‘God of War’ takes the longtime Sony series to new heights with a compelling story and amazing moment-to-moment combat.
If I had to pick one current-generation console game that best shows off how much the medium has evolved in recent years, I would pick God of War, hands down. The latest PlayStation 4 exclusive is on a presentational level that would’ve seemed unfathomable not long ago. It pushes Sony’s hardware to a degree that makes many AAA PS4 games before it seem as if they were developed for a different, dated platform. The world is stunning, the animations are crisp to a point that even the little things are gawk-worthy, and the cinematics are breathtaking.
All of this, the high production value, and top-notch look and feel, could have very well been wasted on the God of War franchise. It’s not that the series hasn’t been consistently good. God of War has been one of Sony’s flagship series since the original game, also titled God of War, launched on PlayStation 2 in 2005. It’s that God of War has never been known for much more than a flashy action game series starring Spartan-turned-god Kratos, a brutish figure who destroys everything in his way with little regard for morality.
In the world of video games, an all-powerful protagonist with a desire to spill blood is a solid sales pitch in itself. By no means did Sony Santa Monica Studio dump that hook in this pseudo reboot. It’s still a bloody gorefest with an addictive over-the-top action loop. But at the center of God of War is a story about family, love, loss and redemption. It reels you in with the promise of an engaging action game with gorgeous visuals. And it delivers this promise as one of the best action games of all time and the most visually impressive console game ever made. However, it stays with you and cements itself as one of the best games of an era — the best PS4 exclusive by a mile — for what it does outside the heat of battle, in the quiet moments that add up to a stirring narrative.
God of War takes place many years after Kratos’ defining battle with his father, Zeus. After exacting his revenge on the Greek gods, Kratos has fled far away, to the world of Norse mythology. The shift allows God of War to keep its mythological lore while moving on to another fabled tome of legends.
Kratos has taken up a domestic life in a secluded forest away from civilization. The game starts with the funeral and cremation of Faye, his wife and mother of their young son, Atreus. Faye’s dying wish was for her ashes to be spread atop the highest peak in all of the realms. It’s a long journey, and Kratos doesn’t think his son is ready for the dangers ahead. Naturally, he’s quickly forced to go forth regardless after an unexpected visitor knocks on their door.
For those who’ve played the original series, you’ll quickly notice that Kratos is more restrained in this new setting. Fatherhood has forced him to rein in his destructive ways. You’ll still recognize him as a hero of few words, though. And this, perhaps, translates most convincingly in his interactions with his son.
No one would expect Kratos to win a Dad of the Year award. He isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy character. So it’s not surprising to see him struggle to show basic compassion toward his son in the early going. On numerous occasions, Atreus is upset about his mother’s death. Kratos, in response, reaches out to console his son, but before he can place a hand on his shoulder, he hesitates, pulls back, and is noticeably frustrated with himself. This happens several times. And as much as I wanted to yell through the screen that it shouldn’t be that hard to comfort his child, I began to understand and almost appreciate the way Kratos is depicted in his latest adventure — thorns and all.
The harsh reality of their situation is that Kratos and, by extension, his son will always have targets on their backs. From Kratos’ perspective, the emotional distance he keeps with his son is his way of protecting him from that reality. See, Atreus doesn’t know Kratos is a god. Faye and Kratos raised Atreus to believe he was mortal. That subplot threads through the overarching narrative and explains a substantial amount of Kratos’ terseness when fielding questions from Atreus. There’s also the fact that Kratos himself carries some serious daddy issues. His whole reason for leaving Sparta in the first place was to seek a fresh start after killing his own father.
As the story progresses, the relationship between father and son, in the face of Kratos’ past, becomes a convincing and ultimately moving story that neatly addresses the weight Kratos has carried all these years and the future he would like to see for his son.
For those who just want to play a supremely polished action game, don’t worry. God of War has 20 to 40 hours of deft combat sequences — the length depends on how many side quests you complete and the amount of time you spend exploring.
This time around, Kratos’ main weapon is a magical one called the Leviathan Axe. The enemies you dispose hail from Norse mythology and include ogres, elves, wolves, trolls, nightmares, draugrs (Norse zombies) and revenants. Although God of War excels in precise hand-to-hand combat, the most satisfying move in Kratos’ arsenal is his axe throw. You can aim your axe, impale enemies and then call it back to your hand like a boomerang. This leads to some fun combos, in which you can line it up so the axe hits enemies on the way back to your hand.
Atreus also assists Kratos in combat with his bow. The game gives players control over when Atreus shoots, but he’ll also occasionally jump on enemies by his own volition to distract them and make them easier targets for you.
Of course, you’ll also take on a few Norse gods throughout your quest. Thor’s brother Baldur is the main antagonist you’ll battle throughout the game. The developers did a remarkable job developing Baldur’s story as it relates to Kratos. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Baldur is easily the most interesting antagonist to appear in the series thus far.
Beyond refining the combat and a more modern, over-the-shoulder camera view, an added layer of depth comes with the implementation of a progression system. You can upgrade Kratos’ health, attack, defense and more. The same goes for his weapons and gear, which are upgraded by two very interesting dwarves, who also happen to be brothers. The upgrade system, which includes a skill tree for earning new moves, elevates God of War from a conventional action game to one with rewarding role-playing elements. It’s a deep enough system to make a difference, but it doesn’t bog down the gameplay for those who just want to hack and slash through herds of ghoulish enemies.
If you’ve been a longtime fan of the series, you’re sure to love God of War. More impressively, though, even if you weren’t high on the series, this latest entry will likely change your mind.