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02/07 - God of War II HD
Honestly this one was kind of a disappointment to come back to. I was actually somewhat surprised how lacking I found it. A lot of it felt like it was not implemented with much care, and it makes the resulting experience feel unrefined and messy. It can be very aggravating on occasion too.
When it comes to combat mechanics, it felt like trying to apply skill and deliberacy to actions was very hard to do. But not in a challenging way, rather the way a lot of the mechanics work throws an unintended spanner in the works in an unsatisfying way. Like as I was playing through the PSP games, I came in with this approach of trying to string together a combo that started on the ground before launching an enemy up in the air, where I would combo them as much as possible up there. Trying to do that here was way less successful, because enemies would just slip out of the combo whenever they felt like it, or the mid-air attacks would fail to catch them for no obvious reason. And as well as that, when enemies get in to that stunned state where you can do a grab finisher on them, they become un-launchable in this game, which totally breaks the flow of that approach too. Larger enemies are also extremely aggressive in this game, attacking really frequently, where all their hitboxes are huge and basically every hit knocks you down. When you get more than one at a time it can very easily turn in to a frustrating mess where you barely get any chance to do anything about the situation.
The secondary weapons are also pretty bad in this game too. They tend to be not brilliant in any of these games, but this one in particular was very underwhelming. The first one you get is a big hammer, that is extremely slow, but also has next to no hyperarmour. You can't dodge while using it, and it's not even particularly powerful to make up for it. It has a gimmick where you can send out little magic spirits, which I think are supposed to distract enemies to leave them vulnerable, but they didn't seem to do anything when I tried them. There's also a spear weapon that is a bit better, but still doesn't really have much reason to be used over the usual chain blades. It doesn't have anything interesting going on. You also get the Blade of Olympus at the very end of the game, but with no time to use it. It is meant as a NG+ weapon I guess, but it doesn't have a particularly big or interesting move set, so again it's rather lacking. I think perhaps there's a fundamental issue with these games when it comes to secondary weapons, in that those primary chain blades fill both the roles of DPS and wide range. It doesn't leave much of a niche for anything else to fill.
I didn't talk much about the secondary weapons in the PSP games, because again they are just sort of there, but I actually think they are better than the ones here. Chains of Olympus has a gauntlet that sends out concentrated electric shocks, and that might be the best secondary out of these three games. It has a very short range, but it is very powerful and can focus a lot of hits in one place. You can also lunge forward in to an attack with it, so it doesn't feel like you can't reach anything either. Ghost of Sparta had a spear with a shield, where throwing the spear also doubles as a ranged attack. That one wasn't super interesting, again feeling like it didn't have a niche to fill similar to the spear in 2, but at least it had some other characteristic that made it situationally useful. So I think both of these games beat 2 in this aspect, even when they only have the one alternate weapon to choose from.
Another big issue I had with the gameplay here is how the level design isn't very good at showing you the way to proceed. It's an inconsistent problem, so it doesn't happen all the time, but it is frequent enough to bring down the experience significantly. There are points where it's terrible at communicating things that are not hard to understand at all. Like for example it not being clear you need to climb up the wall at a point because it doesn't look distinct from the pile of rubble next to it, or needing to stand on a button on the ground which is too small to see on screen, etc. A similar problem is sometimes you will need to solve a puzzle or do some set piece gimmick while you're being attacked by enemies, and the bar for failure can be very tight at times. It doesn't make these moments feel interesting or tense, you're just being harassed while you're trying to focus on something else, and you can easily fail because they happened to randomly hit you at the wrong moment. So these sorts of issues make a lot of the non-combat moments feel like an exercise in frustration where obtuse or annoying elements are used in place of anything actually engaging or thoughtful.
The bosses in general are quite mediocre too. Nothing as bad as the terrible bosses in the PSP games however, but still not great. Several of them suffer from the same issues as larger enemies in their hitboxes are massive and that it feels like you can't get close enough to really get decent hits in without being flattened. These fights are also not great at making individual attacks distinctly recognisable from each other with their wind-ups. It can be hard to tell how you need to react to different attacks until it's too late. The final fight against Zeus is kind of anticlimactic too. It's not anything particularly spectacular, and it ends in a weirdly unsatisfying moment where Kratos pretends to give up for no reason, before it then going in to the final QTE sequence. QTEs in general aren't great in this game either. This is before they went with the peripheral prompts like in 3, so you can't really enjoy the cutscene in the background as you're focused on where the prompts will appear. The actual buttons you press are arbitrary too, and are randomised between attempts, making them feel disconnected from what's actually happening. There's also a lot of stick-rotating inputs which are awkward to do and very easy to fumble.
And then there's the dreaded sound design. While overall I don't think it's as bad as I originally felt with this game, it's still not great. Hits on enemies have only a moderate feeling of impact. That on its own I could find acceptable and overlook if that was the only issue. But higher volume than everything else is the horrible clang sound that your weapon makes whenever it hits the walls. That's the thing that stands out, the thing that is the dominating part of the soundscape. When I try to recall this game, that clang sound is always one of the first things that comes to mind. It's still baffling to me how they decided this is how they wanted this game to sound. So glad they quickly changed course for the rest of the series on this one.
Story-wise it's okay. It's pretty light on narrative, but one thing that stood out about it to me was that it's actually less cruel than I remember. My memory of these games is that past the first game they got increasingly mean and needlessly sadistic as they kept trying to one-up themselves with edgy violence. I guess that's still sort of true, but comparing this directly against the PSP games (Ghost of Sparta in particular), and having played it after GoW3, it actually comes off rather tame in comparison. There is one moment that struck me as excessive my first time around, which is when you force some scholars to read out a passage while smashing their heads against the stone plinth. That still came off as rather gross this time, but it's more or less the only bit of the game that feels like that. And compared to stuff like how practically everyone gets treated in 3, it's not even overly gory.
Looking back on these games has been a strange trip. My original experiences with them was also a bit odd, so I did expect revisiting them would be different. The first God of War was a formative game for me. It was the first character action game I played, and it blew me away at the time. I would say it made me instantly a huge fan of the genre, but I never played the sequels at the time. DMC4 was the next game of that style that I played. It wasn't until way later I caught up with the rest of the series around 2013 when I got the GoW Saga Collection. For that experience I blitzed through all five games on easy difficulty, for the sake of catching up with every game in the series that existed at the time. That made the games that I hadn't played before kind of a blur. That's why I wanted to revisit them. I've already talked about how the PSP games blend together for me, but it was hard to pin down 2 in my mind as well. Before this all I remembered were a few locations/set pieces, and the awful sound design, despite generally feeling positive on it. Hardly any details of the actual experience though. But I'm not only coming at this with a more focused look, but with far more experience in the genre as well, so I could be much more discerning to it this time. Unfortunately all three of these games have dipped in my regard for them, but I think this one probably fell the furthest, which I wasn't expecting. It kind of makes me worry about what it would be like if I replayed the first game. It was never the plan to do so in this stint, since I've already played it twice, and my memories of it are stronger. But right now I'm suspecting it probably also wouldn't stand up very well to another look. 3 I am more confident about though. I'm also not intending to give this another run right now, as not only are my memories from 2013 stronger, I also replayed it somewhat recently too. I played the PS4 remaster after the most recent entry came out, at another time when I was doubting my own appreciation for these older games, but I found that one stood up pretty well. So I don't think that one needs a reassessment any time soon.