It all started so simply. In the original God of War, you piloted the wrathful, ashen-skinned Spartan Kratos as he tore through beasts and gods ripped from the pages of Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology on his way to enact vengeance on the titular Ares, stopping only to deliver grim monologues about the tragic loss of his wife and child.
Now, after the ensuing avalanche of sequels, prequels and side stories, the saga of Kratos’ star-crossed life has become as tangled and complex as the mythic tales that inspired the world he’s inhabited. And though the upcoming PlayStation 4 follow-up does its best to leave the lyres and winged chariots of fantasy ancient Greece in the rearview mirror, here’s a quick primer on all the major revelations from the previous games, and how they shaped the angry antihero at the helm.
As revealed in 2007’s God of War 2 and the 2010 PlayStation Portable entry God of War: Ghost of Sparta, Kratos was born in the Greek city-state of Sparta, the demigod spawn of one of Zeus’ many dalliances with mortal women. He was bred for battle in that infamously bellicose society alongside his brother, Deimos, knowing nothing of his Olympian heritage.
Early in his adolescence, Zeus learned of a prophecy that stated that one of his children would eventually slay him — just as he himself had murdered his father, the Titan Cronos, to usher in the era of the gods. Zeus sent two of his children, Athena and Ares, to find the fated offspring and kill them. Eventually, the two siblings determined that Deimos was the likely candidate due to strange markings on his body, and they stole him away from Kratos and delivered him to Thanatos, the god of death, giving Kratos a distinctive scar over his eye when he tried to stop them.
As he grew older, Kratos married and fathered a child, as recounted in the backstory to the original God of War. His appetite for glory and merciless tactics in battle won him acclaim from his superiors and fear from his legions of foes, and over time he gathered his own army under the banner of Sparta. However, even great armies lose battles, and his eventually found itself overpowered by the Barbarians from the nebulous “East.” With defeat in sight, Kratos swore fealty to Ares, the same god of war that had taken his brother, in order to turn the tide of the battle. Impressed by his half brother’s ruthlessness, Ares allowed him into his service, and bestowed upon Kratos the Blades of Chaos, a set of swords forged in the underworld that became literally chained to his forearms as a reminder of his oath. With this newfound power, Kratos defeated the entire opposing force by himself, reveling in the bloodshed.
As the god of war’s loyal subject, Kratos roamed around the countryside, killing soldiers and innocents indiscriminately. Still, his wife and child tied him to the realm of everyday people, and Ares saw fit to hatch a plan to sever that thread, teleporting the Spartan’s family into a nearby temple during one of his rampages through a village. Too drunk on his rage to recognize his own loved ones, Kratos entered the temple and slaughtered everyone in sight. Once he realized his terrible mistake, Kratos broke his oath to Ares and swore revenge. The village oracle, who tried to warn him, cursed him to bear the ashes of the family that he murdered on his skin forevermore. This gave him the pale hue that he wears as a badge of dishonor, inspiring the moniker of “Ghost of Sparta.”
Though Kratos desired retribution for his terrible acts, killing a god is no trifling matter, even for a hulking Spartan. In the interval after he first sprang from Ares’ control — as depicted in 2013’s God of War: Ascension — Kratos was hunted by the Furies, deities of vengeance that sought to bring him back into the god’s service. Though Kratos had taken back his oath, breaking free of Ares wasn’t so simple: He would have to find the “oathkeeper” who held the link between him and the god, and somehow pry it from the keeper’s grasp.
Before defeating them, Kratos learned that Ares had figured out in the intervening years that it was Kratos who was the child destined to overthrow Olympus, not his brother Deimos. Thus, Ares allowed Kratos to serve him out of his own interest: Once Kratos defeated Zeus, Ares would betray Kratos and take the throne for himself. After besting the Furies and reluctantly killing the innocent oathkeeper Orkos, Kratos finally found himself free of his vow. However, as a result of his actions, terrible visions of his past misdeeds began to haunt his sleep, which redoubled his desire for revenge against Ares.
Over the next decade, as fans of the 2008 PSP entry God of War: Chains of Olympus well know, Kratos performed various labors for the gods of Olympus, including defeating the basilisk and rescuing the god of the sun, Helios, from the escaped Titan Atlas. Though he never faltered in his service, Kratos began to sow seeds of resentment against the gods for their reliance on his impossible strength, while cursing his lack of progress toward fulfilling his vendetta. However, once Kratos defeated the dreaded Hydra in the memorable opening sequence of the original God of War, Athena finally agreed that it was time for the Ghost of Sparta to make a move against Ares, who was raising his armies against her city, Athens. With Athena’s guidance, Kratos made his way through the city and the desert beyond, eventually swiping the legendary Pandora’s Box from Cronos’ back. As Kratos finally put his hands on the prize that had eluded him for so long, Ares impaled him on a massive stone pillar, finally stealing the life of the relentless Spartan.
However, death is no impediment to a man of conviction, and Kratos escaped the underworld like Orpheus before him to face Ares in one-on-one combat. Though Ares stripped Kratos of his chained blades and tried to use the lingering specter of Kratos’ guilt to gain the advantage — even going so far as to murder phantom versions of his family in front of him, again and again — Kratos eventually gained the upper hand, running Ares through with a massive sword that he filched from a nearby statue.
But even with Ares dead, the nightmares still wouldn’t cease, with the Olympians that Kratos so diligently served refusing to cure them. In despair, and with no mission left to complete, Kratos jumped from bluffs high above the Aegean Sea, certain that the fall would kill him. Instead, Athena caught him at the last moment and gave him a new post: that of the vacant seat on Mount Olympus. Having nothing else to live for, Kratos accepted the offer, and became the new god of war.
As a deity, Kratos returned to his warmongering ways, waging battle after battle on behalf of Olympus. Eventually, he discovered that his mother was still living, trapped in the Temple of Poseidon in the city of Atlantis. Before she turned into a shambling horror, she revealed to Kratos that his brother Deimos was still alive, being tortured in the land of Thanatos, the god of death. After finally remembering Ares and Athena’s role in robbing him of his brother — the latter having stripped him of that memory at some point, likely so she could continue to use him as a pawn — Kratos led Deimos out of the Domain of Death. Unfortunately, this rescue mission incurred Thanatos’ wrath, and though the two brothers fought bravely to seal Death himself into his own realm, Deimos didn’t survive the battle. After burying his beloved sibling, the Spartan mounted the Suicide Bluffs again, but decided against taking his own life, questioning what exactly it would achieve.
Following this further tragedy, Kratos enveloped himself even more deeply in constant warfare, deciding to conquer the city of Rhodes with his Spartans without seeking the counsel of his fellow Olympians. Due to this betrayal — and the unsanctioned murder of Ceryx, one of the messengers of the gods — Zeus dove down in the form of an eagle and sapped the Spartan of most of his godly powers, giving them to the Colossus of Rhodes. Though Kratos was able to destroy the Colossus, he was badly wounded and unable to fight against Zeus, who asked him to swear fealty, fearing that Kratos sought to overthrow him just as Ares did. When Kratos refused, Zeus stabbed him with the Blade of Olympus through the heart, and the Ghost of Sparta descended down to the River Styx once again.
This time, however, Kratos didn’t save himself from the clutches of Hades — it was the Titan Gaia who healed his wound and cast him out of the underworld. Gaia told Kratos that as a Titan, she viewed the Olympian gods as arrogant and complacent, and encouraged him to return to Olympus and end Zeus’s reign once and for all. Since Kratos was no longer a god, however, Gaia urged him to seek out the Sisters of Fate to turn back the clock to before his demise and claim the Blade of Olympus for himself. After defeating a great number of Greek heroes, including Perseus and Theseus, and killing the Sisters himself, Kratos shuffled backward in time to battle Zeus once more, this time with the Blade of Olympus at his side.
After tricking Zeus with a plea for paternal affection, Kratos seemed poised to finally kill his father once and for all, only for Athena herself to manifest herself and beg for his mercy. When Kratos refused, she defended her father and took the killing stroke herself, allowing Zeus to escape. As the godhood drained from her gaping wound, she begged Kratos to stop his endless quest for retribution, saying that it would destroy the world. Kratos remained unmoved even by her dying pleas, stating that he would take his revenge on all the Olympian gods. He then used the time-traveling powers of the Sisters to bring the Titans from the past to fight the gods, setting up the reprisal of a world-rending conflict between two immovable forces.
Soon after battle between the Titans and the Olympians began in 2010’s God of War 3, Kratos almost immediately found himself betrayed once more, this time by Gaia, who dismissed him as nothing more than a useful tool and cast him into the River Styx for the third time. Lost in the murk, Kratos eventually found the spirit of Athena, who beseeched him to take revenge on Zeus, claiming that her death had brought her a new perspective on the conflict. As a token of trust, she gave Kratos the Blades of Exile, which he used to escape the underworld and fight the rogues’ gallery of gods that awaited him. Though Kratos had slayed gods in the past, he had tried to avoid direct conflict with the Olympians as much as possible. With newfound vigor, Kratos began to carve a swath through the Greek pantheon at an unprecedented rate, murdering Hades, Helios and Hermes with ease. Even as Kratos slew these gods, the world around him began to collapse. Yet with the underworld falling to pieces around him and the sun winking out, he showed no concern — after all, his revenge was more important.
Eventually, after decapitating more mythical figures, Kratos learned the secret of Zeus’ power, the Flame of Olympus. After collecting Pandora, the first human woman forged by Zeus, from Daedalus’ Labyrinth — who must immolate herself in the flame in order to seal its power away — the Spartan found himself at the end of the world, going toe-to-toe with Zeus once more as the very fabric of the universe crumbled around him. Though a reawakened Gaia tried to to ambush them both, Kratos managed to overcome the Titans, the gods and his own tormented past to finally destroy them all using the power of hope, which was contained at the bottom of Pandora’s Box, which Kratos first opened to defeat Ares all those years ago. With his enemies finally vanquished, Kratos gazed at the ruined world around him and realized the ultimate futility of his vengeance-soaked quest: Even with all the Olympians dead, he still had little to show for it.
Athena’s ghost then appeared from the ether and asked Kratos to repay her by returning the hope that found in Pandora’s Box, ostensibly to rebuild the world. Instead of trusting such a task to an Olympian, the despondent Kratos decided to commit suicide instead, gutting himself on the Blade of Olympus and releasing the power of hope into what remained of the world. Though Athena — yet another victim of his endless thirst for retribution, the sole desire of the entire video game franchise — remarked that she was disappointed in Kratos, he didn’t seem to care, merely offering a laugh in reply as he succumbed to his wounds. Of course, like every video game antihero, Kratos didn’t really die — rather, he simply slunk away to Scandinavia, leaving the pile of rocks once known as Olympus to rot in the eternal twilight.
Finding himself in the frozen Nordic lands, Kratos put his rage-fueled legacy behind him and began anew, marrying a woman and raising a child together, Atreus. Unfortunately, by the time players see this at the start of the new God of War, Kratos’ wife has died. When Kratos soon finds himself embroiled in the petty disputes between the Norse gods, the Spartan must take up arms once more. But with his son beside him, Kratos must wrestle with the vestiges of his wrathful past and learn how to raise Atreus to be a great fighter, and an even better man.
God of War hits PS4 on April 20. Check out Polygon’s review here.