It was obvious that Kratos’s happiness couldn’t last. When last we saw the dyspeptic Spartan, he had assumed his throne atop Mount Olympus in place of the fallen Ares. Most people would probably pack up the shield and sandals after slaying a god, but Kratos has bigger fish to fry. After a stunning battle against a vivified Colossus of Rhodes, he runs afoul of Zeus in an encounter that resembles nothing so much as a teenager shouting at his dad. Stripped of his powers and cast into the Underworld, Kratos ends up in familiar circumstances: alone, angry, and hankering for some deicide.
If the set-up is familiar, so too is the execution. Given the success of the first God of War, that’s no surprise. The changes to the gameplay are mostly incremental. Kratos has a few new fighting moves, and now he can climb along ceilings as well as up walls. He can also now absorb enemy attacks with the Golden Fleece and make time pause with the Amulet of Fate. Some changes are merely cosmetic — this time around, he has a bow and arrow that functions like the lightning bolts he threw in the first game. The core mix of brutal combat and environmental puzzles hasn’t changed at all. Mostly what’s new is the sense of scale. We got glimpses of the grandeur of Greek mythology in the last game: Ares laying waste to Athens, the Titan Kronos lumbering across the desert with the Temple of Pandora on his back. Almost all of God of War II works on that level.
The massive Colossus battle is only the beginning. Whereas the first game had just three notable boss encounters, God of War II has many. They’re not all epic, but their inclusion addresses the original’s one real failing. More important, slithering foes like Euryale and the Kraken are so skillfully rendered that they evoke a visceral reaction. The game world itself also seems grander. At one point, Kratos plunges through the earth and encounters Atlas. The design is simply brilliant, as Kratos scales the groaning Titan, who eyes him and trembles with remarkable vitality. It’s easy to forget that all this isn’t happening on a next-generation console.
Such æsthetic considerations tend to fade in the heat of the game’s action. The rage that suffuses Kratos’s soul manifests itself in his devastating attacks. His main weapons are the Blades of Athena, versatile daggers that can be used at range. The combat engine is neatly balanced — button mashing will get you through most fights, but the number of available combos and enemy types requires you to mix up your attacks in order to survive. Even so, the one point of contention I have with the game is its occasional over-reliance on locking Kratos in a room and sending multiple waves of foes at him. What, killing four Cyclops in a stretch isn’t enough?
Still, the sheer quantity of enemies he faces ensures a constant variety of merciless kills. Each foe can be finished off in a different way; choices range from the brutal (neck snapping, decapitation) to the darkly comic (punting a Cerberus pup into the wall). The violence is graphic yet not gratuitous: what other way is there to challenge the gods but with the greatest possible force? Even Kratos’s manner of opening doors bespeaks his fury: he kicks them down.
The central concept of Greek tragedy is that a man cannot escape his fate. God of War is building a franchise based on just the opposite. Call it a Greek triumph.