“Don’t be sorry. Be better.”
I may be paraphrasing here, but that’s the key message and quote of the latest God of War. Kratos tells this to his son Atreus at the beginning of the game. Throughout the 20 or so hour journey, that key phrase defines the game’s narrative. Amidst all the bloodshed and carnage that is expected from a hack-and-slash game of this calibre, that phrase also defines its gameplay.
It’s almost as if that mantra was what the Santa Monica game dev team were telling themselves after looking at their previous efforts. God of War parts II, III, and that buggy Ascension prequel were decent games, but they could not live up to the standard set by the very first title back in 2005.
The very first God of War mixed in an effective Greek tragedy of a tale with hyper action gameplay that was more or less an Americanized version of a Hideki Kamiya/Platinum Games project. Not that this is a bad thing; far from it. The game favours gratification & spectacle over the art of fighting perfectionism.
After a long wait, mixed in with understandable reservation from long-time fans of the series, it’s safe to say the franchise really did become better, gratification and all. I will go as far as to say that the PS4 God of War is the change we truly need and deserve.
Old Man Kratos
In this sequel 5 years in the making, we control a wiser and more in-tuned Kratos, now living in the Norse universe on Midgard. He is still gruff and grumpy but now does things in earnest to set a good example to Atreus in his own way. After the death of his wife, he and Atreus set on a personal quest to spread her ashes from the highest peak in the realm. Oh, and he murders a bunch of mythical Norse monsters of all shapes and sizes, angry spirits, the Draugr undead, and crazed humans along the way in self-defence. Midgard truly is an uninhabitable place.
To say more is to spoil the crucial parts of the game. Yes, he fights a superpowered tattooed hobo in the first 20 minutes in what could be a great reminder that this is the God of War we all loved 13 years ago. Yes, he visits a bunch of different realms to get closer to his quests, with the actual world opening up to become a Legend of Zelda-hybrid open world map; more Wind Waker than Breath of the Wild. Each of them is truly gorgeous and distinct, from the flowery lush bits of the Witch’s cottage in Midgard to the deserted-yet-brightly-lit ruins of Alfheim.
And yes, he will fight a heckaton while also solve simple logic puzzles involving his trusty Leviathan Axe and other mandatory skills. The dungeon and instance designs in the game’s main quest is really fun, with ruins filled with their own traps and pitfalls, a bunch of segments where you have to open doors with magic gusts of wind that you have to transport, and even chests which require you to search for and break three well-hidden runes to proceed.
But the one thing that makes this whole game work is how it weaves its tale of a father and son reconnecting and gaining humanity, and how they stick together despite the odds stacked against them. The themes of family, the good and bad side of protective parenthood, and being better people than they used to be is told very well through conversations and cutscenes that transition just fine without breaking the game flow.
Explore a bit more and you can even find out more about this version of the Norse mythological universe, be it finding giant wooden boards with murals to a history lecture from a severed talking head with a Scottish accent.
The game’s narrative wouldn’t mean jack without the core to drive it all: Kratos’ son Atreus. This kid is curious and affable, but he is thrust into this adventure that spans across dangerous territory. What else can he do except help his dear dad out and fight to the best of his abilities? He reacts how he would in this situation: unsure, but perseverant and learns as it goes along. At the same time, he does succumb to short bursts of overconfidence and hubris, but he grows out of it. His interactions with his father and how he is truly the brains in navigating the universe mean that he isn’t deadweight at all.
You really want to see their adventure through to the end, which in itself is peppered with breathtaking vista shots of the realm, a ton of worldbuilding and jaw-dropping revelations, and the memorable side cast like the Witch of the Woods, the aforementioned severed talking head, and the dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri. The latter two will help craft weapon upgrades and armour for the both of you; we’ll get to that in a bit.
A Chop Off The Old Block
Unlike past God of War games, there is no fixed camera angle to work with. The game’s camera is now in third-person, so all your fights are a tad more intimate. Think Dark Souls combat but without a stamina bar and a ton more flexibility and speed.
Your attacks come out fast and seamlessly, while you can also dodge and parry attacks. Trust me, after a few hours, you’ll grow to love the new Leviathan Axe, which also gets tuned up from a simple woodcutter’s tool to a glorified executioner’s BFF with runes and craftings galore. It can do brutal melee damage and attacks, as well as pick off foes from afar with well-placed axe throws. If you aim for their heads, you can get bonus damage off of the next throw if you get the necessary upgrades.
The fists-and-shield can stun enemies faster which means you can pull off quick time attacks to instant-kill them. These quick prompts are not as over-the-top as past games, but they are brutal and painful enough to elicit a wince from the audience. It wears its M rating loud and proud, and does not pull its punches. Or axe chops in this case.
Later in the game, you’ll get a magic-based weapon with better crowd control abilities than the axe that is also effective against enemies invincible to ice attacks. Your son Atreus can hold his own in a fight after the first hour or so. He’s basically your sidekick who grows and evolves from a narrative and gameplay sense. While you control Kratos as he hacks and slashes, Atreus can help incapacitate enemies and fire arrows to stun them and also draw them away from you.
As you progress further and further, you gain XP from enemies which you then use to level up your axe attacks and other fighting styles like your bare hands and shield combo. You can even spend XP to give Atreus more useful skills and give him access to better arrows with elemental properties, as you progress further into the story. The kid can even juggle enemies or keep them juggled with arrows aplenty.
With a decently-sized skill tree for each of your weapons and an RPG-esque equipment system that determines your stats and level -that also has an enchantment and pommel socket system- there’s a huge incentive for Kratos and Atreus to spend more time on Midgard and other realms to partake in to get better power-ups, XP, and upgrades. Oh, and those dwarven bros I mentioned? They help you upgrade your weapons and armour while also selling new ones and other tools for Hacksilver coins; you’ll find a lot of them in chests, enemy drops, buckets hanging on a ceiling by a chain.
Don’t ask us why Midgardian folks hang their loot in buckets. Regardless, this new system and emphasis on a new perspective and control scheme is a step up from the original while also capturing the past game’s sense of impactful and visceral combat.
So Little Time, So Much To Chop…
You’ll be switching back and forth a lot to find the right attacks against enemies. And trust me, you’ll need the help you can get, because the enemies you fight are numerous, varied, and can kick your ass if you’re not careful. While you have your standard Druagr foot soldiers with melee attacks and long-ranged fire/ice balls, you also have the hard-hitting big-bodied Vikens who can regenerate back to full health, the annoying flying nightmare eyeballs that can detonate themselves, giant towering trolls with different heavy-hitting attacks -one of them even teleports to land attacks on you- and the Revenants.
Oh god, the Revenants. They are the equivalent of Bayonetta’s Grace & Glory angels and the NES Ninja Gaiden hawks as the most persistent motherlovers to kill in the history of gaming.
Some enemies are invulnerable to your axe attacks and are too fast to hit, so you’ll have to switch it up with either a new weapon or put Atreus to good use with his bow and arrows. Every fight can either be a breeze or a huge challenge that requires a lot of footwork, defence, and perseverance.
It’s here where the meat of a God of War game is, and the Santa Monica team added a new-yet-familiar spin to it. Not only is the new perspective fresh and the combat design has a lot of heft and flexibility to it, but the control placements help make it easy for you to pull off attack chains and weapon-switching on the fly.
You will also need to deal with flankers and backstabbers too; the down d-pad button and back attack indicators -steer clear when it flashes red or pink- are your best friends in keeping you alive. Though you will eventually die quite a bit since enemies hit hard and they won’t let up unless you fight smart and get good at attacking/parrying.
And that’s just on Normal mode; you can also toggle Hard mode if you want a bit more of a challenge. Or just restart and go to God of War mode if you want a hardcore experience, you crazy nutter you. Keep in mind, you can’t change the difficulty if you pick God of War mode, and enemy placements, tactics, and skills will be tuned up for a more hardcore experience.
As challenges go, God of War will test you and make sure you get better at it.
True, it may take a while to get used to this viewpoint shift, but you’ll soon be kicking ass and controlling Kratos just fine after a few hours or so. If you still die a lot, that’s on you. In short, the gameplay has a dash of new and old combined together in bloodied harmony.
The exploration aspects are also the highlight; you have Tyr’s Gateway as a hub to all of the Norse realms, with each of them having their own open space for you to explore, to find new sidequests, and uncover a ton more secrets.
For example, Nifelheim is a mist-filled place where you can earn a rare resource for the best armours in the game, provided you can survive within the life-draining mists collecting the loot you need while killing enemies as fast as possible. Muspelheim is the hub for all of your action game time trials and challenges; you can win rare armour materials if you can surpass them.
There’s surprising a lot to do here for an action game solely focused on getting to point A to point B in a semi-open world space, and it’s all optional. It all leads towards making your father-son duo better combat-wise, and fleshes out the lovely world Santa Monica shaped.
And the best part? There’s nary a loading screen in sight. Apart from the one you get when you start the game and when you die and restart from a checkpoint, the game runs continuously without any short loading stops whatsoever.
While the actual “loading” is masked behind unskippable cutscenes, long travels on the riverside via boat, and doors/dimensional gateways doing their transitions, it’s still hidden really well upon the first playthrough. Too bad you can’t skip all of that if you want to restart the experience again on a higher difficulty.
Still, that’s what this God of War wants from you: your time and investment. Time to get you to love its world. Time to let you dig into the sights and sounds. Time to explore every crevasse for that life-extending collectable or that kickass rune that nets you more life when you strike enemies with a specific attack.
It offers timesinks galore without forcing it down your throat; it’s up to you to explore and discover these secrets yourself.
Go Norse, Young Man
And here I thought that there isn’t any way to redeem such an angry sack of sh** like Kratos. You know, the guy known for his misadventures in the Greek Pantheon in the previous God of War games.
Indeed, the Santa Monica team pulled off the impossible and created a new God of War entry that became better than its predecessors.
Instead of relying so much on the past and adding contextless setpieces, impressive as they were, the team did due diligence and revamped everything while also preserving the core aspects of a God of War game: the intense action, violence, and satisfying combat and exploration bits coupled with a relatable and effective story.
It also dials down on the previous game’s faults and padding while making sure to deliver the most focused game that treads a thin line between a fresh and nostalgic experience. Action gaming fans never asked for a story this layer-filled in a God of War game. Yet somehow we have one, and it’s told and portrayed masterfully. Even if you’re a soulless person who doesn’t care about such “trivial” story matters, this is still a masterclass on how to reboot a franchise right.
Most importantly, God of War has manned up and developed both a heart and a soul. And not the literal kind that the previous version of Kratos would rip off from some hapless three-headed dog. It tells its message well and delivers on its action gaming promise tenfold.
It genuinely took a page from Atreus’ book: it became better. Better than what it was.
- 20 to 30 hours of adventuring and action goodness in the Norse Realms
- F***ing gorgeous
- Enticing and satisfying combat system
- Incredibly challenging
- Atreus is an awesome companion
- Great reveals and moments, capped off with a lovely ending
- Takes a few hours to get used to the new perspective and feel
- Unskippable cutscenes (due to new loading system)