The main difference between the Greek and Norse mythologies is that the gods of Greece were more in line with what we traditionally think of as gods, while the Scandinavian gods are more akin to the cast of a superhero movie. The Greek gods would sit on Mount Olympus, only occasionally meddling in the affairs of the human subjects under their rule. They were all powerful and practically untouchable. The Norse gods, so the stories go, not only spent time living and interacting with humans, but even enlisted their help when they needed to. They’re extraordinary, and they’re superhuman, but they’re fallible, they hurt, they tire, they hunger, and they die.
This distinction is a good way to look at how the God of War series and protagonist Kratos have changed in the jump from PS3 to PS4, as this iteration of the long-running franchise attempts to be more relatable and less godly, more Norse and less Greek; it’s less about improbably chiseled, colossal beings battling atop the ruins of a once populated city, and more about dirty, bloody fistfights in the forest and uncomfortable family dramas. That it goes some way to rehabilitating Kratos as a character is nothing short of a miracle given his sordid past, and while it isn’t entirely successful (how could it be?!), it’s a welcome change of pace for the franchise.
God of War delivers resolutely on all fronts, a feat made all the more incredible when one considers that less than five years ago studio Sony Santa Monica cancelled a then in-development game and had to convince a lukewarm Sony that revisiting this franchise was a good idea at all. Sony was won over by the pitch, and even if you’re skeptical about the worth of going on another adventure with Kratos in 2018, you’ll likely be won over too if you’re willing to take the plunge.
“Everything is different. Try not to dwell on it.”
The adventure begins with a heavily bearded, older, weary-looking Kratos chopping down a tree with his axe to build a pyre for his recently deceased wife. His young son Atreus is in tow, and together they transport the felled tree by boat back to their lonely house deep in the wilds of Midgard, one of the nine realms of Norse mythology. The twice-widowed father and his son set alight the body of their beloved wife and mother, and according to her final wishes, commit to carrying her ashes to the highest mountain peak in all of the realms to scatter them. Why, is not made clear. All that matters is that Kratos and Atreus are willing to undertake this dangerous journey to honor her memory.
It’s noticeable immediately upon starting God of War that this is a very different beast than the games in the series that came before. Just as the original God of War trilogy was a product of its time – hyper-violent and littered with gratuitous sex, seemingly designed for the singular purpose of appealing to teenage boys – and PlayStation 3’s maligned God of War Ascension followed the trend of needlessly tacked on multiplayer modes prevalent in that era, 2018’s God of War is very much a modern third-person action game.
Gone are the combo multipliers, replaced by a minimal HUD, while the camera hugs Kratos, keeping him slightly to the left rather than the pulled-back view of the previous games. The entire story is posited as a game-long escort mission à la The Last of Us, and the semi-open world is teeming with optional activities, items to collect, and challenges to complete in the vein of the rebooted Tomb Raider games. Combat is less arcadey and button mashy than previous iterations, and akin to a more approachable Dark Souls in some ways, while the storytelling is focused on telling a more human and emotional tale as opposed to the nu-metal rage of the previous God of War games. This isn’t to say that God of War is generic or is a shameless rip-off of other games on the market; far from it, in fact. It’s just to point out that this latest God of War game has taken inspiration from the advances made in the industry since Ascension; rather than stubbornly clinging to the past, Sony Santa Monica has opted to embrace change to wondrous effect.
One of the first things that Kratos tells his son in the game is, “Everything is different. Try not to dwell on it.” This is advice for his son in desperate need of a worthy role model, a role that the Kratos we know is wholly unsuitable for, but also guidance for the player; if you loved the way that God of War played in the PS2 and PS3 incarnations of the franchise then this is going to take some getting used to, but you should take the game for what it is rather than how it’s different to what came before. Yes, God of War has changed. But change doesn’t have to be scary, and even the staunchest God of War evangelists will surely be won over by what series director Cory Barlog and his team at Sony Santa Monica have achieved here. It’s different, it’s better, and it’s better than most us could have ever hoped it would be.
“One of gaming’s truly great weapons.”
Combat in God of War is ludicrously entertaining. It’s thrilling and tense in equal measure, with Kratos feeling vulnerable and incredibly powerful at the same time. A good player can decimate foes in all kinds of creative ways, but even the rank and file enemies you come up against can pose a threat if not taken seriously. It’s a delicate balance, and God of War nails it. You’ll never feel like Kratos is too overpowered, but he has a vast array of deadly attacks to employ, his shield for staving off enemy attacks, dodges and rolls to get you out of sticky situations, and his Spartan Rage for when things get really hairy. While most third-person action games give you plenty of options when it comes to weaponry, and some have simply way too much choice, God of War hands you the Leviathan Axe and lets it do the talking.
Despite God of War only being on the market for a week, it doesn’t feel premature to declare that the Leviathan Axe will almost certainly go down in history as one of gaming’s truly great weapons. Kratos can perform light or heavy attacks with a tap of R1 or R2, mix and match them into combos, and later unlock more elaborate skills for fight or flight as required. You can also choose to throw the axe as a projectile by holding L2 to aim and then tapping R2 to throw. Tossing the axe can be used to inflict heavy damage against a foe, target a specific area on a larger enemy, and outside of combat, solve puzzles. Once Kratos has thrown his axe at someone or something, he’s armed only with his mitts but still remains a force to be reckoned with. If you want the axe back, it’s a simple matter of tapping triangle, and no matter where it is it’ll instinctively fly back to Kratos’ hand at furious pace, and if anyone just happens to be stood in its path then they’re going to get cleaved.
Lining up the trajectory of your returning axe to travel through three or four enemies in a row never stops being a satisfying method of dispatch, and the THWACK! that occurs when it slaps back into Kratos’ hand still sounds perfect no matter how many times you hear it. It’s a blast using the Leviathan Axe, and levelling up the weapon via a Dwarven blacksmith allows you to pour experience points into a fairly robust skill tree to give you even more options in battle. Knowing when to use these attacks and how to chain them together is the key to victory, and once you’ve got a handle on all of your offensive and defensive options, watching Kratos in a fight is like watching a glorious, incredibly violent ballet. It’s rare to see combat in a video game look this good, and so it’s a credit to the team at Sony Santa Monica that each battle in the game genuinely impresses. Charged attacks can maim enemies in all kinds of gruesome ways, and stunning monsters allows Kratos to use an instant kill move that typically involves an incredible amount of violence.
Atreus isn’t a helpless partner to be protected in battle, nor is he entirely controlled by A.I. You have a measure of control over Kratos’ son in a scrap, deciding when he should fire arrows from his bow, and who he should be firing them at. Levelling up Atreus makes him increasingly useful in combat, and there are even some enemies that would be next to impossible to fell without the youngster’s help. By the end of the game, Kratos and son make a powerful duo capable of teaming up to annihilate foes in tandem, or with Atreus acting as a diversion allowing his father to blindside foes for extra damage.
Kratos’ Spartan Rage mode – activated by tapping L3 and R3 at the same time once the appropriate meter has filled up – has our hero ditch the weapons and let blind fury take over, pummeling enemies with a series of punches, kicks, and other attacks. While in Spartan Rage, each successful hit refills Kratos’ health bar slightly, and every punch and kick comes with an appropriately satisfying thud that you can practically feel. Using Spartan Rage at the right time can often mean the difference between victory and defeat in battle, and it feels especially satisfying to come back from the brink of death and trounce your foes into dust.
“A gob-smacking technical achievement.”
Much has been said prior to the release of God of War about how the game is presented as one long take, and now that we’ve played the whole thing, it’s fair to say that this isn’t a gimmick or technical trickery without merit. The camerawork feels almost claustrophobic at times, staying close to Kratos as much as possible, and creating a palpable feeling of tension at all the appropriate moments. This up close and personal view of the action also lends itself to providing us a better view of the carnage, and helps to give the combat in the game a legitimate weight whereby every blow can be felt, every swing of the axe given genuine heft.
It’s a gob-smacking technical achievement, and one that is worthy of all of the praise it receives; a good enough player could, conceivably, make it through the entire game without ever seeing a loading screen, since these are only present upon death. Everything else – every battle, every conversation, every slaying of a towering creature, and every touching moment between father and son – is captured in one continuous, seamless take, that makes us feel like we’re a part of the action.
God of War is one of, if not the best looking console game of all time. Kratos’ character model is insanely detailed, and the various locales that you’ll visit on your journey throughout the Norse realms are beautifully realized. Creature design is similarly impressive, with the varying grotesqueries you’ll come up against in battle being mostly distinct and appropriately grim. Reanimated corpses shamble unsettlingly, trolls and ogres bear the scars of thousand previous battles, and when dragons roar you can practically see how many cavities they’ve got that require filling. The level of detail here is, at times, staggering. One small bone of contention, however, is that some of the enemies are mere palette swaps of other, earlier creatures you’ve battled, and while this is by no means an uncommon practice in gaming, it’s always slightly disappointing to happen upon a new boss fight only to discover it’s a different coloured version of one you took down hours ago.
The stunning production values of God of War are rarely more apparent than when transitioning between cut-scenes and gameplay. Sometimes when you’re walking the game will take over control and you might not even notice for a second or two, until the camera pans around to give us a better view of the conversation, or to show us something significant in the background. Similarly, once these dramatic scenes are over and control is handed back to you, you’ll likely find yourself questioning if you’re supposed to be doing something. It’s not uncommon for games to deliver their cut-scenes using the in game engine rather than with pre-rendered sequences, but rarely have we seen the transitions between gameplay and story handled so expertly. There are moments in the game that switch between gameplay and set-piece quickly, repeatedly, and they feel legitimately intense as a result.
While God of War is undoubtedly a visual spectacle, it’s not just a delight for the eyes, but the ears, too. Voice acting is unusually strong throughout, with the drama playing out sincerely and earnestly despite the often ludicrous subject matter. And the orchestral score that swells and ebbs at all of the right times is worthy of particular note, being one of the most memorable and impressive of its kind that we can remember. There’s scarcely a dramatic moment during the course of the story that isn’t enhanced by the sound design, drifting effortlessly from background music, to furious, tension-building strings, to full on choiral bombast when required.
“Trying to make amends for a lifetime devoted to self-serving rage.”
Perhaps what’s most surprising about God of War is how deftly the storytelling is handled, and how Sony Santa Monica has approached their anti-hero, Kratos, this time around. The series always had entertaining gameplay – although, as far as we’re concerned, this game stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to combat – but it’s always struggled to tell a truly compelling story, or to give protagonist Kratos much depth beyond shouting and eviscerating people. That God of War manages to make Kratos not only likeable, but a character we can almost believe is on the path to redemption by the end of the game is maybe the most astonishing achievement of all. There was a somewhat cack-handed redemptive arc for Kratos in God of War III, but this time around it works a lot better.
This is the tale of an old man, desperately trying to make sure that his son doesn’t walk the same path of violence and vengeance that he did, but without knowing how to truly connect with his kin on a human level. Kratos struggles to communicate with Atreus aside from barking “Boy!” at him at regular intervals, and at the beginning of the game it looks like their journey might be over before it has truly begun as the father decides that his son is simply not ready.
But, as they often wont to do in these types of stories, forces conspire and events unfold that determines that father and son must leave their home and venture forth into Midgard to complete their quest regardless of Kratos’ lack of faith in young Atreus. In the beginning, Kratos and Atreus struggle to connect, as the young son spent most of his time with his mother while his father was out hunting and whatnot. Now thrust into an uncomfortable role as a parent and guardian, Kratos grows throughout the game, and finally becomes a character capable of being more than a personified angry scream. Sure, Kratos still solves an awful lot of his problems via the medium of extreme violence, but at least he looks a bit sad doing it.
It’s not a complete redemption for the character, because those of us who played the previous God of War games remember just how deplorable some of Kratos’ actions were, but they’re from a different time and place, when “mature storytelling” meant blood, swearing, and boobs. Nearly fifteen years later, the creators of the franchise have grown up and so have the fans, so it seems only fitting that the characters should, too. It’s almost like the previous God of War games are mythical stories told in ancient taverns by gore hungry booze-hounds, unconcerned with nuance or humanity, and just skipping to the next murder, or gratuitous sex scene. Here, it’s like we meet the man behind those legends, and in the process, Kratos is elevated from a thoroughly unlikable but iconic anti-hero, to a semi-sympathetic lead trying to make amends for a lifetime devoted to self-serving rage.
The relationship between the son who desperately wants his father’s approval, and the father who wants his son to not want the approval of a person like him, is what makes up the emotional crux of much of the game, as Kratos struggles in a role that all common sense says he has absolutely no business playing. Atreus, for his part, is a largely likable and upbeat foil to contrast Kratos’ strong and silent type. The pair go through many ups and downs on their journey, and their tale hits all of the right notes emotionally by the time the credits roll.
The supporting cast is equally impressive and entertaining. The assortment of friends that Kratos will meet on his journey are colourful, unique, and frequently amusing. The enemies he’ll come up against are similarly well defined, and the battles against them range from enclosed and intense, to utterly bombastic showstoppers that wouldn’t look out of place in an Avengers movie. We’re being intentionally vague about which characters from Norse mythology show up in the story, and exactly what their motives are, because discovery is one of the joys of playing God of War, and each story development and character interaction is so beautifully rendered that they should be experienced first hand, without prior warning.
“Discovery is at the heart of God of War.“
And that goes for the rest of the game, too. Discovery is at the heart of God of War. Yes, there’s a main questline to complete here, and it’s an epic journey well worth the price of admission, chock full of narrative twists and turns that manage to shock and delight, as well as cataclysmic battles with super-powered enemies of all shapes and sizes. But the main storyline is only half of the game, and there are a plethora of side activities to take on. You don’t need to do any of these to get a complete and satisfying story, but they’re all handled with as much care and attention as the campaign, and they’re mostly worthwhile endeavors. There are optional super-bosses to take down, items to collect, legendary armor to craft, side stories to experience, and realms to explore that just following the main objective markers would never take you to.
This semi-open world is traversable on foot and also by boat, and no matter where you go the landscape is overflowing with beautiful sights to behold and engrossing short stories to experience. The boat is an excellent opportunity for a little chat, and some of the conversations that Kratos and son have while sailing do an excellent job of showing the growth and the development of the characters as the story progresses. Early in the game, you’ll meet another character who will spend some time in the boat with you, and he’s a little more loquacious than the stoic Kratos, making each journey more memorable by telling tales from Norse history about the lands you’re travelling, or the characters or artifacts that you’re chasing. These stories help to build up a genuine sense of history for Midgard and the heroes and villains that live there, and this world building will undoubtedly serve the series well when the inevitable God of War 2 arrives a few years down the line.
And there will be sequels, of that there is no doubt. Sony might have taken some convincing that God of War was a series worth resurrecting for PlayStation 4, but given what a triumph this game is it would be inconceivable to not take the story further. Sony Santa Monica are wisely restrained here in service of that, building up the legacy of many characters from Norse mythology that are never, or only sparingly used in the game. This is a complete story, and one that is utterly fulfilling by the time it’s all said and done, but there’s just the right amount of unanswered questions left lingering, and enough characters with scores to settle still breathing by the finale, that a follow-up story is a tantalizing prospect.
- Incredible combat
- Gorgeous graphics
- Beautiful orchestral score
- Jaw-dropping set pieces
- Enthralling story
- Some palette-swapped enemies
- Slightly cumbersome fast travel system