Warning: This article contains spoilers for the numbered God of War games.
For a brief time in the mid-2000s, Kratos was everything Sony had ever wanted for the PlayStation — a mature mascot headlining a series that had experienced a meteoric rise to the top echelon of action games.
The Ghost of Sparta epitomized the end of the PlayStation 2 period, which saw the rise of AAA development as we know it today. Games had grown up, even if they hadn't necessarily matured, and Kratos' snarling visage was the face of that change. Sony hadn't exactly suffered for the lack of a mascot to that point, but they neverthless welcomed Kratos with open arms. After years of trying, they finally had a character who could stand toe-to-toe with Mario and Master Chief.
Funny how things change. Today, God of War is mostly an afterthought. God of War: Ascension, the last major release in the series, managed to move a mere 360,000 copies at launch — a steep decline compared to the more than 1 million copies of God of War 3 sold at launch. With yesterday (March 22nd) being the 10th anniversary of the original game's release in North America, it's tough to shake the sense that the series has run its course, what with Kratos rampaging through the entire Greek pantheon.
But is there really nowhere left for God of War to go? And more importantly, what happened to knock Kratos from gaming's Mt. Olympus?
It's easy to forget how impressive the original God of War was back in the day. It was narratively ambitious, mixing striking imagery and dark humor with flashbacks that leant context to Kratos' quest for revenge.
It arrived in a rich period for video game narratives. With technology rapidly improving, developers like Kojima Productions (Metal Gear Solid 3), Valve (Half-Life 2), and Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) stretched their legs and began tackling more ambitious stories. There was a sense that games had arrived, that the medium had matured to the point that the narratives could match the technology.
In the midst of all this, God of War appeared with a story that could appropriately be called "cinematic" in its structure and scope. The original story opens with a marvelous hook, with a fearsome warrior throwing himself from a cliff as the narrator intones, "And Kratos cast himself from the highest mountain in all of Greece. After ten years of suffering, ten years of endless nightmares, it would finally come to an end. Death would be his escape from madness. But it had not always been this way, Kratos had once been a champion of the Gods..."
The Kratos of the original God of War was not the bloodthirsty psychopath that he would become in later games. He was angry, but also tortured. As God of War revealed, Kratos was a successful Spartan captain who sold his soul to avoid death, only to be tricked into killing his family by Ares, his master. There was no question that Kratos was an awful person — one of the first things you seem do is throw a helpless enemy begging for his life down the gullet of a dead hydra — but it was also easy to sympathize with his quest for absolution from his sins.
His arc in the first game followed a pseudo-heroic journey as Kratos sought the power to defeat Ares, found himself thrown into the underworld, and eventually emerged to claim victory. His quest was interspersed with flashbacks to his sordid past, which offered context for his pain and anger, as well as his desire for revenge. It was a solid arc, competently told, with a hero who was at once repellant and sympathetic.
What really sold God of War, though, was its production values. Coming at the end of the PlayStation 2's life cycle, it was one of the best-looking games on that console, with setpieces that set the stage for gaming's next generation. God of War's battles felt appropriately massive, with Kratos battling dozens of enemies on the ground and Ares rampaging in the background, fire arrows pelting him in a manner reminiscent of Gladiator or The Lord of the Rings. Its quicktime events — still relatively fresh in 2005 — leant its combat a cinematic verve that hadn't really been seen in games to that point, and its combat felt energetic and interesting while still being accessible. It was bold, bloody, and very memorable.
The story ended on a high note, with Athena saving Kratos from his fall and offering him the mantle of God of War, which he accepts willingly. As he sits upon his new throne, we see scenes from battles stretching into the future, with Kratos tasked with watching over future generations of soldiers.
God of War probably should have ended there, but it ended up being the victim of its own success. When it arrived, critics went wild, lavishing upon it awards and perfect scores. God of War instantly became one of Sony's most important in-house properties, making a sequel inevitable. With fans and investors clamoring for more, it wasn't long before God of War began to suffer from what has become a very recognizable problem in movies and games alike — trilogy creep.
God of War II arrived in 2007, with critics calling it the PlayStation 2's last major game. True to form, it was even bigger and more impressive than the original, opening with a truly awesome Godzilla-like rampage across Athens that ends with Kratos being stripped of his powers and banished from Olympus. Predictably, Kratos swears revenge, and another rampage begins.
God of War II was again lauded for its production values and its action — particularly its phenomenal setpiece battles with enemies like the Barbarian King — but it's easy in retrospect to see the seeds of the series' eventual decline. In attempting to top the original game, God of War II's story ends up hitting many of the same beats, with Kratos once again seeking the power to defeat a God — in this case, Zeus — and even falling back into Hades (an event that would eventually become comically common).
More troubling, though, is the arc of Kratos himself. After seemingly moving past his pain and embarking on a new life for himself, Kratos is again back to brooding over the death of his wife and child — a bit of backstory that is used less as context and more as an excuse for bad behavior in the sequel. In fact, whether he's messing up Athens or bashing some poor scholar's head against a pedestal, there's just no getting around the fact that Kratos is kind of a jerk in God of War II. Any absolution he might have obtained in the first of God of War is a distant memory by the time he's climbing up Mt. Olympus on the back of a titan; an alliance that ends in God of War III when Kratos is unexpectedly betrayed by his allies and falls, sigh, into Hades.
Kratos' petulant vendetta against the Gods of Olympus is eventually waved away as the doing of Pandora's Box, which quite literally makes the gods evil. In the end though, it doesn't change the fact that God of War II and III rehash much of Kratos' story arc, arriving at much the same conclusion as the original game, only in a less subtle fashion. In the process, Kratos becomes a cartoon, which Sony Santa Monica attempts to obscure by turning the gore up to eleven.
As the years have passed, God of War has also had to reckon with another problem — the march of progress. By the time God of War III came around in 2010, action games had very much caught up with the series, with Batman: Arkham Asylum blowing the doors off the genre in much the same way the original God of War had in 2005. The same year that Arkham Asylum came out, Uncharted 2 solidified Nathan Drake as the new face of Sony, garnering multiple perfect scores and Game of the Year awards. Though not exactly obsolete, God of War's cinematic setpiece design definitely wasn't as novel in 2010 as it was in 2005.
Ultimately, God of War faced the same stark choice as all franchises — evolve or die. Either introduce new angles and keep things fresh, or continue rolling with what works and eventually get replaced in the hearts and minds of a finicky buying public. In trying to raise the stakes and make Zeus the target of Kratos' ire, God of Wars' developers had written themselves into a corner. With all the Olympian gods dead and buried, the only real option, so the joke went, was to have Kratos go after Jesus. Instead, God of War's developers began making prequels, all but acknowledging that they had nowhere else to take the setting.
God of War: Ascension was released in 2013 and met with a collective shrug, garnering mostly 7s and 8s from critics. A new God of War is reported to be in development for the PlayStation 4, but absent a major turn for the series, it's apt to meet much the same fate.
God of War was an amazing game in 2005. What it lacked in nuanced action it made up for with scope, technical ambition, and surprisingly strong story. After ten years and six major releases, though, it's tough to say what it brings to the table outside of its fantastic setting.
Another God of War is inevitable, if only because the name still means something, which is currency in this day and age. But as for whether it will ever reach the heights of the three numbered games, it's kind of doubtful. Moreso, perhaps, than even Assassin's Creed, God of War is in need of a fresh perspective.
At this point, the best thing Sony Santa Monica can probably do is retire the character of Kratos and introduce a new protagonist. Either that, or vary up the form. God of War's production values and setting remain assets, but they no longer have the impact they once did. Worse, the story has hit a dead end. While a total reboot probably isn't necessary, God of War is still badly in need of a new start.
My prediction is that Sony will formally take the wraps off God of War 4 at E3 2015, where we'll learn that it's an open world game in the vein of Arkham City, with Kratos cast as a wandering warrior. Such a move would be predictable in light of current trends — seemingly every action game has open world exploration these days — but it would be better than nothing. It might even garner it a bit of the old buzz that followed the series in better days.
For now, it's fair to say that God of War has seen better days. As usual, though, not all hope is lost. Kratos has plenty of experience coming back from the dead.