It’s been nearly 5 years since Kratos last graced our PlayStation consoles and, with God of War: Ascension receiving a lukewarm reception, it was obvious that the formula that once proved so successful was starting to show its age. It was clear from the start that if the franchise was destined to survive and thrive Sony Santa Monica would have to make some drastic changes. Unfortunately, gamers don’t always take kindly to change. So, when the developer finally revealed the newest entry, simply titled God of War, many were concerned about whether the game would build upon what came before or be changed into something completely different, alienating fans in the process.
Let me start off by saying that I haven’t played many games that have successfully implemented aspects from its contemporaries and still somehow stay true to what came before like God of War does. Cory Barlog and his team have updated the franchise’s formula without losing the essence of what made the previous games so popular, and that is quite an achievement.
God of War sees Karots having settled down in the cold North far away from the sun-drenched coast of Greece. Here he tries to forge a new life for himself away from the blood-soaked one he left behind. This new life hasn’t always been kind to Kratos as we find him and his son Atreus burning the body of his recently deceased wife. Her last wish was that her ashes be scattered from the highest peak in the realm. Suffice to say that all does not go as planned and what starts out as a father and son journeying to send off their loved one soon escalates into an emotional blood-soaked tale of love, trust, redemption and sacrifice.
If I seem vague it’s because it’s important that I steer as far away from spoilers as possible. A large part of what makes God of War’s narrative so impactful is not knowing exactly what could happen around the next corner. It’s a journey that’s just as much about bashing in the head of the next monster you meet as it is about delving into what it means to be a father, what it means to be a son and what it means to make peace with what you did in the past and not letting it dictate who you become.
The older Kratos is quiet, wiser and more reserved then he was in his younger years when he was rampaging through the Greek countryside. Sure, he still has his unbridled Spartan rage bubbling beneath the surface. However, Kratos has learned to control and even hide it. It’s a continuous struggle keeping his rage and his past from his son, but one he has to face each day. It’s strange to see a character whose personality initially consisted of angry, even angrier and “I’m going to kill everyone” angry evolving into a more nuanced character, one which you find yourself building an emotional connection with as you play the game. This is probably one of Santa Monica’s greatest achievements in God of War. They have managed to make us to care for a character who wasn’t very likeable before.
Now, as a father myself, the tale of Kratos and Atreus is a very relatable one. Due to his circumstances, Kratos has been thrust into a role which he has yet to fully accept. It’s clear that he isn’t always sure how to balance being a strong male role model to his son and how to show emotion when the right moment calls for it. Atreus, on the other hand, is faced with a father who doesn’t always show he cares and who would rather kill an ogre with its own tusk than doll out a hug. And while it might sound like just another quick emotional cash-in, the story of Kratos and Atreus is one that tugs at your heartstrings through layered and nuanced storytelling mostly reserved for well-written novels.
Of course, the success of the story and emotions it tries to convey relies heavily on the way in which it is brought across through speech and facial expressions. While all the voice work in God of War is exceptional, I have to make special mention of Christopher Judge who voices Kratos. Somehow he is able to inject subtle emotions into even the shortest of conversations, with each word carrying weight and authority.
While the deep, layered and emotional narrative is one of many great aspects of the new game, it’s the over the top and bloody combat that has kept fans coming back to the franchise time and again. This time, though, combat is more up close and personal, thanks to a tight third-person perspective which gets you right up in the action.
Along with the new perspective, another big change for the franchise is that the Leviathan Axe now replaces the Blades of Chaos. Gone are the days of wildly swinging your blades around as combat now feels more strategic in nature. Figuring out which enemy’s demise to prioritise above another becomes crucial to Kratos and Atreus’ survival as being surrounded and overpowered is a continual threat.
Although you might think that an axe would prove to be less flexible in combat than a pair of chained blades, you would be mistaken. This is in part thanks to Kratos’ ability to throw his axe and recall it at will. It’s this new mechanic that made me quickly forget about the old Blades of Chaos as they opened up a whole new range of options to me during combat situations such as freezing my foes in place or countering their attacks and stunning them before finally ripping off their heads.
By upgrading Kratos’ abilities, combat quickly goes from feeling slower paced to a beautiful deadly dance of blades and fists. Luckily, Kratos won’t have to deal with threats of the North alone as Atreus is more than capable of fighting at his father’s side. I never once felt that he was in the way or not contributing to battle. To be honest, on the occasions where he didn’t accompany Kratos, I discovered that I missed having him by my side. Naturally, Atreus also comes in handy when solving puzzles or having to crawl through those narrow spaces burly tattooed men can’t get through.
Another element that adds to the depth of the combat is the game’s upgrade system. There is a myriad of things to upgrade for both Kratos and Atreus. From armour stats to weapon upgrades to equipping various runes and talismans, each of these not only affects how Kratos and Atreus play during combat but also how they look visually. It’s basically up to you to customise your monster killing duo to suit your playstyle. It can be daunting at first figuring out which statistics are better to upgrade than others. However, once you get the hang of it, it’s plain sailing from there on out.
With its stunning visuals, beautiful (and expressive) character models and advanced lighting effects, God of War is a feast for the eyes. I initially feared that journeying through the Norse realms would be a bland snow-covered affair. This couldn’t be further from the truth and, although you will be trudging through your fair share of snow-covered landscapes, there are more vibrant and colourful ones to explore as well. In fact, there is little doubt that God of War is one of the best-looking games currently out there.
The game is also is wonderfully paced. Moments of quiet contemplation or emotional conversation is interspersed with huge action set pieces (some of the biggest I’ve seen in recent gaming). There are also bouts of combat with a few puzzles sprinkled in for good measure. This is no mean feat considering that the areas you’ll be exploring in the game are quite varied and large. While not completely open-world, there is more than enough to collect, discover and kill.
You will find yourself revisiting old areas as you unlock new abilities and equipment to help you access new areas or solve puzzles. Speaking of puzzles, these are scattered throughout the world and requires your newly acquired abilities to solve. It mostly boils down to smashing, pulling, turning and freezing certain objects. Nothing is too brain wrecking, but just difficult enough to break up the combat sections and keep the game flowing.
It’s hard to describe just how much of an achievement God of War is. The way it gets you to care for a character, who is known for punching and screaming a lot, to the way in which the team at Santa Monica was able to update aspects of the game is to be commended. Each mechanic, conversation and swing of a weapon is handled with so much care and attention that it’s obvious that the team put their hearts and souls into the game.
It’s rare for a game to exceed all the hype and expectations placed on it, especially when it’s such a beloved franchise, but God of War does just that and so much more.