When Sony Santa Monica revealed its first trailer for God of War at E3 2016, I found myself skeptical. Despite having loved the original God of War, I grew sick of it by the third game. Kratos had gone from a unique, exciting character to a single-note, monophonic shriek of rage. He screamed, he tore off heads, and was generally uninteresting. It was a frat-boy romp through ancient Greek culture. The trailer, though, seemed to show a different Kratos. A tempered man in a different world. What’s the point, I remember asking. Why not just tell a story with a new character if you’re going to change him that much? And why make another Kratos story? He’s boring.
I felt essentially no hype for this game coming up to its release, but was curious enough to check it out anyway. After all, this is Sony’s big first-party game for the spring. What could Sony Santa Monica do with this character? Could I have possibly been wrong? Can they make good on the promises they laid out in the game’s story trailers?
Yes. Hel yes.
Dad of War
In my notes from Sony about reviewing God of War, there’s a lot of concern about spoilers. It’s reasonable – there are some great twists and turns, some of which you might see coming, some of which you won’t. But I don’t think I have to worry about that – there are no spoilers for God of War‘s story or characters in this review.
In this story, we meet a Kratos unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s still the same man, and the game makes that plainly clear, but he’s aged, grown, and changed. He left ancient Greece behind and with it that boiling need for revenge. Kratos is tired, but he’s not weak. His fire has been tempered. Like the Thor of the Marvel films, he’s less like Hulk raging fire and more like Thor smouldering fire. He ignites when needed, and you’re still going to burn yourself if you go poking around, but he’s not just chewing through an endless supply of fuel.
And that’s because he has a family, and that family helps build the core of God of War. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. A God of War game about family. And it tells the story in a way that doesn’t tear the history of the God of War series to shreds, too.
Kratos has already dealt with his past, in the bloodiest of terms, and left behind an empty battlefield. But he hasn’t dealt with it emotionally, and we see that throughout the game as he interacts with his son Atreus. Kratos scolds his son for making the kinds of decisions that an 11- or 12-year-old boy would make as he explores what it means to be a man in a brutal world like Midgard. But Kratos also seems to be at ill ease with delivering lessons to Atreus that he knows are hypocritical coming from his own mouth.
God of War is also about how parents try to protect their children, and how they sometimes hurt their children when taking that to extremes. It’s clear from the beginning that Kratos has not been the most present, nor most pleasant father despite what seems to be a deep love for his late wife. He also hasn’t been honest with his son about his own past or about the future that lies ahead of them.
He’s not the only one, though. Like Greek mythology, Norse mythology is full of parental mistakes. Marvel made two whole movies about what a bad father Odin is. God of War chooses its Norse gods carefully, both to make sure there’s room for a sequel or two and to make sure that the relations they chose can reflect against Kratos’ relationship with his son in an interesting way.
As I progressed through God of War, I found myself pulled into Kratos’ struggle more than I would’ve ever thought possible. His pain and confusion as he tries to be the parent he’s never been – and needs to be – are palpable, and believable. It’s easy to empathize with him. And his son, too, is hurting. He’s lost his mother, and he’s stuck with this hulking man who really doesn’t know how to look at him as anything other than a small adult who messes up a lot.
But they grow together and learn from each other. Atreus changes Kratos as much as Kratos changes Atreus. It’s less about Kratos carrying Atreus and more about how they support each other.
Both characters are people out of place in Midgard, and they need each other to survive. Kratos has the experience with Midgard’s brutal world, while Atreus understands its culture and can learn its history. Those bleed together, though, and soon it’s not such a clear dichotomy between the two.
God of Thor
All of this comes through in the gameplay, as well. The growing relationships, the conflict, the history.
I was worried about God of War discarding its history in the gameplay as much as in the story. But like the story, it pays respects to its history without being slavishly attached to it.
If it hasn’t already been abundantly clear, this is not your dad’s God of War. The ultra-linear button-mashing action fest of the past is replaced with something like – but not quite – an open world game. So what you get is less of a guided tour through mythology, and more the opportunity to explore it at your own pace. Midgard is a big place with a great deal to delve into much of it optional. You’ll tour realms like Muspelheim and Alfheim as well as diving into dwarven ruins and the workshops of dead giants and gods.
It’s more of a hub world filled with dungeons akin to something like Batman: Arkham City. Puzzles dot the world, and most revolve around playing “spot the hidden object” in the local environment. They’re optional, and each puzzle felt like it was rewarding me for simply taking time to marvel at the incredible visuals that make up the game. Finding the glowing runes in among old ruins, misty waterfalls, and damp, firelit caves wasn’t always easy, but it never got old. And better yet, it never feels like busywork. Every activity has a reward in the form of resources for upgrades or a bit of lore.
But that open world doesn’t mean the combat is overly simplified like we see in so many more open, less linear games.
God of War is filled to the brim with monsters to fight. They range in size from small to quite large, and each monster has its own strategy to keep in mind as you fight it. I spent much of the game feeling, if I’m honest, not very godly. God of War was really hard to start with.
I want to chalk this up in part to the controls. As you level up, you’ll get more and more attacks, but every attack is a combination of the four shoulder buttons, L1, L2, R1, and R2, pressed in various situations. There’s some logic to it, but the game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the logic. And so it felt like I was just pressing random shoulder buttons in various situations and hoping it had some effect. Much later, though, I started to master the controls and fully comprehend the meaning of the buttons, and I started to enjoy myself more. The game also gives plenty of opportunity to customize Kratos so that you can play through your style.
The moment I really started to grasp the controls was during one of the more difficult and optional moments. Littered around the map are Valkyrie battles, and each of these is significantly more difficult than almost all the battles in the game. While working my way through one of these, dying over and over, I started to make sense of the game’s parry system and got a better hang of how to use Kratos’ many special moves. I took the the time to study their effects and choose more carefully which ones I wanted to use.
This is also when I started to make sense of how to incorporate Atreus into the fray, and this is where the growth of the characters started to make sense.
Atreus is never a danger or an annoyance throughout God of War (unless a cutscene demands it, and even then it stays in that cutscene). Instead, he’s a partner you operate with the Square button on the PlayStation controller. His different arrows have useful and different effects that really came into their own as I dug into the “challenge” areas. It was then that Atreus became indispensable. The child that seemed extraneous in the opening hours of the game was now a partner in battle, one I wouldn’t want to play the game without. All the time spent playing with him at my side made the final moments of the game feel that much more significant.
Spot of Gore
Surrounding the story and the combat is God of War‘s visuals – its technical quality and its aesthetic presentation. This is the other area of God of War that left me concerned. The series has a reputation as being one of immature games for mature audiences. I could boil the original trilogy down to three core concepts – tits, gore, and Ray Harryhausen. It wore on me as the trilogy went on, but this installment reverses that trend. Every element of God of War is, simply put, stunning.
It looks especially good on PlayStation 4 Pro, where you can choose between an upscaled 2160p resolution and a higher frame rate rendered at 1080p. Either mode looks great, with the latter performance-focused setting offering a buttery-smooth frame rate while still looking very nice. The game is full of beautiful lighting, particle effects, and tons of nordic fog.
One of the most fascinating decisions the developers made was to put their entire game in what is essentially one long camera shot. From cutscene to gameplay, the camera never breaks away from the action and never cuts out to a pre-rendered cutscene that I could tell. Or maybe the team just masked it really well. But when action shifts, the camera just follows it like a documentarian on foot behind their subject. When it’s time to give the player control, the camera finds its spot behind Kratos and locks in. It added to the personal feeling of God of War, and made the feeling of being there that much more immersive.
But perhaps the most notable improvement is on the aesthetic front. God of War is a brutal game, and Kratos is constantly stomping heads and cleaving monsters in twain. But the gore this time is elemental rather than liquid. Ice-powered draugr (Norse undead) burst into a crackling, frozen mist, while fire draugr spray into red-hot fire. And when you do fight more human or human-like characters, there is blood, from Kratos and his enemies alike, but all of it is handled more tastefully. It feels like an R-rated movie rather than one that had to fight to avoid an NC-17 rating.
Even the bombastic takedown moves are tempered this time. In this case, the team seems to have taken a page from 2016’s Doom. When you stun an enemy and hit the takedown button, Kratos does his gory work, tearing the monster in half, stomping on its skull, and all of that, but but the game doesn’t linger on it. It’s not pornographically gory like it was before.
And on that note, there’s nary a breast to be found in this take on God of War. Aside from how strange it would be to have that happening in front of the child Kratos has with him, it wouldn’t fit the tone of the game, either. God of War purists may find changes like these off-putting, but to me it feels like director Cory Barlog has found way to preserve God of War‘s violent, harsh core without the previous games’ cringe-y teen-boy-notebook-art quality to the whole production.
The look of the game lends itself a bit more toward reality than the previous titles, too, though in ways this serves to enhance the moments of scale the game features. When you meet the World Serpent Jörmungandr for the first time, the beast is truly huge in a way not even the biggest of God of War‘s Greek beasts can compare to.
I had a hard time putting down God of War throughout my time with it. While the game doesn’t offer a readout of time spent, I’d estimate I spent at least 30 hours with the game and probably much closer to 45 or 50. More than once, I found myself thinking about the game while I was away from it, and “just 10 more minutes” turned into an hour as I literally lost time to the game.
In short, I was wrong. I was completely wrong about God of War. The series I was so done with is back. It’s beautiful. It’s heavy, meaningful, and mature. It’s a mature game for mature audiences. It’s a bloody, brutal game that can be incredibly difficult if you want it to be. It has a strong storyline, but tons of optional ways to keep exploring the beautiful world. It has twists and turns that are even more delicious if you know your Norse mythology, but those who haven’t dug into the legends of Baldur, Jörmungandr, Mimir, and the Jotun won’t find themselves in the cold, either.
Instead of a tired, bored tale of vengeance, Sony has revived a god.
Disclaimer: We received review codes for God of War from the publisher and played through the full campaign as well as a significant portion of the optional content before writing this review. All screens were captured on a PlayStation 4 Pro.