When you look back on the history of Sony’s line of PlayStation consoles and handhelds, there have been numerous franchises that were born on them. Some of them still persist to this day, whether it be as a series that has branched out to other consoles or continues to stay exclusive to PlayStation, while others remain dormant for years on end either being brought back as a quick nod to its legacy or left to be forgotten to time itself. One series of games in particular however has been quite celebrated amongst the pantheon of PlayStation’s flagship franchises, even being home to what some consider to be the greatest games of all time, and that franchise is God of War. Providing spectacular visuals and set-pieces, sweeping orchestrated soundtracks, rock-solid combat, and cleverly crafted puzzles, Santa Monica Studios (As well as Ready At Dawn Studios to a lesser extent) has continued to bring several highly regarded titles to Sony’s gaming devices at letting players hack and slash their way through the likes of Greek mythos, all in its brutal and bloody glory.
However, in the middle of all this lies the central protagonist and the face of the franchise, Kratos, who as a protagonist is quite an angry yet depressed man, and only appears to let his rage consume him further over the course of the series, arguably making things worse for himself in the long run as he becomes more and more of an irredeemable sociopath. I find that in itself sets him far apart from most video game protagonists with how he goes against the standards one would expect from a hero, instead acting as a deconstruction of heroism as depicted by Greek mythology, with such heroes being judged not by their moral code and ethics, but by their strength and power. But with a new game in the series having just hit the shelves, with a Kratos far removed from what many know him for, let us look back on Kratos’ journey and see how he has become what he is now.
God of War (2005, PlayStation 2)
“The Gods of Olympus have abandoned me. Now there is no hope.” These are the first words we hear Kratos utter before he casts himself off the tallest cliff in Olympus into the Aegean Sea. This opening sequence goes to show that our hero Kratos has gone through some deep and personal suffering, especially as it supposedly has driven him to taking his own life. This actually serves as a framing device for the story of God of War, as the entire story is then brought back to three weeks prior and eventually leads up to this scene, beginning with him fighting off against the likes of yet unknown forces and eventually the multi-headed beast, Hydra, as he travels to Athens across the Aegean Sea.
Here, we can gather that he was once a strong and mighty warrior who fought for his own cause, though as to what lengths he’ll go to for said cause is where his character becomes rather questionable as a hero. After Kratos impales the heads of Hydra, he finds the boat captain holding onto dear life, seemingly about to fall down to his death at moment’s notice and pleased at the sight of Kratos in that he might be saved. The thing is while Kratos was looking for the boat captain has, he was really after the key to the captain’s quarters which he takes off of him and tells him directly to his face “I didn’t come back for you” before deliberately throwing him down to his demise. As you would guess, Kratos cares little of the fate of those around him, even going out of his way to come off as cold-hearted and mean-spirited when walking away would have sufficed. This actually presents us with an idea for Kratos’ character in general, and his views towards most people, caring little about the consequences of those around him.
After stopping these forces, it is revealed that Kratos has been plagued by nightmarish visions that he witnesses night after night, and looks to stop them by asking Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War, to be forgiven for his sins in exchange for stopping Ares, the God of War, and saving Athena’s city, Athens, from his siege. What we’re looking at here is a story of redemption, but what are these crimes that Kratos has committed that he wishes to forget about? As he ventures forth on his quest to take down Ares, these same visions are given piecemeal to tell of his tale prior to the present events of the game. Through these visions, we are told about his origins as a proud general for Sparta, commanding an army of fifty that eventually grew into the thousands, where he was revered by many. However, when he went to war with the barbarians, he found himself on the brink of death with no escape, which then led him to make a pledge to Ares that would soon scar him for life. In exchange for saving his life from the barbarians and being granted great power in the form of the Blades of Chaos whose chains melded into his arms, Kratos would swear his allegiance to Ares and go on to fight as his servant.
Under Ares’ rule, Kratos took his army to conquer a majority of Greece, leaving a path of anger and bloodshed in its wake, which then leads him to a village that worshipped Athena, wherein he and his army killed whoever resisted them and razed what remains in flames. As Kratos slaughtered its people, he is met by the village oracle, and warns him not to enter its temple, but he chooses to ignore this warning, and marches onward into said temple, murdering everyone inside. But out of ignorance through his bloodlust, he recognises that the last two people that he had just slain were in fact is wife and daughter, which leaves him completely distraught, with Ares revealing that the village he just attacked was Sparta and that he led Kratos to this village to eliminate what little humanity was left in him in order to mold him the perfect warrior. And to make matters even worse, the village oracle then curses him by bounding the ashes of his family to his skin, transforming it into a ghostly white, and earning him the title of the “Ghost of Sparta”, leaving Kratos to be feared by all of Greece, and for Kratos to rebel against Ares and served under different gods for the next ten years leading up to the game’s events. Kratos feeling absolutely disgusted at what he has become as a result of this series of events, serves as the cornerstone of his motives throughout his journey, stating exactly what he fights for. He fights not just for redemption for his crimes, but for revenge against what Ares had put him through as well.
His quest soon leads him to acquiring Pandora’s Box, and using the powers from within to kill Ares thus fulfilling his duty to Athena. However, the deal that Kratos had made with Athena could not be completely done, as while Kratos had done what Athena had asked of him, she could only go as far as to forgive him for his actions under Ares’ command, leaving Kratos to continue facing the nightmares that he sought to be free from. And so we brought full circle, and are led back to where the game starts off, this time fully aware of what has led him to take his own life, with the Gods of Olympus having done all that they could for him, and seeing death as the only means of being truly free from his past. However, the Gods saw that he was meant for much greater after being quite pleased by the task he had accomplished, with Athena saving him from the hand of death, and blessing him the Blades of Athena to replace his now lost Blades of Chaos. He is then offered the empty throne of which Ares himself once sat upon, which he accepts as makes his way to Olympus and takes his place as the new God of War. This leaves Kratos having been redeemed for what he has wrought in his pursuit for power, and achieved the revenge that had strived for throughout the course of the game, but while he still holds some humanity in him, later games will test just how much of it really remains.
God of War II (2007, PlayStation 2)
The first game depicted Kratos as a man who despite being a far from a nice guy, he still was somewhat sympathetic to some degree. God of War II however challenges this depiction as we see him slowly descent into madness, and becomes where Kratos starts to become truly unlikeable as a protagonist.
Several years after becoming the God of War, Kratos is still putting up with the nightmares of his past, and sought solace through leading his army of Sparta to conquer Greece. The Gods of Olympus on the other hand aren’t all that pleased with how he’s conducting his work, as he’s fallen into the same trappings that Ares before him was guilty of. Despite Athena’s warning, Kratos chooses not to heed it, and instead continues his conquest alongside his army in Rhodes, leaving him to be stripped of his godhood at the hands of an eagle he believes to be Athena, whose powers are then repurposed into bringing the Colossus of Rhodes to life to finish him off. Kratos continues to fight against the odds until Zeus himself throws down the Blade of Olympus for him to funnel his remaining strength into and take down the colossus. This leaves Kratos barely able to stand, and as the eagle from earlier reveals itself to be Zeus, he proceeds to take the Blade of Olympus and kill Kratos. As sinks into the Underworld, he is rescued by the Titan, Gaia, who she and the other Titans also have a bone to pick with Zeus, as they once fought with the Gods in the Great War, but ultimately lost and were punished. She tells him to head for the Sisters of Fate to travel back in time to undo his betrayal and kill Zeus, leaving Kratos on another quest, this time fuelled more by revenge than redemption.
Kratos in the first game had almost exclusively dealt with monsters and beasts of Greek mythos, but God of War II brings in a few mortals, demigods, and Titans for him to slaughter in the most macabre of fashions, including Prometheus who has been chained to the right hand of Typhon to be tortured perpetually by a white eagle eating his innards only to recovered from it each and every night, Theseus who serves the Sisters of Fate, Perseus who had gone mad from being trapped in the confines of the Island of Creation’s bathing house, and Icarus who escaped the Underworld to meet the Sisters of Fate and prevent his own death from flying too close to the Sun. Prometheus is given a mercy killing as his death brought him release from his torment, but the latter three are savagely beaten down by Kratos for his own gain, including the Steeds of Time, the Shield of Perseus, and even the Wings of Icarus freshly torn from his very back. While Theseus was genuinely trying to prevent Kratos from reaching his goal, Perseus was simply trapped with no way out and attacked Kratos out of insanity, and Icarus also having gone insane happened to share a similar goal to Kratos, but ends up losing his wings to Kratos and is left to plummet to his death, leaving his death as the most questionable out of the three. Kratos despite all this shows no sympathy towards any of them, merely seeing them as in the way, even if they didn’t necessarily have to die, and shows him really starting to embrace his sociopathic nature once again.
Kratos soon finds himself before the Sisters of Fate, promptly kills off all three sisters, takes control of the Loom of Fate and consequentially his own fate, uses it to travel back in time to right before Zeus killed him earlier in the game, fights him off even if it means having to pretend to surrender with the intention of catching Zeus off guard, showing how he’s willing to fight dirty just for the sake of revenge, before attempting to run the Blade of Olympus through him. With Zeus badly wounded, Athena interrupts Kratos to defends Zeus, vowing to protect Olympus, but as Kratos tries to attack Zeus once again, Athena steps in to take the blow, with Kratos being surprised over the act and questions the reason why. Athena then reveals that she wanted to end the cycle of hatred born from the son killing the father, recalling how Cronos killed his father, Uranus, and how Zeus defeated his father, Cronos, with this revelation also revealing Kratos to be Zeus’ son. However, the most tragic part of this scene would have to be that Kratos happened to kill the only God that showed any sign of affection or concern towards him. Even his expression and tone of voice makes him seem very remorseful about her death with how unintentional it was.
Zeus sees this as a chance to escape, leaving his daughter, Athena, to die, and with Kratos more determined than ever to unleash his vengeance on the Gods of Olympus. He returns to the present, and travels back to the Great War to bring the Titans from then back to the present wherein he and the Titans make their way up Mount Olympus to kill Zeus and the Gods. To cap off this game’s story, Kratos goes as far as to announce that he brings the fall of Olympus. What really stands out about this moment is that beforehand he fought to kill Ares and be redeemed for his actions, and throughout most of God of War II he fought to kill Zeus and exact his revenge, but now he’s fighting to destroy all of Olympus including any God that stands in his way all in the name of vengeance, effectively making it seem as though he's the villain of his own story. What makes it even more surprising is how Kratos could’ve traveled back to when he attacked Sparta to prevent himself from killing his family, but he’s too driven by vengeance at this point to give it a thought. But despite how far he has fallen, one has to wonder how his story ends.
God of War III (2010, PlayStation 3)
Kratos has fallen quite a long way since the beginning of the series and up to this point. God of War II showed him plummeting down into the endless spiral of depression over his continuous losses including his family, his faith in the Gods, and Athena, only using his rage to put up a strong front, regardless of how dire the consequences may be. God of War III continues down this spiral as we see him devolve into a complete and utter monster, and shows Kratos at his absolute cruelest and above all else, his worst.
Taking place immediately where God of War II left off, the Gods of Olympus are fighting off Gaia and the Titans as they make their way up Mount Olympus with Kratos in hand. Many of the titans fall to the likes of Helios, Hermes, and Poseidon (Who gets killed by Kratos in the midst of battle), but Kratos and Gaia eventually reach the summit where Zeus awaits. Zeus overpowers both of them and leaves them both clinging for their lives, where Gaia reveals that she was merely using Kratos as a pawn for her own personal revenge against the Gods, and with no further use for him, tosses him aside to fall from the mountain. He ends up in the River Styx, losing his powers once again, with Athena showing up and having ascended to a higher plane, proceeds to transform Kratos’ tainted blades into the Blades of Exile, and tasks him with extinguishing the Flame of Olympus and retrieving Pandora’s Box once more to kill Zeus. His ultimate goal remains the same as it did previously, but after accidentally killing Athena at the end of God of War II, and now the Titans having betrayed him, he’s never been any more pissed off than he has now. This is reflected further when Athena brings up how mankind itself if suffering from the conflict that Kratos has created, and he retorts to say “Let them suffer” with no empathy whatsoever, and the only thing he’s concerned with being the death of Zeus.
His cruelty is very apparent in the way he hurts those who obstruct him from his revenge. Poseidon has his eyes crushed and his neck snapped, which happens moments after a brutal beatdown while also being shown from his perspective. Hades has his soul taken from him by his own claws. Helios has his head torn off with it continuing to scream in agony as Kratos proceeds to use it as a makeshift lantern for the remainder of the journey. Hermes has both his legs chopped off, with him even begging for mercy after losing one of them. Hercules gets his head bashed in repeatedly until his skull caves in on itself. And even the Titan Cronos doesn’t get off easy as he has a fingernail torn off, gets several blisters torn open, has his stomach cut open from the inside, and even after telling Kratos to leave him be after all that has been inflicted on him thus far, he still gets part of his shackles lodged into his chin and gets stabbed in the forehead by the Blade of Olympus before finally kicking the bucket. In the case of killing the Gods, it even has ramifications on the rest of the world, extensively screwing over the remaining humans that are still alive. Poseidon’s death resulted in the sea levels rising and consuming most of the land. Helios’ passing caused the weather to become perpetually cloudy and obscure the rays of the Sun. Hermes’ demise unleashed a plague upon whoever was still left alive. And Hera despite getting off easy with her death simply by having her neck broken, killing her also meant killing all plant life in the world too. Just from these actions alone, Kratos’ vengefulness shows no bounds as now he will make sure those who do get in his way do indeed suffer, even if it means plunging the world into chaos.
As for those who aren’t in his way, they are merely used for his own benefit in some form or another. Peirithous, who Kratos finds imprisoned by brambles in Hades offers him the Bow of Apollo in return for freeing him, and so Kratos’ resolve equates to lighting the brambles on fire and burning him alive, and then taking said Bow for himself afterwards. Poseidon’s Princes doesn’t fare any better either, who despite being locked away in Poseidon’s Chamber and crying for help refuses to help Kratos due to his notorious reputation as a Spartan. She is freed from her chains, and led by Kratos through the corridors of the chamber, only to be shoved onto a crank and have her body crushed by it, all so he could jam two doors to keep them open. And then there’s Daedalus, the architect responsible for creating the Labyrinth to contain the key to Pandora’s Box, who isn’t necessarily used, but is made absolutely miserable. Upon meeting Kratos, he initially believes that the silhouette before him is his son, Icarus, as he was promised by Zeus that he would be able to see him again should he finish the Labyrinth, by which Kratos reveals himself and blatantly tells him that Icarus is dead, leaving Daedalus in utter misery. And if that’s not all, Daedalus proceeds to beg Kratos to not activate the Labyrinth, as he was enchained within it and activating it would also kill him, but Kratos activates it regardless for the sake of reaching Pandora who acts as the key to Pandora’s Box, again reinforcing is lack of empathy towards others.
There is one person who he shows some sense of sympathy towards in this game however, and that person is Hephaestus, the Craftsman of Olympus, who was banished to the Underworld by Zeus after hearing about Kratos opening Pandora’s Box. Hephaestus largely serves as an ally to Kratos at first, offering him guidance on the Flame of Olympus’ location. Even though he eventually puts two and two together and realises that Kratos intends to use his daughter, Pandora, to extinguish the Flame of Olympus, telling him to stay away from her, he still offers makes him a new weapon so he can “give him the retribution he deserved”, understanding that Kratos was doing what had to be done. But upon crafting said weapon for him, he betrays Kratos and tries to kill him for his daughter’s sake, implying his earlier statement on giving him retribution to be directed at Kratos and not Zeus, as Kratos was the main source of all his torment. Unluckily for him, his plan backfires and Kratos uses his newly obtained weapon to manipulate his anvil and impale him on it. His dying words leave him pleading for Kratos to spare his daughter’s life and asking to be forgiven. His words do indeed have some effect later on, as Kratos tells Pandora when he meets her that Hephaestus was simply doing what any father should: protect the life of his child. It’s a particularly rare instance of sympathy coming from Kratos, as he understands that Hephaestus was a father like himself before, and arguably believes he would have done the same thing in his position.
Speaking of Pandora, she presents a similar effect on Kratos as she’s arguably the only person who was able to bring out what little humanity Kratos has left at this point. Kratos initially confuses her for her deceased daughter upon first seeing her, but even once he does meet her in person within the Labyrinth, she discusses how Zeus and the Gods had become consumed by fear, namely from her and Kratos. She states that her own fear of them eventually changed into hope, which she insists is what people fight with when all else is lost, but Kratos hand waves her words by claiming it to be for the weak, showing her the hanging corpse of Daedalus as an example. But when she is finally brought to Pandora’s Box to fulfil her destiny, Kratos goes through a sudden change of heart and hesitates to let her sacrifice herself, hoping to find another way. Zeus also shows up to convince him not make another failure of himself and protests against Pandora giving her life to the Flame. Kratos’ rage however gets the best of him, and proceeds to assault Zeus, letting Pandora fall into the Flames. Despite finally being able to open Pandora’s Box, he realises that his efforts were for naught, as the box appears to be completely empty, making Pandora’s sacrifice now in vain. Needless to say, Kratos is far from pleased by any of this, not just because his journey has been for naught, but he had failed to protect Pandora from giving up her own life for which he was responsible.
Kratos continues on to fight Zeus for their final bout, but just when Kratos thinks his job is done, Zeus catches him off-guard, and lets his fear engulf Kratos. He then is forced to relive the memories that had haunted him up to now, until he rediscovers the power that he had once used to defeat Ares all those years ago, which is then revealed to be the light of Hope itself. Up to this point, Kratos had lost almost everything he once had, leaving him with no choice but to finish the fight against Zeus with only his Hope driving him onwards. After beating the life out of Zeus, Athena returns to observe what has become of the world (Or at least what is left of it) in wake of Kratos’ work, and discovers the truth behind the powers that were contained within Pandora’s Box. While Kratos obtained the light of Hope, Zeus and the Gods of Olympus were plagued by fear and was what drove Zeus to do what he did. This in itself brings up the question as to who the lesser of the two evils really is in this case, as despite Zeus’ actions towards Kratos, it’s likely that it under the influence of fear rather than by his own judgement. In contrast to Kratos himself who had Hope inside of him all this time went on to create complete chaos throughout the world for the sake of his own vengeance, largely eclipsing anything Zeus could’ve done himself. Athena asks that the Hope that Kratos had taken be returned to her, but either as an act out of spite towards her or as one final act of selflessness and redemption, acknowledging what he has become and what he has wrought upon the world, he runs the Blade of Olympus through himself, unleashing Hope upon the world, much to Athena’s dismay. She then takes the Blade for herself, and leaves Kratos to die alone. However, another scene following this shows that his remains have disappeared, with a blood trail leading off from where he fell, indicating that he survived the fatal blow he forced upon himself, and as for where he is now, that is a story we have yet to see…
Over the course of Kratos’ life, his spirit has been broken time and time again, whether it is out of betrayal of those he trusts, or through actions of his own that he himself regrets. And every time we see his spirit shattered by such events, only rage appears to seep into these cracks and reform his spirit into something far more vengeful than before. The more he fought, the further his rage consumed him, even to the point of devastating the whole world over in the name of revenge. God of War saw him fight for redemption over his own wrongdoings and to be freed from his past, and while he was forgiven for his actions, his original sin could never be erased. God of War II showed his rage beginning to take control as he refuses to accept himself as being the source of his suffering, and lashes out on Zeus and by extension the Gods of Olympus as a result. And by God of War III, he has practically become the embodiment of rage itself, caring little to nothing of those who got roped up in the conflict he had created, and wanting nothing more than to beat the life out of Zeus. That is until his last-ditch effort to redeem himself, by attempting to take his own life, and coming to terms with what he had become, what he has wrought upon others, and ultimately himself.
At the end of the day, Kratos is certainly an interesting lead, but one would be hard pressed to find Kratos to be all that likable as a protagonist, let alone a person. His hair-trigger temper and his sadistic nature slowly overtaking him shape him as the kind of person who cares nothing for himself, and while his sense of morailty does shine through at times, it is easily overshadowed by the aforementioned rage guiding a majority of his decisions. However there still exists moments in his life where his humanity is far more apparent, namely in the non-numbered iterations of the franchise which we will soon explore. But while those are tales for another time, they may potentially make his actions more justified in hindsight, and change the way we see him thus far.