God of War review: A truly epic adventure
This latest God of War is a reboot of sorts, coming eight years after the last main game and swapping the series’ Ancient Greek palette for a Nordic who’s who of gods and monsters. It is the very epitome of fantasy, recasting myth for a father-son adventure that plays to a particularly macho vision of masculinity. Yet it’s also one ultimately full of craft, heart and visual flair.
Longstanding protagonist Kratos is older, fully bearded and living in the woods with his son, all his youthful rage given way to gruff stoicism. After a cremation and a surprise visitor comes a-knocking, it’s up to Kratos to guide his young ward to the top of a nearby mountain to dispose of a loved one’s ashes.
There’s a simplicity to this underlying quest, refreshingly devoid of the convoluted God-politicking that previous games in the series have fallen into. Nordic deities inevitably pop up, and get smacked down, but God of War draws you forward because it’s rooted in a story of a father and son learning to deal with loss. It’s a human story, and adds a delicate heart to the adventure’s heft.
And what heft! There is an immensely satisfying weight to God of War. This is a game where you play a god in hiding, journeying through a mythical Norse world with his son, and Santa Monica Studio has done a stellar job at making each step seem colossal. When your character Kratos runs, he pelts. When he rows, the controller quivers. When he throws his axe, it sticks into the wall with a delectable crunch.
God of War review: Gameplay
Indeed, much of God of War is spent cleaving all sorts of draugr, revenant and troll from head to toe. The chained blades of earlier God of War games have been replaced with the glowing Leviathan axe, which can be swung and flung, flying back to Kratos’ grip with a button tap. Like Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey, the axe is more than a weapon; rather, it’s the foundation on which most of God of War‘s puzzles are hung. From smashing symbol-clad pots to severing glowing sinews, axe-throwing is core to God of War’s gameplay in and outside of combat.
In combat, your axe fits around Dark Souls-style blocks, dodges and parries. Throw away your weapon and attack an enemy with your bare arms and they’ll build up stun damage that – when full – results in gruesome takedowns, reminiscent of Doom’s glory kills. Certain enemies are resistant to axe damage, meaning you’re encouraged to adapt on the fly, running into the fray to rip open stunned enemies before beckoning your axe back into your palm. The result is frenetic, especially when combined with special “runic” attacks that might freeze everyone in your vicinity or see you diving shield-first into a wall of enemies.
All of this is modulated by your son, Atreus. You have a button to fire an arrow at an enemy, but it is crucially a button to order Atreus to shoot, and therefore depends on where the wee AI-controlled lad happens to be standing. What could have easily become an annoyance is effective in how it ties your ward into the action, linking his narrative development to the gameplay. He starts off pretty useless, shooting a few ineffectual arrows that do more to distract than harm. As you progress through the game, and upgrade Atreus’ abilities, he becomes more formidable; less prone to being incapacitated; deadlier with his shots. It’s a satisfying evolution, and one that nicely mirrors the story arc.
God of War review: Lakes and loot
God of War games have always relished a sense of sublime spectacle, with gargantuan enemies and sweepingly fantastical architecture. This sense continues into the newest God of War, with richly detailed environments that encompass vast lakes, forests, mountains and more than a few otherworldly landscapes. This newest game comes with a quasi-open-world approach, with branching areas centred on a hub area that’s kept under the gaze of a looming creature.
Much of Kratos’ adventure progresses linearly, but there are times where you are invited to explore the world’s nooks and crannies for side quests and extra challenges. In true Metroidvania style, there are many times on your adventure when paths can be opened only with tools acquired later on. God of War does a good job of teasing you with these blocked areas, encouraging re-exploration between quests. Even more impressive is how the game builds on this by revealing deeper layers to familiar areas throughout the story. It gives the map a sense of depth, although you’ll occasionally have to suspend your disbelief about why Kratos is unable to leap over a knee-high rock to access cut-off rewards. Seriously. The man can kill a troll but he can’t climb a moderately sized boulder.
Propelling you through exploration is the promise of materials that can be crafted in all sorts of armour and weapon upgrades. Unlike previous God of War games, the reboot comes with an RPG system of equipment choices that can be a bit overwhelming at first, particularly because pieces of armour will tend to raise certain stats and lower others. Once you’ve broken the back of the game’s opening, however, you’ll start to have a good idea about what type of play-style you prefer, and there’s also some jack-of-all-trades kit that sits well in the middle.
In addition to side quests and puzzle-solving, there are harder enemies to take on, and a bunch of collectibles scattered through the world. The map is relatively useless in pinpointing the locations of these extra challenges, but this actually works to the game’s advantage in emphasising actual exploration over icon hunting. Still, there were a few times when the pace of the game slowed while I swept a location for a hidden pot; a tonal dissonance that the characters themselves comment on.
God of War review: Verdict
God of War (2018) could be a case study of the maturing game industry. When the original God of War came out in 2005, players were more likely than not to be sprawled in a student bedsit. Now, those same players have jobs, partners, children; their fantasies of agency tapered with reveries of parenthood. God of War is very much a fantasy of fatherhood, then, but it is one with likeable characters and a surprisingly tender heart.
From the game’s gorgeous landscapes to its sinewy soundtrack by Bear McCreary, God of War boasts some of the finest production work on the PS4. There is something very traditional in its design, almost creaking in its combination of RPG looting and Metroidvania puzzle solving, but this is a game with such grand vistas; such gorgeous production values; such enjoyable setpieces that all its parts come together wonderfully.
A fantastic, epic adventure
It’s a delight to explore, and cleverly ties its father-son story into the guts of combat. A fantastic, epic adventure.