Sections

God of War After 10 Years: The Decline and Fall of Kratos

Ten years after its original release, God of War has lost much of its relevance. Can Kratos make a comeback on the PS4?

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

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?

Ascension

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.

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.

The Future

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.

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 17

Comments on this article are now closed. Thanks for taking part!

  • Avatar for pdubb #1 pdubb 3 years ago
    The best thing God of War could do to make itself relavant would be to blatantly steal as many ideas and concepts as possible from Shadows of Mordor. Then slap a bunch of ancient Greek textures on everything, change the weapons around, add a lot more obscene content, and then rake in the cash
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for danger.to.others #2 danger.to.others 3 years ago
    For me, GoW3 painted them into a corner. I personally put it up there as one of the greatest action games ever made.
    Even when it was new, I clearly remember telling my wife that a sequel seemed impossible. 3 managed to take all the epicness of the first two and ramp it up to such high levels (those Titan climbs!) there was nowhere left to go.
    When you've battled Gods, who's left? Anything else would be lesser.
    If any game is truly worthy of the remaster treatment, it's God Of War 3.

    I have no idea if the series can have a future after the scales it reached. If Acension is as good as they come up with, they might as well stop. Yes, that was a decline. Not a disaster in the way Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness was, but technically a decline all the same.
    Still....I wouldn't count out Kratos yet. All series get a bad game once in a while and still come back better than ever.
    I'm rooting for them.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Ralek #3 Ralek 3 years ago
    Ghost of Sparta was my favourite, basically it alone inspired my faith in RAD.

    Anyways, I think they should just tackle a different mythology. I love ancient greek mythology, but that's definitely a case of "ben there, dan that", killed it all ^^ They should go with one of dozens of culture and religions around the world and use their myths to the same end. Of course, it's no good to just carbon copy the charactery, story and gamedesign approach into a different setting, but a different setting would go a long way and it would in turn inspire new ideas for the other elements as well. Why not do something with Babylonian, Sumerian or even Hindu religion and mythology for a change?
    Most of those are completely untouched, not even just by games, but by most of modern entertainment. There is much more to discover out there than a tale of redemption and revenge involving greek gods ...
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for gillijack #4 gillijack 3 years ago
    I think that Ascension also released at a time that people were fatigued with over-the-top AAA releases. It's telling that _____ of War: Ascension and _____ of War: Judgement, prequels for games both known for their violence --with uninspired, swappable subtitles-- released within a week of each other.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Truant #5 Truant 3 years ago
    I'd love to see a God of War done with the Norse Pantheon. You could have some epic battles with the finale set during ragnarok fighting Fenrir or better yet, fighting as Fenrir.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Crepe_Suzette #6 Crepe_Suzette 3 years ago
    The first game remains memorable to me for it's seamless voyage through multiple environments (Half Life 2 like). Otherwise it's a pretty flawed game, with no really memorable boss battles and some pretty awful platforming sequences (Hades comes to mind).

    The series peaked with part 2 I think, an immaculately paced action experience that, to me, still stands at the top of the genre to this day. I can hardly think of a better package of combat, navigation and puzzles. It is also one of the better showcase for the PS2 hardware. Cory Barlog was behind that one, and he's back for the fourth one, so I'm filled with hope.

    To some people the fixed camera angles make the series antiquated, but to me it's a huge part of its appeal (to the point of having someone dedicated to them). I hope it doesn't go.Edited March 2015 by Crepe_Suzette
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #7 Mikki-Saturn 3 years ago
    Well, I played the first two. I was impressed by the production values, but I would say I wasn't very far into the second game before I decided I really didn't care for them. I mean either of them - or any of them! Apart from the setting (ancient Greece is SO underused!) there was really nothing I liked about God of War. I was only playing them to see what sort of ridiculous spectacle they would throw at me. Which after all is fun in a junk-food sort of way, but ultimately it's not much to build a franchise on. To some degree God of War epitomizes what I don't like about many contemporary games.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for mr-faramir #8 mr-faramir 3 years ago
    God of War was and still amazing series so far. I play all of them and all of them was great. but, Sony should retired kratos series and move to... I dont know... Norse Mythology?

    if they keep the amazing fighting system, so many weapons and upgrade, amazing setpieces and long story campaign I dont mind if I played as Thor, or any other mythology heroes. Sony can even keep the "God of War" title but with different subtitles if they afraid the new games losing its brand power.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Daryoon #9 Daryoon 3 years ago
    Classical mythology has been overused to death. Give Cu Chulainn a game. And Gilgamesh.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for VotesForCows #10 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    I loved the first one. Had a horrible time with it though - played through on the hardest difficulty, then got stuck for days on that stupid bit where you have to protect his family from the Kratos clones!

    The sequels left a bad taste in my mouth due to the ever-increaseing levels of gore, casual sexism and unsympathetic characters.
    @Daryoon
    There's plenty of material to mine in Irish mythology alright, and it has a very dark, brooding air to it. Would be a lot of fun.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey
    Brilliant retrospective by the way, really enjoyed this!
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #12 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    Once again showing the difference between "can" and "should" in the video game industry. Milk the cow long enough it will run the udders dry.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Punk1984 #13 Punk1984 3 years ago
    Kratos washes up in Egypt or Scandinavia and has to reckon with new gods in a new environment with the core of his powers, the Greek powers, gone. Continuing a journey to resurrect his wife and lost daughter. The PSP prequels did one thing very well and that was build out a cast of supporting characters that we care about. With the Greek Gods gone what happens to his mother, brother, wife and daughter. Ascension hinted at Egypt and Persia being the next stop for Kratos. It would breathe new life into a character to show him living with what his wrath has made.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for Punk1984 #14 Punk1984 3 years ago
    @Crepe_Suzette I did really enjoy the fact that God of War all took place in/on Mount Olympus it always felt like climbing to an epic conclusion.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for NinjaMic #15 NinjaMic 3 years ago
    God of War 1-3 are a perfect trilogy imo. It's odd though, because it's one of those instances where they don't know for sure that it's going to be a trilogy, so the first game seems the only complete one that can stand on it's own as something fresh/special. Everyone agrees that the formula got played out fast, but within a bubble, I actually feel it worked to keep these 3 games pristine. Though only one is innovative, they're all pretty much equally as good as the other. It doesn't have an odd one out due to failed experimentation or trying to keep up with competitor trends, ala Devil May Cry 2 or Ninja Gaiden 3.

    I'd love to have seen 1 & 2 rebuilt in the remastered God of War 3 engine, for total cohesion.

    Also, Ascension should have just been a Vita game imo. A spinoff that costs less (theoeretically able to do more for much less), matters less (theoretically lower expectations), and would've been a great boon to that platform's reputation early on.Edited March 2015 by NinjaMic
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for qwilman #16 qwilman 3 years ago
    Why is it necessary to remain relevant? I didn't play the game until the first two got ps3 re-releases in time for the third to come out, and I ended up barreling through the entire trilogy. I really enjoyed my playthrough, and thought the whole thing was wrapped up pretty well in it's "you killed the world" ending.

    I feel like no one needs another God of War, and I don't mean that as an insult. It was something that showed up, showed off very well, and then ended. The portables and the prequel were attempts to stay relevant and they showed that it just isn't necessary. God of War can be stay relevant by inspiring future games.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SZJX #17 SZJX 7 months ago
    Well said. The original ending was OK and just as the case with so many unexpectedly successful movies, forcing it into a trilogy is a nonsensical move and one should really just regard the original ending as the true ending of the story already. Though the game was never made with a logical and thoughtful story in mind in the first place that's for sure. Let's see how Sony attempts to reboot the story in the new PS4 one then.Edited April 2018 by SZJX
    Sign in to Reply

Comments

Close