From Sparta to Svartalfheim
The original trilogy on PlayStation 2 and 3 crystallized the angry, intense, young adult masculinity of the early 2000s video game era. But in 2018, “God of War” for PlayStation 4 pulled off the rare feat of rebooting the series, continuing its storyline and reaching an even larger audience. That game sold 23 million copies and put the series at the top of the Sony first-party food chain (if you don’t count “Marvel’s Spider-Man”). It’s an impressive feat for a family game and story that isn’t exactly family-friendly.
The game design pillars of the series are spectacle, combat, and puzzle solving. This is also true of the 2018 game and its sequel, “God of War Ragnarok”. However, the modern series places more emphasis on emotional depth and cinematic storytelling, while still striving to achieve grandiose, violent spectacle.
The series does not stink. Even the worst God of War game is a great time with plenty of reasons to love it. And the best games have strong arguments for being considered the best of the series. The following list contains mainline console games and PlayStation Portable handheld titles – a total of eight God of War games.
8. God of War: Chains of Olympus (2008)
The PlayStation Portable device PlayStation 2 was notable for bringing console-quality visuals and gameplay to a pocket-sized device. Created by Ready at Dawn Studios, this entry shook up high-fidelity mobile gaming.
“God of War: Chains of Olympus” almost matches the original 2005 release in size and spectacle, though it’s hampered by an awkward control scheme, squeezing the game onto a device with fewer buttons. This obstacle causes the game’s puzzles and combat to lose much of their challenge. Really, the game’s biggest flaw is that it was born into a mobile gaming ecosystem that had yet to mature into today’s golden age of fully-functional handheld devices like the Nintendo Switch and Valve’s Steam Deck.
It’s to the credit of the rest of the games on this list that they were able to repeat this amazing debut so successfully. The first God of War game was a bold fusion of its two main inspirations: the combat of Hideki Kamiya’s Devil May Cry series and the platforming and cinematography of Fumito Ueda’s PlayStation 2 epic, “Ico.” These were among the earliest examples of Sony exclusive games utilizing the console’s full potential. The PlayStation 2 was one of the weakest of its generation, but this entry, directed by David Skoff Jaffe, was Sony’s strongest flex of its knack for high-fidelity gaming, a rarity for any console game in 2005, displaying at 480p resolution.
The game’s combat mechanics were almost perfect from the start and remained largely untouched until the 2018 PlayStation 4 reboot, and that game also sticks to the rhythms established in 2005. The story was remarkable in its scope and scale, an influence seen in the high-level design of the temple-like back of the “Ico” titan Kronos. The only reason this first entry is so underrated is because its puzzle and platforming designs were irritating. Anyone who has played this game must have been struck by the Balance Beam Blade sequence as Kratos escaped from the Underworld. Its reliance on box-pushing puzzles is a remnant of early 2000s experiments in 3D video games, popularized by the Tomb Raider series. Another relic is its juvenile portrayal of sexuality and sexuality, a once charming shtick that becomes an annoying routine throughout the series until it matures into the PS4 era. Still, you couldn’t ask for a better debut.
6. God of War: Ghost of Sparta (2010)
In terms of story, it’s more of a sequel to the first game than an actual sequel. This second PSP entry initially centers on Kratos’ brother Deimos and how he manages to bring about the destruction of Mount Olympus. Again developed by Ready at Dawn Studios, it’s a better, more streamlined experience than the first PSP title — and even the first game. It has a very interesting locale in Atlantis, which initially teems with life and burns and sinks into the ocean moments after Kratos touches it. Despite being released the same year as the massive and massive PlayStation 3 entry, the game is perhaps best experienced in its story sequence since its 2005 debut. How I played it and why I ranked it higher than the first game.
It was also the first game in which series fatigue started to set in — especially considering the bombardment of the PlayStation 3’s final chapter. Still, Kratos gets a spear, and it’s probably the best weapon in the series outside of his iconic Blades of Chaos and Leviathan Ax of PS4 and PS5 titles.
‘God of War Ragnarok’ looks and performs beautifully on PlayStation 4
5. God of War: Ascension (2013)
With “Ghost of Sparta” starting to feel tired of the formula, this is a game that seems to confirm the feelings of many players. Landing three years after the conclusion of the story of the Greek pantheon, “Ascension” felt redundant upon release.
But in retrospect, this game has perhaps the most ambitious, daring and awe-inspiring level design of the series. The early temple is built in the body of Hekatonchires Aegeon, a giant with 50 heads and 100 arms. As the architecture changes as you fight the monster, the scene is as majestic and breathtaking as any in the series. “Ascension” has gotten a bad rap, compounded by the inclusion of unnecessary multiplayer elements, a symptom of that console generation’s tendency to shoehorn multiplayer features into games that didn’t need it. But with fatigue comes rest, and it’s clear that “Ascension” was the Santa Monica studio experimenting with the formula as one last spring before going into deep hibernation and completely rebooting the series.
The first 30 minutes of “God of War 3” are among the craziest of any video game to date. Even someone with zero interest in video games can appreciate the Titan punching through Poseidon’s godlike form, dragging Kratos out of his watery body and thereby the god and onto a more even playing field. The subsequent killing of Poseidon and the resulting flood in the Greek world lead to disaster: Kratos is about to destroy Greek polytheism with his bare hands.
The game was ridiculous in its attempt to outdo the previous games. It’s the game that contributed the most to series fatigue, but only bumped up against any and all limitations when creating its monsters and playing field. Kratos climbs all the way from the Underworld to the top of Mount Olympus for a final showdown with Zeus, all while blowing up the entire rogues gallery of Greek gods. No kill is as memorable as Poseidon’s, but it’s not for lack of trying. The death of Helios is a special memory. It is the memories Kratos makes here that traumatize him later in life. Poor Kratos! But lucky for us, we get to embody the irresponsible madness of the series, along with getting a little bored of it. The next major title, and the next game on this list, will determine that.
2018’s “God of War” is the rare game in the long-running series that reinvigorates an old character. Cory Barlog, series director since the second game and a lead animator on the first game, had to fight hard to keep the story about Kratos and his rise from the fame of the three-to-five-game carnage. Inspired by the success of Sony stablemate Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us,” it was fair to believe his instincts to father Kratos.
The story is refreshingly short, despite the series’ DNA: Kratos, accompanied by his son Atreus, fulfills his wife’s final request to scatter her ashes on the highest peak in the Nine Realms of Norse mythology. Against their will, they are forced to fight the local gods. Kratos now realizes his actions throughout the original trilogy and wants to avoid having his song exposed to such perversity. Despite (or perhaps because of) the funeral journey, Kratos’ adventure with his son plumbs the consequences of toxic masculinity and absent fatherhood, and the work required to repair a broken relationship.
The novelty of the transition from the original trilogy to the reboot has faded since the game’s 2018 release, but that doesn’t take anything away from its unlikely success. Among the PlayStation 4’s incredible collection of exclusive titles, this “God of War” is the easiest to recommend to almost anyone.
No other sport has played more than this one. While cliffhangers are hard to come by, Cory Barlog’s directorial debut claims to have the most cliffhangers ever written in the medium. It begins with the small but mighty god Kratos being betrayed by Zeus and ends with him literally cutting the threads of fate so he can ride the Titans while declaring war on the Greek gods. Barlog, who started out as an animator on the series, says: Kratos’ movement sets him apart from other action game heroes, even though he wears Capcom’s Devil May Cry and Street Fighter series on his sleeve.
It’s the fighting game mentality that locks in what tight fights feel like. The game has an innate sense of spectacle that leads to the sense that Barlog isn’t just animating Kratos, he’s animating the entire world — and its destruction — around him. The focus is more on cinematic action, and this time, the Santa Monica studio team has full control over the PlayStation 2’s capabilities. This second game has been called the swan song of PlayStation 2, the best-selling gaming console in history.
1. God of War Ragnarok (2022)
Is it recency bias? Is it too early to declare this new game the best in the series? Maybe, but once you play it, it’s hard to argue against its strengths and how much it recalls past trilogies while emphasizing its best qualities. The improvements in 2018 are easy to notice, and the biggest combat encounters rival the bombastic sequences found in the second and third games. Monster enemies fill the screen — and this time each fight has multiple emotional layers, thanks to Kratos’ reluctance to engage. This added tension makes every fight in this game a little more exciting than any other fight in the series.
“Ragnarok” also achieves some of the best puzzles in the series, working mostly along the lines of logic and vision, rather than the puzzles of the 2018 title or the rote block-and-lever puzzles of the first game. Blending the approach of the 2018 prequel, the combat is the best the series has ever seen, delighting longtime players with a new moveset reminiscent of Sparta’s glory days. And while the first few hours of the story have some pacing issues, it resolves to be one of the most rewarding and promising the series has seen. Zeus was an easy villain to hate; The Norse all-father Odin brings a new kind of alluring menace to the proceedings.
Instead of a cliffhanger like previous games, we instead have a sense of loss hanging over you. “Ragnarok” is a heartbreaking but life-affirming triumph.
Review: ‘God of War Ragnarok’ improves on its predecessor in every way