Note: the below contains very mild spoilers for the first five minutes of God of War, which had already been revealed in promotional materials before release. If you want to go in completely blind, skip ahead by four paragraphs.
Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio Publisher: SIE Platform: PS4 Review copy purchased
War. War never changes. That is, of course, unless it’s God of War making its long-awaited debut on PS4. Kratos is not the man he once was, neither is the franchise he is the centerpiece of. Gone are the combo meters and the landscapes of ancient Greece, replaced by more grounded combat and the beauty of the Norse wilds. These changes may be too jarring for some, but God of War stands as the jewel in the series and arguably the best game released on PS4 to date.
God of War opens up on a note that immediately lets the player know that nothing is what it once was. A solemn and subdued Kratos pauses at a tree marked by his recently deceased wife before begrudgingly cutting it down as one of her last wishes. The old Kratos wouldn’t have lingered for a second, probably throwing the trunk into the atmosphere and spearing a procession of harpies in the process. Not this Spartan: he’s haunted by his past, the guilt almost visibly weighing him down.
The remaining hope for his connection to a sense of humanity lies with his son Atreus: a sickly boy who lets his heart rule his head. He is being trained by Kratos to be a warrior and a hunter, but not in the Spartan way — Atreus knows almost nothing of Kratos’ past out of the latter’s fear and shame. The only thing binding these two together is the ashes of the boy’s mother, which Kratos and Atreus must scatter from the highest point in all the lands.
The duo set off on a grand journey from their tiny abode in the wilderness, Kratos with his new axe in hand and Atreus wielding his bow. Teamwork is important in God of War, whether it’s Atreus peppering enemies with arrows or the father and son working in tandem to solve puzzles. It’s truly bizarre to see Kratos accepting help and reacting with restraint whenever Atreus makes a mistake or speaks out of turn — the Ghost of Sparta would have booted him into the sun within the first five minutes of the game.
As mentioned, the combat is massively different in God of War on the PS4 to what it used to be on the PS3 and PS2, and even PSP. It’s slower and more methodical, most likely to reflect Kratos’ age and his mellowing away from bloodlust. The over-the-shoulder perspective is a strange change at first that may rankle some and isn’t always perfect; it’s difficult at the beginning of the game to juggle enemies as well as the “cinematic” camera. But after just under 30 hours of God of War, I learned to thrive with and adore the new perspective.
Gone also are Kratos’ beloved Blades of Chaos, replaced with the Leviathan Axe: a gift with his wife. If you’ve ever wanted to play a Thor game that isn’t licensed tie-in toss, play God of War. The axe can be thrown and then recalled, a mechanic the game puts to full use in combat, puzzles, and something to do while you’re travelling on an elevator. It’s a remarkable weapon, one that can be flung at enemies and then called back, but not before Kratos can dish out punishment with his bare hands, which itself has a fairly robust skill system to delve into.
The controls aren’t as simple as spamming square until everything’s dead; it’s certainly more complex and harder to get comfortable with, particularly if you’re not the most dextrous of players. Heavy attacks are controlled with R2 and light with R1, but combining L2 with these attacks makes Kratos throw his axe. L1 is to block and X makes Kratos dodge, while L3 and R3 unleashes Spartan Rage to allow Kratos to dish out massive punishment and earn back some health.
It’s Atreus’ ranged attacks, however, that will define your success in most battles. You can hit square to make Atreus fire an arrow at an enemy, sapping away small amounts of health and interrupting their unblockable attacks to knock them off-guard and leave them open for a battering. Atreus can also summon an animal spirit of sorts to break up swathes of enemies. Most impressively of all, though, Atreus’ AI improves as his character develops in skill and confidence through the story. Early on, the AI will rarely get involved unless you ask it to, but in the latter stages of the game Atreus will constantly be looking to attack and be a nuisance to creatures far larger than him.
Developing Kratos’ skills is vital to your enjoyment of God of War’s combat: early game fights are somewhat basic with limited combos and moves. However, once you are able to unlock new skills using the generous XP system and combine all manner of crazy moves, the game comes alive. There’s a rather visceral joy to be had from flinging the axe at an opponent before sprinting, catching the axe in mid-air and then dunking down with a two-pointer of death.
Atreus’ abilities can also, luckily, be upgraded as he is only really useful as a distraction in the early game. Over time, Atreus is able to rapid-fire elemental arrows at enemies to weaken them for Kratos but also comes into his own as more of a sidekick than a hindrance, which is reflected organically through progress made in the storyline. There’s something heartwarming about a son choking a Draugr while his father winds up for a haymaker.
Above all else, probably the biggest (and likely most polarising) fundamental change to God of War arrives in its gear and their effects. God of War feels more like an RPG than ever, something you will realise as you’re squinting at numbers on a screen to try and pick the best armour. You are spoilt for choice as the game doesn’t hold back from throwing all manner of different options at you, evidenced by the armour you have been building towards and painstakingly upgrading becoming rather annoyingly obsolete within the next ten minutes as the new shiner thing comes along. There’s an element of grinding to choosing Kratos’ armour, whether it comes down to stat boosts or aesthetics, but here’s a simple guide: don’t pick anything that obscures his iconic nipples. It just looks weird.
The customisation of his armour includes pieces for his waist, wrists, and chest, which can then be further improved by unlocking enchantment sockets that can provide buffs. This starts off fairly simply and revolves around increasing basic stats like strength and vitality before increasing in complexity to include defenses against particular enemies and even special abilities in the forms of talismans. Acquiring new gear is either a case of finding it on the bodies of fallen enemies, within chests, or through either of the dwarves who act as God of War’s merchant in a trenchcoat who somehow appears everywhere.
Sindri and Brok are able to provide Kratos with new gear through a combination of the game world’s currency, hacksilver, and various special materials for the latter stages of the game. They can also help Atreus with a new outfit, which grants him buffs and makes him better with the bow. God of War is incredibly generous with how many rewards it doles out, so you don’t feel too hard done by when your shiny thing is outshined by something new — it’s all relatively within your grasp. The game is also very helpful with the amount of gear and resources it provides for exploring its sumptuous semi-open-world.
The center of Kratos and Atreus’ journey is location in Midgard’s Lake of Nine: a destitute body of water showing signs of previous conflicts all over. Acting as the hub for all the action, it’s from here that the player can take on the storyline or dive into the main side quests and collectibles. Even though Kratos is eager to continue on their quest, the side content of God of War is worth doing, especially as it opens up the relationship between he and Atreus. While rowing from location to location by boat, Kratos tries his best to entertain Atreus with some terrible, terrible stories but it’s also a good exercise in character development. Nothing is especially revelatory, but it fills in some blanks and adds to the game’s already robust lore.
While the main portion of God of War will take you upwards of 20 hours to conquer, if you want to see everything there is to see and do everything there is to do, you can add at least another 15 hours on top of that. There’s a startling amount of content here and especially so for a God of War game, which have previously been compact at around ten hours each. I shouldn’t be surprised that a single-player campaign has such depth in its playtime, but this is 2018. When so many AAA titles have a dearth of ideas beyond lumping in a multiplayer mode that doesn’t belong, a narrative-driven solo experience almost over-delivering should be celebrated.
The content runs the gamut from finishing quota-based challenges known as labours, completing favours for friends and spirits, freeing dragons, fighting valkyries, unlocking full armour sets, and so much more. I rarely feel the pull of the endgame in most titles as my schedule doesn’t allow it, but against my better judgement I spent many more hours just journeying around Midgard and doing what I missed out on.
The reason why it was so alluring is a simple one: God of War’s realms are inviting, packed with secrets and a Norse lore worth scrutinising. While I can’t even pretend to be a historian of pre-Viking times, it seemed like God of War was respectful to the myths it chucks Kratos into axe-first. Midgard is where the brunt of your time will be spent, but you can also venture into the realm of elves, challenge yourself in the unfriendly Niflheim and Muspelheim, and even briefly venture into a place that’s a staple of almost every God of War game to date.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that God of War may just be up there with the best-looking games I’ve ever played, and that’s on a base PS4 that’s seen one too many winters. Everything is muted while being completely vibrant and Kratos himself is more detailed than ever before, every single pore and pained, haunted expression leaving a huge impression on the player. I am not at all a “graphics first” kind of gamer, but I have to admit that God of War’s almost outrageous beauty is a massive selling point.
What makes this even more remarkable is that it all takes place in “one shot”, meaning that from Kratos and Atreus leaving their home to the very end, the only cuts in the narrative arrive when you die. Even then, the loading is incredibly brief. The framerate, too, remains steady, and although I am basically relying on guesswork, I believe it flirted between 25 and 30 frames per second, only dramatically dipping when I went to the PS4’s dashboard and back again. I don’t know how Cory Barlog and co. at Santa Monica accomplished it, but they’ve managed to use every inch of power out of the PS4 with hardware that is pushing half a decade in age. It’s a technical masterpiece, to put it simply.
The game working so seamlessly helps to emphatically deliver story beats when they arrive. It’s clear that Santa Monica were going for the same dynamic as seen in and mastered by The Last of Us, and while it isn’t quite as absorbing as Naughty Dog’s best game (Atreus can just flat out be a real irritation at some points), the evolution of Kratos and Atreus’s relationship is worth investing your heart into. Christopher Judge completely nails his portrayal of an almost broken man with few threads of humanity left. If Kiefer Sutherland replacing David Hayter in Metal Gear Solid was a weird and unnecessary choice, Judge filling in for series veteran Terrence C. Carson feels natural. Kratos is not the same Kratos.
No game is perfect, and God of War has more than its fair share of annoyances. While they don’t do enough to drag you out of the game or pull the experience as a whole down, they are certainly there. A lot of the story’s length comes down to just how padded out it feels at points: Kratos and Atreus will collect Object A to get to Location X, but actually they also need Object B. It came to a point where I didn’t believe completing a goal was going to achieve anything, rather that I would have to beat another task to eventually be able to get through a special door or reach a new area.
Enemies, though mostly still good, are also not quite as memorable as the God of War games of old. They are, however, cheap bastards, especially so during the early goings. The Revenant’s constant dodging and wide-sweeping attack is beyond a nuisance, so too are the most powerful elven enemies and their penchant for almost unavoidable assaults. Likewise, while the main few bosses are wonderful, epic affairs, the brunt of your “big” encounters will be spent fighting the same type of mini-boss trolls with slight differences. It’s quite disappointing for a franchise that built its name on grandiose and unique boss encounters.
There are more negatives to God of War if you want to be really cynical, particularly in the dependence on the Leviathan Axe for puzzles. For my money, however, nothing worked too hard against God of War as a whole. If you’re looking at it as the sum of its parts, Kratos’ PS4 debut maintains the spirit and brutality of the original games while also borrowing from inspirations and building upon them to create a game that is unlike anything else out there in terms of its quality meeting its wild ambition.
While the changes brought around for God of War may rankle some, it feels like the natural evolution for a series that you wouldn’t believe is now seven games deep, judging by just how re-energised it feels in its latest incarnation. Kratos is back, and so too is one of PlayStation’s least heroic heroes with great aplomb.