God of War has always held a special place in my library of games. The large scale boss battles, the lush environments, and the fluid combat made this series one of my favorites growing up. The newest entry in the series titled simply “God of War” is sure to change things up significantly when it releases this Friday. This isn’t the first action game to ditch the tried and true formula of previous hack and slash games and I think there is good reason for that.
The original God of War was a big release in 2005 and gained a strong following. The game was received really well, becoming one of Sony’s most popular franchises. Mixing together bloody over-the-top violence with Greek Mythology.
The first game focuses on Kratos and his quest to defeat Ares. Kratos was once a Spartan warrior and in a moment of desperation, he called upon Ares for power. In a blind rage, overcome by the power Ares had given him, Kratos killed his own wife and daughter. Thus begins a bloody quest for revenge against the god.
Kratos was a stark contrast to other videogame heroes at the time. He was an antihero, killing and taking with ruthless abandon in order to achieve his goals. He was rage and anger incarnate going after monsters and gods, and people really loved him.
Obviously, a sequel happened. God of War 2 released in 2007 as a follow-up smash hit. Considered one of the greatest PlayStation 2 games and when it released. IGN‘s reviewer Chris Roper states,
“God of War II may in fact be the best action game ever made. It outdoes the original God of War in every way, even if only by a tiny bit as the first was so good to begin with.”
God of War 2 continued Kratos’ story after becoming the new god of war. But his rage worries the rest of the Greek gods. To the point that Zeus conspires to kill Kratos, leading our protagonist to seek the power needed to kill the king of the gods.
God of War 2 is widely considered as the PlayStation 2’s swan song, releasing toward the end of the console’s lifecycle. The mechanics were refined, the puzzles were more advanced, and the combat was more fluid. But Kratos remained the same character he was before, a one-note character that was beginning to turn sour.
It is sad because the games constantly tease times where Kratos was a family man. Someone we could relate to once upon a time. There are even several crucial moments where redemption could have happened, but Kratos continued to give in to his anger and hatred. It got to where I disliked him more as the games went on.
And sadly, the next installment in the series continued this trend.
God of War 3 released in 2010 and at this point we started to see action games progress and move beyond the simple hack and slash mechanics and shallow story telling that was common place. Kratos was created and designed to be an angry and violent protagonist with a redemption story. But as the games stretched out, that redemption became less appealing.
It was still the best version of what it wanted to be. The boss battles were bigger than ever before, the characters around Kratos were far more interesting, and the combat system felt superb. God of War 3’s art direction for the the Greek gods and goddesses were spectacular.
God of War 3’s visuals weren’t the only thing that improved. The scale had, in more ways than one, rose to godlike proportions. With the game’s opening moments showing Kratos marching an army towards Mount Olympus, aiming to destroy the entire Greek pantheon. It was the angriest Kratos we had seen yet. Still angry at the gods for what was done to him and his family.
The game again improved upon the foundation of the previous games, but it was starting to feel dated. The first entry on the PlayStation 3 didn’t feel too far off from the last entry on the PlayStation 2 which wasn’t a great sign. Also, Kratos had finally become a relic of a past age of gaming, transitioning from angry antihero to psychotic bringer of doom, his final acts of murder causing the end of the world.
God of War was clearly struggling to make significant changes to the formula. Changes needed to happen.
Falling Short of Ascension
God of War: Ascension released in 2013 toward the end of the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle. Sony Santa Monica may have been hoping to catch the attention of players similar to the way they did with God of War 2 toward the end of the PlayStation 2’s run. It was built as a prequel to the original game with Kratos facing The Furies, complete with flashbacks to the life he once had before his deal with Ares.
This was more of the same. Players didn’t respond as well to Ascension as they did with the other games, either by being burnt out on the series or by writing Kratos off as wholly unredeemable. The sales reflected this lack of interest in Ascension with the game only reaching half of God of War 3’s first month sales according to gamesindustry.biz.
God of War now faced a dilemma that many franchises face through time. Where does a studio go with a series that has lost its edge? How can God of War evolve? What can the next entry in the series do to regain interest?
The developers have already explored all story avenues with Kratos. All the gods were dead by the end of God of War 3. God of War: Ascension proved no one cared about an origin story. The developers needed to find a way to really flesh out Kratos’ character.
It was time to go back to the drawing board.
The Modern Influence
In 2018 the landscape changed. Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, GTA V, Nier: Automata, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus are examples of games that have breathed new life into classic genres. Whether it be The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild going completely open world, or a modern philosophical twist on hack and slashers in Nier: Automata, developers are starting to push the limits of the tools at their disposal.
A direction the developers were willing to take this series with a soft reboot of God of War. A Kratos we have never seen before, older, wiser, and with a child. A greater focus on character drama and narrative. And a complete re-evaluation of the very staples of the franchise. Previews had been positive, and early reviews even more so.
Sony Santa Monica took a completely new approach with this game. It’s based on Norse mythology this time around. The game has added RPG mechanics with skill trees, a deep progression system, characters you’re meant to care about, and it encourages wide exploration.
Norse mythology is an interesting way to go with the new God of War. It adds a plethora of new storytelling opportunities, and it creates a blank template to work with. An older and more mature Kratos with his son provides an opportunity for character depth not seen before in the franchise. The combat looks fresh and new. Kratos now has a companion that seems to add extra combat elements to the game. Not to mention that our protagonist’s iconic weapons, the Blades of Chaos, are a thing of the past. Kratos is now beating down enemies with an axe.
Creating Something Special
Early word seems to suggest that this was what the franchise desperately needed. According to multiple sources, each combat encounter feels original. From what I can tell from reviews and the footage shown is that each enemy encounter requires a different approach. Button mashing won’t get you to the end of the game this time around. In an interview with PlayStation Lifestyle, Cory Barlog, Creative Director of God of War stated,
“I think from the beginning when we had talked about how combat needs to feel in this game, [how it] needed to feel like a varied experience. If we’re going to be engaged for a long period of time, you couldn’t feel like you’re having the same fight in the beginning of the game as you are at the end.”
This is a big change from the previous God of War games. The combat at the end may feel progressively more challenging, but it could not feel like it was just going through the motions.
In another interview, this time with the PlayStation Blog, Cory Barlog addresses what everyone has been wondering since the reveal of this game. Why is God of War so different this time around? In regards to changes made in this game he says,
“We wanted, as developers, to flex our imaginations, our brains a little bit more. We wanted to expand this world, we wanted to see what would happen by changing little things, and how they would cascade into larger changes.”
This seems to back up changing with the times. A need to create something new. Just like players were feeling tired of the same formula time and time again, the developers felt fatigue over creating a similar game over and over.
There seems to be a passion that the writers and devs have for this world and these characters. They wanted to create something special.The new God of War doesn’t just take from other action games but creates something new. The evolution of the God of War series is a perfect compilation to show people how far games have come over the generations.
The modern console generation has presented developers with tools to do things they’ve always wanted to do but never had the means to do so. Game development no longer feels limited. People are playing and buying games differently than they ever have before. Story-based cinematic experiences are being perfected, and action games are incorporating deeper elements. Games are changing and Sony Santa Monica decided that God of War needed to change as well. A decision that has given a seemingly dead franchise a new life.