The original God of War trilogy is undoubtedly a product of its time. In those first three games, Kratos is permanently angry, mercilessly violent and puts little thought into the consequences of his familicidal rampage across ancient Greece. And that was fine, nothing more was needed. However, video games have expanded and matured a lot since God of War III came out in 2010 and naturally so have the people who buy and make them. What if a new God of War didn’t have to just be about cutting-edge graphics, a shift to Norse mythology or Kratos having a beard now? What if Kratos was written, performed and animated like an actual person? What if his character developed? What if he had tangible and complicated emotional connections to other people instead of just murdering them? This latest iteration of God of War hasn’t shied away from the fact that it’s making big changes, but it was never a sure thing that it would manage to execute these changes well. Having completed Kratos and his son Atreus’ journey I can say with absolute conviction: not only have Santa Monica Studio achieved that lofty goal of reinventing the franchise that made them famous, they’ve raised the bar for what video games are able to be.
The journey begins with the death of Atreus’ mother. Her last wish was for the father and son to take her ashes and spread them at the highest peak in Midgard. As always there are greater forces at work and the pair soon become tangled up in the local godly powers. It also becomes clear that, despite settling down and living in relative peace for some time, Kratos is still as cold, brief and joyless as ever. Atreus, on the other hand, is eager to learn, full of questions and endlessly curious about the outside world. Over the course of the journey, this central relationship ebbs and flows beautifully, exploring ideas of masculinity, parenthood and morality with surprising nuance. What at first is a strained, almost militarily strict partnership, slowly begins to resemble something heartwarming as you progress through the story. Kratos and Atreus getting to know each other, overcoming obstacles both physical as well as from within, all the while sharing grief in silence: it’s a bond that rings true despite being set in a world of dwarves, draugrs and dragons and elevates the narrative of God of War far beyond that of any previous entry in the series.
The entire game is depicted in one shot. That is to say other than when you run out of health there’s no fading to black, all loading screens are disguised with actual gameplay and there are no cutscenes showing events taking place far away. You view this world over the shoulders of Kratos and Atreus the entire time, meeting other characters and learning about world events as they do. This laser focus not only strengthened my investment in Kratos and Atreus’ goal, it was also an incredibly effective way to become immersed in this land of gods and legends. When a troll or ogre showed up for the first time it felt like an event because Kratos and Atreus treated it as such. After all, they’re just as stunned as I was. These hideous monsters speak in an alien tongue without subtitles, keeping their mystique intact.
Another aspect of the game that is changed dramatically by the fixed position of the camera is combat. Having the viewpoint so tightly bound behind Krato’s shoulder means God of War no longer has the light, floaty feel of previous games in the series, or of other titles in the action genre. That isn’t to say the combat is clumsy or unintuitive, quite the opposite, but Kratos is definitely more grounded and defensive than he has been in the past. The frosty leviathan axe is a fantastic addition, every swing has a gratifying weight to it, and sending it flying into the skull of a draugr only to summon it back whirring into Kratos’ hand never gets old. As well as regular light and heavy swings, Kratos can also make use of light and heavy runic attacks, which are magical abilities on a cooldown that have various effects like sending the axe flying horizontally causing large amounts of damage or another that has Kratos slam the ground repeatedly, spreading damaging frost with every strike.
Kratos can opt to fight using his fists and shield, which have their own unique move set. You can hold L1 to block at any time, and can even use the shield to break an enemy’s guard or reflect projectiles back at them. Atreus is involved in combat too, by pressing the square button you can have him shoot arrows at your target. Shoot them enough times and you’ll fill up a meter that allows Kratos to engage in a cinematic QTE attack. Trigger this when the enemy has low enough health and Kratos will annihilate them in familiarly brutal God of War fashion. The enemy design is phenomenal across the board with a decent amount of variation to keep things interesting and the pace at which new combat mechanics or abilities are thrown in means you’ll always have something new to play with.
Yet another big change is the addition of a loot and armour system. Kratos can craft and upgrade armour for three different slots: chest, wrists and waist. Different armour sets have favour different stats, so if you wanted to increase your melee damage you’d focus on strength, if you want more health, vitality and so on. You unlock new sets of armour at stores as you progress through the story, and collect the necessary resources by finding chests and defeating rare enemies. Even Atreus can change his armour to offer different boosts and bonuses during combat. While it’s certainly fun playing dress ups with Kratos, the biggest benefit of this system is that it incentivises exploring every nook and cranny of this world. The allure of exploration in this gorgeous land of magical forests and abandoned dwarven cities is strong enough as is, finding a rare material or a new enemy is just an added bonus.
God of War games have always been technical powerhouses, and this generations entry does not disappoint. Playing on the PS4 Pro in Resolution Mode with HDR enabled was certainly a visual feast, and while some environments are a little grey and flat by nature (there’s only so much you can do with snow), overall the level of details on characters, monsters and interiors is stunning. Those with HDR TVs are in for a treat, God of War features some absolutely gorgeous use of colour. Draugrs dripping with neon-orange lava, trees and flowers with auburn leaves and deep red petals and various other magical blasts and swirling particles of blues, greens and pinks. It really showcases the potential of HDR.
The sound design is of a similarly high calibre. The aforementioned whirring thunk of the leviathan axe being thrown or retrieved is endlessly satisfying, the screeching and roaring of the various mythological monsters is appropriately unnerving and the World Serpent’s voice is as overwhelming as it’s size. The musical score has matured alongside the characters, instead of the endless war horns, rolling drums with a side of chanting featured so heavily in the original games, the God of War of 2018 has music both subtle and diverse with, of course, a healthy dose of Nordic instruments. Best and most surprising of all is how beautifully entwined the various themes are with the narrative. The three deep notes of Kratos’ theme quickly become familiar, but as the story moves on it begins to change, shifting an reinventing itself just like him.
God of War is more than just a new take on a familiar series. Santa Monica Studio could easily have copied the template of the first three games and pasted it onto a new land, with new gods for Kratos to slaughter. Instead, they chose to do something ambitious, something daring and original, something that transcends what narrative-focused games are normally able to achieve. They’ve proven that video games are capable of telling stories that have a strong emotional core, that are self-reflective and self-aware, and that strive to be far more than blood-soaked revenge tales with button-mashing sex scenes. God of War is a benchmark title in gaming and should not be missed.
God of War was reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with a code provided by Sony.