Video version of this review
This is the first of a two-part series of posts that I’ll be doing on God of War. This first part is my review of the game after being able to complete the game in its entirety. The second part is one that I’ll be posting later this week which will include spoilers. The focus of part two will be to discuss the philosophy, meaning, and admiration for the artwork that went into this game’s story. I hope you enjoy, and please share any thoughts that you might have.
“Be better,” Kratos tells his son. No two words would better summarize this entry in the God of War series. Betterment is something Kratos is seeking for the sake of his son. Betterment is something the Sony Santa Monica Studio sought after for the sake of the franchise. So, is this game better? In a word, definitively. From top to bottom, Sony Santa Monica constructed a masterwork that epitomizes the ascension of video games in the entertainment industry. We’ve known all along that video game production is becoming increasingly more complex, reaching broader audiences, and appealing to all ages. God of War takes this notion and runs the entire length of the field with it.
As an enormous fan of the series since it’s debut in 2005, I looked on at the marketing materials and promotions for the latest entry following it's announcment at E3 2016 with anxious excitement but also slight unease. I’ll be the first to admit that the tried and true formula of the series was starting to wear thin with the release of God of War: Ascension. It was a fine game but nothing memorable, and I never had a desire to replay it like I had the others. Despite that, I’m always apprehensive to see a property I love undergo a massive makeover. Nevertheless, I tried hard to not let this impede my excitement for another God of War game.
April 20th came and I plunged into the wilds of ancient Scandinavia (Midgard). From the moment I took Atreus and left home, I understood that I was about to see a completely new side of Kratos, a character I’d come to know for his bitterness and rage towards the ones who robbed him of a life with a family. The game certainly doesn’t pick up where God of War III left off, but it lets the mood, setting, and subtle highlights in dialogue help you form a vision of how Kratos came to be where he is now living a life in a new world with a son he barely knows. It’s easy to tell that his lack of a relationship with his son was not at all because he was a deadbeat father, but a method of distancing his blood-soaked past from his son. As I said, “be better” is the motto here and like any shameful regret or embarrassment one might’ve experienced, Kratos wanted to shun his past and lock it far away from his son. Of course, he certainly hasn’t become a pacifist by any stretch, but he wants Atreus to learn the difference between killing motivated with and without emotion. Kratos is opting for his son to adopt the latter, as his emotion is what led to the downfall of the entire Greek pantheon. Furthermore, killing without that motivation only means doing so to survive. It’s a terrifying world out there and like any parent, Kratos wants to ensure Atreus is equipped to handle it. But now that he is forced to form a relationship with his son, he has to confront his past. And he must help his son walk a fine line between the potential for him to be swallowed up by his genetic rage-induced nature and merely using aggression strictly as a means of survival.
All of that was gleaned from the first thirty minutes of gameplay. No, it didn’t all manifest as an opening narrative from Gaia (Greek titan who narrated the prior games) or any elaborate dialogue. Instead it was conveyed in a much subtler tone through simple body language, minimal dialogue, visual cues, and a stirring soundtrack to accompany the fluctuation of the mood. This, folks, is art. With only thirty minutes of the game, I could feel how narratively rich this game was going to be compared to its predecessors. The Greek tragedy that was Kratos’ life is certainly an entertaining narrative to behold, but typically only built upon one note: Kratos’ display of anguish. Furthermore, in those games, Kratos had nothing left to lose even as we saw him once attempt suicide only to be denied that as well. This game manages to display multiple layers to the character and introduce freshness in such a drastic way that it accomplished it through one simple, genius addition to Kratos’ life: Atreus. This game answers the question that we never got to see through seven entries. What would Kratos be like if he did have something to lose?
The game takes these characters on an impressively epic journey that introduces other characters with interesting back stories and pivotal roles in the plot. Athena and Gaia aside, this is also something the previous games lacked. At times, the game will leave you questioning the future of Kratos and Atreus with each twist and turn. In more instances than I anticipated, the story dealt intense blows that left me stunned. Completing the game will leave you wanting more, especially after seeing the true final scene to the game. If you haven’t completed it yet, look that up online once the credits roll so you know where to go to see the brief, but tantalizing scene. If you’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying the any of the entries in the God of War series prior, that shouldn’t hold you back in the slightest with enjoying this game. The threads of the past are present, but they are only threads. This is an all new tale for Kratos.
God of War visually and musically is beautifully realized. The imagery, locales, and terrain are as iconic as some of the landscapes we witnessed in the previous games. All of the character models, including the enemies are incredibly detailed layered with textures which many times involves elements such as fire and ice as well as others. In fact, I thought the creature design was so imaginative that I purchased the book, The Art of God of War, from Dark Horse publishing to enjoy what the team had created beyond the game. Additionally, the soundtrack is powerful when it needs to be and serene when the moment calls for it. It’s majestic, fluid, and always on cue. To put it simply, it’s beautiful. Again, I loved it so much that I also purchased the soundtrack.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this reimagining/soft reboot of the God of War series had me anxious. One thing in particular that I absolutely loved about the original series was the outrageous scale of some of the characters, settings, and backdrops. From the very first game, we witnessed Ares in the backdrop destroying Athens as a titan of a god. We hunted down the actual titan, Cronos, in the desert so we could enter the temple on his back. With the zoomed-out camera, I felt the developers had the freedom to make this even more cinematic. Many times, the camera would pan out so far back that Kratos appeared no smaller than a fly on your TV screen walking and fighting amongst giants. Seeing that the latest God of War was an over-the-shoulder view, I was afraid the franchise would lose that iconic staple of its past. I can happily exclaim that this is not the case. There are some large and beautiful settings as well as enormous beasts. Being so close to the character made me feel as small as Kratos walking amongst these giants. The sense of scale was certainly not lost on me. The earliest encounter with the world serpent is the first time the sense of scale will knock your socks off.
As a game, God of War, functions remarkably well. In fact, this game is the legendary pinnacle of what I believe most single-player or traditional gamers want. Here we have a game that lacks any sort of additional micro-transactions or any planned DLC expansions. Corey Barlog and team wanted this game to be the epitome of what single-player games used to be, and what they still can be going forward. It hearkens back to a simpler time when a single purchase provided the player with an all-inclusive product. This, of course, was one of many aspects of this game that won my heart early on before I even played it.
Additionally, the action and combat for this game are so incredibly smooth that the ease of movement, functionality of Kratos’ weapons and move-sets, and simplistic instructions make the game very easy to jump into and is simultaneously addicting. The Leviathan Axe, the primary weapon of God of War, introduces a fresh take on the combat. The simple act of throwing the axe at enemies and recalling it with the press of the triangle button never gets old. The combination of skills that are unlocked as the weapons are leveled up along with the special moves obtained through runes varies the combat and allows the player to customize Kratos and Atreus with the move sets that best suit their needs. Atreus is an essential and awesome variable to this game. At times, he makes a great distraction for enemies. Other times, later abilities for Atreus to grapple enemies enables Kratos to take a clean shot, or stun enemies with arrows really layer the game with strategy. If the game is attempted on “Give me a challenge” mode as I did, you will see that strategy becomes far more important than the previous God of War games ever required. Health bars are now visible in this game to help do just that. If you don’t like health bars because you feel they “clutter” up the screen, no problem. Just go through your menus and disable them, however, you may regret doing so on the more challenging difficulties.
As I mentioned previously, “leveling up” is a factor with this game as RPG elements have now been introduced. Enemies at levels far more advanced than your own are extremely difficult, if not next to impossible to defeat. Similar to Destiny, players must level up Kratos through crafting new armor, upgrading armor and weapons, and occasionally, obtaining XP throughout.
At the game’s core, I’m happy to say that this is still a God of War game. The Sony Santa Monica team has done something wonderful here where they managed to retain the DNA and core elements of what made the God of War franchise what it is while also being able to take the series in bold, new directions. They’ve found a way to bring newcomers into the fold while still appeasing fans. Sure, the game has undergone some massive changes that are all very exciting. But as a God of War fan, I was thrilled when the core of the series and many elements of it were still honored. I had many fanboy moments that made me feel giddy, like the first time I rode an ogre and used it to bash in enemies just I did with the cyclops back in Kratos’ heyday or when I could tear enemies limb from limb once stunned properly. The colored orbs of the past are still present but as glowing rocks/minerals. Green still supplies the player with health, red increases the rage meter, and white offers more XP. There were even glowing rocks that alternated colors just as the special chests one might encounter in the old series. These are some small examples, of which, there are plenty more. But then, even the core of the gameplay still very much screams “God of War” when you really take notice. Combat isn’t even necessarily different than the previous games, but is instead something I’d consider as “revamped” versus new. All the things I had mentioned are certainly additions and changes that have helped offer a fresh take to this game. Additionally, the over-the-shoulder camera offers a different perspective of the combat that we hadn’t seen in God of War games before which I belief also drastically helps its refreshing appeal. But as I said, the core of the game is attack, dodge, and parry just as in past games. The rage meter is once again present. All of these things, and many more, show that the creators knew how to perfectly balance the new with the old and for that, I really have to congratulate them on such an accomplishment.
This game is one for the ages and will no doubt top many lists of the greatest games in history for years to come. I have zero grievances with this game and agree with all that has been said before me critically. This game is truly a masterpiece, and anyone with a PS4 should experience it. Even for the gamers who do not have PS4’s, I am confident that this game will sell consoles much to Sony’s satisfaction. Games like this or Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last of Us, and much more are the result of Sony trusting its developers and allowing them to create the games they envision or are passionate about. When that happens coupled with providing the developers with the tools and, more importantly, time that they need to craft their vision, magic happens.