The God of War series has been a staple on PlayStation gaming systems since the series debuted in 2005 on the PlayStation 2. Since then, we’ve seen series protagonist Kratos take his revenge on a number of Greek gods. Over the course of six games, we’ve come to know Kratos’ past, present, and potential future. The new God of War changes the formula a bit, but manages to keep the core themes the same. In many ways, this is God of War‘s attempt to evolve with modern gaming. Let’s see if developer Santa Monica Studios is able to strike gold yet again.
A Father’s Sorrow
The story of God of War is intentionally shrouded in mystery, and because of that, I’ll be equally vague in my explanation. The game starts with Kratos and his son Atreus grieving over the death of Kratos’ wife (and Atreus’ mother, as well). Her final wish was for Kratos and Atreus is to bring her ashes to the peak of a towering mountain nearby. For some time, Kratos and his family have stayed tucked away in the woods of Midgard, the main realm of Norse mythology. We’re not sure how much time has passed since we last saw Kratos, but he seems to be adjusted to his new surroundings. The loud and revenge-driven Kratos we once knew has grown more reserved with time. This time around, he’s more introspective, calculated, and focused on the task at hand. Kratos seems haunted by his past (as he normally does) but prefers to suffer in silence. His relationship with his son Atreus is strained to say the least; Kratos never opens up or seems to show emotion, and the young boy feels isolated because of it. As you progress through the story, we learn more about Kratos as Atreus does, making for a natural and organic relationship that grows over time.
The initial journey to the mountain eventually evolves into an even greater story, full of intrigue and adventure. You’ll meet some truly memorable characters along the way, as well as face some intimidating and fearsome foes. The allies that Kratos meets during the journey are varied and personable, forming a memorable cast of characters. Regardless of the role they serve within the game, every character is rich with story and personal motivation. They don’t feel like simple NPCs that deliver quests. Instead, characters feel like living and breathing things. The effectiveness of this character building transfers into the story telling as well. I often found myself completing side objectives not for the loot, but rather for the implications to the overall story. Through and through, the cast of God of War is one of the strongest I’ve seen. No character is wasted, and every single person has a role to play in the greater story.
Kratos Belongs to the Nords
Besides gameplay changes, the biggest difference in this God of War is the setting. Fans of the previous games know them as being firmly set within Greek mythology. The new God of War switches things up, giving us a tour of the arguably lesser-known Norse mythology. The overall narrative does a great job displaying and representing the vast characters within this mythology without feeling too overwhelming. This is done in a smart way, as both Kratos and Atreus teach each other things throughout the story. You learn as they learn, and thanks to smart writing and a good sense of direction, you’ll feel more educated by the time you’re done. Looking back on it, the original God of War taught me a surprising amount about Greek mythology. That sentiment remains true, as I felt myself learning more and more as I explored the world. The change of setting is welcomed and appreciated, and thankfully the fables and tales of the Norse are just as fantastical as the sort we’ve come to expect.
The Educated Atreus
A good portion of this education comes from the dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus. Atreus is able to read Nordic runes, whereas Kratos cannot. Additionally, Atreus is pretty knowledgeable about aspects of the mythology, thanks to stories his mother would tell him. Kratos is wise as well, but in different ways. As the duo progress through the fantastical world in pursuit of their objective, they are constantly teaching each other things. Most information is easily digestible, since it’s usually being told (or directed at) a young boy. This is a smart way to explain things to the player without insulting their intelligence; which is a great idea when considering how complex Norse mythology can be.
Atreus accompanies Kratos for the majority of the adventure, but that’s not a bad thing. Atreus is very skilled in combat and doesn’t require much babysitting during it. In fact, there was more than one occasion where Atreus saved me from a swift death. In addition, Atreus will also point out things in the environment. This helps for finding collectibles, navigating your path if you get lost, and more. From a story perspective, Atreus is absolutely essential. The pair jabber back and forth during their journey, and it was impressive to see just how natural and organic the dialogue was. You quickly get a real sense of their relationship, and watching the father/son dynamic evolve over time was one of the most satisfying parts of the entire game.
There’s no doubt in my mind that God of War‘s tour through mythology will be immensely satisfying to those who are knowledgeable about the source material. That being said, I was surprised at just how effective the game is as both a crash course on the mythology and a wildly engrossing character story. As focal as the action and mythology are, God of War is primarily a character story set in a breathtaking world.
Midgard and Beyond
There have been many changes to the gameplay, but everything still feels comfortable and familiar. This time around, the world is a bit more open, allowing Kratos to get sidetracked and undertake various side missions. The open nature of the game isn’t exactly “open world”, but there’s enough room to wander off the beaten path. Instead of one huge area to explore, God of War prefers to connect medium-sized areas together. This way, different areas feel entirely self contained, while still managing to be a cohesive part of a larger whole. The overall design of each area is incredibly well done, with ample amounts of shortcuts to prevent unnecessary backtracking. The overall structure of the game is fairly linear, and the main story quests are great at guiding you through the game’s world. Overall, gameplay is still a great mixture of combat, hidden secrets, and light puzzle-solving.
The environments are absolutely breathtaking, and the sense of discovery is simply amazing. Nearly every aspect of the game is imbued with a sense of discovery. A lot of the gameplay reinforces this idea of discovery, encouraging you to explore your surroundings. A notable example of this are “seal” chests, which are unlocked by finding and destroying three small urns hidden in the surrounding area. Most collectibles and chests usually have some sort of small puzzle attached to them as well, adding another layer of depth. These collectibles are a perfect example of God of War‘s evolution. In previous games, hidden chests would often reward experience points or specific items that upgraded Kratos. That central idea stays the same, but the gameplay surrounding it has been made more satisfying and complex. This core idea sits at the heart of the gameplay; improving upon solid ideas to create an experience that is both new and familiar.
A New Kind of War
The most radical change in God of War is character progression and combat. While the heart of combat feels the same, the systems and mechanics surrounding it have changed quite a bit. Everything has been made a bit more complex by infusing RPG elements into the mix. Instead of using his lengthy chained Blades of Chaos, Kratos now wields the Leviathan Axe; a hulking weapon with ice magic that can be thrown and then instantly recalled to his hand. The axe is great fun to use, and Kratos’ combos and abilities are complex enough to give you a good amount of strategic options. This is important, because enemies often attack two or three at a time, flanking you and catching you off guard. Besides beating enemies to a pulp with his axe or usually his bare hands and a shield, Kratos can also throw his axe like a projectile. Simply tapping the “triangle” button causes the axe to fly back to Kratos’ outstretched hand, resulting in a move that is so satisfying that it never gets old.
Kratos and Atreus can both equip various pieces of armor, all with different stats attached. These RPG-esque stats are pretty self explanatory; you can increase your strength, defense, vitality, and more by finding different gear. You can also upgrade your weapons and gear using resources you find in the environment, whether gained from dead enemies or hidden chests. As you upgrade your weaponry and become more powerful, you can unlock skills by spending experience points. Experience points can be gained in a variety of ways, but mostly revolve around combat challenges known as “labours” and completing missions. For instance, some labours might task you with killing 100 enemies, tripping 25 enemies with your thrown axe, parrying 10 enemy attacks, and so on. Once you’ve gained enough experience, you can unlock skills that are spread across a few skill trees. There’s a skill tree for new axe moves, bare handed combat, Atreus’ use of the bow, and more. These skills unlock different techniques, combos, and occasional passive bonuses.
Besides the main quest, there are plenty of things to see and do. There are the aforementioned “labours”, which make combat feel doubly worthwhile. There are also a number of excellently written side missions, all of which are fantastic and worth the extra time. Everything from the collectibles to the variety of missions makes Midgard feel like a world full of things to do, and getting sidetracked often feels just as rewarding as staying on the main path. Plainly put, all of the content is on the same level of quality; excellent. Side missions feel just as important as main missions, both in terms of story and the gear you’ll acquire.
The Bottom Line on God of War
It may seem like my review only scratches the surface, and that’s ultimately true. I struggled between giving away too much information and also not enough, but that’s because God of War is honestly in a league of its own. I usually reserve this final section as an overview of the entire game’s accomplishments and failings, but that’s not appropriate here. I have three complaints with God of War. Firstly, the map is really cool, but isn’t the best at guiding the player. Luckily, a handy compass mostly resolves these issues. Second, some of Kratos’ finishing moves can be a bit repetitive. Thirdly, the ending may leave a bit to be desired.
That’s it. Everything else is great. The voice acting is superb, the quests and stories are insanely memorable, and the world design is downright inspired. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is definitely one of gaming’s greatest, and by the time the story is over, you’ll feel like they’re part of your family as well. I cannot stress this enough; go out and buy God of War. Whether you’ve played the entire series or have never heard the name “Kratos”, go out and get this game. This is a system seller. This is a game that is worth purchasing a PlayStation 4 for. This is the closest we’ve come to perfection in a while.
If The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time threw a party with Darksiders, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Legacy of Kain, and the entire original God of War trilogy, God of War (2018) would be that party. In my book, that’s a party that you should rush to attend.