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SummaryAn amazing adventure that's close to godhood!
The Good* Incredible writing, acting and worldbuilding
* Amazing graphics, with an innovative presentation
* Brutal, challenging combat
* Engaging puzzles and exploration
* Great score
The Bad* Some boss types used too often
* Story feels padded
* Upgrade system doesn't make sense in the context of the narrative
* Can feel a bit too focused on spectacle at times
The Bottom LineThere’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the slow death of narrative-heavy blockbuster single-player games during this generation. Many of today’s AAA games are mostly focused on multiplayer, designed around the idea of games as a service. Series which were previously known for their campaigns and stories have either had the focus on them drastically reduced in favor of co-op or in some cases removed entirely. Despite this, Sony has continued to develop and publish such games exclusively for the PS4, with titles such as Uncharted, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and The Last Guardian. God of War is yet another addition to this growing list of exclusives in this style, and in some ways it represents one of their finest efforts to date.
God of War is of course the latest entry in the series of mythological hack-and-slash action games developed by Sony’s Santa Monica studio which began on the PlayStation 2 back in 2005. This is technically God of War 4, but its also a new beginning for the series, a soft reboot, if you will. The original games were based in Greek mythology, however this new installment takes place within the world of Norse mythology. I have to confess that I have never played these original games, so this is my first experience with the series.
God of War takes place an unspecified amount of time after the events of the original trilogy. Having gotten his revenge on the entire Greek pantheon, Kratos eventually found himself living further north, having quietly settled down into domestic life with a new wife and son, Atreus. As the game opens, Kratos and Atreus are preparing his wife’s funeral. Per her final wishes, she wants her ashes to be scattered from the highest peak in the Nine Realms. After a surprise encounter with a mysterious tattooed stranger, Kratos and Atreus set out on a perilous journey through various realms to fulfill his wife’s final request.
God of War’s story is one of its high points. The relationship between father and son is exceptionally well-written and performed, and always feels natural in every situation. In addition, the supporting cast of characters are very interesting personalities as well, and some of them made me laugh multiple times, which is impressive for a game featuring a violent and often somber tone. Every single character feels like he or she has an overall role to play in the narrative, and none of them ever feel wasted or superfluous. In addition, the world’s lore is quite fascinating to read about, and the journal that slowly builds up information over time is written from Atreus’ perspective, giving him even more personality. I understand that the game takes quite a few liberties with Norse mythology in order to make it connect with the previous games, but considering that this mythology is not as explored in media as others (Marvel notwithstanding of course) it still remains uniquely fascinating with all of its various gods and creatures to encounter. Overall, I was captivated from the start, and by the end of the game, I was seriously impressed with how the writers pulled all of the threads together with the strong worldbuilding.
Combat in God of War is a brutal, visceral experience that can actually be quite challenging at times. The Leviathan Axe is one of the coolest and most versatile melee weapons ever featured in a game. At the start, Kratos can swing the axe with both light and heavy attacks, which can be comboed. You can also throw the axe and press the triangle button to summon it back to Kratos’ hand. When thrown at an enemy, the axe can freeze them in place. You can also throw the axe at an enemies legs to trip them, or even pin them to the wall. When you summon it back, it can hit enemies, allowing you to do extra damage. Its also possible to juggle enemies in the air or slam them to the ground. Crowd control is very important in God of War, as the game won’t hesitate to throw huge numbers of enemies at the player.
In addition to the axe, Kratos has a shield and fists he can use. The shield can be used to parry and block incoming attacks, or as a counter for certain moves. Kratos’ fists do not do as much damage as the axe, but can build up enemy stun meters, which when filled allow Kratos to use a finisher on that enemy. Each enemy type has their own finisher animations, and some of them can be taken advantage of to do even more damage to surrounding enemies. In addition, using the environment is very important. Hitting enemies into walls builds up the stun meter faster, while kicking them off ledges will instantly kill them.
In addition to standard attacks with all of the aforementioned weapons, Kratos can also utilize Runic attacks with the axe. These are divided into light and heavy attacks, and provide different levels of damage and stun. Some of them work on a line, others allow Kratos to charge across the battlefield. If there’s a complaint to be made, its that many of these attacks are situational, working better in some moments than others. While you can swap out Runic attacks at any time, you do have to go into the menu in order to do it, and attacks can’t be swapped when on cooldown. I wish there was a way where we could have multiple runic attacks for each type equipped at any time so as to handle different situations more capably.
As you attack enemies, Kratos’ rage meter fills up. After it reaches a certain point, you can activate Spartan Rage. When this happens, Kratos will switch to his fists and unleash his most devastating, visually striking attacks. Hitting enemies during Rage will restore Kratos’ health, so its a good idea to deploy it in situations where Kratos is about to die. You become virtually unstoppable once in Rage mode, but it needs to be used wisely since it doesn’t last long even with an upgraded Rage meter.
During combat Atreus provides several small but important functions. First, he can shoot arrows, which can cause extra damage and help build up enemy stun meters. He can also choke or melee enemies, and he’ll do this more as his confidence grows throughout the game. Later on, he is even able to summon spirit animals, which provide various functions in combat. Atreus will also call out if enemies are about to attack Kratos and can occasionally point out hits for puzzles. Atreus almost never needs to be babysat, and while he can be choked out during combat he’ll revive after Kratos wins that fight. I will admit that he did get stuck with his pathfinding a couple of times. Despite that, I still believe that Sony Santa Monica really nailed the feeling of having Atreus feel like an essential part of the game without being a burden, and the very few times when he gets taken away you will feel a twinge of disappointment.
As you go through the game, you’ll unlock various moves and combos through the skill tree with the experience you earn. These give Kratos and Atreus more power and add versatility to their weapons. In addition, gear can be purchased and upgraded at various shops which can increase Kratos’ stats in an RPG-style manner. You can even choose to focus on certain aspects of combat over others. You can focus on raw strength and defense or focus on using Kratos’ special attacks with shorter cool down times.
In terms of exploration, God of War is by far the biggest game of the series. There are quite a few hidden areas and secrets to find, as well as plenty of optional challenges and side quests. The game’s missions are mostly linear but the hub areas in Midgard allow for quite a bit of exploration. The amount of areas you can explore opens up greatly over the course of the game. Not only do you get to explore more areas within Midgard (the earth realm), but you’ll also get to travel to some of the other realms as well. Two of the realms are completely optional, but traveling to them can earn you materials to craft some of the game’s best gear.
The puzzles are really well designed. Generally, you’ll either need to get from point a to point b or search for hidden runes and hit them with the axe. Many of them make use of physics-based mechanisms that are operated by throwing Kratos’ axe into them. Even puzzles that appear similar at first sometimes have clever twists to them. Some are so complex that they at times have the feel of a Zelda dungeon, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was stumped by at least a couple of them. As you go through the main quest, Kratos and Atreus earn new abilities which allow the player to bypass various obstacles and open up new paths. I really love this as it gives you a reason to go back and explore places you’ve already been to.
Graphically God of War is an absolutely gorgeous game, both in terms of art direction and technology. Human characters are extremely detailed and incredibly well animated. The environments feel alive. With its heavy use of particle and lighting effects huge environments and epic boss battles, this game absolutely pushes the console’s power. Somehow, despite all of this God of War runs very well on the system with no notable slowdown to speak of. The Nine Realms of Norse mythology really let the designers run free, creating some very painterly and surreal vistas, even if they at times use a bit too much fog in certain areas. An innovative aspect of God of War’s presentation is the fact the the entire game is presented as a single camera shot from start to finish. There are no cuts at any point during the game, except during game over and initial loading screens. This gives the player the feeling that they are with Kratos and Atreus every step of the way on their journey, and some of the cutscenes took my breath away in terms of how they were staged and animated along with this camera style. It made me want to experience more games using this technique, though it was reportedly quite difficult to pull off according to the game’s developers.
Sound design is fantastic as well. The soundtrack is appropriately epic sounding, what much of it resembling medieval fantasy shows and films you might have seen. Parts of it are even sung in Norse, which is a really cool touch.
I do have a couple of nitpicks. My first issue is that the plot can feel padded out at times. I lost count of the number of times I felt like the game was almost over only for it to tell me I needed to go fetch something else. While more of the great gameplay is always welcome, God of War is a bit too eager to find ways to lengthen the main journey, which can cheapen the impact of some of the narrative moments.
I was disappointed by how certain boss types, especially the trolls, were used over and over again with not enough variation between them. I also felt that some of the longer boss fights focused a bit too much on spectacle over gameplay, with occasional QTEs and forgiving use of checkpoints. I certainly didn’t want the bosses to impede my gameplay progress, but a bit more push-back would have been nice, especially since standard fights can be quite tough at times. These boss fights are still very enjoyable due to their spectacle, but there is a vague sense that the game is holding back a bit to let the animators do their thing. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have any really difficult boss fights, but most of the time they are hidden off of the beaten path.
Another weird nitpick is the very existence of the RPG upgrade system. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the system and it definitely adds some depth to the overall package. At the same time though it also feels slightly out of place. Kratos is shown from the very beginning to be a character with godly strength, able to punch enemies far away and lift giant trees with one hand. Yet his strength stat starts out at a measly 5, and he can barely damage some enemy types at the start of the game. This is a huge contradiction, and the game does nothing to repair the disconnect. Even an explanation as simple as Kratos needing to get his old strength back after not having used it for so long would have sufficed.
I don’t know if I could give God of War the perfect praise its been getting from mainstream outlets, as there were a few minor flaws holding it back for me. That being said, I can absolutely see why someone would want to. This is a rare epic single-player AAA adventure that nails just about everything it sets out to do, and the few things it does not could easily be improved upon in future games. From the story and world building to the combat to the visuals, its an all around amazing experience, one that sets a standard for future story-driven action-adventure titles to follow. It’s a game that delivers action and emotion in equal portions. I’m also glad that Sony is continuing to provide quality single-player content even as other publishers shift to multiplayer-focused titles.