Before playing last year’s God of War, I felt the need to play through 2010’s God of War III, with it being the only game in the initial trilogy that I didn’t play. Although I’ve heard that it’s fine to jump right into the reboot without playing the originals, it goes against my religion to skip an entry. Imagine jumping straight from Terminator 1 to Terminator 3 – you’d probably be fine story-wise, but it’s uncomfortable. It’s blasphemy. And you’d miss heart wrenching the thumb-descending-into-lava scene.
So I bought the 2015 remastered version for the PS4, and immediately remembered what fun it is. The story begins immediately where God of War II left off; Kratos is riding on the back of the titan Gia, as she climbs Mt Olympus in a bid to slaughter Zeus and his divine cronies. Spoiler Alert; it goes awry, Kratos has a falling out with Gaia. He furiously severs her arm, sending her plummeting from the deity’s mountain.
This is why the series is so much fun; you get to be a complete arsehole. Or rather, you have to be one. In a series like Elder Scrolls you have the choice; be good or be evil. You can save the poor peasant who’s receiving an unjust beating from the city guard, or you can slaughter them both and get that little bit more money. Well, being the sucker that I am, I always pick the moral side. I have to; even in a video game, I feel guilty for weeks if there’s a chance I slightly offended a complete stranger.
But in God of War III, you’re burning a defenceless prisoner to death in the first five minutes simply because they’re an inconvenience. It was like this in the previous two games, but I’d forgotten how fun it was to be an utter, utter bastard. Guilt-free too, because as I said, there’s no choice. I found myself saying “I’m sorry for having sex with your wife before brutally murdering you, Hephaestus – I had absolutely choice!” And I was saying it quite joyfully, because I was having so much fun.
Obviously slaughtering of innocents, and other evil-doings, isn’t what makes the game so addictive and compelling. Okay, the stylish gratuitousness helps; find me someone who doesn’t see the appeal in wading through Greek mythology with an assortment of blades. But it’s a clever hack’n’slash that uses its psychopathic protagonist to its advantage in the gameplay. For example, Kratos can use harpies – the half-human-half-bird from Greek myth – to get from one platform to another when it’s too far to jump. He does this by pulling them towards him with his double-chained blades, and stabbing them until he arrives at his destination, or until the harpy dies. These harpies aren’t antagonistic like other enemies, they’re merely perched on a stone or curiously flying around. They’re innocent.
All this gore and violence intertwined with the gameplay is pretty tongue-in-cheek; you can’t take it too seriously, and you’re not supposed to. The last thing you do is beat Zeus to death with your bare hands – hammering circle as the screen gets splattered with blood. Eventually the screen is a just a square of red as we continue to hear the noise of knuckles slamming against face. It’s ridiculous, and it’s hilarious, and, after a long and arduous day of small talk in the office, it’s bloody satisfying to unashamedly murder a few gods for no good reason.
Starting up last year’s God of War immediately after finishing GOW III was a strange moment. The ridiculous spectacle of smashing up Zeus was still fresh in my memory, so the contrast was clear-cut – this is a calmer, more intricate experience. They’re going for a human story, and doing away with the two-dimensional angry Kratos. He’s living in Scandinavia with his son, Atreus. As the story opens the two of them are mourning Atreus’ mother – they solemnly cremate her in the first five minutes. In the next scene Atreus scares a dear away on a hunting trip. Kratos almost loses his temper, but he checks himself, and calmly gives hunting advice. I’ll reiterate that – he almost loses his temper, but stops himself and decides to do something nice. This is the dude who instinctively torched the inconveniently placed prisoner in the last game. Now he is sober, grave; his anger has apparently given way to depression.
It isn’t unheard of to reinvent characters; Lara Croft made the transition from pixelated sex symbol to fully realised human being in 2013. In the case of Kratos, however, have we lost something essential here? As Yahtzee Croshaw said: “The original God of War’s unique selling point was its sheer ridiculous audacity and violence” Isn’t that the series’ trademark – taking control of a bloodthirsty sociopath? Judging from what I’ve played of the latest release, and from its critical reception, the answer to both questions is no. The series has taken a new turn – it’s matured, and to fit this mould the protagonist has become more well-rounded. Akin to when a band changes its sound; something is lost, and something is gained. And to carry on with the musical metaphor, we can always go back to listen to the old albums – the joys of being young Kratos will always be there to indulge in when we’re feeling a little stressed.