Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4 [reviewed], PS4 Pro
Released: April 20, 2018
Copy supplied by publisher
Rebooting a series is always a risky proposition, as you risk alienating fans if the new version is too different from what came before. Such is the case with God of War, which has been a key franchise in Sony’s stable ever since David Jaffe’s original set a new standard for cinematic action gaming on the PlayStation 2 back in 2005. While the franchise would go onto become one of the most critically-revered in gaming thanks to a string of impressive sequels, including two remarkably good outings on the PlayStation Portable, it was clear by the time 2013’s God of War Ascension hit that developer Sony Santa Monica was running out of ideas and that the series’ focus on sadistic violence and misogynistic themes was no longer in keeping with the direction the industry – and the culture as a whole – was headed.
Five years later, Sony Santa Monica and returning God of War II game director Cory Barlog are back with a new vision for the franchise that sees the backdrop shifted from Greek mythology to Norse and a sweeping host of changes to everything from gameplay to storytelling and characterization. As a result, the studio has delivered a game that is nothing short of remarkable, as God of War for the PlayStation 4 is not just a crowning achievement of technical excellence but one that engages with the series’ own bloody history with a degree of poise and nuance that goes beyond what I would have thought possible from a God of War title. And it all stems from turning Kratos into a family man.
God of War begins by introducing us to an older, decidedly different version of series protagonist Kratos, in mourning over the recent death of his wife Faye. The two had a child together, Atreus – a sickly, thoughtful, and precious young boy who we discover almost immediately is very different from his father. Without going into spoilers, the narrative’s main thrust sees father and son embarking on a journey to fulfill Faye’s dying wish of having her ashes scattered from the highest peak in the nine realms, but the emotional center of the epic yarn Sony Santa Monica has crafted belongs to the father-son relationship between Kratos and Atreus.
It’s hard not to make comparisons to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us , as that game was almost certainly a major influence for Barlog and his team, but God of War crafts perhaps the best parent-child narratives since Joel and Ellie. Faced with navigating a world teeming with swarms of undead enemies and danger around every turn, this unlikely pair have no one to rely on but each other and Kratos’ tough-love parenting frequently puts him at an emotional distance from the good-natured Atreus, whose instinct is to help anyone in need and just generally be “the good guys.” Saying anything more would give too much away, but needless to say I went into God of War expecting a mature father-son story and was still blown away by the emotional depths Sony Santa Monica was able to mine with these two wonderful characters.
While Midgard and the other realms are just as fraught with danger as Greece, this is a world that feels much more alive than those featured in past God of War titles, which is really saying something given that much of it lies in ruins. Much like the game’s two leading heroes, God of War’s supporting cast is uniformly excellent, whether it be the main villain played by Jeremy Davies (the game waits a long time to reveal his true identity, so that’s all I’m going to say about him) to Brok and Sindri, a pair of delightful, totally dissimilar dwarf brothers who act as the game’s NPC merchants, always at-the-ready to craft new armor and weapon upgrades for Kratos and Atreus. The game even finds a way to offer up an in-universe explanation for how the two are able to set up shop all over the map and in fact, God of War does a great job across the board with its meta commentary on classic gaming conventions. Whether it’s Atreus asking his father why he’s smashing everything in the environment, to the overriding compulsion to interact with everything in sight (even when you’re’ not sure what will happen) God of War is refreshingly self-aware when it comes to not only series conventions, but those of other action-adventure games as well.
Combat is still a major focus in God of War but much like the rest of the game, it’s received a massive overhaul. Adopting a behind-the-back perspective, God of War now has a decidedly Dark Souls feel, though it’s much more accessible overall. While it takes some time to adjust to the new style of play, in practice combat soon becomes intuitive and most importantly, fun. Gone are Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos and in their place is the Leviathan Frost Axe, which may just be one of the most satisfying weapons I’ve ever encountered in a video game. Operating as both a close-quarters and ranged weapon, Kratos’ axe is incredibly versatile, as he can throw it at any time, freeze an enemy with it, beat up a different enemy with his fists, and then recall the axe instantly to finish off his foe. The recall ability is brilliant and makes it so that you feel like you’re Thor from the Marvel movies – ironic, considering Thor figures heavily into the game’s Norse mythology – able to recall your weapon even from long distances.
As capable as Kratos is in combat, he isn’t alone. Atreus acts as a competent A.I. companion and his progression from timid child to capable warrior plays out in combat, as he becomes much more versatile as the game goes on, shooting arrows at enemies, locking them down, and even tossing Kratos the occasional health pack. On rare occasions, you’ll have to come to his rescue but for the most part, Atreus is the best kind of A.I. companion in that he actually helps you and doesn’t need to be babysat.
The previous God of War games all had RPG elements to some degree, in that you could funnel points (or “red orbs”) into upgrading your various weapons and magic abilities, but the series has fully embraced the genre with the PS4 release. Kratos and Atreus not only have skill tress, but enemies are now leveled and if your gear isn’t high enough, you’re going to get absolutely destroyed. While this may not be to the taste of some fans who may have preferred the earlier games’ more basic leveling up approach, in practice you really don’t need to get too deep into the weeds of figuring out the benefits offered by different loot in order to progress. This is helped by God of War’s clean menu system and helpful color-coding, as it’s always clear which pieces of armor or new weapon attachments are superior to others.
God of War games have never been especially long affairs, typically taking somewhere in the 10-15 hour mark to complete the first time through. This is definitely not the case anymore. The new God of War is absolutely massive, both in terms of geography and the sheer amount of content it contains. The game is structured almost like an onion, in that you’ll continuously reveal new layers as you progress. It took me at least 30 hours to finish the story and that’s with spending a sizable amount of time exploring, but even if you were to just try and blitz through the story, you’re looking at a game that is well over 20 hours long.
To that point, if there’s one major criticism that can be leveled at God of War, it’s that I think the actual story runs too long. Perhaps that sounds like a ridiculous complaint given how much game length seems to be (falsely) equated with value these days, but I think God of War could have benefited from a little more editing and shaved off certain sections. I honestly thought the game was wrapping up at one point and it proceeded to go on for at least another five hours, if not more. That isn’t to say what isn’t there isn’t high quality because it is, but I also appreciate when a game respects my time. As it stands, there is a ton of stuff to do after the credits roll, from treasures to find to high level boss battles against the nine Valkyries, so even after you finish the story, there is still much that needs doing in the nine realms.
Is God of War the best game on the PS4? Well, that really all depends on your preferences, but it does very much give Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Horizon Zero Dawn a run for their money as the console’s number one killer app. This is a remarkable video game and while I don’t like to bandy around the label “masterpiece” very often, I do think God of War fits that description. Sony Santa Monica has set a new standard for story-driven action role-playing games and revitalized a franchise that was in danger of becoming a parody of itself in the process. That’s an outstanding feat no matter which way you slice it but for myself, the most impressive work has to do with Kratos himself. Rather than ignore the unfortunate aspects of the character from prior games, Sony Santa Monica actively explores how a deranged, brutish thug whose whole existence in violence might be redeemed and I came away from God of War viewing the character in a completely different light. This is how you fix a broken franchise and I cannot wait to see where God of War goes from here. Until then though, I still have some Valkyries that need to be defeated …