It’s not easy renovating a franchise, but that’s exactly what Sony Santa Monica has done. God of War takes things that worked, and didn’t, in previous entries while ushering it into gaming’s present landscape.
Ever since Kratos made his debut in 2005, the God of War series has always struck one-chord with the audience; even for me. Despite the presentation, sense of scale, and chaotic gameplay, the series has felt long in the tooth by 2013. Kratos – who I unabashedly like – had problems being unlikable and one-note as well. A few years later, a returning director in Cory Barlog and a new console generation God of War enters a brilliant and beautiful soft-reboot.
Gone are the days of the Greek pantheon and the extra baggage that came with it. The Norse realm is Kratos’ new home, along with his son Atreus. This change in setting also is a change for Kratos. The core story is the bonding between father and son. The journey of which is what further binds them together – they must fulfill their wife/mother’s dying wish in spreading her ashes on the tallest mountain in the seven realms.
What comes next is a personal story that centers on acceptance, loss, and family in the harsh environment of Midgard. The father and son dynamic found within works wonderfully. Kratos’ initial interactions toward the beginning of the game come off like the Kratos we’ve come to expect in previous games, though slightly subdued. His subdued nature comes from him trying to control the rage that’s been with him all along – we’ll talk more about Spartan Rage later. This bond felt similar to how Joel and Ellie were handled in The Last of Us. Though The Last of Us features similarities to that of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road, God of War feels fresh and new. Even with the game’s take on Norse mythology.
Atreus is the complete opposite of Kratos. His care-free fun attitude is instantly on display from the beginning, his immaturity – yet knowledge of the realm – act as a good vessel for Kratos to mold from. Since he’s from a foreign land, he needs help understanding the different lore and languages the realm has to offer. Atreus compliments Kratos in that respect, by acting as exposition to the player through their dialogue.
Like any father and son dynamic, there’s a lot of learning involved. Over the course of the story, more is learned about one another between their interactions. Kratos tries to instill knowledge to Atreus about surviving as a warrior in a harsh environment. While Atreus tries to soften ole’ grumpy-god up.
For the first time, Kratos is completely likable, and you feel his conflicting nature. His past haunts him and he fears Atreus may find out. The emotion found throughout the story is enhanced by composer Bear McCreary’s score, as it fits properly into the story. Moments of quiet reflection sound tender, while battle encounters sound bombastic and intense.
The lore established within the game adds layers to characters’ backstories. Many characters you meet during the journey are interesting, and far from dull. One character you meet half-way through the game left me smiling every time I played, due to his knowledgeable nature and wise-cracking jokes.
The story would be nothing without gameplay to usher the player forward. God of War’s gameplay is immensely satisfying in almost every facet. The world begs to be explored, and every new location discovered brings new opportunities to find resources, lore, and combat encounters that consistently remain fresh. The design of the game encourages backtracking to find lost items, upgrades, and so forth. In some regards, God of War borrows the Metroidvania-style approach that the recent Tomb Raider games have adopted.
God of War’s built on a rewarding exploration found in its environments that range’s from semi open-world to linear. When exploring, the highly-detailed environments offer many distractions to be had. Around almost every corner, you’ll find new things to react to or collect. Exploring is almost a necessity when it comes to character progression. Kratos and Atreus can be leveled up based on their gear. Their armor has its own individual stats that can be mixed and matched depending on how you so choose. The same goes for their weapons. Kratos wields a frost-imbued ax called the Leviathan, while Atreus choice of weapon is a bow and arrow.
Let’s talk about one of the many great things found in God of War: the Leviathan. Kratos’s new weapon is a joy to use. The barbaric nature and the change in camera angle – over the shoulder – make kills that much more brutal and satisfying. Throwing the weapon is one of the more fascinating aspects of the ax. Besides the cool animation of the weapon clinging to Krato’s hand, the weapon also is useful at range.
Depending on where you throw, the ax can be used to your advantage. Aiming the Leviathan at the center of the enemy more than likely will result in the foe freezing due to the weapons imbued nature. Similarly, if you aim at the enemies feet there’s a very high probability that the enemy will trip buying some time to prepare the next attack. Krato’s can also go bare-knuckled when it comes to attacking. For instance, Kratos can throw his ax at an enemy to stun them, while fist-fighting others to broaden the fight.
There’s also another important reason to fight unarmed; Spartan Rage. Spartan Rage builds up the more Kratos is in combat. Once the meter is fully charged Kratos can deliver a good amount of damage and gain slight health while also remaining somewhat invulnerable.
Kratos’s ax also acts as a tool in puzzle-solving. Throughout Midgard different puzzles present a challenge. Most of these puzzles incorporate the ax in some aspect. The puzzles themselves aren’t very difficult but are uniquely designed to fit the environment situated within. Like the combat, puzzle-solving feels rewarding on its own.
Throughout the land, runes, talismans, and move-set talismans can be found that add special abilities to each weapon. Along with the experience points gained through combat encounters, these abilities are upgradable leading to more successful move-sets. Two dwarves named Brok and Sindri are your go-to people when it comes to upgrading gear. With the required resources and Hacksilver – the game’s currency found throughout the realms – armor can be crafted to what seems fit. Also, as a side-note, collectible artifacts found throughout the realm can be sold for a good amount of Hacksilver rewarding you for exploration.
In some aspects, the combat feels influenced by the Dark Souls series. Boss fights can be tough if not handled right. Their attack patterns change varyingly, requiring constant strategizing to get the upper-hand, otherwise, they will. The light and heavy attacks can only go a long way, as combat encounters can get overwhelming if not careful. Enemies can swarm from every angle; luckily there’s a warning indicator that will turn from white to red as the enemy approaches near.
Despite this though, the game is nevertheless smooth and satisfying to play. Atreus is also a great addition to battle. Instead of being exposition, he plays a part in helping to level the battlefield by providing damaging arrows that also stun depending on the enemy type. Pressing the square button enables Atrus to fire on the enemy as directed.
Addictive in its gameplay, while also stunning in its presentation. God of War delivers one of the best game experiences in recent memory; while also setting benchmarks in storytelling and game design.