By the end of the last console generation, it appeared Sony Santa Monica had begun to run out of ideas for the God of War series and its star, the perpetually angry, musclebound Kratos, who had already torn his way through the Greek gods. It led to an uninspired prequel – 2013’s God of War: Ascension – and Sony allowed the franchise to rest for several years as it worked on a complete reinvention. The new game, a still-canonical reboot of sorts simply titled God of War, feels remarkably different from its predecessors, but it doesn’t shun the past simply for the sake of change. Instead, the new ideas are seamlessly woven in with elements of past games, and it’s a formula that paid off in a big way.
Taking place several years after he defeated Zeus and a large handful of other Greek gods, God of War finds Kratos living in land of Norse world of Midgard with his young son, Atreus. The two recently lost the family matriarch, Faye, and per her wishes, they set out on a journey to scatter her ashes at the land’s highest peak. Naturally, the journey doesn’t go according to plan, as a mysterious and extremely powerful figure has his heart set on making Kratos’ life hell (or Helheim) in his own vengeful quest.
It’s a hero’s journey, which isn’t a huge surprise given the many mythological elements in the series, but God of War isn’t about the broad story strokes. Much like fellow PlayStation exclusives The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it’s the banter between and the development of its characters that make it such an engrossing tale. Kratos is no longer filled with blind rage, having concluded that unbridled anger can get him into more trouble than it’s worth, and though he has a rocky relationship with Atreus, it’s immediately apparent that he cares about the boy. Often criticized by his son for seemingly not grieving his wife’s death, Kratos grows frustrated, as the years of almost indiscriminate violence have left him emotionally unavailable.
At first glance, one could argue that this is an attempt to radically transform Kratos into something that doesn’t resemble the original character, but that really isn’t what Sony Santa Monica did here. Kratos’ past actions have informed his current self, and by holding back his true bursts of rage until something happens that truly warrants such a response, they’re made all that more powerful. Trust me – he still gets angry, and it’s still awesome.
Kratos and Atreus are joined on their mission by a relatively small number of supporting characters, but God of War makes them count. The blacksmithing brothers Brok and Sindri are my personal favorites, with their strained relationship leading to the two trash-talking each other in conversations with Kratos. Sindri is particularly entertaining, as his germaphobia often conflicts with his ability to handle blood-covered axes that make their way to his worktable, but the writing isn’t only reason for the characters being so endearing.
Once again, Sony has an absolutely stellar cast of actors, including Troy Baker, Christopher Judge, Alastair Duncan, and Jeremy Davis, best known for his role as Upham in Saving Private Ryan. Their delivery is subtle during quiet, emotional moments, but bombastic and loud during battles. It doesn’t feel like Sony Santa Monica tried to copy the layered delivery seen in Naughty Dog’s games, but adapt it for a very different kind of story. The fact the world contains enormous dragons and ogres is not lost on the actors, and the characters explore the origins of Norse mythology whenever you’re exploring the open world. This not only gives you background on gods who aren’t as universally-known as the Greek gods, but it also helps to make the time pass as you sail toward your next destination.
Narrative and characterization have definitely changed substantially compared to the earlier God of War games, but combat has seen an even more radical evolution. No longer impeded by a fixed camera, we’re stuck behind Kratos’ shouler at a distance comparable to Resident Evil 4, and battles have been designed to take advantage of this perspective. At least initially, you aren’t fighting dozens of monsters at once, instead relying on your frost-powered Leviathan axe to defeat a few enemies before moving onto the next target.
“Kratos’ past actions have informed his current self, and by holding back his true bursts of rage until something happens that truly warrants such a response, they’re made all that more powerful.”
It’s an unassuming weapon, and the camera angle coupled with the somewhat animation-based combat can make it very easy to make the lazy comparison to Dark Souls, but God of War gives you far more tools to work with. Kratos has a host of special attacks that he can perform with his axe, shield, and bare fists, as well as finishing moves that are gory enough to deserve the God of War name. Whether you want to curb-stomp a draugr or rip off a Valkyrie’s wings, you can do so, and if an enemy is too far away to hit with a melee attack, Kratos can simply chuck his axe out before recalling it to his hand like a Jedi with a lightsaber.
As a nod to his Greek roots, Kratos also has a “Spartan Rage” ability, which turns him incredibly powerful for a brief period, though he’s forced to only use his bare fists for combat. Effective as it can occasionally be when facing a large enemy who must be stunned, it doesn’t hold a candle to the archery work of Atreus. Kratos’ son has access to a bow – and, eventually, magical arrows – that can damage enemies, stun them, or interrupt attacks. It gives fights a more dynamic and engaging feel than if Kratos had faced his enemies alone, and it keeps Atreus from feeling like a helpless sidekick.
Stylish as Kratos’ attacks may be, they aren’t all for flair. God of War’s removal of the combo counter is no accident, as the game can be brutally difficult if you venture into the wrong area too early or don’t make use of all of your attacks. With the addition of role-playing elements, including upgradable tiers of special attacks as well as gear, you have the ability to craft your own unique play style, and you need to master every element of it for late-game fights. Occasionally, soft level-gating can make it practically impossible to defeat an enemy, even when making full use of blocking, dodging, parrying, and ranged combat, but they’re rarely completely unwinnable – I spent about three hours attempting to defeat an optional boss, and God of War’s ability to always make you think you’re powerful enough for an area kept me playing until 2 a.m. For the record, I beat it.
As tempting as it can be to stay on the “critical path” and see the rest of Kratos and Atreus’ journey, it’s almost always worth exploring optional areas and taking on side quests. Sony Santa Monica has spent an enormous amount of effort to make these all worthwhile, even the ones you merely stumble across while heading to your next destination. From extra boss fights to characterization-heavy moments that give you additional context for the cast, all of them have something unexpected. They also contain some of the best puzzles in the game, forcing you to get creative with your many abilities in order to unlock certain doors or reach a loot-filled chest.
“God of War’s removal of the combo counter is no accident, as the game can be brutally difficult if you venture into the wrong area too early or don’t make use of all of your attacks.”
Even if you decide to stick to the absolutely essential quests, God of War will still take you well over a dozen hours to complete, with extra content capable of easily doubling that. Despite the massive amount of time I had already sunk into the game, by the time the credits rolled, I didn’t feel ready to leave its world. Part of this is because of an oddly anticlimactic closing section that hints at a sequel a little too clearly, but also because the game simply hadn’t worn out its welcome.
Where other acclaimed PlayStation exclusives Uncharted 4, Bloodborne, and The Last of Us – games I adore – occasionally had me hoping I could cut to the chase, I was more than willing to let God of War take me off the beaten path to explore its gorgeous world and find new enemies to destroy. Sony Santa Monica has created a stunningly successful reimagining of the franchise, and we certainly hope we won’t have to wait another five years to play the next installment. If the eventual sequel as good as this game, however, it will still be worth the wait.
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