Better late than never, right?
A rugged, wiser Kratos stares solemnly at a tree, placing his hand along the bark -before swinging his axe to bring it down. His wife intended for him to use this tree as the pyre for her cremation. Compare that to previous intros which featured the Ghost of Sparta swinging his weapon still, yet at a more tangible target. Colossal enemies that in series tradition had long signified the beginning of a God of War game, whether it be the Hydra of God of War, the Colossus of Rhodes in God of War II, or Poseidon in God of War III. Cinematic boss battles had become recurring not only to up the spectacle in the newest entry, but also to set the tone for the remainder of the game- to put it succinctly, these introductions served to pitch a hyper-masculine rodeo, a tale of a bad man against even worse Gods and monsters. While the slow, methodical intro lacks the electrifying bombast of previous entries, it nonetheless remains poignant in illustrating how a rage-filled caricature of masculinity has become a far more thoughtful character to mirror a larger shift for the franchise.
Its hard to expect much from a franchise whose gameplay and aesthetic was window dressing to high-octane gameplay centered around killing all manner of creature, but with this soft-reboot, director Cory Barlog and team have redefined and dare I say improved upon what it means to be a God of War game.
Last time we saw Kratos, he impaled himself on the blade of Olympus, casting himself into the sea- as if to express a finality to the franchise, after all there’s no coming back from turning Greece into an apocalypse and killing all major gods. Unfortunately for Kratos, killing a God is pretty damn hard, so he packed up to things and relocated to Scandinavia, under the authority of the Norse pantheon. As mentioned, this Kratos is a lot more thoughtful and patient, he got hitched (again), had a son named Atreus and now resolves to live a calm, quiet life in the woods, avoiding Gods as best as possible. Kratos, sticking true to his roots as a warrior, was often out hunting, leaving his wife (Faye) to raise their son alone.
With her passing, Kratos faces his hardest challenge yet: being a father. Their task is simple enough, to honor her last wish in spreading her ashes atop the highest peak in the nine realms. This plot thread is alarmingly simple in a franchise involving the fate of the world, but fear not- this relatively simple premise makes for a far more compelling and engrossing tale than any of the previous God of War games. What starts out as a family matter very quickly becomes a larger affair involving mythical creatures such as dragur and elves, travelling the nine realms, and of course, Gods, whom Kratos cannot help but run into despite his desire for the alternative. Despite the increasing complexities and elements of the plot, it remains faithful to its original vision as a story of Kratos becoming a mentor and father to his son, and perhaps finding redemption in this endeavor.
Most impressive about God of War is how it not only remembers its past but addresses it in a meaningful and progressive way. God of War (2005) was a milestone in gaming not only for its impressive gameplay and technical features, but also its iconic and violence-fueled protagonist. That game began with Kratos casting himself into the Aegean Sea, forsaking the Greek gods for having abandoned him-and so began a blood-soaked tale of vengeance that served to make Kratos even more monstrous with each entry. In a way, this hulking mass of meat and anger was rather reflective of the gaming industries’ own angst by dialing every gaming trope to its logical extreme. One has to appreciate this lack of pretention, but in today’s landscape where developers are making an earnest appeal for videogames as art, Kratos- and the God of War franchise by extension- promoted a juvenile image of videogames better left in the past. And as cliché as it might sound, Kratos himself was the poster-boy for toxic masculinity, which only further complicated matters.
By the end, Kratos was wholly-unlikeable and irredeemable, even the most ardent God of War-stans would have a hard time justifying his penchant for carnage. It would be easy to forget this problematic history and brush it aside, but God of War does not take the easy way out on this one — it illustrates Kratos coming to terms with his past, not explicitly seeking redemption but only to ensure that his son will not follow in his footsteps. Through this journey, Kratos becomes infinite more likeable, and the game does go towards great lengths to humanize him as a character. Curiously, it stops just short of rectifying his history, and perhaps suggests that he is not deserving of a true redemption. God of War does not let us forget that Kratos is a monster, it only reminds us even that monster has capacity for change.
This shift in thematics is appropriately accompanied with a shift in gameplay, as if to suggest a more intimate tale, the camera is now over-the-shoulder, a style most often associated with games in the third-person shooter genre. The previous entries in the franchise favored a perspective more widely seen in the character action genre, with the camera fixed regardless of the character’s position. The older camera made way for large-scale battles and cinematics, yet despite worries this new camera manages to not only accomplish but heighten this sense of scale. Its one thing to see just how small Kratos is in comparison to the creatures he encounters, but it is even more thrilling to be put in intimate contact with Kratos in these large-scale cinematic moments. Whereas the older games were simplistic takes on Japanese hack-n-slash games such as Devil May Cry, this God of War runs more along the lines Dark Souls and Bloodborne in being for tactical and encouraging patience and crowd-control as opposed to button mashing and raking combos.
Long gone are the iconic blades of chaos, replaced with a slower, yet more methodical Leviathan axe, a weapon whose initially simple outlook disguises a myriad of upgrades and combos that will leave you forgetting you even missed the blades. The combat feels brutal, responsive and meaty, as Kratos has not grown softer in his old age and can still perform brutal executions if an enemy’s stun meter is filled. This stun meter is different from the normal health bar in that it rapidly degrades if untended and is best filled with good ol’ fisticuffs. David Jaffe, the creator of God of War, once said he hoped the series would be the wests answer to the mechanic-heavy action games of Japan. I do not think that level of finesse was reached with the older games, but I do think this God of War deserves to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of Japanese character action titles. The only thing I can truly criticize here is a lack of bosses. While the ones that are present are excellent, I could not help but feel just satisfied with the quantity and not overwhelmed.
Moreover, this review would be incomplete without mention of Atreus, or as Kratos more commonly refers to him as, “BOY!”. Boy — I mean Atreus — is the child character in a long line of recent games that have subscribed to the “dadification of gaming” trend. Not that I’m complaining, this trend has led to incredible characters such as Ellie from The Last of Us or Ciri from The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Atreus too deserves to stand alongside these characters, being one who is charmingly curious and endearing in his naivety. He also is insanely useful in combat, pro-tip: if your confused about what to upgrade, just upgrade Atreus’ abilities because he will be your most useful tool in crowd-control and distraction. The anchor of this story in many ways is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus, with the Norse background in many ways acting as window-dressing to a largely personal and character driven story, and the dynamic between these two characters encompasses both comedic and dramatic beats that portray a highly realistic and dynamic relationship — well, as realistic as you are going to get in a story about two Gods.
Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of the gameplay comes not from the excellent combat, but rather the sense of exploration and discovery. God of War is not an open world game, but it does contain areas that are open and encourage adventure. There always seems to be something interesting around the corner. An optional boss perhaps? Or maybe a talisman that slows down time? I found myself constantly floored by the attention to detail and how following seemingly insignificant trails would lead to new side quests, treasures and foes. I am very much reminded of a very classical idea of videogame adventure, which is often accompanied by a sense of genuine wonder and awe in discovery.
Entire regions and bosses are relegated as optional material, but the most fascinating thing is that all of this side content feels worth doing, as there is so much unique content that would be inaccessible otherwise. Unlike many open-world games in which side content can often feel ubiquitous, God of War’s tasks never feel like busywork and are always driven by the player’s desire to see more. Moreover, these tasks never feel meaningless for our characters either. Atreus is always keen on helping others, and Kratos sees these as good opportunities for collecting gear and teach his son. Most open-world games have side activities only prompted by the player’s own interest, and never feel consistent with the urgency of the plot — but God of War deftly weaves believable motivation in pursuit of these optional activities.
Lastly, I will touch on the technical side of the game because boy, does it bear mentioning. Firstly, the gimmick of this game is that the entire game, from start-to-end is done in a single take. What that means is that all transitions from cutscene to gameplay are completely seamless. I’m no systems engineer, but as an armchair designer I can tell this was a mammoth’s undertaking, and in the end the effect is not at all lost upon the player. Sure, you will probably forget its even there — but when the game kicks into high-gear, rapidly switching from gameplay and cutscene, I guarantee that this directorial choice will pay dividends. God of War may also just be the best looking Playstation 4 game to be released at present. Its facial animations are not as detailed as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End nor is the lighting system as robust as Horizon: Zero Dawn, but the high graphical fidelity combined with an impeccably unique art-style allows this game to become more than the sum of its parts visually. The music is composed by Bear McCreary of The Walking Dead fame, and the score shines in everything from its bombastic battle tracks to its more somber tunes.
When it’s all said and done, God of War’s place in the conversation will not be in whether it is one of the best games of the year, but rather its place amongst the greats of this console generation. Very few games feel like classical adventures from generations past, fewer still serve as sequels daring to change formula. Hardly any challenge and confront the themes of previous entries, mirroring the evolution of the gaming industry as whole. God of War does all three and stands not only as a masterpiece of a video game, but as part of the forward-thinking vision of video games as art. Mayhaps the Kratos of old was a good outlet of my own male-teenage angst, but I have grown up since then- and I’m glad Kratos has as well.