Shovel Knight Gives a Solid Tribute to Kratos, AAA Gaming’s Worst Character

Kratos is the worst.

Apologies to those of you who are extremely invested in the lore of the Ghost of Sparta, but you’re in love with AAA gaming’s lousiest protagonist. Now, my dislike for Kratos is completely separate from the largely irrational love I have for the God of War franchise. Those games, yes even Ascension, play fantastically, are gorgeous, and are extremely immersive. Much like with Diablo, the narrative development in the God of War games is largely irrelevant to me. Truth be told, I played God of War II after playing God of War III and didn’t miss a beat. For me, God of War is all about precision-based hack-and-slash gameplay, not the whiney narrative of some dude covered in his family’s ashes.

Before diving into Yacht Club’s wonderful collaboration effort with Sony Santa Monica to make Kratos a playable secret boss in the PlayStation version of Shovel Knight, I want to rant about how horrendous Kratos is a bit more. Nothing makes for good writing quite like disdain, and to be perfectly honest I enjoy writing critical pieces much more than I like dishing out praise (it’s was much easier to write my Driveclub review than it was to write my Transistor review, for example). If you’re sensitive for spoilers for ten-year-old games, click away because we’re about to dive into some twists and turns.

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One of the inherent requirements for being a soldier is the acceptance that you might die fighting for a cause. There have been millions upon millions of warriors that have died throughout human history, and while they all likely wished that they wouldn’t meet their demise in battle, they accepted that it’s a reality of their situation. God of War‘s story is built around the assumption that the player should sympathize with Kratos, but his entire situation is born from a terrible choice he made out of fear. This is going to sound completely unsympathetic, but why should we reward Kratos for his cowardice? By selling his soul to Ares, he was cursed with a life of blind obedience and anger, which ends up resulting in the death of his family. Every bad thing that Kratos has ever dealt with came as a result of a choice he made without considering the consequences. In everyday, less extreme life, those who act without thinking are often criticized and shunned, so why should we care about a character whose entire story arc is based upon stupidity and fear?

Of course, this is a more in-depth look at a character that, humorously, lacks any semblance of depth. Kratos has a single emotion, rage, which after around twenty minutes begins to feel grating and lazy. The best thing that could come out of the blatantly-in-development God of War title would be a full-fledged reboot devoid of any association with the Ghost of Sparta. Whereas Diablo‘s story is bogged down with bland nonsense, God of War‘s story arc is so simple that it often feels insulting to the player. Other than the ending of God of War II, have any of the franchise’s twists and turns surprised you in any way?

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It’s for this very reason that Yacht Club’s humorous addition of Kratos in the PlayStation versions of Shovel Knight makes for a great time. By subtly cracking jokes at Sony’s lamest character, Yacht Club has accomplished the seemingly impossible: making Kratos entertaining. Of course, a great deal of God of War fans will likely see Kratos’ inclusion as a form of fan service, and these folks are undeniably correct, but I’d argue that this mash up does much more than quench the thirst of whatever feverish fans may exist for this bizarre series. There’s something oddly humorous about seeing a pixelated, cartoon-like sprite of one of the most machismo-laden characters to come out of the last decade-plus of game development. Nothing about Shovel Knight is inherently dour, so some form of modification to make this inclusion feel more than simply tacked on.

Combine the light-hearted nature of the Ghost of Sparta’s appearance in Shovel Knight with an amazing chiptunes adaptation of the God of War theme and an entertaining, but somewhat simple, three-stage boss battle, and this has all the makings of a near-perfect mash-up. Granted, if you’ve obtained a handful of Meal Tickets before discovering the secrets of the Hall of Champions, Kratos doesn’t necessarily pose much of a challenge, but that’s a story for a different day. Seeing all of Kratos’ signature moves in pixel-art is something spectacular, and becoming the Ghost of Shovels and obtaining the Armor of Chaos adds a new level of replay value to Shovel Knight. Think you’ve figured out how to beat every level in record time? Try removing lateral movement from your initial shovel bounce attack and give the campaign another shot.

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It’s weird to think that Kratos’ greatest video game achievement might be in a fan-service moment in a retro-platformer, but that just might be the case. Never has the Ghost of Sparta been so charming, multi-faceted (think about it: he acts both solemn and angry – two whole emotions!), and exciting. This sort of mash-up makes springs a level of curiosity about Yacht Club’s potential that wasn’t quite there before. Sure, they know how to make a mechanically-perfect platformer that will assuredly get a sequel, but can they expand their arsenal? If making the worst protagonist in AAA gaming entertaining was doable, I can only imagine what other possibilities lie in the future.