Review: God of War (** stars)

God of War 1 Logo Cover

Many, many things irritate me about God of War (As I noted without even playing it!). I was, however, willing to give the game a chance by actually playing and completing it. Whether via time or distance or nostalgia, the original game in the series holds little love from me in the year 2013.

I cannot fault Sony’s Santa Monica Studio for their ambition, however! Translating Greek mythology into an exciting video game experience isn’t difficult, but they knocked this one out of the park presentation-wise. The story of Kratos, to which the game gives us nary a clue or motivating reason, throws us in media res within the world of the Greek gods. Kratos defends and kills monsters, yet we know not why. The slow reveal of Kratos’ origins, both of his white skin, his Blades of Chaos, and his extreme power all make contextual sense and certainly drive one to understand the story. Simple though it may look, it truly fits within the storied tradition of mythological tales – although I must admit, this one ends with bleak humanistic overtones.

For a game from 2005, God of War’s endless bloody spectacle certainly impressed nearly every game reviewer on the planet with its unbelievably set-pieces and its violent (for the time) content. And the nudity, gratuitous and unnecessary as you would imagine (I hear it gets worse! Fun!). At the very least, the whole game reeks of fabulous intricate design and excellent pacing. Each area remains significant to the plot, and also requires the player to solve puzzles (both mentally and in terms of jumping). Combat comes at predictable times, as the camera angle usually indicates an arena-style battle, but God of War never fails to hold your interest.

You’ll do a LOT of combat, like any similar game in this genre; think Bayonetta, Devil May Cry, or Ninja Gaiden. God of War’s combat remains just as spectacular as the rest of its presentation, with brutal finishing moves accompanied by quicktime events to every flick of Kratos’ Blades of Chaos. Each and every hit pause the action just a smidgen to bring home the impact of your blows, and fierce moves even vibrate the controller with the earth-shattering destruction happening onscreen. Ripping a Gorgon’s head continues to satisfy, and downing a giant with agile movements works wonders in putting you in that cinematic action mood. All said, it feels great! And game combat should feel great, as well as look great.

It reminds me of the beat’em ups of old, with limited options and careful play making the most of your time. Kratos’ style means keeping enemies at range proves the best tactic in most cases. Like Final Fight and similar side-scrolling genre fare, you want to knock down as many enemies as possible, whether for juggling or just for breathing room. Ranged enemies, as you might expect, prove the biggest problem, so most encounters come down to assessing threats and attacking accordingly while avoiding damage. Hey, I think I just reduced the genre down to its essentials!

With all of that said, though, the trappings surrounding God of War do not remedy its primary fault: the combat. I played through Hard Mode, so this only applies to this difficulty, but I imagine the one above that (shudder) retains the same issues. The focus on a more cinematic experience bogs the game down tremendously. Camera angles tend to give you less of a full view and more of a “pretty” view of what’s happening. The camera, completely controlled by the game itself, zooms in and out at will to provide a wonderful look at God of War’s vistas at the expense of your ability to play correctly! Since the fixed camera crops up so often, you’ll note that playing further in the foreground of any area will inevitably lead to taking some hits. Honestly, you can’t see enemy attacks because it’s aimed towards you, and you only see their back. As most enemies attack quickly and brutally, the game’s cinema aspirations work against you in this regard.

Your defensive mechanics also fail to work properly when you need them to succeed. Kratos dodges with a flick of the right analog stick, and this responds quite well under pressure. Finding out the invincibility frames for this move left me frustrated. I would dodge at the seemingly proper time, only to receive a flurry of attacks one after the other. I could never quite get the timing, if there is one; if anything, God of War wants you to move far away to dodge, not near! This functions well with the Blade of Chaos, which naturally work as a melee and ranged weapon all at the same time. Still, why bother with the dodge at all, then? Kratos can block with his blades and parry with good timing, but I never found the parry worth the risk; many times, multiple enemies would attack at the same time, and I do not think you can parry multiple attacks in a row. I certainly couldn’t after several tries, and parries turn into worthless mechanics at around the midpoint. Too many enemies attack simultaneously; half the time, you’ll just want to block, as dodge will get you killed. It’s probably worth noting that getting hit by anything doesn’t give you invincibility frames at all; you’ll take the brunt of any and all attacks for at least a second or two. This does explain the health boxes strewn everywhere.

While Kratos receives multiple abilities to devastate his foes, the game never encourages you to use a variety of combos or moves. Several combos look utterly amazing, yet their recovery frames means pulling out such attacks will only get you killed. The basic Square, Square, Triangle sequence will get you through the whole game, since the last hit always juggles (trust me, you want this). This disappoints me; I want an incentive to use a variety of attacks, but God of War’s combos exist for show. The Athena Blade, the one other weapon which you gain later, may as well not exist for how useful it is – although it does look awesome when it decapitates things! Kratos’ magical abilities, rather than lacking usefulness, just feel boring. Two of them perform a similar screen clearing function, another gives you a ranged attack to deal with arrow-slinging enemies (THEY ARE THE WORST), and turn enemies to stone (barely used by me). You’ll find spamming magic will power your way through any difficult encounter; the frequent magic boxes seem to confirm this concession to the casual player.

As said previously, God of War’s reputation for quick-time events isn’t without merit. There’s far less than I would expect, but they also become problematic. One enemy will become stunned, and a giant Circle will appear over his head to initiate some context sensitive move which looks awesome. Yes, pressing buttons or rotating the analog stick according to onscreen prompts sounds boring, but it remains exciting in context. Now, using these “kills” strategically, on the other hand, frustrated me to no end. OF COURSE I want to take that enemy out, but the collision detection on the grab works half the time at best. Sometimes, I’d grab a totally different enemy, get stunned (since they’ll repulse you), and eat damage. Developers, quit with the lack of a lock-on! For God’s sake, even Dark Souls has one. The game, apparently, doesn’t know better than to pick the quick-time enabled enemy. This problem also cropped up in DmC: Devil May Cry, but here it’s just egregious. There’s no incentive to do it when you know your mistake will lead to possible death.

Same goes for the bosses. Appropriately epic, they nonetheless frustrate continually due to their massive health pools and the damage they dish out for tiny mistakes. The bigger problem, in all this, is that the game does not foster consistency at all in being good at the combat system. Die on a segment, and it will teleport you back right before that segment. Like Super Meat Boy, you can repeat something over and over again until the Fates deign to grant you the victory. Most times, I just found myself in a state of incredible luck and won. But the victory didn’t feel satisfying at all; my skill wasn’t involved, only my vague participation.

By the final battles with Ares (not much of a spoiler), I had enough of this foolishness. I don’t enjoy combat as a war of attrition, but as an actual implementation of skill, but Ares’ huge health pool and far-too-damaging attacks really stretch this to the breaking point. I beat it, certainly, but it wasn’t a joyful experience at all.

That’s a shame, as there’s so much good in here. Unfortunately, higher difficulties reveal the shallowness of the design as any but a “one and done” affair. I have a feeling that I will not return to God of War in the same that similar games demonstrate incentives for you to play and improve. What a shame, really. All the wonderful graphics, story, and music in the world can’t mask that God of War co-opts the genre to present that same modern games industry “experience” rather than crafting a truly classic combat system. With all the spectacle of a false prophet, its beautiful aesthetics and appearance hide a ravenous wolf looking to deceive and devour.

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Matthew 7

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Q-veta the Handsome

    This review is pretty bad. Leaving aside your 3 part essay, let’s discuss your criticism of the actual game here:

    The camera: this is one of the few games where you’re almost never attacked off camera and you always see the action clearly. The only exception is when a big enemy blocks your view but you can move and the issue is resolved. The only game in the series where the EPIC CAMERA ANGLES are actually an issue is Ascension because the camera is pulled so far back at times you can’t see anything.

    The roll: “I could never quite get the timing, if there is one;” There is one, you couldn’t get it.

    The parry: “I never found the parry worth the risk; many times, multiple enemies would attack at the same time” If anything the parry is a little overpowered. You can parry and immediately unleash an AoE attack that will knock down smaller enemies if memory serves right. If if you don’t you can still parry all the attacks and only attack after the last one. My memory is a little fuzzy on this one I admit. “I do not think you can parry multiple attacks in a row” Maybe not but I’m fairly sure you’re invulnerable for a brief period with the parry or the counterattack.

    “I certainly couldn’t after several tries, and parries turn into worthless mechanics at around the midpoint. Too many enemies attack simultaneously; half the time, you’ll just want to block, as dodge will get you killed.” This is a problem with you, not the game. Parries are useful throughout the entire game, the combat flows much better if you’re almost always on the offensive and parries let you do that. Just like the roll, it looks like you didn’t get the timing of things down.

    “While Kratos receives multiple abilities to devastate his foes, the game never encourages you to use a variety of combos or moves. ” This right here is the problem with people talking about God of War. There’s no benefit in-game for using different combos in NGB or DMC. You can just use the standard combos in both games and dodge once in a while or do an izuna drop if you’re feeling fancy. But you still use most if not all the moves at your disposal. Not so in God of War with people (which is actually pretty cool once you start using all the moves, admittedly the combat isn’t quite as good as in DMC/NGB).

    “Several combos look utterly amazing, yet their recovery frames means pulling out such attacks will only get you killed.” The only attack where this is true is that attack where you charge up your blades then unleash a blast and even that has its uses.

    “The basic Square, Square, Triangle sequence will get you through the whole game, since the last hit always juggles (trust me, you want this).” Since you namedropped Ninja Gaiden in here I assume you only played with Izuna Drops and Ultimate Techniques because the other attacks leave you open too much. Oh you didn’t? Yeah you can beat the game with square square triangle, you can beat Bayonetta by mashing punch, you can beat Ninja Gaiden by abusing all those moves I’ve mentioned which work on everything but the bosses, you can just shoot everyone with the grenade gun in DMC etc. I suppose the fault of GoW here is that square square triangle being overpowered occurs to players sooner. That doesn’t mean you only should use that.

    “I want an incentive to use a variety of attacks, but God of War’s combos exist for show.” So do the ones in NGB unless you think all those combos on the dragon sword are functionally different.

    “Now, using these “kills” strategically, on the other hand, frustrated me to no end. OF COURSE I want to take that enemy out, but the collision detection on the grab works half the time at best. Sometimes, I’d grab a totally different enemy, get stunned (since they’ll repulse you), and eat damage.”

    I admit this happened to me, trying to grab the wrong guy but when there’s a group of enemies you have to be very precise about who you grab.

    “Developers, quit with the lack of a lock-on! For God’s sake, even Dark Souls has one.” The main weapon in this game does AoE damage with almost every combo, why would you need lock-on here?

    “Same goes for the bosses. Appropriately epic, they nonetheless frustrate continually due to their massive health pools and the damage they dish out for tiny mistakes.”
    The bosses give you back green and blue orbs, they’re not really frustrating. There’s also very few of them. This sounds like you’re bad at the game and trying to justify it. If you think I’m being unreasonable check the LTC threads for DMC and Dark Souls and look at Cynical’s post. You don’t sound as bad but the sentiment is the same.

    “By the final battles with Ares (not much of a spoiler), I had enough of this foolishness. I don’t enjoy combat as a war of attrition, but as an actual implementation of skill, but Ares’ huge health pool and far-too-damaging attacks really stretch this to the breaking point. I beat it, certainly, but it wasn’t a joyful experience at all.”

    This is the hardest part in the whole series. The first part of the fight can be finished in about 10 seconds so it’s not much of an issue. Part two requires a lot of awareness and carefully managing your health and mana pools. Part three I didn’t like as much since your weapons get taken away but all you have to do is observe patterns and not rush in and you can beat him without even getting hit.

    I mean there’s problems with the game: the combat is not as good as DMC/NGB/Bayonetta, too few bosses which are too easy, too few enemy types for the game’s length so a lot of the fights will feel the same, the spells, the secondary weapon not being nearly as fun so I imagine most people (me included) ignore it. These problems have been rectified in the sequels.

    • Zachery Oliver

      This is a review of my personal thoughts on the matter. Of course, you’re free to disagree with the objectivity of some statements I make, so let’s go through some of this. I’ll state in advance that I played the PS3 port that came as part of the God of War Collection.

      Yes, the camera doesn’t pull back all the time. Hyperbole and exaggeration are wonderful writing tools, yes? But it is true that this happens more often than I would like. I did get attacked off-camera (now, whether you mean just barely on screen or not on screen at all is a further distinction), and it was a real thing on my playthrough, so take that as you will. Not necessarily unavoidable, of course, but the audio cues certainly aren’t as clear as Bayonetta.

      Next, what exactly are the invulnerability frames on the roll? They must be really short. I honestly wish someone had the specific frame data for this so that I could tell. As far as I can tell, on the moment that the invincibility frames expire, you need to be completely OUT of the attack’s hitbox, and that’s probably why I suffered throughout the game. I started to understand this, but the game already ended by that point unfortunately. Just a little more leeway would do wonders for the combat’s flow. Magic worked out well for that purpose regardless 🙂 I would also like to know if the jump gets any invinicibility like it does in DMC; that might alleviate some of the problems.

      Same goes with the parry. It works great in areas with 2-3 large enemies, but throw 6-8 tiny ones at me and it’s a crapshoot. If another enemy is already winding up their attack animation and you parry, you’ll get hit. At that instance you’d need to dodge away, and most enemies track their blows so good luck with that timing. The parry counterattack with either square (the sweeping one) or triangle (the spinning), at least in my experience, often only hit enemies directly in front of Kratos rather than the side. It didn’t work like an AoE at all. I’m pretty sure GoW doesn’t provide you with an invincible frame when attempting the parry either or cancel the incoming attack for a successful parry (unlike NG, for example), so if you happen to miss the first parry and all subsequent ones(further research on my part has shown this is possible), you take all the hits. Not exactly worth the risk in those situations just for an AoE clear; I’d rather use the perfunctory roll or magic.

      Now, it is true that games in this genre do not provide a direct benefit to trying out a variety of weapons (i.e, you’re supposed to figure out your own strategies). I find the problem exacerbated in GoW due to how useful the default combo really is, most times (the default air combo also helps). Same goes for NG’s Izuna drop combo, and especially Flying Swallow in the original Xbox release. DMC provides a scoring incentive for later playthroughs, although that doesn’t directly contribute either if you’re in for a “one and done” scenario. At least the Style system forces you to use different moves for higher scores (although it isn’t perfect, it got better as they progressed from the original game to DMC4). Same goes for Bayonetta

      Still, given that point, players will always look for optimal strategies in a game; more often than not, GoW doesn’t bother to make alternative attack strings attractive. Probably this is just an issue with the genre in general, although I see it as much less of a problem in similar games. This is just my aesthetic sense talking and sense of personal preference (again, this review must partly constitute my opinion!)

      As for recovery frames, I should be clear by saying “ability to immediately cancel out of an attack/combo”. This is not possible until the animation sequence “ends”, as decided by the game system, and then it will perform the command as if it were buffered, like a fighting game. So you commit to an attack, much like in the more recent DmC reboot. This is mostly a preference thing as well, admittedly.

      I want a lock-on or priority system specifically in this situation: when you have one enemy you can execute, and several other enemies surround that enemy. Instead of choosing the obvious one, it grabs some random enemy due to proximity or some other reason. I’m sure I could fix this via getting closer, but it’s still annoying that this happens.

      For Ares, I did finish the fight in about one minute once I had gotten it down, but the other ten tries surely didn’t tell me what I did wrong or right. Things just happened to work out. I was much more frustrated with the “protect Kratos’ family” sequence; that really drove me up the wall with its unpredictability and randomness.