Review - God of War
As I get older, one thing I love about entertainment media is watching stories and characters get old with me. My favorite part of the Harry Potter movies was seeing everyone get older as the sequels came out. Their personalities, but also their problems, grew more complex and relatable with each film. They transitioned from kids you watched, to people you understood. As the characters matured, so too did the writing and storytelling, adjusting to match the increasing age of not only the actors, but also of us, the audience.
God of War
The new God of War does a lot of things right, from the way it sets the tone on the very first menu screen, to the palpable tension just before the final credits. But what sets God of War apart from most video games is how it portrays growth. Throughout this lengthy adventure, growth is a constant theme. It’s reflected in the minor characters, the combat design, the dialog, the villains, and, most importantly, the main characters.
The main quest in God of War is simply to reach the highest peak and scatter the ashes of a woman named Faye. She is survived by her husband and son, Kratos and Atreus: the game’s playable characters. It turns out that the highest peak is a distant mountain, and the trip to reach that destination comprises most of God of War’s gameplay.
If you’re familiar at all with video games, you’re probably aware this isn’t Kratos’s first rodeo. His adventures in previous God of War games are both legendary and… laughable. Kratos began a revenge quest in the original God of War (2004) that would lead to six games of him killing famous figures like Gaia, Hermes, Hercules, Hephaestus, Ares, Chronos, Poseidon, Hades, a hydra, like 200 minotaurs, Medusa, Hera, and Zeus. The “Ghost of Sparta” was almost constantly full of angst and anger, to the point that it became a little ridiculous. Even the motivation of being tricked into murdering his entire family and then betrayed by both gods and titans eventually grew to the point of absurdity. Kratos ended his PlayStation 3 career as equal parts badass, god-slaying machine, and emotional man-child.
This is what makes God of War (2018)’s older Kratos immediately relatable. Somehow, the team at Sony Santa Monica managed to put remorse and decades of pain on a video game character’s face. This Kratos looks sad, and a little bit grumpy, but maintains his intensity. They turned his boiling rage into molten lava, in a manner of speaking. It’s like comparing Wolverine to John Wick. Both will murder the shit out of you, but in different ways. They toned him down, and made him realistic, but didn’t at all make him soft.
Equal credit for successfully reimagining Kratos should go to God of War’s writing team. Rather than surround a chaotic story element like Kratos with adversaries, this game groups him with a faithful advisor, helpful comic relief in the forms of a pair of shopkeepers, and Atreus, his own son. It’s also commendable that these characters frequently reference their love for Faye. By constantly showing the player ways in which Faye was clearly a remarkable, benevolent woman in life, we’re left to constantly wonder how someone like that managed to basically tame a monster like Kratos. It’s this line of thinking that truly lends humanity to the character. If he could be in love with Faye so deeply that he’d become an entirely different man, how deep must his sorrow be now that she has passed away? It’s a question the game only hints at answering but every time it comes up, it’s in one of the game’s many powerful conversations. The dialog in God of War is some of the best I’ve ever heard in a game, and it’s reason enough to recommend a playthrough on its own.
The vast majority of these conversations are between Kratos and Atreus. The latter, a pre-teen boy who barely knows his father, is handled much better than I was expecting. Atreus has his moments of being “a kid” in all the ways that can be so annoying in adult media, but overall, he develops better than most characters. I’ve often commented to people that the best contrast of a game with excellent storytelling versus one without is to compare the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot with The Last of Us. Both games are trying to tell a similar story of a normal person being forced to survive a kill-or-be-killed situation. Tomb Raider spends about two and a half games trying to believably get Lara Croft to that point. The Last of Us successfully evolves Ellie in the length of about two cutscenes.
Atreus has his own survival arc as he learns to fight alongside his father, and his story leans much heavier in the direction of Ellie’s. However, in addition to learning how to properly shank a draugr, he also has to form a relationship with Kratos. Their apple-and-grumpy-orange relationship is used as a powerful tool to develop both characters. When Atreus is anxious, Kratos explains the virtues of patience. When Kratos’s more murdery side crops up, Atreus is there to calm him down. And when Kratos has anger towards his son, their mutual love for Faye keeps the pair focused and on good terms. Their struggle to maintain a working relationship is consistently realistic and understandable, barring a few rare instances.
And that’s where the real strength of God of War’s writing lies. Because the characters’ motivations are so relatable, it leads the player to start dreading the sorts of issues the characters should dread. When Atreus begins questioning why Kratos is so distrusting of the gods, it’s easy as a player to understand Kratos when he so often responds with “No more questions, Boy.” How do you explain to a ten-year-old that you were forced to murder your last family, on the day his own mother was cremated? How do you even explain to someone you’ve known for ten years that you had a “last family”? When’s the right time to drop the “I’m also a demigod and I’ve been to hell twice,” bombshell? God of War makes the player ponder these thoughts by making sure you rarely actually hear Kratos’s true feelings on these issues, but you just know what he thinks by his silence, gestures, facial expressions, and actions. You know, like with real people. When the times do come that Kratos has to address his past with characters in this game, those moments always deliver.
The setting of God of War has moved from ancient Greece to Norway, transitioning from Greek mythology to the Norse pantheon. For the lore nerds out there, Santa Monica has more than done the work. Appearances and names are accurate to the real-life legends. They’ve even created visual effects for things like the world tree, matching their descriptions in real-life Norse mythology writings from hundreds of years ago. If you’re the type who knows where the accent marks belong on the name Jörmungandr, you’ll appreciate this game. Obviously, liberties must be taken to tell an original story, but for me, they added their own twists and changes with exactly the right balance. And the final few moments of the story play within the familiar rules of Norse mythology lore in a way that blew my mind. It’s one of those stories that leads to intense forum debates, Googling words like “world serpent”, and that “I need to talk to somebody about this right now,” feeling we get after Marvel movies.
“I've never been in a giant's belly either. Have you, father?”
“Never one that was not trying to eat me."
God of War’s new combat system is a resounding success. The original series comes from that Devil May Cry/Bayonetta era of long combos and rooms full of enemies. If I had to compare this game’s fighting system to anything, I’d say it plays like a cross between Dark Souls and Resident Evil 4. The overhead view you’d expect from the series is now an over-the-shoulder camera, so survival means staying aware of enemies that may be on your flank. You can never overcommit to wailing on one foe, because there’s probably something that can kill you in one hit sneaking up from behind. There’s both a quick sidestep and a combat roll, and each has its uses. God of War takes its time rolling new mechanics into its fighting system, so it can feel a little too simple for the first few hours. For me, as one of those Souls masochists, I enjoyed the grind of trying to kill dangerous enemies with basically just one light and one heavy attack at my disposal. But when it does open up, fighting becomes even better. God of War’s combat gets good enough that the game has an endgame dungeon with repeatable combat encounters and it’s actually super fun to repeat.
Atreus is a constant companion in the game, and that means he’s also a major part of combat. The square button is basically the “Boy” button, as it triggers Atreus’s actions. Tapping square will cause him to fire arrows at your target, and holding it will make him use a magic ability. Most enemies have both a damage meter and a stun bar, and stunned enemies can be one-hit killed by a grapple attack. Arrows from Atreus typically do more stun damage than normal damage (in addition to other effects as you level up) so you’ll eventually start working his attacks into your tactical plan. These ranged attacks also force enemies to focus on Atreus, so you’ll use that option for breathing room when things get too real. He can’t die or even really be incapacitated in 99% of encounters, so the “Boy” button is yet another great addition to an already excellent combat system. Atreus also gains more combat abilities as the story progresses and he becomes a more competent fighter, and, in a great melding of gameplay mechanics and writing, he'll helpfully call out when you're about to take damage from off-screen. The timing of these call-outs is perfect, allowing you to dodge a flanking attack just as it whiffs by more often than not.
You’ll learn to use all the different aspects of combat, in part because this is a game that is not at all afraid to kill you. Death simply means a loading screen and a respawn, so it’s not going full Dark Souls, but it will kill you very often. Santa Monica seemed intent to avoid players mashing buttons until the credits roll, and winning actually feels like an accomplishment. You will learn to think tactically, and adapt to new mechanics if you plan to get through. That said, there is a difficulty setting for people who do just want to see the story.
Combat is also supported by the character leveling system, which I personally did not expect in the slightest. God of War games always have a skill tree, and that’s present here, but there’s also a gear system. Fortunately, it is not yet another one of those random loot setups with your purples, and your legendaries and so on. Equipment is all scripted into specific areas of the game, while enchantments with various effects and stats are a mix of scripted items and random drops. However, none of the rare items are random drops, so you can specifically set out to make a build you want, and never have to grind. The materials and cash to upgrade those items can be subject to some randomness, but even that is small. Every boss drops all its loot the first time you defeat them, and you move on. I was able to pick up every endgame gear set in the game just by taking on side quests and fighting the optional bosses one time each.
The game is less focused on artificially increasing its length with grinding and more with giving you all the options, and asking you to decide how to use those effectively. After about 20 hours, I started to notice that gear seemed to be split in three ways. It either gave more physical damage, more magic/elemental damage, or provided more defense. So, God of War essentially lets you decide between being a melee DPS, a spellcaster, or a tank. Kratos will always have the same attacks available, but their potency will be affected by your stats. So, if you prefer strength, you might use special abilities that depend on physical damage. If you spec for magic, you might equip enchantments that increase your elemental damage output. A “tankier” Kratos will benefit from skills that trigger when you successfully block or take damage. The depth of this system, combined with the quality of its combat, really put most action game series to shame. Devil May Cry V and the next Bayonetta better step it up.
God of War also has a fantastic take on open world games. While this game’s world isn’t a wide-open field like a Skyrim or Fallout, it still features a huge world and allows the player to freely roam through it. I won’t get too deep into how it’s laid out since the revelation of how “big” the game was truly surprised me, but expect to spend at least 35 hours in Midgard. It’s a unique take on an open world that feels more Dark Souls than Far Cry.
The world design is also surprising due to the game’s staggering presentation. This is one of those games that almost has to be seen to be believed. It’s easily among the best-looking video games available on any platform and even on a base PS4, it maintains a steady frame rate. There’s a quality level to the animations that is hard to put into words, too. Kratos’s attacks look and feel hefty, and the Leviathan Axe, his main weapon, steals the show. It can be thrown and recalled at any time, making it useful in combat and in puzzles. Calling the axe back so that it tears through a group of enemies on the return trip is consistently fun.
I tend to have a fondness for games that solve problems other games or series can’t. God of War needed to justify its existence. The old series, while great in other ways, was stale. Kratos was a one-note character, and the idea of making a new series today, with nothing but a graphical update, was a turn off even for fans of the first six. Open world games are also growing stale, and loot-driven character progression systems are almost always boring (even as series like Assassin’s Creed and Destiny keep introducing them). I appreciate a video game the most when I can see it relies on familiar, maybe even stale ideas, and does them so well they still feel refreshing. We’ve all played some games like God of War, but it’s still in a class with very few peers. The quality of writing on display here is nearly unmatched.
If you have a PlayStation 4, play this game. If you don’t… I sincerely hope Red Dead Redemption 2 is truly incredible because I can’t imagine another game coming this year will be anywhere near this good.
God of War is a masterpiece.
(An outstanding game with negligible flaws)
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