Past God of War games have had their share of problems. Combat never felt impactful or complex. The pantheon of Greek Gods was worn thin after over four games, and the Greek mythos had lost its lustre. And, probably most importantly, Kratos was a boring character – a one-note anti-hero with a single drive and zero range, making him hard to sympathise with, predictable and downright frustrating. God of War, now on the PS4, not only rectifies all these issues; it pushes them in directions that help define the action genre in a new light. Sony Santa Monica has created a Kratos worth caring about, in a world filled with intrigue and mystery that is held together by continually rewarding combat and tight exploration.
Kratos, after years of violent bloodshed and toiling away at vengeance, is a broken man. He’s left the Greek realm in search of solitude, landing up in the Norse land of Midgard to start a family. The God of War hides his identity from all but his wife, not revealing his status as a god to even his son Atreus. With her passing at the outset of the game and the shift of parental responsibility over to the hardened war veteran, God of War quickly sets up a tale of both redemption and responsibility around these two central characters.
Kratos longs for a way to grieve, something that he’s struggling with while drowning in self-pity and regret. Atreus, on the other hand, attempts to cut through this with his childish innocence and charm. He longs to make an impression on his father, a figure who seemed barely interested in him during his upbringing. Without his gentle mother, Atreus struggles to chisel away at Kratos’ hard exterior but is unaware of the opposite effect. Kratos wants to ensure Atreus grows up without the same hatred and regret he now harbours deep inside. He doesn’t want to raise a son that will eventually want to kill his father, as he so painfully recalls.
This dynamic between Kratos and Atreus is central to God of War’s tale, one that starts off with the simple task of transporting Faye’s ashes to the highest peak in Midgard but quickly evolves from there. Conversations between Kratos and Atreus (and later the ever-entertaining sage Mimir) are frequent and consistently engaging. Atreus experiences a large character arc in the lengthy story, prompting stern and surprising parenting from Kratos as he blindly figures out how to measure compassion with responsibility. It’s a relationship that unfolds in an incredibly emotional way, mirrored by the struggles of the Aesir and pantheon of Norse mythological figures you’ll run into along the way. God of War is less about the struggles of Gods and Men, and more about the tricky relationship parents share with their offspring. It’s heartfelt and heart-breaking at times, but rich in a way in which this series has never even come close.
Norse mythos is at the heart of it though, and the shift to it is also a strong one. You might be familiar with names such as Thor, Odin and more from the deluge of Marvel films that dip their toes into this world, but God of War’s attention to minute details and its own spin on these figures makes for a welcome change. Odin is a bloodthirsty, power-hungry being that is uttered only in stories, while Thor’s drunken rampages are the stuff of both legend and horror. They sit alongside antagonists like Baldur, who maintains his mystery for a while before integrating himself smartly into the core parental narrative. Each character is brought to life with benchmark-setting voice performances and incredible animation work. Each conversation hooks your attention from start to finish, and you’ll often find yourself delaying progress to listen to the end of an interesting lore-filled tale from any who will tell it.
Most of God of War takes place in Midgard, and around the pseudo hub world of the Lake of Nine. This massive waterbed hosts the gates to the nine realms of the land, but also features a plethora of hidden coves and washed up shores for you to dock your canoe and explore. God of War rewards the careful poking and prodding of its world, always containing clever puzzles for you to solve in the pursuit of better loot, gear and more lore entries. Its exploration is supplanted by fascinating tales picking off the environments around you, which only enhance your desire to stray off the beaten path. As soon as more areas open, you’ll find the urge to put your main quest on hold almost impossible to ignore, losing hours to new combat threats and cranial challenges that never tend to repeat themselves.
These challenges are what make up the excellent pacing of the main path too, which is far more balanced than before. Combat is still a frequent and show-stopping affair, but there’s more delicate attention given to downtime in between and platforming to segment it. Puzzles themselves are never excruciatingly tricky, but they are designed in a way that makes their solutions satisfying. It’s easy to look at a handful of special chests and scratch your head at their solutions for a couple of minutes, only to have a eureka moment hit you after a little bit of exploration around the area you find yourself in. God of War’s quieter moments are consistently rewarding, but it doesn’t mean that getting your hands dirty is any less fun.
Combat is the meat and potatoes of any God of War game, but it’s refreshing to see it entirely reinvented here. There are shades of influences here, but God of War marries them together to create pulsating moment-to-moment fights that only get better as you go. The tight camera stuck to Kratos’ shoulder limits your view of the enemies around you, making attention to space and awareness of your reach paramount. Atreus will shout warnings at you for enemies outside of your view, who can often engage you in relentless combos that quickly bring you to the floor. Kratos feels far more fragile and in danger here, as the Norse lands unleash their worst for you to tackle.
Favouring a Frost Axe this time around though, Kratos is more than capable too. You engage enemies with a series of light and heavy attacks, both of which you can augment with infrequent special attacks that deliver magical damage. The axe can be thrown too (and recalled like Thor’s Mjolnir, which never gets old), letting you unleash fury with your fists as it sits rooted in an enemy’s skull and freezes them in place. Axe attacks do more damage, but your fists build up more stun, making the switching between them a matter of strategy. Some enemies are better engaged by pummelling them to a stunned finish state, which a quick execution will get them off the field faster.
Groups of enemies are smaller this time around too, but each enemy is far more dangerous. Moving around, dodging and parrying with your new shield give combat a rhythm and purpose absent from the series so far, and make each encounter feel like the riveting set pieces sparsely scattered across the series. These massive spectacles still exist, and many boss fights engage with their surroundings in destructive and exciting ways. But these are also no longer the quick-time festivals with little control, instead presenting themselves as challenging encounters that push your understanding of the combat. Extra challenges outside of the primary story test this even further, with some giving the same sort of dopamine rush upon victory I’ve only received from games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
Atreus plays a big role in combat too, outside of simply warning his father of impending attacks. You can command him to fire different types of magical arrows at specific enemies, with a smart controller layout keeping things manageable as you pummel away at the enemy in front of you. Atreus will dynamically attack enemies that seem to be giving you trouble too, jumping on their backs and strangling them with his bow to give you an opening. He feels like a natural part of the flow, and less of an irritating intrusion. Using Atreus to the best of his ability takes some getting used to, but he’s an irreplaceable part of the formula. He’s also the missing puzzle piece to the better than ever puzzle solving and lore building, with his unique abilities and affinity for languages filling a void that the more brawn over brains Kratos can’t.
Every facet of combat is governed by an incredibly deep role-playing system, which gives Kratos and Atreus options for armour, magical abilities and enhancements for each. Blacksmiths Brok and Sindri will craft new items for you and upgrade existing ones, which will push meters that affect your damage output, damage taken, ability cooldowns, ability damage and more. All of this can be tweaked to your liking, with options for the playstyle you choose manifesting from the gear you settle on. There’s not an overly obvious effect of choosing, say, magical damage over raw strength, but there’s enough to warrant your curiosity in at least testing it out.
New moves and abilities are acquired similarly, with experience points earned in battles pooling up as a secondary currency. This is then used to burn on new moves that expand your current repertoire or enhance abilities you already own. Each one can then be upgraded further, sometimes requiring a certain amount of a single attribute to unlock special passive perks or active abilities. There’s a lot to dissect when it comes to making the Kratos that suits you, and it can be incredibly overwhelming at first. But the more you play and the more enemies you face, the more attuned you’ll become at recognising weaknesses and opportunities, which in turn guide your selected attacks and path of progression. It’s a loop that is intoxicating, and only serves to enhance the desire to explore every nook and cranny of this world to find every possible item that might help.
It’s made even easier by the utterly breath-taking presentation too. God of War has always been a showpiece for Sony hardware, but the new Norse setting puts this new entry above and beyond any exclusive before it. Snowy forests contrast with blazing red lava waterfalls, with exquisite lighting and incredibly detailed models and environments bringing every facet to life. Detail is extrapolated around every corner. Blood pools on Kratos after a hectic battle, sweat dripping from his visible pores that the close camera angles give good measure too. The landscapes you explore shift and change with your actions too. Fights will destroy trees and rocks around you as you pummel enemies through them, each little piece of vegetation reacts to the swings of your axe and particles flutter in the air after a brutal finisher or picking up an item. God of War is a spectacle on the eyes – the sort of game you pop into your PS4 to show off why you chose the console in the first place. It’s a new standard for this generation that is likely going to be difficult to surpass.
Audio is as incredible too, with a roaring score that manages to swell with the action but provide delicate touches to the many tender moments Kratos and Atreus share together. Its use of old instruments is evident here, producing sounds that you might not recognise to produce a stunning orchestral score. Effects work is done just as well too. The crunching of bones during combat is rough and brutal, but musical cues for context-sensitive actions are never drowned out. With so much of your view obscured, it’s often crucial to use audio to predict attacks and movements, with the mixing doing an excellent job of declaring the information you need when you need it. It’s details that would feel absent if not done to this degree of detail, and God of War makes it look easy at times.
It’s impossible to ignore just how different a game this God of War is, but one that doesn’t choose to forget its past either. It ties its narrative and roots its emotional hooks in the mistakes of its past while reinventing both its combat and exploration for a more modern audience that craves more depth and freedom than the action games of old. But in reinvention its found uniqueness too. God of War might feel like a lot of ideas you’ve seen before at times, but it adds enough of its DNA to make all of them feel fresh again. This isn’t God of War in a new skin. It’s a game that defines the series going forward, and marks in the sand a new era for action and narrative adventures alike to aspire to. It simply is the best PS4 game you can hope to own right now.
Last Updated: April 18, 2018