The iconic God of War series was one of the defining franchises for the Sony brand in the mid noughties, with antihero Kratos wreaking bloody vengeance for the better part of a decade since 2005 across the PlayStation 2, PSP and PlayStation 3. It seemed like he had beheaded, eviscerated or otherwise impaled the entire pantheon of the Greek gods and their consorts during his bloodthirsty quest for vengeance, and indeed once the latest game God of War: Ascension dropped in 2013 it seemed like the series had perhaps run out of both ideas and things for Kratos to punch in the face until they died. God of War the franchise needed a reboot, and 2018 was the year we got to see if the Ghost of Sparta still had some stories to tell. God of War (or Dad of Boy as it’s become affectionately known) features a completely different tone and style to its predecessors, as well as a new focus on child rearing, so does it manage to pull off this little sea change? Yes, yes it does, and it does so with such unparalleled grace and style that it is easily a contender for not only game of the year, but game of the entire generation thus far.
*Fatherly stare intensifies*
The narrative has cleverly left Greece behind, because as mentioned earlier there weren’t really that many deities left there to murder after Kratos’ most recent capers. Currently we find Kratos in the Norse-inspired realm of Midgard, mourning the death of his wife and coming to terms with being the sole carer for his young son Atreus. As well as sporting an incredibly luscious beard, Kratos is much older and more weathered; his face is drawn and there’s a cold sense of sorrow in his features. The years have significantly tempered his fiery demeanour, and far from the angry man we’d come to know and love, Kratos yearns for solace and respite in this land far from home. His dead wife had one parting wish – that he and Atreus take her ashes to the highest peak in the realms. Indeed this is the central driving force in the game – not Kratos wanting to kick a mountain until it falls down, or trying to strangle a black hole, it is simply a husband fulfilling the dying wishes of the woman he loved. While of course their path ends up not being as simple as that, the narrative never loses sight of the core of why Kratos and his son embark on their journey, and it emotionally anchors the action as well as the growing relationship with his son.
Home, sweet home
By the power of Greyskull!
Santa Monica have shown that they are able to tell a story that features depth and maturity, something which we haven’t really seen from them before, but is incredibly welcome. In clumsier hands, the father-son dynamic may have come off as felling trite or shallow, but Santa Monica have poured a lot of energy into making it accurate, relatable and emotionally rich. This is no mean feat either, as Kratos is a man of so few words, and probably the gruffest bloke to have ever walked the planet, but Santa Monica have ensured that everything he says carries a significant weight and meaning behind it. Atreus also has a fairly infectious personality that, kind of like the Joel and Ellie dynamic in The Last of Us, really makes you want to take care of him. Every aspect of the writing, dialogue delivery and even facial animations illuminates the budding relationship between the two, and it is a joy to behold.
But for those worried that this is less God of War and more Kratos’ Daddy Daycare, those fears are thankfully completely unfounded. While he has indeed mellowed in terms of his general countenance, Kratos can still rend things limb from limb with the best of them, and Atreus is no slouch either. Far from being one giant escort mission, Atreus is integral to the action, providing crucial support with his bow that can distract and stun enemies. Initially I undervalued his input, and he escaped my notice during the initial fights, but as the game progresses you begin to appreciate his presence more and more, and as he grows in confidence and ability he will trip enemies over, choke them with his bow so you can deliver a killing blow and engage in slick aerial combos. So while I may have undervalued him in the beginning, by the end he had become an extension of Kratos and I didn’t want him to leave my side (metaphor!).
Compared to its predecessors, God of War features a slower pace in its combat, and the close over-the-shoulder camera really makes it feel radically different to the games of yore. While this necessarily changes the tone of the combat, it helps to make it feel more up close and personal, which feels perfect when you are hacking creatures in half with your axe or giving them some impromptu dental surgery. Seriously, the action is so close that you can almost feel the viscera flying out of the screen, and it is…glorious. While the game is still a hack and slash at heart, it is significantly more intricate and intelligent in
the implementation of its mechanics. With his trusty Leviathan axe Kratos has a light and heavy attack, but he can also hurl the axe at enemies and recall it at any point with a button press (it will also damage or trip over enemies on its return flight). You can also block and parry with your retractable shield, and when you don’t have your axe in your hand (say for instance it is lodged deep in an enemy’s skull after a well-aimed shot) then Kratos will throw down with his bare hands. He can also call for Atreus to target certain enemies to distract them or stun them with his arrows, as well as being able to make use of light and heavy Runic attacks that are essentially special abilities on a cooldown. It sounds complex (and initially it is), but the controls are as tight as a drum and pulling off stylishly violent, multi-weapon, multi-ability combos feels organic and immensely satisfying.
But for those worried that this is less God of War and more Kratos’ Daddy Daycare, those fears are thankfully completely unfounded. While he has indeed mellowed in terms of his general countenance, Kratos can still rend things limb from limb with the best of them, and Atreus is no slouch either
The combat design is incredibly clever and nuanced, and simply mashing the buttons won’t get you too far. To succeed and make the most of Kratos’ and Atreus’ arsenal you’re going to have learn the timing of your swings, the attack patterns of your enemies and the ways in which different enemy types can combine to make things difficult. It really reminded me in many ways of the Soulsbourne games (which is high praise), but it never feels inaccessible. For veterans of the third-person action genre I would certainly recommend playing on hard as this is where the expert combat design really comes to the fore, but if you just want to dismember hellish fiends with reckless abandon then normal and easy also have you covered.
Come at me
Audience: “He’s probably thinking about something super deep.” Kratos: “When will my kidneys become adultneys?”
Returning also is the puzzle gameplay the series is known for, with some simple but clever environmental puzzles rounding out the gameplay and enriching the exploration. Certain areas and treasures are unavailable to you without key upgrades to your abilities, which gives the game a Metroidvania feel, and returning to previous areas with new abilities is almost always a rewarding experience. If it’s one gripe I have with the game it the fact that the full unhindered fast travel system is only unlocked quite late in the game. It does makes sense in the context, but given the expansive nature of the game’s world it’s an odd design quirk.
The game doubles down on its RPG features, with multiple abilities to unlock and upgrade with experience points, and armour/enhanced weaponry for both Kratos and Atreus to purchase, craft or find by exploring the world’s nooks and crannies. What you wear and how you customise your arsenal will determine several stats such as raw strength, how much damage you take, how much health you have and how long your Runic attacks take to recharge. This is the central element of the game’s progression in terms of combat, and is a little daunting at first, but once you master it you’ll be happily scouring the world for exotic armour and materials to build and upgrade them, and enemies that may have once given you pause will now find themselves obliterated in a relentless maelstrom of axe and bow. It also means you can tailor your loadout to a particular style (i.e. sacrificing raw damage output for faster cooldowns) which gives the RPG elements even further versatility.
So the game has an excellent story, clever and brutal gameplay buoyed by interesting RPG mechanics, but graphically it is subpar…if by subpar I meant so above par it is in a league of its own. This game is by far the greatest looking title to date this generation, with a gobsmacking level of detail packed into every corner of its vast world, and a sense of scale that beggars belief. Rich textures and godly lighting effects really bring everything to life, with seemingly no single detail being overlooked in terms of visuals. On a vanilla PS4 the framerate maintains a fairly steady 30 fps, and on PS4 Pro you can go choose to favour high resolution or higher framerate, and although there are dips here and there (reportedly most noticeable in high resolution mode on the Pro), the game looks so phenomenal that it has earned some concessions, and it is for all intents and purposes a technical marvel. Much like Horizon Zero Dawn there is nary a load screen in sight either, and you are free to roam the seamless world to your heart’s content.
This game is by far the greatest looking title to date this generation, with a gobsmacking level of detail packed into every corner of its vast world, and a sense of scale that beggars belief
God of War is a masterclass in AAA game design, hitting every benchmark of quality with an impressive confidence; an engaging narrative with interesting and relatable characters, combat that is challenging, rewarding, stylish and accessible, a richly detailed world full of content to explore and more visual splendour than you can poke a boomerang axe at, God of War is the complete package. While you will find some who will cry into their bland bowl of oatmeal over occasional frame rate drops, God of War is as close to perfection as any title is likely to come, and next time I’m out I’m going to buy a World’s Greatest Dad mug for Kratos, which he will likely then smash to see if there is some hacksilver within, but it’s the thought that counts.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 | Review code supplied by publisher