God of War (2018)
SIE Santa Monica Studio | Reviewed on PS4
A journey of epic proportions
This review will contain spoilers.
Back in 2010, after completing God of War III, I was convinced that I was done with the God of War series. Regardless if this was the true end of the franchise, I had decided to hang up my blades for good. Though I’d enjoyed my time with Kratos, slaughtering mythological beasts and, of course, murdering ancient Greek gods, I’d grown tired of both the games and the character. Wanton violence (however spectacular) and gore do not a good game make – after three games, there was simply no depth to the series, or Kratos, left to be found. It wasn’t enough anymore.
Fast forward to 2018, and the new God of War drops. The reviews start flowing in – “masterpiece” they say, “10/10,” “contender for Game of the Year.” My years old resolve slowly breaks, and fine, I think, alright, I’ll play the bloody game. So with a great deal of apprehension and expectations of disappointment, I started God of War. However, in the words of Thorin Oakenshield, I have never been so wrong in all my life.
A new era
God of War picks up with a much older Kratos – he’s got an axe! And a beard! He’s a lumberjack and he’s okay! – living in the woods of a new, Norse-themed land with his young son Atreus. The premise of the story is simple – as the game opens, it is revealed that Atreus’ mother has died, and she has tasked the pair of you with carrying her ashes to the highest peak in the realm. It is clear from the onset that the father-son relationship is strained, almost non-existent, and a large portion of the story sees the two of them negotiating their newfound reliance on each other. God of War does a fantastic job of allowing you to sympathize with both Atreus and Kratos – their grief, their fears, and their triumphs. This is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of this game – making Kratos a nuanced, and dare I say, likeable character. The happy-go-lucky, innocent Atreus serves as the perfect foil for battle-hardened and world-weary Kratos, with the dynamic between the two providing a solid backbone to their journey through Midgard and beyond. Older fans of the God of War series will argue that hey, the games were always deep (re: Kratos’ backstory in the original trilogy) but they do a much better job of portraying that depth in this most recent installment. Kratos’ inability to connect to Boy – er, Atreus – and Atreus’ subtly pronounced fear of being alone are used as a means of character development rather than an excuse to justify a bloody rampage across the Nine Realms.
It also needs to be said that the incorporation of Norse mythology into the game is flawless – ever-present, in both the background, and voiced explicitly through the dialogue of various characters. From Atreus translating an ancient story in a scroll, to paddling around the Lake of Nine listening to Mimir, one of the most endearing characters in the game (smartest man alive, in fact!) relate the various exploits of the Aesir gods, the game is steeped in a tangible and recognizable mythos. There are numerous realms to visit, lore to uncover, and bosses to lay a good old-fashioned smack down to. Experiencing Kratos’ struggle to navigate the waters of parenting is simultaneously one of the most heartwarming, and hilarious aspects of the game. Yes, Kratos is a father, but have no fear – he is still Kratos.
…And my axe!
The brutal violence that Kratos was known for in the original games is definitely still present in the reboot, which sees you ripping enemies apart with your bare hands, and cleaving draugr (re-animated Midgardians) in half, thanks to Kratos’ trademark new weapon, the Leviathan Axe. There is nothing more gratifying than throwing said axe at a distant enemy, and using the new recall mechanic to summon it back to your hand – potentially sweeping the feet out from a couple of goons on the way – to immediately resume fighting in close-quarters. Special runic attacks (light and heavy) serve as a replacement of sorts to the button combination specials of the original games, and there are a multitude of options for you to customize these to your own playstyle. The incorporation of simple new abilities, like blocking and parrying, can be utilized in endless different combinations with the other options the game presents you. For instance, the numerous ways in which to use your skills in combination with your environment come together to create an astonishing amount of depth to the combat. In addition to a health bar, enemies also have a ‘stun’ bar – fighting with your bare-hands, kicking enemies into walls, or targeting their backs will build up their stun meter much faster. Once an enemy is stunned, a special finishing move becomes available, which will always be a one-shot kill. This is where Atreus, seamlessly incorporated into the combat, really shines. His arrows (at your command with the touch of a button) while dealing minimal damage, help to distract enemies and build up their stun meters for you to finish them off. The skill tree system from the original games is back, which you can use to upgrade your various attacks (Atreus’ as well) and introduce new moves, meaning the options available to you only become more diverse as you advance through the story.
The combat truly shines on the harder difficulties of the game – while I was able to button-mash my way through many a fight on the “normal” mode, that simply wasn’t an option on the harder difficulties, where the game forced me to use every ability, tool, and conveniently located cliff to my advantage. The RPG-esque leveling system in God of War also allows for some flexibility in terms of stats – do you want to concentrate on strength? Or would a runic build suit you better? – which creates even more choices to adapt to an individual playstyle. Though the finishing animations can become repetitive, and enemy variety in the game is quite limited – you will be seeing similar types throughout the entirety of the game – the sheer diversity of the combat system keeps every skirmish feeling fun. The bosses in this game are a bit of a mixed bag – there are some huge, impressive fights – the dragon, and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni are standouts. The final boss of the game is also nothing short of epic, managing to combine both amazing visuals, and mechanics that force you to use every skill you’ve picked up along your journey. The Valkyrie fights (especially Queen Sigrun) can be brutally challenging and were a genuine pleasure to tackle. They were my favourite of the game. However, there are several “troll” boss fights that are re-used multiple times. It was disappointing to reach the end of an area, gearing up for an epic battle, only to find yet another one of these bosses awaiting you. I can forgive this, because the rest of the game is so strong, but it definitely needs to be addressed in future titles.
While you’re honing your hacking and de-capitating skills, making your way through Norse-mythology inspired Midgard is truly a spectacle to behold. God of War’s graphics are nothing short of stunning – the snow-capped mountains always visible as you work your way around the Lake of Nine, the dense, foggy forests, and the surprisingly diverse environments within the different realms consistently left me in awe. It needs to be mentioned that these gorgeous vistas are often punctuated (and indeed, elevated) by the accompanying sound design. For instance, characters’ voices seamlessly attaining a hollow, echoing quality as I paddle from open water into a yawning cavern, and other such phenomenal transitions and ambient sounds ensure you’re always fully immersed in the game. I frequently took notice of the musical backdrop – the deep, sonorous tones of a baritone choir (singing in genuine Old Norse, no less) as well as the striking female vocals, accentuate key moments of the game’s story, contributing to the cinematic feel of the game as a whole.
The “one-shot camera” that served as a major talking point both before and after God of War’s release is certainly the most critical aspect of the game’s cinematic feel – the gigantic set-piece bosses which the God of War franchise is known for are made all the more dramatic and intense through the up-close, over-the-shoulder viewpoint of the camera. I must say, I’m still on the fence about the camera positioning for this kind of action game – I occasionally felt hindered in combat by the lack of visibility. The game attempts to remedy this issue with coloured indicator arrows on-screen (for example, purple representing an incoming projectile) but I can’t help feel like the camera was just a bit off. The frame rate was smooth, and the only time I noticed any issues were when I attempted to sprint from one area to another when the game was obviously still loading in the background. Regardless, neither the camera nor the small loading hiccups ever disrupted my experience of the game to the point where I felt frustrated playing, or was pulled out of the action.
Another element of Midgardian exploration comes in the form of sidequests – while mostly linear, there are points in the world where Kratos and Atreus can do some exploring and good old-fashioned father-son bonding. No fishing though – instead, you’ll be freeing dragons, doing favours for lingering spirits, and murdering Valkyries. As you do. I love the optional sidequests in this game – they perfectly showcase Atreus’ upbeat optimism (and naivete) and Kratos’ jaded, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude. They can be a welcome change of pace. Sometimes, after coming off a big boss battle, or knowing that another long stretch of your journey approaches, it’s nice to just have a gander around the Lake of Nine. Listening to Mimir’s fantastic stories, and Kratos’ not-so-great ones (though I’ll give the frog and the scorpion one a pass for nostalgia reasons, as it’s a story my dad used to tell me) is genuinely entertaining. Whether you’re closing realm tears, discovering new areas, or doing Brok and Sindri a solid, spending more time in Midgard is always enjoyable.
Thematically, God of War is just so strong – I think it’s one of the reasons I loved the game so much. The core themes of the narrative are maintained at the forefront throughout its entirety, and along with some superb visual storytelling, they coalesce to form God of War’s incredible story. There is a fantastic shot, right at the beginning of the game, after Kratos and Atreus have laid his mothers’ body on the pyre. Through the smoke and embers, you see the two share a look – they are framed on opposite sides of the shot, a very noticeable, very emphasized gap between them. As you play, you notice that Kratos is more comfortable addressing Atreus as ‘boy.’ He rarely comforts Atreus, and imparts questionable-at-best wisdom upon him frequently. Compare this to the final shot of the game – they are standing side by side, finally scattering Faye’s ashes along the highest peaks in Jötunheim. The journey is over, and the two have come a long way, both physically, and in terms of their emotional connection.
There are also the dwarven brothers, Brok and Sindri, who are estranged from each other. They are not on speaking terms, criticize each others’ work, and yet, often ask Kratos and Atreus how the other is doing. Atreus asks why they can’t work things out – clearly they are at their best when they are together. They both insist this is impossible. Any yet, by the end of the game, they are working a forge together, cooperating once again. We see the friction between Thor’s sons, both vying for their father’s approval. Baldur’s estrangement from his mother. The Valkyrie sisters. Mimir’s tales of the dysfuntional Aesir. All of these family dynamics – some endearing, and some destructive – are constantly at the forefront of God of War.
God of War leans heavily into the theme of family, and by some extension, inheritance. What we leave behind for our sons and daughters – in the lessons that we teach them, the values we impart, and the things we leave behind when we pass on. We see Kratos stuggle to consolidate his past self, with the self he wants to present to his son. In what is maybe my favourite scene in the game, he confronts an apparition of Athena (real, or in his head, who knows) and makes the weighty statement “I may be a monster, but I am your monster no longer.” Kratos, though still struggling, makes the commitment to move on from his past, in order to “be better” for Atreus. The legacy that he wants to leave behind for his son is now a priority for this character, and the narrative is so much stronger for having delved into this rabbit hole.
God of War is the game that I never knew I needed, from a franchise that I thought I was done with. Not only is God of War a visual masterpiece, it also manages to tell a genuinely heartwarming story, and showcase a phenomenal example of a combat system with enough leeway to be both strategic and fun. Though the enemies can be repetitive, God of War’s combat, with its variety of options and upgrading systems, remains one of the most satisfying aspects of the game. The transition from a Greek-based world to a Norse one is well done, and for a new player, it would be hard to imagine Kratos ever being anywhere else. Verteran players will find Kratos recognizable – different, yet still every bit the characters we’ve grown to know – and Atreus the perfect addition to his on-going story. The depth to the characters and storytelling in this particular game is much more tangible, and kept in the spotlight, rather than being buried in the blood and violence of previous titles. The way that the directing and visual storytelling are able to communicate God of War’s themes in such a subtle way is absolutely first class. On a personal note, this is the first triple-A title I’ve played in a long time that I could genuinely feel the heart and soul that the developers put into the game. With some post-game content that is both challenging and engaging, and the recent addition of New Game Plus, I imagine that this is a game that people will be playing and talking about for years to come. Already being heralded as a generation defining title, I’m really looking forward to whatever direction the series heads next. Bring on Ragnarok!