God of War II in 2019 is still fun but no longer feels special.

I’ve been slowly chipping away at the God of War series since the first game was released in 2005. Back then I played through most of God of War 1 before getting frustrated and stopping. I picked it back up for PS3 and in summer 2011 I completed that game and liked it reasonably well. I did not, however feel an urge to start God of War II immediately, because that was in the thick the heady last years of the 7th generation, when there was a ton of stuff to play and enjoy. I kept picking up new games in the series on sale, always intending to get to it. After the new God of War game started to build hype in 2017 I decided to pick up the series again and I played through Chains of Olympus (again on PS3) and had a decent, if unremarkable time. I started God of War II in April 2018 and today, almost exactly a year later, I completed it. God of War II didn’t take me a year to complete because of its difficulty, which is quite reasonable, or its length, which was about 15 hours more or less. Instead it took that long because I kept picking it up, playing through a bit, and putting it back down for months, partially because I haven’t been playing many games over the last year, and partially because God of War II has aged in ways that meant I had to be in a very particular mood to enjoy it. On balance I liked the game, even in 2019, and I’m glad I played it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must play for people who are trying to experience the best the PS2 had to offer. I’ve played through a number of PS2 classics in the last 6-7 years, and I’d say that most of them (including Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Katamari Damacy) hold up better than God of War II.

You’d think that the awe and spectacle of God of War II would be the part that aged worst in our current age of Virtual Reality and super-powered console revisions like the PS4 Pro, but that wasn’t my experience. Playing the PS3 remaster, most of the textures still look sharp and gleaming in last-gen HD, and the careful camera placement means that God of War II retains its scope and grandeur. The first fight against the colossus is still pulse pounding, with the colossus’ giant arm smashing towards Kratos’ tiny vulnerable body and lots of sweeping camera movements as Kratos hurls himself at the giant. The massive environments look solidly built, with tons of memorable and atmospheric locations from a temple built over a swamp to enormous statues that drop huge chunks of stone and spray dust as they rearrange themselves after Kratos pulls a lever almost as big as he is. The sound track is strong and evocative, with a real sense of foreboding, and the still-excellent sound effects give every crunching bone and splatter of blood a sense of brutality. The character models and animation have aged, of course, but you adjust quickly, and the spigots of gore are still stomach churning as Kratos brutally eviscerates his foes, beheading and impaling his way through the adventure. Cut scenes on the P3 version are a mixed bag; a few are remastered and still look great (though obviously not at Uncharted 4 levels) but many are directly copied over from the PS2 and look cropped and low resolution. It’s fine though. Old games look old.

The combat doesn’t fare quite as well but is still pretty fun. Kratos is quick and responsive, and his sweeping attacks mean that you don’t need to carefully line up your shots, making the fixed camera angle a non-issue. Kratos has a couple new moves and some new and upgraded magic, so there are several approaches to most scenarios, and I found magic both more useful and more necessary to bail me out of tough spots than in the two prior games I played in the series. Whether you choose hit and run tactics or prefer the higher risk/higher reward combos, fighting in God of War II is mostly enjoyable, except for one major flaw I’ll get into a bit later.

Where the age really starts to show is in the other elements of gameplay. The platforming sucks, with the finnicky controls and fixed camera angles making jumps harder than they should be, and I think I died by falling into pits more frequently than any other way. The puzzles are a mixed bag, but too often rely on guesswork, or just interacting with everything in the environment or, worst of all, carefully timed platforming in conjunction with a puzzle, meaning that even when you see the solution it might take you ten times to actually execute it given the annoying controls. There are definitely a couple puzzles that are clever enough to make you smile, but mostly they boil down to easy busywork or frustration as you don’t know what you can interact with or whether you’re doing the right thing just a little too slow or something that’s ‘wrong’ and will never work no matter how flawlessly you pull it off. I used a walkthrough when I was stumped or wasn’t sure if what I was attempting was correct and I never regretted it, despite not being a walkthrough type gamer. I just don’t have half an hour to spend fiddling with obtuse design at this point.

Finally there’s the QTEs. They’re awful, and I hated grinding or mashing the buttons and sticks of my precious Dual Shock 3 (I don’t know how I’ll replace it when it breaks) just to watch the same cut scene play out with Kratos’ death after I made the mistake of watching the wrong part of the screen for the button prompt.

The other major complaint I have about God of War II is that all too often it is a game about attrition rather than challenge. Enemies have a ton of health and much of the combat often comes down to avoiding the same attacks over and over so you can poke a large bad guy a couple times and then dodge back out of range. This gets boring really fast, especially since the game loves to throw the same enemy at you over and over in long drawn-out sequences that are stressful without being fun. One of the major issues with attrition gameplay is that you can make a few mistakes early that ultimately mean you’re going to lose 10 minutes later, and then have to do the whole thing over. It’s frustrating and annoying, and one of the reasons it took me a year to finish the game. I didn’t die much, but when dying meant I had to replay a 15 minute fight scene against the same 6 cyclops and riders I just didn’t want to do it again.

The final boss is a strong example of this. He’s not particularly difficult but he takes forever to kill, with multiple repeating phases, and for some reason they decided to design the fight so that the best tactic for his most difficult phase is just to avoid him until he fires off an attack you can parry and reflect, which does good damage and refills some life and health. This choice means that the fight can take literally 20 minutes, and dying throws you back to the beginning of whatever form you’re fighting. This is topped off with a split second timing QTE that took me 8 times to get through, substantially devaluing the pay-off cut scene (though to be fair it’s not quite the end of the game.)

Finally, and this is less important to me than the gameplay issues, God of War II’s story and writing are bad. The story isn’t so much terrible as it is mostly absent. Kratos is betrayed, gets mad, gets revenge with the help of a couple allies. There are no real twists and while there’s lore it’s shallow and not very interesting. Characters tend to the two dimensional, being arrogant or angry or fearful or whatever, and almost never more than one of those things. The writing isn’t clever or emotionally affecting at any point. This game was released a week or so before the first Mass Effect, so it cannot be chalked up to being a product of its time. Considering that one of my reasons for wanting to play the whole series is to get context for the new PS4 God of War game…it’s not necessary. Kratos is who you think he is. I always assumed there was more to his character because he was so popular in the 2000s, but after playing through 3 of the titles I can say that he’s literally a maladjusted 12-year-old’s idea of a badass, all rage and tough talk with nothing behind it. I’m glad they apparently retooled it for the PS4 version and it will be interesting to see where they go with this guy.

It’s worth noting that the ending is a huge cliffhanger, only slightly more acceptable than Halo 2s.

Despite all these complaints, I did enjoy God of War II, and I think the main reason is because of its hand crafted nature. God of War II has no real filler to it. It goes from fight to puzzle to platforming to fight with only minimal backtracking and no grinding. In 2019, when even the games I really like (such as last year’s Spider-Man) are full of repetitious grinding and open-world bloat, there’s a real charm to a linear adventure like this. Every environment is new, every fight has some kind of twist, whether it be someone you need to protect or an environmental hazard or just a unique combination of enemies. Certain bosses are huge and often closer to puzzles than combat challenges, while others really test your knowledge of the controls and ability to learn and exploit patterns. At a point in my life when my gaming time is limited I really appreciated always knowing the thing to do next, and that it would be something unique that I hadn’t seen before and not just another boring battle against the same street crime I’d cleared in 10 other locations. It's the same fundamental pleasure that the Uncharted games (except for parts of the last 2 games) offer, letting designers guide you through a theme park ride of a game, where there may be lulls in the action but there's no real filler.

Right now I like that direction and the fact that every time I play I’ll see something new and something interesting, so I’m going to keep chugging through the series. Hopefully the next one won’t take me another year.