStation 2, and the gameplay is incredibly empowering to the average player. And yes, there’s more to the main character than meets the eye. However, being the first game in the series when sequels improve on the experience, it suffers from a slow pace, broken button input, and tedious platforming sections. If you haven’t experienced the full backstory of the Greek chapter in this franchise, there’s still time to buy it digitally on the PlayStation 3 or through a PlayStation Now subscription. If you can’t stand the gorier content, let alone the sex mini-game at the beginning, this isn’t for you. But this is only the start of a Greek tragedy in the making.
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