Platforms: PlayStation 4
Developers: Sony Santa Monica
Thirteen years ago, God of War originally graced our PS2s, and with it, brought gratuitous violence, grand set pieces, a fast and fluid combat system and a dark story with the main character that wasn’t exactly a “good guy.” Fast forward to 2018, after numerous sequels and prequels fleshing out Kratos’ story, not only does the character himself go through insane growth and change but so does the game itself. Taken as a standalone game, it fits the current trend of games, blending cinematic action with a camera perspective we’ve grown accustomed to in AAA action games, but when taken as part of the God of War franchise, this latest entry couldn’t be more different than its predecessors, and it’s all the better for it.
A story about a father and his son
Kratos, who for many games has been a vengeance-seeking madman is now once again a father to a young boy, Atreus. Despite God of War’s flashy set pieces and sometimes insane boss fights, at its core, this is a story about a father and son, and it’s amazing that despite being surrounded by Norse mythology everywhere they turn, the story still manages to focus on the two, and their individual growth. The interactions between Kratos and Atreus don’t feel scripted, even though both actors were clearly reading from one. The dialogue is so perfectly written and subsequently delivered, that it all feels very natural. Atreus is a young and curious boy who is thrust into a world he doesn’t quite understand, while Kratos plays the tough-love father who tries to ensure that Atreus never gets mixed up in the world of gods. As the game progresses, you get to witness the constant evolution of both characters and their strained relationship. Their quest to scatter his wife’s/Atreus mother’s ashes brings them together, if reluctantly at first, but their constant trials and hardships teach them to better understand one another. There will be interactions between the two that will put a smile on your face, doubly so if you’re a parent, and then there are genuine moments of heartbreak when either character says something they probably didn’t mean. It’s a wonderful dynamic that works from start to finish and never wears out its welcome.
As revealed by the trailer (so don’t worry, no real spoilers here), you also get a third companion in the form of a dangling head off of Kratos’ belt, named Mimir. Mimir acts as the comedic relief without being over the top, serving up a few chuckles here and there. He’s also a wealth of information, telling stories of the Norse gods, providing more backstory to a world that not only Kratos and Atreus know little about, but the player as well. It’s these moments, with Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir on a canoe, sailing to their next destination, that are a welcome change of pace from the chaos that ensues when they step off. Mimir’s elaborate stories of gods among men are always interesting and delivered in a way that never fails to catch your attention.
However, as far as the story goes, I won’t say much more, except that it’s one of the best stories I’ve experienced in a video game medium to date. This is one of those instances where the less you know going in, the more you’ll enjoy it.
Not quite Mjolnir, but pretty damn close
Combat in God of War games has always been flashy, filled with spectacle as Kratos would unleash his signature Blades of Chaos in a flurry of attacks that would frequently extend to all sides of your screen. In this latest game, Kratos sets his blades aside for a frost ax that might be one of the most satisfying weapons to use in a game to date.
At face value, the combat doesn’t seem that deep when you come across your first Draugr. You figure out that R1 does a light attack, while R2 does a heavy attack. I’ll admit that after my first encounter, I was worried that this wasn’t going to be nearly as fun or flashy as the previous games. I couldn’t have been more wrong. While holding L2, Kratos can aim and then throw his ax at enemies, and recall it right back to his hand, Thor style, with the triangle button. This alone already opened up the combat to so many more opportunities. One of the early combat scenarios had me hack away at one enemy, then aim at another further away, impaling him on the wall. Without my weapon, I then pounded another enemy coming at me with my bare fists, until he only had a sliver of health left, at which point I recalled my ax back to my hand, which flew directly through this last enemy’s body, killing him instantly. It felt exhilarating! After that encounter, I wanted to experiment even more, and thankfully, the game’s combat is built around this. Not only does the environment often give you plenty of opportunities to use it against your enemies, you gradually unlock new skills with your ax, that are not only devastatingly powerful, they also look amazing.
Quick time events have been almost entirely removed from normal combat scenarios, which means you’ll spend less time mashing the same button to see Kratos pull off a grisly finisher move, and more time actually fighting. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have those at all. Enemies also come with a secondary bar underneath their health. When that fills up, Kratos can pull off a finishing move if the enemy’s health is low, or get some extra punches in if they’re not quite ready to be executed.
Atreus is also quite capable in battle. With a push of the Square button, which is Atreus specific, players can command him to unload his arrows into an enemy while Kratos bashes their heads in. It’s a great secondary form of damage, but it also allows enemies to get stunned quicker, or take extra damage thanks to some of the arrows’ elemental properties. Atreus also joins Kratos in combos when not specifically summoned, jumping in the air and slamming down an enemy with his knife, or choking them from behind leaving them completely immobile or even helping Kratos juggle enemies while they’re suspended in air with some perfectly timed shots. Atreus doesn’t feel like an additional gimmick. As he gets stronger, his skills improve and his gear gets better, he becomes an essential piece in the combat structure, and more often than not you’ll be happy to have him by your side.
Further bolstering your offensive and defensive abilities is your gear. Armor sets have various bonuses when worn, but the true benefit comes from their slots and placing enchantments in them. This can power-up some of your specific moves, or provide a chance to trigger a temporary buff, such as increased strength or healing. Your weapons also have replaceable pummels, that similarly to enchantments, provide with additional stat and skill bonuses.
Not just for breaking skulls
The genius of Kratos’ new weapon is that it’s quite frequently used for plenty of puzzle solving, whether it revolves around throwing it at levers or severing ties between linked objects. There were plenty of situations where I thought for sure I wasn’t able to figure out a solution to a puzzle, only to try something that I was sure wasn’t going to work, but then it did. One example was trying to break an out of reach urn with a rune symbol. Not only was it out of reach thanks to a wall between me and it, but the little opening where I could throw my ax was completely not in the urn’s line of sight. I experimented a bit, throwing my ax in and recalling it to see if it flies back in different directions depending on where I stood. I then thought to line myself up where the urn was between me and the ax, even though I couldn’t see it through the wall and then recall it. Sure enough, it broke and I completed the puzzle. I still remember the giant smirk on my face I had when figuring that out and the beauty of God of War is that these kinds of instances are littered through the entirety of the game.
Side quests that feel like main quests
Cory Barlog revealed that on average, his playtesters would get around 40+ hours of game time when trying to complete everything. Upon hearing this, and having played the previous games in the franchise, I couldn’t quite fathom how that works beyond having a lot of collectibles. Having now played through most of the side quests, I now completely understand. Calling them side quests would almost be doing them a disservice. Not only are they structured like main quests and feel like story quests, but the lore you learn from them almost feels like essential material to fully appreciate the world you’re in. The game could potentially be beaten much quicker if players would only focus on the main quest, but having experienced the breadth of the side content available, it would almost be criminal to bypass all of it.
The world and all its wonders
Taking place in the realm of Midgard and enveloped in Norse Mythology, God of War’s world is not only a joy to explore, it’s also breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s one of those instances where you’re not quite sure how the hardware is able to pull off something so awe-inspiring. At first, the game is quite linear, but eventually, it opens up in a way that’s continuously fun to explore even a dozen hours later.
While Horizon: Zero Dawn was one of my favorite games of last year, the story slightly suffered thanks to the open world nature of the game. It was one of those instances where because the game had so much side content you could do at any time, you might forget some of the story nuances if it’s been a while since you’ve done the last main story quest. God of War proves that you can have an engrossing story and an open world format that doesn’t detract from it. That’s largely thanks to the Lake of Nine. It’s not a huge open world by any means, but it’s one that gradually opens up more as you progress through the game, meaning that you’re always incentivized to go exploring periodically through the game. It’s largely thanks to its modest size and that it opens up more as you play, that you’re never overwhelmed by side content, and that you’re not derailed from the main quest for too long. It’s genius and complements the entire experience so perfectly. Those who don’t wish to explore and rather focus on the main quest can definitely do so, and cut the length of the game in half, but those willing to explore every nook and cranny of this gorgeously realized world, will be more than handsomely rewarded.
Any slight negatives I have with the game are subjective nitpicks, that in the end make sense in the grand scheme of things. For example, I was never really a big fan of armor progression and its way of “leveling” you up, since equipping different gear could essentially de-level you if it wasn’t upgraded more than your current gear. However, given that it makes it so players can’t endlessly grind to make themselves over-powered, makes sense.
God of War, in its entirety, is Sony Santa Monica’s masterstroke. Everything from brilliantly realized characters, fascinating dialogue, fantastical world, exhilarating combat, satisfying puzzles, engrossing and meaningful side content to larger than life set pieces, has been so expertly designed. While it may not resemble the older games in the franchise, that might actually be its strength. It proves that just like Kratos, who was able to mature and grow as a character, letting go of his past while not forgetting who he was, the newest game was able to do the same.