'God of War' review: a coming of age in more ways than one

Tuesday, 24 April 2018 08:00 AM Written by 

 

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“God of War” is a coming of age story in many ways. Not only is it a story that explores an aging Kratos as a stranger in a strange land, and being a reluctant single father to a grieving boy who's desperately looking for guidance. It's also growth for the entire “God of War” series.

The last numbered “God of War” game (not including “Ascension”) released eight years ago. “God of War 3” pushed the series forward with staggering graphics and massive set pieces for the time thanks to the added power of the PS3. But, in order to grow even further, this new “God of War” needed to be more than just a “bigger” “God of War” experience. We've seen that already. That's why this game ditched the fixed camera, button mashing and quicktime events that reek of a game from 2010. The new and improved “God of War” is an expansive and fully fledged RPG that takes hints from the best games in the medium, all while paving its own path to becoming one of the most novel action games of this console generation.

While “God of War” is enhanced by its satisfying, yet challenging, action and skill progression, all of that takes a backseat to its story of Kratos and his son Atreus. The game is rooted in Norse mythology rather than the Grecian lore that is found in the previous games. The story opens with the two main characters preparing a pyre for Kratos' wife and Atreus' mother. Exposition is cleverly avoided by revealing bits of its characters' relationships through reserved the conversation between Kratos and Atreus. Small bits of backstory are sprinkled throughout their dialog, giving the narrative a natural feel.

Kratos has never been the most relatable character in video games, but that's rectified in “God of War.” He is a conflicted god who has endured a lifetime of torment, yet still trying to wrestle with the idea that he's capable of evolution. Throughout the game's lengthy runtime, every line of dialog is tinged with his inner conflicts: his guarded grief over a lover, his hatred for gods, which, in turn, includes a degree of self hatred and disdain for his son, being banished by his father, carrying the constant reminder of his former wife and daughter, wanting to grow into a better father while battling his past of being the worst father in the world. There is plenty of pathos to explore. Atreus acts as Kratos' potential inner monologue if his many mental barriers could be removed.

After the first three “God of War” games, it was a long-running joke that angry Kratos is as one-note as characters in video games can be. This was more of a product of his setting than it was of faulty storytelling. Greek deities are all one-note. They are angry, scheming backstabbers who lust for power, kill loved ones or both. Kratos fit perfectly into that realm where his only growth was in becoming a god and then brutally murdering all of his family members of Olympus in a fit of vengeance. Pair that past of betrayal at the hands of his father Zeus with an older, wiser Kratos wrestling with being a better father than he had and you have a character with depth that carries the narrative from the opening scenes to the final credits.

 

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A linear “God of War” wouldn't be much of an intriguing experience in 2018. After the first couple hours, the journey opens up into a vast Norse playground with plenty of sights to see, battles to fight and gear to collect. The game avoids the typical pitfalls of many modern open world games that overwhelm the player with dozens of waypoints that clutter a world map. “God of War” eases players into its vast setting, and reveals its offerings little by little.

For the first time in the series, Kratos can embark on side missions. These optional quests, much like the best side missions, don't feel like side missions. They offer additional story development for side characters and off-screen characters of Norse lore. They don't always concern key players of the core story, but add layers to the larger narrative. Plus, the gameplay and action of these optional quests have the production value of main quests. They made me want to explore and see everything the game wanted to show me.

 

The game is so gorgeous that you'll want to see all of its sights from its stunning mountain vistas to the tiny details in its cave structures and waterlogged islands. The game is capable of 4K on a PS4 Pro, but is also playable in HDR on capable TVs on a standard PS4. HDR adds considerable amount of color and makes every detail of Kratos' gear really pop. “God of War” is in the discussion of the PS4's most beautiful offerings.  

 

Kratos' journey artfully handles travel. Once the game opens from its linear beginnings, he and Atreus explore the surroundings of the hub world called The Lake of Nine. At any point, the main characters can jump into their paddle boat and explore what the lake has to offer. As the main story progresses, sections of the lake open to reveal even more areas to travel. Traveling from A to B doesn't feel like busy work. “God of War” uses it as an opportunity to build the complicated relationship between Kratos and Atreus. As soon as Kratos pushes the boat from a dock, the curious Atreus tries to tear down the walls that guard Kratos' feelings and past. What starts as strained conversation grows into Kratos becoming a more caring participant in his son's growth. To make sure travel never gets stale, the game introduces a third boatmate who peppers in comedic banter and backstory of Norse lore.

 

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When on dry land, Kratos and son explore a variety of awe-inspiring lands, discover puzzles and wage war against demons of the Norse underworld. Kratos' trademark Blades of Chaos have been replaced with the Leviathan Axe, which once belonged to his late wife. His blades have been a staple of the series, but the new axe is a worthy substitute. It has magical freezing properties, violently hacks away at enemies as if they were butter and can even be thrown into his foes and always returns to his open hand. Being a part of the Norse setting is fitting since the axe's behavior mimics that of Thor's famed hammer Mjolnir.

Satisfying combat is great from a gameplay perspective, but “God of War” takes it a step further and puts it in context with the story. The narrative makes sure not to give the player emotional whiplash when going from conversation of growth between Kratos and his son right into viciously murdering creatures of the undead. From the very beginning, that violence is put into context. Atreus sees death caused by his father for the first time. That's easier to stomach when it involves demons compared to other enemy types like starving wolves. Atreus immediately comments on this as he doesn't understand why the wolves had to die since they're just trying to survive. Kratos' response is spot on for a former soldier who grew on a heavy diet of war. To Kratos, everyone is trying to survive, including himself. His advice is to push all feeling out of your heart so they can't hurt you. That short-term thinking is acceptable in the moment, but its downsides are explored as Kratos becomes more conflicted. “God of War” accomplishes something that few games do: it uses its violence to progress its narrative and evolve its characters, and its story is more cohesive because of it.

The combat of the “God of War” series has always been a pillar of its games, and the new and improved combat of the new game is no exception. It's still one of the core joys of the game, but now it's a more fleshed out system. Kratos can swap between his axe and his bare hands, which is perfect once the Leviathan Axe is hurled into a foe from across a battlefield. His bare hands can deal damage and fill a foe's stun meter, which is found beneath their health bar. Once full, Kratos can unleash his brutal grapple kills that he's become known for. A new shield mechanic can also be worked into the mix to block and parry enemy attacks.

 

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Atreus' arsenal grows just like Kratos'. He starts out as a frightened boy who struggles to aim his bow, but eventually grows into a sharpshooter who lends a legitimate helping hand in battle. As he develops, he jumps onto enemies dealing damage and making them weaker to Kratos' attacks. Link all of Kratos' attacks from his axe and fists, plus Atreus' ranged attacks, and you have combat that can be as varied and strategic as the player wants to make it.

“God of War” games have always had upgrade systems, but not as expansive as this. Not only can Kratos' weapons be upgraded, but he can also be outfitted with gear that has its own levels and perks. The Norse land has dozens of pieces gear waiting to be found that equip to Kratos' arms, chest and weapons. New gear can be crafted and existing gear can be upgraded. The strength of Kratos' gear determines his overall level. Throughout the game, he'll run into enemies that are too powerful for him to face. In classic RPG fashion, he has to power up and return to those enemies to defeat them.

The gear Kratos wears is wonderfully creative and completely changes his look. His outfits can range from battle-ready hide to full suits of armor. Even upgrading slightly change the gear's look.

The many systems in place that concern gear and weapons goes a bit too far at times. Each gear type requires its own ingredients in order to upgrade them. As gear reaches higher levels, it requires even more and rarer ingredients. When looking over Kratos' gauntlets, armor and weapons, it became overwhelming when trying to figure out what all was needed in order to see an overall improvement to my character. There are a few too many types of currency to improve gear. In a game that tries to go above and beyond in such drastic ways to set itself apart from its predecessors, this excess is to be expected here and there.

Kratos and the “God of War” series defined a generation and impacted countless western action games. In order to leave its mark on a new audience, platform and generation, it had to grow and be that groundbreaking inspiration it was more than a decade ago. Accomplishing that is an impossible feat comparable to scaling the titan Chronos and opening Pandora's Box. But, Sony Santa Monica has done the impossible. “God of War” is the culmination that the series always had the potential to be. Better yet, it's just the beginning of a new legend forged by the God of War.

9.75 out of 10

 

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