As a guy who drives a bright yellow beetle, cooks his own bread, watches Sailor Moon, performs in musical theatre, and enjoys a rousing game of Magic: the Gathering, I sometimes find myself curious as to what manliness feels like. Fortunately, I can indulge that curiosity from a safe, hair-growth-free distance with the God of War series, which features Kratos, a character overdosing on testosterone so badly that he makes steroid addicts back away timidly. Not all that long ago, most video game enthusiasts belonged to a class of people that would shyly wander school playgrounds alone, or sit quietly apart from high school cliques for fear that their interests would bring them mockery and bullying. Having a video game star grouchy old Kratos feels like Derek from American History X burst in on a Dungeons and Dragons game, dropped a box of guns on the table and said, “Okay you pansies, let’s do this right. Combat to the death, and we play for keeps.” The sheer amount of rage that goes into God of War games matches the emotional level of filling out job applications while standing in line at the DMV listening to death metal as a nearby television plays a news report about politicians pulling education funding for the orphans of homeless veterans so they can pay for tax cuts for millionaires.
God of War II continues the story of Kratos, after defeating Ares and taking his place as the god of war. His first day on the job, the Colossus of Rhodes comes to life and embarks on a Godzilla-style quest to destroy Greece. Having not murdered anything for the better part of an hour, Kratos gleefully adopts the task of obliterating the Sixth Wonder of the World. Alas, though, it turns out Zeus, who likes Kratos apparently even less than Ares, didn’t approve of Olympus’ most recent hire, and apparently felt the best way to remove Kratos’ godhood involved a convoluted plot that required an action sequence convenient for the opening stage of a video game. Kratos, who includes both the Hydra and Ares on his resume of “things murdered without use of god powers,” finds himself utterly powerless against a hunk of metal, but Zeus offers him an out. By channeling all his power into a sword, Kratos can somehow defeat the statue that proved invulnerable to those exact same powers only moments ago. Then, when Kratos has sufficiently humanified himself and killed the statue, Zeus (Played by the voice of Dale from Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers) shows up, grabs the sword, and uses it to poke a hole in Kratos’ gut. While in the previous game, his escape from Hades required an extensive, tedious stage of platforming, this time he gets out through the sheer force of his angriness. Now properly reduced to a level-one character, Kratos then begins the quest to find the fates, which somehow will help him get revenge against Zeus. I don’t know.
Although I can’t understand why developers thought this cute little bundle of murderous rampage would appeal to the average video game connoisseur, I have to admit that it doesn’t entirely turn me off, either. As a mythology teacher, I do enjoy the concept, and now that I’ve played all three of the main series games, I can say I prefer God of War II to the original or III, mainly because a three-minute cut scene explaining the story of Zeus defeating Cronus marks the longest uninterrupted period of accurate mythology in the series. Naturally, after a beautiful rendition of Zeus’ war with the Titans, they chucked all semblance of literary value into the fiery pits of Tartarus in favor of over-simplified scenarios that give Kratos an excuse to murder mythological figures. In an early stage, Kratos comes upon Prometheus–who shortly thereafter will beg Kratos to murder him–and asks “Prometheus! Who did this to you?” If that didn’t immediately make you shift in your seat and avert your eyes awkwardly, read this. Uh, Kratos…you did. In fact, the play makes you out as some kind of rage-filled dick. At least that qualifies as accurate.
Beyond a vague influence from Greek mythology–much in the way that the dinosaur asteroid influenced the game Asteroids–the game really doesn’t offer much beyond an overdose of violence. Initially, making Kratos spin his chains holds a type of graceful enjoyment, but I quickly noticed that it dealt damage to enemies roughly equitable with the damage chopsticks would do to cast iron, and sitting in mandatory battles against hoards of monsters that require you to beat on them like you want to drill a hole through a glacier just makes it feel padded. I do enjoy playing a game, but I prefer stuff to actually happen, rather than fifteen minutes of cyclops murder only to get creamed by two more cyclopses using their combined power of depth perception to send you back to the beginning of the fight.
And quick time events! Dear, Zeus, you have answered my prayers! I remember playing Resident Evil 4, just wishing I could mash X to run from even more boulders, or press L1 and R1 to dodge even more monster tentacles. Well, God of War uses quick time events for everything. Trouble with a cyclops? They’ll give you buttons to press instead of something more involved and fun! Want to kill that gorgon? Simply wiggle the analog stick in the indicated patterns! Have you always wanted to wear down the life of your controller simply by opening doors? Forget pressing circle; try mashing it fifty times per second! (I miss the good old days of pressing “up.”) Did I miss anything? Kratos looks like a guy with a high-meat, low-fiber diet; should we maybe add a bathroom scene, with Kratos on the toilet, mashing the circle button to empty his bowels? Hera almighty! Have people ever liked ignoring the actual action in favor of concentrating on the upcoming buttons to press? Ever? Well, maybe in the bathroom…
For that matter, what about puzzles? God of War seems to hit (hard) some of the biggest cliches available, including the sliding-blocks-into-place puzzle, the dropping-something-heavy-on-a-switch puzzle, and my personal favorite source of aneurysms, the pull a lever and beat the clock. Unfortunately, to overcome the challenges of using such a worn-out and hated method, God of War keeps it fresh and exciting by making it unintuitive and convoluted. How should I know if I have to race against the clock or find something to block the gate? Or which bosses I can actually damage and which ones require puzzle solutions? I don’t know if the game expects me to just *know* that the kraken’s tentacle hides a switch that I need to load down with a corpse when he lifts it slightly, or if it honestly thinks people still buy strategy guides rather than pop up Google and see what the Internet has to say.
The game works, I guess, as a time killer or a space filler. It has flaws, with convoluted puzzles, extended fight scenes, and a weapon upgrade system that has as much effect on combat as using a magnifying glass for shade on a hot day. But I played all three of them now (buying the collection used, apparently, does not give you access to the downloadable handheld games. Cheapskate jerks!). I’ve traveled to Hades and back three times, and carried several heads in my pockets. God of War has at least a novelty value to it. I just suggest playing it in small doses, and not during any stressful life events, such as, lets say, grading student papers while trying to buy a house and simultaneously waiting to hear back about acceptance into a phd program and alternatives. Adding God of War to that mix just focuses rage, down into one tiny bullet point of hate until it all bursts out of your forehead in a gory explosion of blood and brains. Fun and delicious!