Review: God of War

Kratos’ long journey for vengeance reached its bloody conclusion in 2010 with God of War III. With the Greek pantheon and Titans dead, Kratos ended the original God of War trilogy in the most un-Kratos way possible, giving hope to the world. In God of War, we find Kratos in a new land seeking his own kind of hope as he attempts to raise a son and control his rage. With a shift to Norse mythology and several tweaks to the established formula, God of War seeks to chart a new course for the beloved franchise. Does God of War successfully give Kratos a new lease on life or should he have been left dead atop Mt. Olympus?

God of War takes place long after the events of God of War III with Kratos settling in Midgard, re-marrying and bringing a son, Atreus, into the world. Following the death of his wife and the arrival of a mysterious man, Kratos is spurred into action to honor his wife’s final wishes. With Atreus at his side, Kratos embarks on a new journey to take his wife’s ashes to the highest peak in all the realms. Along the way, the duo faces numerous obstacles that threaten to expose Kratos’ history as the Ghost of Sparta.

God of War stories are typically violent tales of vengeance with Kratos seeking a tool to kill someone that has wronged him. While compelling, these stories have left little room to develop Kratos into a well-rounded character with his only defining feature being rage. God of War changes this with a thought-provoking tale of a man learning to control the hate and anger that had defined him for so long. While Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta provided a taste into the kind of relationship Kratos has with his family, God of War places its entire focus on the evolving relationship between Kratos and Atreus. The dynamic between the two is compelling with many of the emotional beats revolving around them.

It’s the father-son dynamic that mostly carries the plot, turning a simple journey into a more profound story than any previous God of War game has told. God of War can get considerably dark, but a colorful cast of side characters help breathe some much-needed comic relief into the proceedings. The game is wonderfully written with fantastic performances from the main cast. While the lack of Terrence Carson can be off-putting at first for longtime fans, Christopher Judge delivers a solid performance as an older Kratos.

While the story hits all the right notes, it’s not perfect. Plot threads are brought up and dropped, ominous warnings end up going nowhere and a few mysteries never feel like they get the payoff they deserve. Worst of all is God of War’s main antagonist. For a franchise that’s given us great antagonists like Ares, Zeus and the Sisters of Fate, God of War’s antagonist is a dud. With a bland design, little motivation and even littler screen time, the main antagonist doesn’t provide the epic introduction to Norse mythology that Ares did for Greek mythology.

Despite the change in setting, God of War is, at its core, a God of War game. Though Kratos may no longer wield his signature blades or do battle with the monsters of Greek mythology, God of War retains much of what makes the franchise so fun to play all while incorporating new gameplay mechanics. God of War’s combat mechanics are still about chaining light and heavy attacks together to create combos, dodging and parrying incoming attacks. The most prominent changes here come from button placement with light and heavy attacks assigned to R1 and R2 and dodging assigned to X. Kratos’ shield replaces the Golden Fleece but functions the same. It’ll block nearly all incoming attacks from the front, and when activated at the right time, parries attacks. While it may take a few fights to break the Square, Square, Triangle rhythm of past entries, God of War’s combat is as fun, fast and brutal as previous entries.

The Leviathan Axe stands as a worthy successor to the Blades of Chaos. Kratos swings it like a champ, effortlessly cleaving apart enemies. Coated in permafrost, the Leviathan Axe can slow enemy movement and dealing additional damage per each consecutive hit. Like in previous games, the axe can be upgraded multiple times to unlock additional combos, though the process is different. Specific items are dropped after completing important moments in the plot that can be used to upgrade the axe. Meanwhile, Kratos can also collect different light and heavy ruins that can be equipped to give the axe special moves. An additional weapon becomes available later in the game to add additional variety. While the axe is different from the blades, it’s just as fun to use against draugrs, trolls and all other manner of Norse beasties.

Probably the most significant change to the core combat loop is the introduction of Atreus, Kratos’ son. Rather than just being a nuisance, Atreus actively helps Kratos in combat by attracting enemies, tripping them or even jumping on top of them. Players can also order Atreus to fire arrows at the press of the button, which not only deals damage but also increases their stagger bar. Once fully staggered, Kratos can unleash the brutal takedowns he’s well known for. They’re as bloody and visceral as they’ve ever been.

Quick-time-events, which pervaded previous games, are completely gone. While players will have to perform contextual actions every now and again, they won’t need to press random buttons or jiggle the joystick while in battle. Players also get full control of the camera in God of War, which is both good and bad. It’s great to have control finally, but the current camera doesn’t give a useful overlay of battles. While a compass does clue players into where an off-screen attack is coming from, it’s still too easy to take damage from enemies off screen. The fixed-angle camera of past games may have taken control away, but it was easier to keep track of all enemies.

 

A great new addition to the formula is the RPG mechanics and gear system. Players level up Kratos by acquiring and upgrading new equipment. Every enemy Kratos faces on his journey will have a different colored health bar and number indicating how powerful they are with green being the easiest and purple being the hardest. Weapon upgrades, gear, enhancements and rune stones can all be purchased at shops or scavenged in the world, which you’ll need if you want to uncover all of God of War’s secrets.

In a significant break from the previous games, God of War’s levels are much more open with a lot more secrets to discover. While the story and progression remain linear, a large area does open up during the game that allows for freedom and exploration. Side quests, bonus fights and hidden treasure are there to discover, and specialized portals make traveling back to already discovered locations a breeze. While you don’t have to interact with any of this extra content to complete the main game, engaging with it has the potential to turn a fifteen-hour journey into a thirty-hour one. This is easily the most content-rich God of War game yet.

Santa Monica Studios is well known for pushing hardware to its limits to deliver a stellar presentation. Every God of War game has been a technical masterpiece and God of War is no different. The game is stunning with superb lighting, detailed character models and textures and well-crafted environments. The artistic vision used to bring the world and creatures of Norse mythology to life is astounding and its simply breathtaking traveling around the different realms. PS4 Pro users are in for an even greater treat thanks to enhanced resolution and performance modes that really do enhance the experience. God of War is a showcase piece of software for the platform. Rounding out the presentation is a stellar orchestral soundtrack that incorporates strings, brass and a choir singing in the old Norse language. Music in the God of War franchise has always been about using big instruments with a Latin choir. For this entry, Santa Monica swapped out the Latin for Old Norse and the results are a treat for the ears.

Closing Comments:

Vengeance may not be what Kratos seeks anymore, but that has done little to stop the God of War franchise. Santa Monica Studios have successfully transplanted the Ghost of Sparta to a new world with a new mythology and given the formula the revamp it needed. God of War retains many similarities to its predecessors, but the gameplay feels refreshing thanks to the inclusion of Atreus, the Leviathan Axe and the integration of RPG mechanics. While it’s nice that players have control of the camera, it’s too easy to lose track of enemies and take unneeded damage. The focus on the relationship between Kratos and Atreus adds depth to the character that previous entries only hinted at all while delivering a solid story. The main antagonist is dull and some plot threads are dropped, but they do little to pull away from the character-driven plot. Olympus and the pantheon of Greek gods are gone, but God of War stands tall outside their shadow.

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God of War