A great renewal of the franchise... right up to the set up of a sequel.
God of War on PS4 presents a kind, gentle Kratos. Taking the franchise into a new era, the Ghost of Sparta finds himself in the middle of Norse mythology, his trademark Blades of Chaos traded for a Leviathan Axe that can’t help to remind you of Thor’s Mjölnir. Years after the events of the original God of War trilogy, Kratos has made an effort to control his rage and has even fathered a child with a mortal of the realm he resides in.
As covered in our extensive preview, the heart of God of War lies within the relationship of Kratos and his son, Atreus. Kratos, the strong, silent type, has kept his distance from his son; partly because he’s a grumpy bum but mostly ’cause he doesn’t want to have to explain his past. Our anti-hero doesn’t want to divulge that he’s a God living as a (grey-skinned, red-tattooed) mortal man. More importantly, Kratos wants to distance himself from the killing — righteous or not — that made a name for him back within Greek mythology.
The death of Kratos’ wife, Faye, changes all that. The father is left in charge of the son and together, they set off to fulfill Faye’s final wish: that her ashes are scattered at the top of the highest peak of all the realms.
God of War has looked to Tomb Raider’s reboot to help decide its new direction. As you work through the game, you’ll find yourself slowly — with an emphasis on slowly — gaining new tools to get past locked doors or vine-strangled passages. Just like the journey that Lara Croft took on Yamatai, this new God of War is more about trip than the destination. As with the bond that grows between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, it’s the moments between encounters that mean the most as Atreus and Kratos get to know each other, little by little.
The exchanges between awkward, warrior father and gentle, empathetic son make for the best bits of God of War. Atreus not only is a character you can identify with, but one you want to protect — which is fitting, considering that’s Kratos’ real driving factor. As you’d expect, Kratos slowly warms to his son — though most of his interactions start with “Boy” and only last three or four more words — and the introduction of various allies only aids with that. A pair of troubled, bickering Dwarven brothers and a mysterious Witch of the Wood provide perfect catalysts to the growing relationship.
While Sony Santa Monica has done a terrific job in establishing and fleshing out God of War‘s characters, it fails itself the tale’s climax when characters behave in a manner opposite to their natures purely to drive the story forward. Santa Monica’s tale seems to have story moments equally as terrific as they are putrid; while engrossing, an ever-moving MacGuffin goes from predictable to annoying to outright frustrating as the tale continues to proclaim, “we’re almost done… except for this thing!” over and over again.
Story aside, combat is quite different than past God of War titles. Kratos can use his axe, shield or his bare fists to lay waste to enemies, using Atreus and his bow and arrow first as a distraction and later on as a partner. Defeating enemies earns XP, which in turns unlocks skills like combo chains, additional damage and special attacks. Combat also fuels Kratos’ Spartan Rage, a period in which he’s virtually invincible and can deal tremendous damage. Chaining an axe throw, an Atreus arrow and a running kick to send an enemy off a high ledge before using Spartan Rage to take down a group of his friends is damn satisfying to say the least.
While battles are solid, you’ll quickly realise (on normal difficulty, at least) that a tactical plan isn’t required. That combo of axe throw, arrows and beatdown — with Spartan Rage and other XP-unlocked moves used when available — will take just about anything down, large or small. Worse yet, battles are sometimes pitched as colossal affairs — like the battles of Azura’s Wrath at their peak — though the best bits of the battle are reserved for cutscenes. This aside, those who live for God of War-style, frantic combat will find challenges in its post-story content; both Realm Tears and corrupted Valkyries are not for the faint of heart. Completing a large number of the game’s diverse side quests is necessary to gain XP and gear and, in turn, tackle endgame content.
A second major combat tool, able to be wielded fairly late into the story, is far more more effective in battle — and frankly, way more fun to use than the Leviathan Axe. It’s only downside is that it frequently caused frame rate drops on the base PS4 due to a lot of stuff happening on screen at once. Moreover, the weapon’s lighting effects, coupled with those of my enemies’ plus on-screen indicators for enemy attacks and enemy positioning meant it was hard to see what was actually happening in the fight.
Enemies themselves are fairly repetitive, with only a few different types about. There are a handful of land- and air-based baddies alongside larger mini-bosses. Sony Santa Monica attempts to balance this lack of diversity by using sub-types that have specific elemental resistances, though they’re annoying as all hell. If there’s a frost-type Draugr leader or one with a shield clustered alongside a group of regular enemies, you’ll find your attacks will do nothing the second your weapon nears that special type. It’s then you’re forced to spam the Square button to have Atreus lob arrows in that baddie’s direction until you can open things back up for proper attacks.
Like the battle flourishes that are taken out of your hands and delivered by cutscene, God of War likes to remind you that it’s in control. Kratos is bound by knee-level rocks all throughout the world of Midgard (and beyond); while he can kick opponents off cliffs, he and Atreus are never in that same danger (and weirdly, flying enemies can be killed by kicking them over a cliff too). Fast travel is locked down for most of the game, even though Sony Santa Monica cheats that system at one point to get you from one place to the other. The bottom line is that Santa Monica is pulling the strings, not you.
That feeling is exponentially stronger near the end of the story, when Sony Santa Monica leaves a cutscene and actually offers you the chance to make a choice. I set my controller on the ground at that time, firmly establishing my wishes; nevertheless, Kratos did what I explicitly didn’t want him to do anyway. Worse yet, a minute later — and after a couple more action-packed cutscenes — Kratos did the very thing I desired to do in the first place. Why offer me the choice, then, if it’s all planned out? An obvious illusion of choice is a slap in the face.
Despite these gripes — and an almost unforgivable ending that steers away from proper closure to instead set up a sequel — God of War is a truly engrossing, enjoyable experience. I walked away from this 2018 reboot a fan of Kratos and the franchise itself, something I would never have said of previous outings. I firmly believe there are myriad, compelling reasons for newcomers to approach the game just as there are for returning fans to delve back into the world (though they’re mostly near the end or after the story for the latter group). The beauty found in the world of Midgard is as spectacular as the characters who reside within it.
In my preview, I described God of War as a grown up version of the franchise. While solid, there are some flaws in story and design — this mightn’t be God of War fully grown, but it certainly is the franchise in its late teens. Pimpled exterior aside, Sony Santa Monica has turned its established formula on its head and created a core loop and setting with tremendous potential. It’s definitely worth checking out, regardless of your familiarity with the franchise.
God of War (2018) was reviewed using a promotional code on both PS4 and PS4 Pro, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.