There aren't very many games out there that show the game's main character committing suicide not even five minutes into the opening cinema. Yes, Kratos is a troubled soul with a checkered past. Despite a long period of service to the gods of Mount Olympus, death seems to be the only solace for the protagonist of God of War… and that's how the game begins. Players then relive Kratos' recent past as he battles ancient creatures and becomes a pawn in a plan to stop Ares, the God of War, from completely destroying Athens—the city of Athena—on his way to challenging the almighty Zeus himself.
Kratos is no ordinary mortal. The ashen-skinned warrior wields twin blades, each of which is chained to his body. He's very strong, extremely agile, and is favored by the gods. He's got a serious chip on his shoulder, and he isn't exactly the nicest guy you'll ever meet. He is tortured by nightmares—visions of his past—and the gods have promised him forgiveness for his sins and shameless deeds… should he kill Ares. Along the way to his destiny, Kratos will have to deal with harpies, minotaurs, hydras, and other mythological creatures as the story unfolds. Players will also slowly learn why Kratos has such an axe to grind with Ares and why his past haunts him so.
In order to combat monsters, Kratos generally uses his twin blades. There are two buttons on the Dual Shock controller which players will use to make Kratos attack, and combinations of these buttons—along with movements of the left analog stick—can generate truly impressive and damaging sword attacks. What's more, lengthy combinations can be achieved which can add red orbs (experience) and are just sweet to pull off. Kratos can also block, dodge, or grab enemies to attack at close range or throw. Melee combat rarely gets boring, and it's always fun to see just how high of a combo number that you can put together. Admittedly, melee combat does take a fair amount of inspiration from Capcom's Devil May Cry series… but with such a stellar product to draw from, this isn't a bad thing at all.
One element of certain battles against stronger enemies or bosses is this inclusion of a minigame of sorts that challenges players to press the correct face buttons or move the left analog stick in the proper directions in order to successfully end the battle. It feels somewhat similar to the "Quick Time Events", or "QTEs" from Sega AM2's Shenmue series. The execution of these requires fairly precise timing; if you're not familiar with which face buttons are where on your Dual Shock controller, you may be in for a rough go of it. All of these sequences are triggered by pressing the circle button when Kratos is near an enemy and the circle icon hovers above that enemy. Some sequences are as simple as mashing on the circle button—and the results can be very satisfying, such as forcing Kratos' sword through the gullet of a minotaur. Others are more intricate and require quick reflexes, but the on-screen result is fun to watch and makes battles a bit easier most of the time.
Aside from his dual swords, Kratos can pick up some powers from the gods as he progresses. These powers range from Zeus' lightning bolts to Medusa's petrifying gaze. Each of these powers, along with the dual swords, can be powered up by allocating red experience orbs in the Pause menu. Red orbs are plentiful, and can be found in treasure boxes or gained by killing enemies. Combining melee attacks with good use of these extra powers is the only way that Kratos can fulfill his destiny. Be cautious, however, as the use of these god-given powers is finite and can only be replenished by picking up blue orbs.
Although God of War is primarily an action game, there are platforming and puzzle elements which keep the experience fresh. There are several times when Kratos will be forced to traverse narrow beams suspended high in the air and delicate manipulation of the analog stick will be required to move Kratos along. The sensation of dizzying heights in these sequences is particularly notable, as you can really feel your pulse rate climbing as you teeter closely to the edge. There are also some platform jumps, rock faces or ropes that you'll have to climb (and fight off enemies while doing so), blade-laden columns to climb, and more.
The puzzles vary in difficulty, although most of them are basic enough to figure out with a little bit of trial and error. There are timing puzzles, block-moving puzzles, switch-based puzzles, and more. Thanks to the relatively forgiving nature of checkpoints in the game, any periods of frustration due to constantly failed puzzles or timing sequences should be limited. Save points are a little more scarce, and should definitely be utilized often.
One element of God of War which may disappoint some is a relative lack of boss encounters. There are only a handful, and only one or two are really challenging. They do tend to last awhile though, and one particular battle will take a bit of clever strategy to get through. Without giving anything away, the final battle feels a bit anticlimactic, especially when compared to the battles that preceded it. As a case in point, when Kratos can get to Pandora's Box without having to face a boss to retrieve it… that might be considered a mistake in game design. This doesn't necessarily hurt the game, but the quality of a couple of the epic battles that God of War has to offer will leave fans wanting more of them.
God of War has three levels of difficulty to choose from right away—Easy, Medium, and Hard—and finishing the game once on any difficulty setting opens up God mode. For those hardcore players looking for a stiff challenge, they should look no further. There's also a fair amount of bonus material that becomes available once players finish God of War, including information about deleted levels, monster sketches, and even information about a possible sequel. A new gameplay mode, "Challenge of the Gods", also opens up, which presents a series of ten challenges that award new costumes for Kratos (with varying attributes) once completed. Lastly, for those hardy souls who get through God Mode, even more bonus stuff is waiting to be unlocked. Combine this with hidden areas and special keys that players might miss in their first time through, and that adds up to a considerable amount of replay value.
The visuals are, for the most part, fantastic. From driving rainstorms on the Aegean Sea, the ruins of Athens, to the Underworld, each location looks about as good as you could imagine it to be. There will certainly be some levels that stand out above others, and it's certainly worth mentioning again that the feeling of extreme height in certain platforming situations is enough to induce panic. Kratos has a ton of moves at his disposal and animates very well, as do his enemies. There are also times when there's a lot going on in the background. You can see far-off hydras attacking seafarers, or can spot Ares making mincemeat of Athens as you guide Kratos along. The transitions from gameplay to CG cutscenes are generally seamless, and what's most surprising of all is that almost the entire game streams from the disc so that there are almost no loading times. On the down side, the frame rate can chug a little bit from time to time when there are a lot of characters on-screen, and a keen observer will notice some texture tearing on occasion. There are also some repetitive enemies and monster designs, although that's more of a nitpick than anything else. Lastly, the camera can be problematic in spots, not unlike Devil May Cry's camera.
God of War's soundtrack is excellent. Choral passages intertwine with orchestral movements and even a somewhat industrial sound at times. The mood also varies based on the situation. Some pieces are somber, while others reflect the heat of battle or the tension of a puzzle situation. It's definitely good enough to take advantage of the free download of the soundtrack that Sony is offering those who purchase the game. The voiceovers are also pretty well done, with no real overacting or pregnant pauses to speak of. Paul Eiding, who Metal Gear fans might know provided the voice for Colonel Campbell, plays multiple roles in this game and will sound familiar. The sound effects are cleanly sampled, and the surround sound encoding is adequate.
God of War has been the recipient of a lot of hype and gamers have been waiting a long time to get their hands on it. While it's not perfect, it was definitely worth the wait and successfully melds several different kinds of gameplay together and binds it all up with an open-ended storyline that doesn't quite end as you might think. Parents should be forewarned, however, that God of War is quite violent as blood flows like wine and there are some truly grisly images. Other than that disclaimer—and a few minor flaws and nitpicks—God of War can easily compete as one of the best action games that we've seen so far this generation for the PlayStation 2. Highly recommended.