God of War games have never failed to entertain and amaze their fans, and yet, there is a lot of apprehension swirling around the community about the series’ upcoming installment. To be fair, the studio has been notably upfront about the game’s deviations from God of War’s trodden path. It’s scary when a game series you love undergoes such drastic changes because, good or not, it won’t be what you remember. That said, nothing stays the same forever, and if we want the games industry to evolve, something’s got to give sooner or later. Developer Santa Monica Studio had the guts to try something new with God of War, and just as fans had hoped, that risk seriously paid off.
The developer’s initiative to change the fundamentals of God of War had to start from the ground up, and this means altering the series antihero as we know him. Kratos was never the deepest or most complex of individuals, generally prone to choosing decapitation over talking out his grievances. While satisfying in a cathartically sadistic sense, this personality—or lack thereof-—id begin to feel a little dated after so many games. Several years on, we find ourselves playing a (somewhat) changed man, who managed to create an idyllic life for himself in the Scandinavian wilderness with a new family.
Tragically, death—whether it be from time, sickness, or Kratos ripping you limb from limb— is an unavoidable part of life, and Kratos’ new love passes away shortly before the game begins. Now Kratos and his son, Atreus, must fulfill the woman’s dying wish of having her ashes scattered atop the highest peak in the realms: an adventure that transpires to be more sequitious than any reasonable person could possibly imagine.
The presence of Kratos’ son shows us a side to the god killer we haven’t seen before, with our only previous exposure to Kratos’ familial interactions involving violent mutilation. Kratos has evolved emotionally, but that is not to say he is father of the year. The rage and pain of his past is in constant conflict with his desire to spare his son from it, which comes across in even the most subtle actions and words, demonstrating the effort he is putting in. After such a long time, there is something rewarding about discovering there to be an actual human under all that muscle.
Atreus’ character is similarly complex, complementing his father’s gruffness with jumps between adolescent obstinacy and submissiveness. It is easy for characters of his age range to succumb to a number of annoying child archetypes, but he feels more like a young man doing his best in a very adult world, growing along his own arc in tandem with his father. The cycle of clash and camaraderie between these two characters generates many of the story’s most memorable moments, and there is often some comic relief to be found when Kratos’ curtness and Atreus’ charming naivety collide.
While the story’s focus never strays from this duo and their journey, there is a sizeable supporting cast to mix things up along their way. The biggest change to the game outside of its core systems is the myth in which we find ourselves, replacing Kratos’ classic Greek mythos with a Norse setting. This change in scenery has brought with it a fresh batch of reinterpreted mythological characters. Mímir, the smartest man in the world, Brokk and Sindri, the dwarven mastersmiths that forged Thor’s hammer, and even the World Serpent Jörmungandr are just a few of the colorful characters that have roles to play in Kratos’ new adventure.
What has always been a hook for God of War games—and it’s just as prevalent here—is how deeply rooted the games are in their respective mythologies. A new story has the liberty to dream up any character it wants, but these games are fascinating in that they dive into the established expositional spider web of characters and plot of which these mythologies are comprised. Kratos is always cleverly connected to many of the different mythological threads, while simultaneously keeping our hero’s story relatable and staying true to the source material (or as true as it reasonably can).
The frozen terrain of this new setting is an intriguing change for God of War, but not as intriguing as the changes to be found in the game’s new perspective. No longer fixed at an angle over the arena, the game’s camera now rests on Kratos’ broad shoulders, even closer than other comparable games in the genre. Fortunately, it’s not restrictive in the manner one might expect. Rather, it creates a new layer of challenge for the game, wherein players must use their reaction and positioning to effectively track the monsters bearing down on you.
It should be acknowledged that the game’s finicky and unreliable lock-on function does not do it any favors, but the remedy for this is simply turning it off. The lack of a lock-on demands even more skill from the player, challenging them to aim their attacks and blocks as well as react with them. Overcoming this mental hurdle actually makes conquering fights that much more rewarding, as it permits a flexibility of control which in turn results in more impressively dextrous feats than would otherwise be possible. Strangely, the game automatically utilizes a useful and flexible soft lock-on, even when the hard lock-on is turned off, furthering the pointlessness of the hard lock-on option.
Kratos’ arsenal is small, but each tool within it is exceedingly complex, with the highly-touted Leviathan Axe at the peak. The weapon is conceptually simple but mechanically fascinating. As Kratos’ new primary weapon, the Axe succeeds as both a versatile means of dismembering foes and as a key element in puzzle solving. Its prime function outside of hacking off limbs is its ability to be thrown and recalled, useful for more than just cleaving targets at range. The blade’s mystical ice powers present the option to freeze troublesome hostiles at a distance while Kratos beats down more immediate threats with his fists, and it can also lock down mechanisms in the environment necessary for progressing forward. Recalling the axe deals damage to hostiles that it hits on its return path, which is rather hilarious when an enemy thinks he is just about to get the drop on you. Juggling all of the Axe’s mechanical nuances makes it distinctly rewarding to use, boasting more versatility than the entire armory of many other games, and it’s not even all that God of War has in store.
With weapons in hand and lock-on turned off, the player is ready to jump into a fight, but God of War veterans should take stock of what they’re actually working with this time around. The new God of War is less about balletic combos rattled off in sequence, and more about individual moves strung together in response to the assortment of enemies being fought. The difference between the two may be a bit of a grey area, but while conventional combos do play a small role, more prominent are the game’s independant attacks that feature benefits and drawbacks players will need to understand and master to be as effective as possible.
Coming to grips with the subtle input differences for the game’s move selection took longer than expected, but once I developed a rhythm, the game’s combat zones became playgrounds in which to flex my skills with immaculately responsive and beautifully animated attack patterns. The sequel’s combat is rewarding in that it takes skill to use, but more specifically, it’s not something easily stumbled through. The extremely intuitive design makes it easy to adapt to its foundational elements, but you’ll need brainpower for the harder bouts.
During these fights, Kratos’ son is far more than a mere hanger-on. Atreus is highly skilled with a bow and arrow, and while the player never assumes direct control, there is the option to command him to target specific enemies or puzzle cues. Even when left to his own devices, he is surprisingly useful, particularly after the player unlocks new and more effectual moves for him. Atreus lands in the perfect spot on the spectrum between independence and reliance, never getting in the way, needing protection, or stealing the limelight from Kratos, but still always present and useful.
One may think that Atreus would struggle to keep up with Kratos’ acrobatics, but time makes fools of us all, and Kratos has lost the ability to jump on command in his old age. It sound like an insane omission, but the amalgamation of the lack of a jump function, the tighter camera focus, and keeping Atreus in toe makes for a more grounded God of War experience, literally and figuratively, and this new direction has its own virtues.
The enemy types that players will be hacking apart cover a fairly standard array. Much of the game’s challenge comes from the rotating medley of enemies players face in each fight, forcing constant responses to the weaknesses of the ever-changing threats. Weaknesses truly are the name of the game, as many enemies—particularly ones later in the game—will prove to be exponentially harder without taking the time to learn how they tick.
On the topic of hard enemies, one could consider it heresy to talk about a God of War game for this long without mentioning boss fights. Surprisingly, the boss fights in this new God of War do not hit quite the same frequency as they did in the past few games. Before God of War purists run for the hills, however, know that the boss fights that are present more than do the series proud. Filling the spaces are harder variants of more common enemies, generally focusing on challenge over spectacle. Both have their value, and while God of War fans can never get enough gargantuan boss fights, the story-centric clashes in this new game are still very much epic.
Coming into a fight with the right gear and upgrades is essential, as power levels are new to the series for player and enemies alike. Kratos’ level is contingent on several RPG-esque stats—vitality, strength, luck, etc.—that are adjusted as Kratos progresses and earns new armor. While his offensive maneuvers are unlocked through skill trees, his stats are bolstered through upgrading and discovery. Better armor can be found out in the world or bought/crafted in shops, and similar upgrades are available for Kratos’ weapons. Atreus also has upgrades to unlock, enhancing his usefulness in battle.
The potential for stat building, in combination with the special buffs and skills offered by higher tier armor, creates an opportunity unique to this God of War, compared to earlier games. Instead of bashing your head into an enemy until one or the other breaks, there is now the chance to specialize Kratos to meet the specific task at hand, or develop a build that best suits a preferred playstyle. It doesn’t necessarily make the game easier, simply more manageable, and it’s hard to argue that more player choice is a bad thing.
The currency and materials necessary for crafting or upgrading the game’s impressive gear make for tangible progression rewards, more so than just the progression itself. It gives something to seek out and work towards. Taking an enemy down is generally more satisfying when you know their death benefits you beyond just letting you fight more enemies. Outside of toppling powerful adversaries, you can earn the currencies needed to advance your equipment by finding them scattered throughout the world. Collectibles used in upgrading your max health and Spartan Rage are another elusive valuable hidden around the landscape, and both of these are paramount for later-game obstacles.
More secrets lie under the surface of this game than a person can hope to wrap their head around. While some can be stumbled across, others are hidden behind the game’s puzzles, which generally demand a proficiency in discovery over cleverness. While you do need to put some thought into the game’s puzzles, they’re not quite a hair-pullingly baffling as they have been in the past, becoming relatively clear as soon as you account for all the elements in play. Secrets can be both big and small, and the reward potential of upgrading your character is sufficient drive to want to uncover every last one.
Contrary to developer insinuations, the new God of War is far less linear than past adventures, which makes searching for said secrets that much easier. After some tutorialization at the start, you reach a hub area—an enormous lake located in the realm of Midgard with innumerable secrets and encounters hidden around its shores—from which story and side missions branch out on linear routes. Story missions will also take the player to a handful of the different Norse realms. These are more linear than Midgard, but are still ripe with opportunities for exploration.
The hub area is primarily navigated by boat, during which fascinating excerpts of mythological exposition liven up the tranquil commute. Whether you’re exploring the lake, one of its branching routes, or a separate realm, there are always new things to encounter. The game also has a tendency of locking content behind barriers that require a specific action or tool you’ve yet to discover at that point in the story, ensuring that backtracking through every area will be a fruitful endeavor.
The risk of monotony is always prevalent when you talk about backtracking, so it is fortunate that this potential for boredom is suppressed by the staggering beauty of God of War. Functional design and entertainment value should generally take precedence over visuals, but as there are solid check marks in both of those boxes, it permits a little extra appreciation of the game’s stunning aesthetic. It is certainly technically impressive when considering the detail in everything from the pores on Kratos’ skin to the snow falling around you, but more alluring is the scale, color, and care put into every inch of the environment design. Even the stench of death does little to dampen the beauty of this land.
With all of these stellar traits coming together, God of War is so good that its most egregious failing is not letting fans play more of it. There is currently no New Game Plus, but this is assuaged somewhat by a couple of unique combat challenge rooms, a plethora of secrets to uncover, and a crushingly hard difficulty that players will certainly want to save for their second go around. Additionally—although the game gets no points for it here—New Game Plus options are one of the more common features added to games post-launch, so fans should expect to see it eventually.
God of War shows us how the evolution of a series, no matter how popular it is in its original state, is essential for it to improve. The end game doesn’t expand on the game’s strengths quite to the extent that it could, but such an omission is only notable due to the uncompromising quality of everything leading up to it. God of War does exactly what it sets out to do, and if it isn’t perfect, it’s damn near close.
A fascinating story, sublime mechanics, and a beautiful world come together in an experience that is about as confident of a step forward as the God of War series could make.
Santa Monica Studio
Sony Interactive Entertainment
M – Mature
|God of War is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Nick didn’t start gaming until mid-2006. Once his parents finally allowed a console into the house, it was all uphill from there. Starting out with a PS2, he grew an affinity for Sony consoles and moved on to the PS3, and now the PS4. He keeps his gaming palette wide, but, gun to his head, he’d have to say shooters are his genre of choice.