When Kratos first appeared on PlayStation 2 in God of War, he instantly became one of Sony’s most popular mascots. Thus, several sequels and a prequel were released, giving fans more of what they wanted: brutal combat, basic puzzle solving and a badass main character with blades on chains. In total, six different God of War games debuted during the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and PSP eras. One was even remastered for PS4, with that being God of War III.
Several years may have passed since the series’ last brand new iteration released, but that doesn’t mean that the Ghost of Sparta’s story has come to an end, or that his series is dead. No, that time went to good use, as Sony Santa Monica poured its blood, sweat and tears into a new take on the franchise’s formula. The result is a more mature, but still badass, God of War game that is exclusive to the PlayStation 4 console.
Things begin in a strange, snowy land, where Kratos and his young son are preparing to say farewell to the boy’s late mother. They prepare her body and set it alight, then eventually collect her ashes at the end of their quiet funeral. A break is taken, though, in order to hunt, and it’s here where we really get a good first impression of the relationship that the two share. Kratos is, as expected, gruff like he’s always been, and he seems unable to fully trust or love the boy despite their shared chromosomes. Then again, perhaps part of it is grief.
Before she died, Kratos’ worldly, story-loving wife asked her men to scatter her ashes atop their world’s highest peak. This, in turn, becomes the main quest with which Kratos and young Atreus will focus their minds. It doesn’t start well, though, and often goes off course, because what happens that fateful day ends up stirring up unexpected trouble.
First, while out hunting, the two encounter enemies of the undead and troll like varieties. After doing away with them, as part of a tutorial that teaches players how to use Kratos’ ice infused axe and Atreus’ bow, they’re confronted by a strange and unfriendly man of unknown descent. His visit isn’t social, and that’s all we can really say.
Truth be told, this God of War is a difficult game to review, because its story is full of spoilers that we’d rather not share. Sony has also politely asked all reviewers to avoid mentioning any major plot points, and it’s difficult to say much of anything about the story without doing so.
What we can say, though, is that this is an epic tale that is full of twists and turns. It sends our heroes throughout their Norse mythology filled realm of Midgard and into other dimensions, where they must do battle against all sorts of heinous creatures. Along the way, they end up meeting numerous characters of different descent, including two dwarves who share the same heritage. However, despite being brothers, these two (a foul mouthed blue guy and another who gets sick at the mention of blood, guts or dirt) don’t get along at all, and bicker as they improve upon Kratos’ axe. It’s they who act as the game’s shopkeepers, and allow you to not only improve upon your armor, weaponry and enchantments, but also craft or purchase better items. Of course, it’s also possible to sell things for extra silver.
The main shop exists in the middle of the Lake of Nine, and it’s not far from a room that allows for some dimension hopping, so long as the other realms’ keys have been found. A few are story based, but a couple of others are unlocked through finding all of their pieces of lore, and offer challenges for players to test their mettle against. One is a wave-based encounter challenge, wherein Kratos must kill all enemies within a certain amount of time, then kill sets of enemies together lest they respawn. The other realm’s, then, take the form of a longevity test, which tasks the player with trying to survive for as long as possible amidst challenging enemies and poisonous fog.
This truly is unlike any of the previous God of War games, and it shows right from the get-go. Gone is the Kratos of the past, and in his place is a more gruff, mature and wise version of the character. The game that he finds himself in is also much more mature than those before it, presenting gameplay design that brings other award winning titles to mind. While playing through it, there were times where I was reminded of The Legend of Zelda, times where I thought of Darksiders and combat encounters that made me think about Dark Souls. Why? This version of God of War is built around challenging encounters against smaller groups of enemies. Sure, you’ll occasionally come up against a hefty amount of baddies, but most battles will be between the two protagonists and three to five foes.
To succeed in combat, especially on the game’s third or fourth difficulty levels, one must learn how to block and do so well. Kratos’ shield isn’t just for show, and is a very helpful asset that allows him to block, parry and counterattack. Eventually, other skills are learned, including the ability to break an opponent’s guard by tapping the block button twice.
It’s the frost axe that will be your best offensive friend, however, and for good reason. Not only is it incredibly badass and super powerful, but it can also be upgraded and infused with different charms and enchantments that give Kratos limited health boots, short-lived shields and other skill boosts. This axe can be swung (through both light and heavy attacks that utilize the R1 and R2 shoulder buttons) and thrown, at which point it can freeze enemies. Axe throwing also becomes a major part of the game’s puzzle solving mechanic, as it can be used to ring bells (that open chests), open doors and freeze platforms in place.
There are many chests scattered around the game world, and you’ll have to be both quick and eagle eyed to unlock some of them. That particular type is the rarest of the bunch, and always happens to be locked by three different runes that must be found and either displayed, rung or broken using Kratos’ axe. Sometimes you’ll have to do so in quick succession, which adds an interesting challenge, but the rewards are always worthwhile. There are apples that increase your health bar’s length once you’ve collected three of a kind, and horns that increase your Spartan Rage bar.
What, exactly, is Spartan Rage? Well, it’s a lot like it sounds. As Kratos doles out and receives damage through standard combat, the rage meter increases. Once it reaches a certain level, it can be unleashed, allowing for fast and frenetic punch attacks and ferocious stomps, both of which cause added damage.
Atreus, Kratos’ young, naïve and oddly sick young son is along for the ride as your faithful ally. He’ll jump on top of and stun enemies, and will also stab some with his knife. He’s more of an archer than anything else, though, and one can tap square to tell him to fire, or aim with the left shoulder button to highlight the exact spot you want an arrow to fly to. There are two different types, too, including life arrows that activate blue crystals, displaying light bridges. Shock arrows are also discovered, and they can be super helpful, allowing for a chained lightning attack. These can also be used to blow up certain crystals that are discovered around the half-way point of the game.
Needless to say, the elements play a large role in the first PlayStation 4-exclusive God of War title, which is fitting given its setting and rich Norse mythology. Kratos and Atreus also get to travel around their world using a canoe, and can explore a large lake and its surrounding beaches, cliffs and caverns almost at will. It’s a neat way to get around, and one that works really well.
Exploring will obviously be a necessity for those who wish to one hundred percent this game. It’s also important when it comes to side quests, because most are located off the beaten path and can only be reached by canoe. These offer a nice distraction from the rich, dangerous and heavy main quest, and allow you to take a breather. One may have you searching for hidden bones, while another will have you exploring a long abandoned storage room in search of lost treasure. Others have you lighting braziers (which cause enemies to spawn), collecting the ingredients for a special type of armor and heading into mines in an attempt to find a missing person and his green ring.
As you complete both main and side quests, open chests or find new areas, you’ll earn experience points and silver. These can be used to unlock new abilities (for Kratos’ weapons and Atreus’ bow), through a light RPG skill tree system. Furthermore, each item that you equip and use comes with its own stats, which affect the protagonist’s stats. This means that you’ll have to strategically choose which items, axe handles, and pieces of armor you use, because they’ll either increase or decrease your strength, defense, health, luck and rune magic. The latter relates to special moves that can be selected and used, albeit sparingly.
The open world design and the quests that come with it really make one think of Zelda, and also bring to mind Darksiders given their fantastical nature and inclusion of gods and monsters. These are good things, and though God of War 2018 isn’t the balls to the wall action game that its predecessors were, that doesn’t mean it isn’t better. It’s arguably the best game in the series, though it can be faulted for having a bit of repetition and a tad too much backtracking.
If the above has you worried that this isn’t still a God of War game, you needn’t fear anything. While it’s a very different beast, it’s still chock full of epic combat and features the gruff, machismo main character that you likely loved playing as before. There’s lots that will remind you of the previous titles, including the aforementioned great combat, with its visceral and bloody finishers and the occasional ability to ride massive beasts and clobber smaller ones with them.
This is a maturation, though, and a necessary one. It was time for God of War to change, and it has for the better. In doing so, it’s opened itself up to a new audience that may have overlooked its previous form, while still maintaining many of the things that longtime fans adored. I’m also happy to report that the previous titles’ boring platform puzzles have mostly been removed, in favour of much more intelligent, and much more enjoyable tests.
There’s tons of side content, too, which helps. Even still, this is a game that will easily take you 20 to 30 hours to complete, and that’s before going for 100% if you so please. Those who do will have their work cut out for them, too, because some very powerful enemies await them in hidden tombs, as part of an endgame quest. You’ll want to find, craft and equip some special armor before you tackle most of them.
Expect to also get emotional at times, especially if you’ve lost someone close to you. This is a well-written game, and one that eschews its series’ reputation for exaggerated storylines that favour action over depth. This particular one would make a great movie, and exists inside of a very, very cinematic game.
On the visual side of things, God of War is an absolute beast, which offers two different settings, with one prioritizing resolution over performance and the other focusing on the reverse. I went with performance over resolution and wasn’t disappointed, because in the close to 30 hours that I spent with this game, I hardly ever saw it stutter. The frame rate was almost always perfect, and that impressed me given how much was going on on-screen.
The visuals and art design are almost second to none, too, presenting a world that is both rich and believable despite its fantastical nature and the creatures that exist within it, including gods and monsters. There’s lots of action, but it always looks great, with colourful accents depicting different elements. Also, even when the game goes indoors, inside of ages old chambers and tombs, it still manages to look great, thanks to pops of colour and some very nice artistic efforts.
I can’t count how many times I stopped and rotated the camera around, thinking that I could take an incredible screenshot from multiple angles. This game is gorgeous, and is at its best when you’re outdoors, exploring Midgard’s lake edged vistas. Some of the other realms look great, too, though.
The only real downside to the visuals comes in the form of text. For whatever reason, the developers opted to go with a very small font for the menu, in-game prompts and Kratos’ codex and beastiary. I found it hard to read from about 12-15 feet, which is the distance I normally play from. When I sat close to my TV, I could read it without much trouble, but it’s certainly smaller than it should be.
When it comes to audio, it’s also difficult to find anything to complain about. The script is impressively rich, and it allows for a lot of great depth and character progression. Kratos and Atreus bicker a lot, and their strained relationship is a true highlight of the campaign. It also brings forth some funny moments and one-liners. The nicest thing, though, is that Atreus never needs to be babysat. His AI is excellent, and you almost never need to worry about saving him or dealing with him constantly failing. If that was one of your fears, it’s another unnecessary one.
Christopher Judge may be new to the role of Kratos, but he’s excellent in it. Honestly, it feels as if the character was written just for him. He’s that good.
The music is also excellent, thanks to a fantastic and fitting orchestral score from none other than Bear McCreary. It’s complemented by loud, boisterous and well- designed sound effects that truly bring the world to life, not to mention A-plus voice acting from the rest of the game’s talented cast.
With all that having been said, it’s very easy to recommend God of War. What Cody Barlog and his team at Sony’s Santa Monica Studios have accomplished here is truly amazing. Risks were taken, but they all paid off, and what we’ve been gifted is one of the best games of this generation.
**This review is based on the PS4 exclusive, which Sony provided us with. We played it on a PS4 Pro, which got pretty loud at times.**
God of War marks the triumphant return of one of gaming's most popular series. It's an incredible and very necessary maturation.