Kratos was a Spartan captain, leading his army to victory after victory. He is brutal and brilliant, but his army is overmatched when they encounter a mass of barbarians. In a desperate plea to save his life and his reputation, Kratos offers his life to Ares, the God of War. Ares accepts the deal, defeating Kratos' enemies, and empowering the Spartan to further and further conquests. Kratos' bloodlust grows, and Ares manipulates him to be his perfect warrior, Ares' avatar on Earth. This culminates in Kratos killing his wife and daughter in a blind rage. That act causes Kratos to become the Ghost of Sparta, a warrior coated in the white ashes of his wife and daughter, a visible reminder to himself and all who encounter him of what this man has done. He breaks with Ares, instead serving other Olympian gods, especially Athena, as a sort of roving hero for hire. This service lasts 10 years before the first game begins. This is all backstory, told mainly in the first game, with additional detail provided as the series continues.
In short, the series' developers and writers created a new Greek myth. Kratos' story borrows from and embroiders many strains of existing Greek myth, but creates a new one, that feels both ancient and modern. Like Achilles, Kratos is powered by rage and is a peerless warrior. Like Heracles, he takes on labors and murders his family in a fit of madness (and he ends up being revealed as a demigod and elevated to Olympus). Like Odysseus, he is crafty and deals with a lot of sea creatures. However, Kratos is no hero. He is our protagonist, to be sure, and I am sure many players find his badassery sufficient, but he is tormented by guilt over the wrongs he has committed. He is a hero born of Greek myth--the Age of Heroes is his rough timeframe--but he is inflected with a modern psychology, seeking forgiveness as much as he does vengeance.
Sony has made 6 games (7 if you count the mobile game that no-one does) featuring Kratos to date (GoW IV is projected for 2018 and seems to be a reboot). They are hack and slash games, where Kratos rampages through Ancient Greek myth and history, killing damn near everyone he meets. There are also fun (and challenging) platforming segments, and a smattering of interesting (and challenging) puzzles, both of which are honestly more my speed than the killing. That said, the killing is really what drives the game, the story, and the character forward. The God of War series is at its best when it unifies gameplay, story, and character, which, fortunately, it does often.
Over the past few weeks I replayed them all. Below, I rank them, from least to most successful. You will notice that I rank them only as games, not as releases that include other content like arena games, multiplayer, etc. Honestly, I never get into those things--I need a narrative to keep me playing--so I just omitted them.
God of War: Chains of Olympus (originally PSP, rereleased for PS3)
The Story: Set during Kratos' 10 years serving the gods, Kratos is called upon to rescue Helios, the God of the Sun, who has been abducted from his chariot. This is allowing Morpheus, God of Dreams, to spread unchecked over both the Earth and Olympus. Kratos' quest finds him tracing Helios to the Underworld, where it is revealed that Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, has released the Titan Atlas in exchange for his help in abducting Helios. Knowing this would cause the other gods to slumber, Persephone plans to use this opportunity to destroy the Pillar of the World, causing the end of Olympus, Earth, and the Underworld as revenge for her abandonment by Olympus to a life in the Underworld. Throughout, Kratos is haunted by the ghost of his daughter, Calliope.
The Good Bits: Um...I mean, it's still perfectly playable God of War. So that's good.
The Bad Bits: As you can read above, the narrative is a very generic "Go do this thing" quest, with the ghost of Calliope added it feels as an afterthought. Done well, a series of smaller Kratos adventures where he goes on quests for various gods could be a hoot, but this one just feels perfunctory. Morpheus isn't even a character in the game, depriving players of an opportunity to battle the dream god. I mean, c'mon! The game play itself is very standard GoW stuff, the PSP limitations mainly worked around elegantly. That said, the PSP limitations also mean the game doesn't try as hard as I would like to feel fresh.
God of War: Ascension (PS3)
The Plot: Set at the transition point between Kratos' serving Ares, and Kratos serving the other Olympians, Kratos is hounded by the Furies who punish all those who break oaths to the gods. Aided by Orkos, the son of Ares and the Fury Queen, Kratos must kill the Furies themselves in order leave Ares' service. In order to do this, Kratos must collect various items that will allow him to counteract the Furies' magic--he also discover that his former master Ares and the Furies are conspiring the overthrow of Zeus himself. The story serves as a prequel to the entire series.
The Good Bits: While the first chronologically, Ascension is the most recent game, and takes full advantage of the PS3's processing power. The game looks amazing (I love the smoke-like animation used for the cutscenes), and the slightly reworked fight mechanism adds some interest to what had become fairly rote action sequences. Megaera, the warrior/insect of the Furies, is fittingly disgusting, Castor/Pollux is an interesting take on the famous twins (if a bit far from the myth), and the Orkos Stone is also a pretty cool device that feels genuinely new to the series.
The Bad Bits: This was the 6th non-mobile GoW game, and it often shows in its paucity of ideas. A trio of female baddies for Kratos to beat on? Great! A giant thing in the sea to defeat? Sure! Another massive Titan to defeat? Let's do it! Interestingly, the game itself is told non-linearly (the first game is one long flashback, so this is not entirely new), but I feel this actually highlights how weak and vague the storyline is.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta (originally PSP, rereleased for PS3)
The Plot: Kratos, now the new God of War, investigates his past, discovering his dying mother on Poseidon's fabled city of Atlantis. Before dying, his mother reveals that Kratos' brother, Deimos (terror in Ancient Greek, and a god who was a son of Ares--though not in this game...probably) still lives. He relives the day his brother was abducted as a child, learning that Zeus feared the rise of a "marked warrior" who would challenge his rule. Ares and Athena came to Sparta, and kidnapped the young wrong brother. Oops. Kratos travels to the Land of Death to rescue his brother, where he must face Thanatos, the God of Death. .
The Good: The scope and depth of this game, unlike Chains of Olympus, belie is mobile origins. The storyline is the most coherent and interesting we've seen so far on this list, making an important transition point between the first two "main" games. Like all the better games in this series, the game focuses heavily on who, and what, Kratos sacrificed in his own quest for glory and through his own desire for vengeance. The gameplay and settings both take advantage of the mythico-classical setting, featuring even a cameo from King Midas. Also, the Scourge of Erinys is a truly badass weapon.
The Bad: The main drawback in Ghost of Sparta is essentially that it's not *quite* all the way there to make the upper tier of the games. There game lacks many of the elements or settings that truly make the best games in the series classics. Thanatos' domain, for example, while described as a sort of nowhere between Earth and the Underworld is just not that interesting, and the bosses lack the verve and impact they could. I mean, killing the God of Death should be more fun that this...
God of War II (PS2, rereleased for PS3)
The Plot: Kratos, the restless God of War, is betrayed by Zeus, who believes that Kratos will bring about the end of Olympus. Instead of dying, however, Kratos is saved by Gaia, the Earth itself, who seeks Kratos' aid to rally the Titans to defeat the Olympians once and for all. To do this, Kratos must seek an audience with the Sisters of Fate, whose powers will allow Kratos to prevent Zeus' betrayal. Aided by the power of the surviving Titans and various bits and bobs along the way (often stolen from other figures of GoW or Greek myth), Kratos sets out to kill the Fates themselves.
The Good: This is a rich game, with smooth gameplay and some excellent platforming sections, several made possible by wings you steal from an aged Icarus. It also includes cameos or fights with Theseus, Perseus, Jason, the barbarian king from the first game, and even the sea captain from the first game! It truly feels like the designers are working confidently and both building and expanding upon the template of the first game--Kratos meets or borrows from almost every other mythical Greek hero. The Fates, and what they represent, make for great foes, both storywise and as a contribution to the philosophy being developed over the course of the series--and in true God of War fashion, the puzzles are often as important as the fights. The various sections of the Palace of the Fates are a worthy successor to Pandora's Temple from the first game in terms of interesting challenges and environments. The Last Spartan motif is a lovely touch. Also, while I have issues with the ending, the final moments of the game are amazing.
The Bad: This game suffers mightily from being "middle chapter" syndrome. Nothing is really resolved, and we literally skip back in time to the beginning at the game at the end. The depth gained by learning the backstory of the Great War, and the dark side of Zeus' reign, is great, but it does tend to make Kratos feel like a pawn...which is exactly what he is in this game. The series is literally about taking control of your fate, and pushing that final victory off to the last game in the series just feels unsatisfying. In addition, the Fates prove to be less interesting a Big Bad than I feel they could be fight-wise--Clotho in particular is a let down. Overall, it feels as if the designers had their eyes set on the concluding part of the trilogy when designing this game.
God of War III (PS3)
The Plot: Immediately following on from the previous game, this is the story of how Kratos destroys the world. No, really. After killing Poseidon with Gaia's assistance, Kratos is abandoned by his former Titan allies and finds himself in Hades domain, once again powerless. Fighting his way back to Olympus, killing any number of deities along the way--Hades, Helios, Hera, Hephaestus (a lot of H's). Guided by a ghostly Athena (who has her own motives, natch), Kratos rescues Pandora (of Box fame, see below) and using the real power of Pandora's Box, Kratos must defeat Olympian and Titan alike.
The Good: While Athena, among others, provides guidance along Kratos journey, in this game, aside from a gift of his blades at the beginning, all of Kratos powers and skills are taken, usually by force. (Yes, Hephaestus, but even then it's a ruse.) This seems a small thing, but it truly helps to bring home the idea that, in this game, Kratos essentially is alone. The whole game and its story is an exercise in almost existential radical freedom, with Kratos murdering the gods, destroying the very order of nature. At the end, the world is flooded, dark, pestilent, and essentially dead--but there is the possibility that Kratos has saved the remnants of humanity from the tyranny of gods and titans, alike. The gameplay itself is superb, with enough new twists thrown into the mix to make the otherwise very familiar actions feel fresh. For my money, it's much less focused on QTEs and nearly impossible seeming tricks than GoWII, and there are several excellent puzzle sections, including the truly bizarre and Escher-like sequence in Hera's Garden. Moreover, the entire game leads to a twist which utterly revises everything we thought we knew about Kratos and his famous rage. "Hope is what we fight with when all else is lost."
The Bad: With a game this good, there are still niggles, but mine may be different from yours. The flights up and down the Chain of Balance always bore me, though mercifully there are not as prevalent as other flying sections (looking at you, GoWII). I rather wish the murdering of the gods was more complete and methodical. Instead, Kratos just happens upon several along the way, and gods we know that exist in the mythos of the game either appear and do nothing (Aphrodite) or don't even appear (the twins, Apollo and Artemis). You'd think they would show up at some point to prevent the end of the world, but whatevs. Generally, the game's structure is a bit too ramshackle in terms of plot to make it my favorite, and Skorpius...well, never has a boss so clearly been inserted just to have a boss.
Which means, the best is...
God of War (PS2, rereleased for PS3)
The Plot: Kratos is tasked by Athena, on behalf of Olympus, to kill Ares. To do so, he must find Pandora's Box, located at the top of a labyrinth designed to be impossible to conquer. There are some late game developments I won't spoil here just in case you've never played all the way through, but let's just say, getting the box doesn't end the game.
The Good: Depending on which aspects of the alchemical blend that makes GoW you prefer, I am sure people have different favorites. But for me, this game finds essentially the exact right balance, and moreover, by establishing the tone, template, and tragedy of the series, and doing so effortlessly, it deserves greater weight than those that came after. The designers adjusted some of the controls and the like as the series continued, but those were minor adjustments. Kratos, his world, and the joy (and pathos) that playing his story brings were all there, brilliant as day, from the very start. Also, the entire Pandora's Temple sequence is staggeringly good, down to the unfolding chronicle of Pathos Verdes III, mirroring Kratos own fate. Featuring numerous miniquests, it's essentially a game unto itself, and I remember the triumph I felt when I first secured Pandora's Box. And then...
The Bad: Anything with the names "Hades" attached in this game strikes me as just a hair too unforgiving, but that could be because I am by nature an impatient person and these sequences, more than any of the game(s?), require patience. It feels like there *should* be a final boss battle before securing the box, and apparently one was planned, but the designers just weren't able to make it happen in time. The finale fight with Ares is also less interesting than I might wish (though the middle section in the vortex is superb, both as gameplay and thematically). Like many of the final bosses in this series, Ares is a tough, but not terribly interesting foe. I find that may of the lesser boss fights in the series prove more enjoyable in terms of strategy and design (the mech-minotaur, Perseus, Hades), whereas the final fights (with the exception, in fairness, of the 2 on 1 fight in GoW II with the Fates) are kinda all about power and just whaling on your foe.
What say you? And what are your theories about God of War IV?
P.S.--The one real complaint I have with the entire series is the utter and total heteronormativity of it all. I mean, I know the target audience features plenty of homophobes, but this is a game set in the Greece of myth and history--there should be some man lust to go along with all the meaningless straight sex. I suppose not including anything at all is better than vilifying homosexual acts, but in this day and age, those shouldn't be the only two options.