I’ve been pretty excited for God of War since its announcement a few years ago. If you had told me back then that not only would it be one of the best Playstation 4 games, but one of the best games of all time, I would have called you crazy. Yet here we are, it’s now 2018, God of War has released, and it heralds some of the best music, action combat, and storytelling in gaming. Not a lot of games can pull off this kind of reboot, but Santa Monica Studios has built one of the most immersive and interactive worlds in recent memory.
God of War is brutal, but touching. Some might think that fatherhood has softened Kratos, and he has definitely suppressed some of his true nature. Right from the start though, you can see his fury buried beneath his exterior, despite trying to keep it in check for his son, Atreus. This rage seeps out from time to time during their journey together to spread Kratos’s recently deceased wife’s ashes. This isn’t just a story about their journey together though, and it is pretty apparent the two haven’t spent much time together. Instead, the story focuses on their relationship developing through their common goal. Kratos must teach Atreus how to survive in the world, and Atreus helps Kratos learn about fatherhood.
This is something new to God of War. The depth of their relationship didn’t fail to surprise me from start to finish. From Kratos begrudgingly humoring Atreus wanting to help out citizens of the world to his anger when Atreus disobeys him. This is a side of Kratos we haven’t seen before, which sets him apart from the one-dimensional revenge driven Kratos of before. Their entire story is told through one continuous camera shot, and never takes players out of the experience. Large battles can transition smoothly into gripping story sequences which give the entirety of God of War movie-like qualities even during battle, without feeling like a Quantic Dream title. The strain of Kratos losing his wife is offset by humorous dialogue moments that help the pair bond. Early in the game while on a hunt Atreus asks “What are we hunting?” Kratos replies with “you are hunting deer.” Atreus responds by asking “which way?” Kratos gruffly replies “In the way of deer.” These moments alleviate the feeling of loss the two are experiencing, even while Kratos is teaching Atreus how to survive in the wilds.
As the Norse inspired story unfolds, with a new setting comes new faces. God of War has an incredible cast of characters. Throughout their journey, Kratos and Atreus meet new gods and a pair of blacksmith dwarves. Easily the standout character journey was Mimir, the Norse god of Knowledge. Kratos and Atreus come across him imprisoned in a tree for over a hundred years. After decapitating him and taking him to Freya to get his head reanimated he joins them for the rest of their quest. Mimir is crucial to the story for a few reasons (that I won’t get into to avoid as many spoilers as possible), but he also provides a ton of insight into the lore of the world while Kratos and Atreus explore. As the pair row around the Lake of Light, Mimir tells stories about the gods and the land. As soon as Kratos beaches the boat he says “we’ll pick this up another time…” Upon returning to the boat, the story continues. Santa Monica truly has hit the nail on the head not just with the storytelling, but also with how they relay lore. Instead of tasking players with just finding collectibles and reading, having Mimir explain the history interacting with the father son duo was an incredible design choice. Combine that with him remembering the story he was telling between both rides and God of War has set the bar extremely high with the small details.
God of War never fails to impress with its large set pieces. Mountains loom in the distance, while large towers lay in intervals around the lake in the main area. Most areas are explorable, and even though the world of God of War is much smaller than a lot of games, it makes smart use of verticality within the world to access new areas and make smaller areas seem larger than they are. The world is almost metroidvania in design. Areas are blocked off until later upgrades are earned, which makes backtracking to previous areas less of a chore because there is almost always new secrets to uncover. Even after 40 or 50 hours of playing I was still finding enchantments and chests in areas I missed after a couple times through a location.
Like most of the Sony first party exclusives, God of War is absolutely stunning with its visuals. Environments are incredibly detailed and varied. This is a living world, with birds flying through the air and wind blowing through the leaves. Textures are incredibly sharp throughout, and even areas looming in the distance have been shown an incredible amount of love. Most of God of War takes place in the central area of Midgard, with a couple other Norse realms stealing the rest of the show for the story content. Alfheim, the home of the light elves, and Helheim, the realm of the dead, each showcase new enemies and mechanics for God of War to utilize.
Previously, God of War titles featured a pulled back camera that showcased large areas of the environment. With this iteration, the single camera shot is pulled in close behind Kratos. I was initially worried that this would take away some of the wonder of the set pieces, but instead this works in God of War’s favor to making the world feel as epic as it has in the past. Some enemies loom over Kratos, and even some of the smaller enemies feel large because of the camera shot. This makes even the minor gods feel more formidable against Kratos, while displaying less of the world at any one time.
However, God of War has been built around large scale battles, and there are tons of enemies to defeat. Kratos mostly uses the Leviathan Axe this time around, an axe designed by the two main dwarves that serve as merchants, Brok and Sindri, on this journey. At the outset, Kratos only has a few basic moves. There’s a light attack and a heavy attack, but through the experience he earns defeating enemies there is a full skill tree for every weapon in the game. Early on, any enemy can defeat Kratos. Until the timing of blocking for a parry or backing away during certain enemy attacks gets mastered, timing is key. Kratos can throw and recall the axe too, and before I learned the intricacies of combat, if I was near death, I found myself relying on satisfying ranged combat. Atreus relies on his bow to attack enemies, and I didn’t learn how to rely on Atreus’s input properly until later in the game. There are only a couple different arrows that Atreus can equip, but a quick press of the square button has him target either where Kratos is looking or the targeted enemy. Different arrows can apply a couple of status effects that ended up being more crucial to battle than I initially realized.
In addition to revamped combat, Kratos and Atreus also have armor and enchantments to craft and equip. There are chest, wrist, and waist armors to use, and each of them can utilize various enchantments. Each piece can drastically effect various aspects of Kratos’s stats. Want to utilize the Runic stat to power up magical attacks? Craft a runic armor build. Want to focus on strength or defense? You can do that too. Exploring every nook and cranny in the world yields hidden enchantments that can offset any negative aspect of a piece of armor.
The orchestral score for God of War is one of the best soundtracks ever. The music underscores gripping moments, while picking up momentum building up to action sequences. Additionally, each area has its own unique score which helps set it apart from other areas in the world. Smart sound design like footsteps echoing off cave walls while Kratos crawls through a narrow passageway are highlighted by a lack of soundtrack exploring some areas. The negative space some areas create with a lack of the orchestral background help highlight the music when it comes back in.
There also isn’t a lack of things to do after the credits roll. If the player missed any of the unlockable realm ciphers, they should go back and find them, because the realms of Muspelheim and Niflheim highlight probably most of my gameplay time. Muspelheim will feel familiar to God of War veterans as each landing in the land of fire features a new combat trial. There are twelve combat challengers for players to undertake, with an impossible mode that is unlocked after beating all of the trials in Muspelheim. Niflheim was the highlight of my post game experience though. Niflheim is a daunting realm that nails a risk reward system. The entire realm is covered in a fog that Kratos can only stay in for so long before death. As he explores this realm, he finds mist echoes that can only be banked by escaping the area alive. Death means a reset, not unlike Dark Souls, except players can’t go back to pick up mist echoes that were lost. As players bank mist echoes, they can craft new pieces of armor that allow them to stay in the mist longer.
Lastly, in addition to the combat challenges of Muspelheim are Valkyrie battles. There are 9 total Valkyrie fights, and were the toughest battles in God of War. These battles require patience, and even the smallest wrong move can result in death. Small arenas highlight the intensity of each of these fights, especially the one that takes place in Niflheim, which forced me to keep an eye on my mist health bar while trying to tactically defend and dodge Valkyrie attacks. These battles were incredibly rewarding upon completion, and each Valkyrie battle felt different than the one before it, even if the mechanics of the fight stayed similar.
Sony has hit a home run with this reboot of God of War. Cinematics and battles blend seamlessly with gripping father/son moments leading into intense fights. Kratos is a changed, but familiar man. These changes are for the better, helping give Kratos an emotional depth players haven’t seen out of his character before. Battles are fast and fluid, and every nook and cranny absolutely begs to be explored. There is a ton of content in God of War, and even though I have now finished every side quest, found every collectible, and defeated every Valkyrie, there is still hard mode to complete, and I won’t feel like I’m done until I complete that mode. I don’t want to leave the world I have been sucked into, and I don’t intend to anytime soon.
God of War is available now for Playstation 4. This review is based on a copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.