God of War
The transformation of Kratos from a carnal caricature into a living, breathing character is the indisputable highlight of God of War, a reboot which delivers an astonishing action experience without ever losing its sense of the series’ history. At times it feels like a Nordic Marvel tribute, as Kratos wields the equivalent of Thor’s hammer and Coulson’s shield while pummeling enemies through trees, houses and solid rock faces. The change of weaponry is matched by a switch to an over-the-shoulder camera angle, which pulls you into the fray as it showcases the ludicrous visuals that outstrip anything released on the PS4 to date.
As gorgeous as the new open world is, the game’s linchpin is the story. Kratos is older, wiser, and just a little less unhinged, despite the tale kicking off with him burying the mother of his son, Atreus. A journey to fulfil her final wish of having her ashes scattered at the highest peak of the Nine Realms is a simple premise, but one which opens the door to father and son discovering more about themselves and the new world they inhabit. The drip feed of clues to Kratos’ past and his reasons for moving to the Nordic world is kept at a steady pace, letting us learn as Atreus does.
While you control Kratos for the duration, the game journal is told from Atreus’ wide-eyed perspective and the bestiary entries update with more information on each foe’s weakness as you fight them more often. In game he starts out a little whiny, but soon becomes an invaluable part of Kratos’ (and your) journey. He’s the learned one, the half of the duo who can read, distract enemies with his arrows, and who points out chests, pathways, and other interesting features of the environment. As you level up his weapons, he becomes a vital part of the battle, unleashing stunning attacks and special summoning moves with a press of the Square button.
As AI companions go, he’s near faultless; only a jarring segment which sees him morph into a mopey junior high brat for a couple of hours spoils the rhythm. This is no fault of Sunny Suljic’s, however, who turns in a otherwise likeable performance. Similarly, while Christopher Judge and Danielle Bisutti deserve plaudits as Kratos and Freya, the rest of the voice cast is equally good. Sindri and Brok are memorable comic relief, and Mimir — a severed head who serves as the expository funnel for Norse mythology — is warmly brought to life by Alastair Duncan’s dry, Scottish wit.
Though Kratos most often refers to him as “Boy”, it soon becomes apparent how much Atreus means to his father, and despite his rhetoric about learning to “close his heart to pain”, Kratos’ concern for Atreus is what drives the entire storyline. You feel every reluctant note in the Klingonesque teachings he imparts (“It is important for a warrior to keep his skills sharp!”), and the regret beneath each harsh word when Atreus fails due to his youthful exuberance. In his son, Kratos finds a seed of redemption, something he never thought he’d ever experience — or even want. Complicating matters further is the appearance of Freya, a witch with an intriguing back story of her own, who adds a grounded, subtle tone to the narrative.
Every emotional tilt is underscored by Bear McCreary’s sensational soundtrack, weaving rousing choral crescendos with softer, poignant beats at appropriate times. The simple act of killing a deer at the beginning encapsulates everything this new God of War succeeds at — the tenderness of a father teaching his son how to survive, how to take a life. Kratos’ past exploits may have seen him butcher the animal with little thought, but his fury now needs to be tempered by his desire to keep Atreus focused, learning, and on his side, all while wrestling with the decision to discuss his heritage.
It’s a beautiful paradigm shift from the carnage of everything that has come before, a pulsating reset which puts even the reimagining of Lara Croft to shame. It isn’t just Tomb Raider that the game takes its cues from, though a new open world setting combined with an expanded upgrade system feel like clear influences. Kratos’ burgeoning relationship with the son he barely knows mirrors Joel and Ellie’s plight in The Last of Us, but the believability and high stakes of a true familial connection hammer home each plot development even deeper than Naughty Dog’s story managed. And while tombs are raided and an unfeasible amount of pottery smashed, elements of Uncharted’s puzzle solving and flare for elaborate set pieces also abound. Gone are the instadeath platforming sections of earlier series entries, along with the majority of quick time events and annoying button hammering to open chests. Some may mourn their loss, but this streamlined experience is bolstered by a sharper focus on enjoyable tasks, fun puzzles and more meaningful side quests, of which there are plenty.
Labours are a series of challenges revolving around the collection of items, or the destruction of enemies using Kratos’ unique abilities. There are Odin’s ravens to dispatch, a bevy of collectibles to discover in each new realm, and a vast number of shrines and chambers to find. Experience is granted for pinning weaker enemies against walls, killing them with fire or ice, tripping them up or stunning them. Every labour you complete grants you the experience needed to unlock more skills for Kratos, and despite the series being historically combo-heavy, here they’re stripped down to a core usable group of attacks which can be incrementally improved. That isn’t to say combat is limited — far from it. Kratos collects more weapons on his journey, but his fists are often as effective as his tools since they can pummel an enemy’s stun meter to breaking point much faster, allowing him to finish them quicker. Other opponents are vulnerable only to certain attacks, but excellent combat feedback makes it easy for you to work out the best approach to each encounter.
What begins as a slow acclimatisation to your new axe (and its lovely boomerang mechanic) soon evolves into a series of new moves, each adding more finesse, power or both to your battles. With heavy and light special attacks married to two separate weapons alongside a range of standard moves, it feels like there are almost too many options at times and you’ll invariably veer towards your favourites. However, a clever use of ice and fire permeates both weapons and enemies, forcing you to learn at least the basics of each in order to progress. There are four difficulty levels, and even playing on the second easiest will prove to be a challenge for many. Armour and weaponry is colour-coded in the now ubiquitous labelling system, ranging from Common through to Rare and Epic, and peaking at Legendary for the best loot. However, comparing your gear could have been made easier, given that almost all of it can be upgraded, if you can find the right crafting ingredients.
Though you’ll pick yourself off the floor more times than you’ll care to admit, it won’t be too much of a burden since there’s a new visual treat waiting for you around almost every corner. It isn’t an exaggeration to call God of War a system seller. On a normal HDTV, it looks amazing; in 4K it’s simply mind-blowing. At times you’ll power through an area — without noticeable framerate issues or loading times — with your jaw agape, unable to cope with the sensory overload of colour, lightning, flame and frost. Audio effects are likewise stellar: gates and long-forgotten chests grate open with a hiss of dust, monsters boom and shriek, and at quieter times the frosty environment brims with wildlife calls and the crunch of powdered snow. The camera moves like a dream, set pieces wouldn’t look out of place in a movie theatre, and the art direction will have you wondering where the game stops and the cutscenes begin. The bestiary is generally varied, with a decent range of enemies to pinpoint weak spots on, though many of the low-level foes are reskinned versions to bulk out the cast. Even after you finish the game, two optional realms offer further challenges: one procedurally generated, the other more classically focused on specific goals, while a set of supremely tough Valkyries are dotted around the map, awaiting the arrival of the most masochistic players.
Though Santa Monica Studio has produced a ballsy, confident, and often addictive return for Kratos, it’s not flawless. Travel around the Nine Realms is often cumbersome, with your plodding canoe bearing most of the frustration. The Realm Between Realms is a cunningly disguised loading screen for which even Mimir’s tales cannot dispel the monotony of traipsing around, and there is a fair bit of unnecessary padding back and forth to string out the experience which could easily have been shortened by five to ten of the thirty-plus hours without any great loss. Furthermore, despite the pantheon of Nordic mythology being vast, you may be disappointed by the relative lack of gods on show here. Compared to the spectacular battles fought in the game’s predecessors, it feels like Sony has been a little too cautious in mining the rich Scandinavian lore available to them, opting instead for references in journal notes and carvings. While “show, don’t tell” is a worthy approach to storytelling, in a game as bombastic as this it would have been nice to acquaint ourselves with a few more memorable names, rather than waiting for them to pop up in the inevitable sequels. The ending may also prove controversial to some, but then the series has always forged its own path — for better or worse.
These are ultimately minor niggles in an otherwise superlative game. Faithful to the series’ roots while improving on every aspect, God of War serves as a template for how an action series should be rebooted: a barnstorming visual feast driven by an emotional heart.