A God among men
I don't remember the first M-rated game I ever played. I think it's Perfect Dark, but I'd have to go back in time to check and I don't have that ability. However, I do remember the first game I played that actually felt like it deserved that M rating. Years later, I still can't forget the amount of violence Kratos uses to kill his enemies in the original God of War. While I'm still a fan of the series, I'll admit that I was pleased when the soft reboot was announced, as it seemed like things were going to be toned down. Now, God of War is finally in our hands. Is this reboot everything we hoped for or is it time for this god to retire?
I'll spoil it now: God of War is simply astounding.
You don't need knowledge of the past God of War games to understand what's happening here. You play as Kratos, who has mysteriously survived his self-inflicted sword wound at the end of the last game. In this time he's gone into hiding, married a woman he loves, and fathered a son named Atreus. God of War picks up some time into this new life when Kratos' wife has passed away. Her final wish was to have her body burned and have her ashes spread from the highest peak in all the realms. Of course, things can't be that simple, as a mysterious tattooed stranger shows up at Kratos' home and attempts to kill him.
In a weird and twisted way, God of War has always been about family. Kratos' original revenge quest started when he was tricked into murdering a family he loved, and it continued when he went after his father. Because of this, the new entry feels like an extremely logical next step for the franchise. Kratos' desire to once again have a family feels genuine, as do his attempts to teach his son to not become the person he was. It also helps that many of the game's side plots work with this theme. You'll watch brothers fight, see different family dynamics, and even solve a patricide. Doubling down and expanding on the theme really helps to sell it.
I also appreciate how God of War confronts the character of Kratos. There is the question of how redeemable Kratos actually is. After all, he did go on an insane revenge quest and destroy a large chunk of Greece. This isn't even getting into all of his smaller crimes, like burning a random soldier to death to open a door, or letting a woman get crushed to keep a gear from spinning. Kratos has been given time to mellow out and is no longer driven by a need for revenge. While the question of "can Kratos be redeemed?" can't really be answered by the game, you do get the feeling that he's doing his best to at least make sure the same thing won't be asked about his son.
If you're worried that the more mature approach means toning down the gameplay, you're not going to be left disappointed here. Combat is brutal and fast-paced. Much of this is thanks to Kratos' new weapon: the Leviathan Ax. Sure you can use it to chain light and heavy attacks, but the weapon is good for so much more. Its big feature is that you can throw the ax and then recall it, allowing you to set up traps. Hit an enemy with a throw and the ax will cause them to freeze, allowing you to kick them into walls to shatter them or into other enemies to knock them back. Throw the ax at their legs and they trip, giving you some free hits.
This is all assuming you even want to use the ax. At any time Kratos can put the ax away and go swinging with his fists. At first, this may seem like a weird decision. Kratos' bare-knuckle strikes deal stun damage. Fill up an enemy's stun bar, and you can perform a brutal grapple on them. Want to see Kratos literally tear a guy in half? Have an urge to skin a werewolf by peeling from its jaw? Want to launch a dark elf into his friends? Brutal grapples are for you! This opens up a whole new dynamic to combat as you try to manage damaging both a health and stun bar.
On your travels, you'll find runic skills and talismans to equip. These serve as abilities Kratos can use in battle, and there's an extremely large range of them. Charging shield bashes, shockwaves, homing throws, ice needles, the list goes on. There are so many that I can't reasonably talk about even half of them. Each of these abilities adds a new and unique dynamic in combat, and I could see myself going with any of them. I constantly swapped abilities around just to find new ways to approach combat.
Kratos doesn't fight alone this time around. Joining him in combat is his son Atreus. Armed with a bow, Atreus can be ordered to fire arrows at any time. At first, this is just a way to deal extra damage on the side, but Atreus grows into a valuable partner. As the game progresses he'll learn how to use grapples, gain different arrow types, and summon ghost animals. Setting up combos with Atreus is vital, and I could only defeat some of the tougher enemies with his help. Eventually Atreus even felt like he was becoming stronger than Kratos. Seeing this kid kick just as much ass as the literal god of war is a real treat. You know anyone who looks at an ogre and says "I'm going to dropkick that" is probably worth having around.
This isn't even bringing up the upgrades and expansions for every single system I've mentioned so far. Nearly every ability in the game has its own upgrade path. A shield bash can eventually gain a follow-up attack, while my homing ax throw can hit more targets. Kratos can learn new stances that change his combat style, new combos with Atreus, new ways to recall his ax, and more. By the end of the game new abilities and strategies were still making themselves available. It's impressive how deep and complex it is, all without feeling too overwhelming.
Of course, none of this would matter if the enemies you were up against weren't worth battling. Thankfully God of War has a large and diverse cast of enemies to kill. You'll be fighting dark elves, werewolves, witches, cat-lizards, ogres, and way more than you would likely expect. There are also different variations of each of these enemies. You'll be seeing a lot of basic undead enemies called draugr, but not all are made the same. Some run really fast, others can throw fireballs, while some are just big and take a lot to bring down. This enemy variety makes every encounter feel fresh.
Despite all this variety, there's very little in the way of minibosses. There are only two kinds in the game: trolls and golems. While other enemies have small differences between them, these are just the same but recolored. Worse, it feels like the game is constantly finding excuses to throw another one at you. Every time I saw the exact same troll show up for another round with Kratos, I rolled my eyes. It's one of the few points of the game that I actually felt brought it down rather than enhanced it. It's particularly strange when the regular enemy variety is so huge too. Thankfully this is only really a minor point against the game, but it's one that bugged me.
Thankfully, God of War is full of so much content that it's hard to even be that concerned about one or two things not working out. You'll spend the game in the Lake of Nine, where Kratos and Atreus can stop their quest and explore freely. You'll get side quests that have you exploring caves and mines for artifacts, helping restless spirits, and freeing dragons. This isn't even getting into the abundance of activities like opening up realm tears for special rewards. You can collect mementos, solve treasure maps, find hidden caves, or even fight super powerful optional bosses I don't want to spoil here.
There are two major pieces of side content that require more work than just collecting things. An arena on Muspelheim gives Kratos various challenges. Here, he needs to kill specific enemies, win fights without taking damage, keep fights inside of a gold ring, and more. It felt like God of War used this to find weird ways you need to utilize the combat system. The challenges were often difficult, but I never felt they were unfairly so. I had to rethink how to approach situations and sometimes just step back and realize I needed to get good before I could try again.
The other big side content is Niflheim, which sees you in a poison gas filled randomized dungeon. Every time you enter you'll have to contend with new traps and enemies. Worse, the poison slowly kills you, which means you need to quickly get in and out. As you explore, you'll find items that allow you to spend more time in the mist, and open up new sections of the dungeon. You can get more powerful items that let you fight off more enemies to get more exploration items, and so on.
This sounds a great little idea that you can sink quite a bit of time into, but Niflheim is just sort of annoying. There's not enough variation in enemies or traps, and the poison mechanic feels more like an annoyance. Ultimately, I found myself avoiding this section before long. Thankfully I never felt like I was missing much.
Some absolutely stunning visuals and technical work mean you're getting one hell of a view. I think it's safe to say that God of War is easily one of the best looking games I've played. The detail on every environment and enemy is simply amazing. There's so much to take in that at times I just stopped to admire the view or mess with the snow physics. The game also makes use of single shot camera work during the cutscenes, helping pull me into the moment just a little more. Fantastic voice acting brings every character to life even further. In particular, Sunny Suljic does a convincing job as Atreus. It is a delight that Santa Monica manages to create a child character that not only avoids annoyance but actually compels.
I originally couldn't believe that God of War would have a soft reboot that would shoot it to the forefront of gaming. Yet here we are. By combining a smart story with brilliant characters, the narrative manages to be well worth paying attention to. Deep and rewarding combat mechanics make each encounter a joy to play. There's so much to do in the game that you can easily lose 40+ hours exploring the world. It seems that God of War is godlike again.
God of War was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer.
- Great Story, Characters
- Fantastic Combat
- Large Enemy Variety
- Tons of Worthwhile Content
- Beautiful Graphics, Lovely Soundtrack
- Little Mini Boss Variety
- Niflheim Isn't Much Fun