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.