God of War Review

The Gods of Olympus have abandoned you, paying the price for their treachery in blood – their hallowed constructs torn asunder by your insatiable thirst for vengeance. From the depths of Hades, to the summit of Mount Olympus, rage has fueled your conquest – serving as both powerful ally and venomous master. You are a proxy of death – an inescapable whirlwind of devastation that has claimed the lives of gods and men alike – including that of your own wife and child. Your callous facade wears the mask of a champion to protect the heart of a coward. I know your fear, the silhouette of innocence corrupted by the very circumstances which spawned you: Ghost of Sparta… Monsters beget monsters, and in this world there is nowhere left to hide from what you are.

In recent years, the rising popularity of independent games has stirred the attention of the largest developers within the space to respond to a growing demand for innovative concepts and personal experiences. Taking risks becomes exponentially more difficult for triple-A game developers and publishers, when the cost of producing a corresponding title can shatter the $100 million mark. With the eighth release in the God of War franchise since 2005, it was important for Sony Santa Monica Studio to evolve the series in a unique direction, while retaining the essence of what made it so prominent to begin with. Does God of War successfully reinvent the franchise while keeping its best components in tact?

The first notable change is the shift in the series’ hallmark setting from the volatility of Greek mythology to that of Norse mythology.  Leading up to this most recent entry in the series, Kratos has slaughtered the Greek Pantheon’s most iconic gods, as well as their primordial ancestors – positioning the setting for its next logical progression. The change in setting lays the foundation for God of War’s dramatic transformation from the concentrated singular focus of its predecessors, to a shared experience between Father and Son struggling to survive in a perilous world.   

The irony of God of War’s cooperative adventure is the profound layer of depth it adds to each individual protagonist as they grapple with grief, fear, anger, and strife in their own way. Kratos’ grizzled persona is made all the more obvious here, however a new side of the antihero is evoked by his son Atreus: a friendly and infinitely curious child, longing for approval from his father. Kratos exhibits a recurring reluctance to convey the adoration he feels for his son, sparking a sensible dynamic between both characters as they struggle to connect. While Kratos often comes across as callous towards Atreus, he visibly struggles to be a father that has prepared his son to triumph in the face of adversity. Atreus’ amiable personality serves in stark contrast to that of his father’s – balancing Kratos’ intensity with sensitivity and compassion. The other hemisphere of the young boy’s personality struggles to contain the inherited rage of his father. Some of Kratos’ most empathetic moments stem from scenarios in which Atreus becomes consumed by his rage – compelling a bloodstained father to teach his son to weaponize his affliction through the channel of control. The dichotomy between both characters drives the compulsion for players to grow with them throughout the 25-30 hour main story.

The clever implementation of a literally seamless camera (from title screen to ending credits), and industry leading-facial animation technology, emphasize the guilt Kratos feels for his past transgressions, and the pervasive fear of turning his son into a monster, or being responsible for his death. Outstanding performances from Stargate SG-1’s Christopher Judge as Kratos, and Sunny Suljic as Atreus, effectively conjure the tone of their characters. Judge’s ability to evoke meaning with such minimal dialogue is uncanny – lending nuance to Kratos’ austere disposition. 

The main story begins in the wake of death, as Kratos and Atreus mourn the loss of Faye (their respective wife and mother), who’s dying wish was to have her ashes brought to the top of the highest mountain in the Nine Realms. While the story is simplistic in design, the overall experience is made better for it – taking a backseat to the father/son relationship and the meaningful  journey they share. Evocative writing examines the disparity in regard to how each character processes their grief – juxtaposing moments of isolation with fleeting connection. The highly conceptualized design of the narrative and its various-interlocking parts relies heavily on foreshadowing – often resulting in surprising twists and sobering revelations.

The supporting cast of characters features some of the most memorable in recent memory, including a germophobic Dwarven Blacksmith, and a severed head companion in the form of Mimir: Odin’s imprisoned adviser and ambassador of the gods. Each supporting character adds another level of complexity, as their motivations adapt to the developing impact Kratos and Atreus have on the world. In traditional fashion, the malevolence of the gods remains a core theme as Kratos tempers his son’s curiosity with ominous warnings of their contempt for mortals. At one point in my campaign, I came across a spirit enraged by the death of his wife at the hands of a manic Thor; the spirit begged me to destroy a nearby statue of the wicked god so he may pursue his nemesis in the afterlife. The game does an excellent job of showcasing the intricacies of its charismatic villains by fleshing out their lore through discovery or anecdote. Throughout the years, God of War has produced a plethora of interesting villains by highlighting their narcissistic-human qualities – this most recent entry is no exception.  

One of the most impressive aspects of the God of War series has been the way in which prior installments have continuously pushed the boundaries of technical achievement (especially God of War III). The level of presentation Sony Santa Monica Studio has accomplished with God of War on the PS4 not only pushes the boundaries of technical achievement – it shatters them by creating one of the best-looking console games of all time.

The incessant trial of Kratos’ life has begun to take hold this time around, notably eroding his seemingly boundless alacrity in battle. Players will witness Kratos ambling away from battle following an onerous introduction to the series’ antagonist – relying on his Leviathan Axe for support. Scars adorn both the enchanted axe and its ashen master- personifying their virulent existence. Coarse ridges and sunken eyes define Krato’s appearance and the gravity of his burden. The meticulous attention to detail applied to each character design is unparalleled, as weathered equipment stubbornly contorts to muscle and sinew. The marriage of rich textures and crisp animations lends a photo-realistic quality to the visual aesthetic. Intricate peaks and labyrinthine furrows harbor the sadistic and sanctimonious – endlessly recruiting pious followers to realize their cruel machinations. Breathtaking lighting effects breed viscous shadows that embolden every crease and crevice of Midgard and its inhabitants. The atmosphere oozes with antiquity, luring players in with surreal landscapes and rustic beauty. Each environment boasts a staggering variety of assets – promoting a feeling of genuine discovery with each and every turn. I can’t imagine any compromises were made in terms of translating artistic vision. God of War is a true marvel to behold. 

For players looking to maximize graphical fidelity, there is a “Favor Resolution” Pro mode which runs at around 30 frames per second, and a “Favor Performance” mode running at 60 frames. Better visuals comes at a heavy cost, however the occasional framerate dips within some of the game’s more detailed environments are well worth the price of admission for PS4 Pro owners. Unfortunately, a game this beautiful did not launch with a photo mode, however there is one slated for a future patch.

The linearity associated with previous God of Wars has now been expanded to a moderately sized open world, consisting of a series of interconnected and diverse locations that encourage exploration to uncover collectibles and solve contextual puzzles. A plethora of crafting resources and collectibles are rewarded to wanderlust players wiling to explore every inch of the environment. Acquired resources can be taken back to the Blacksmith for crafting new armor or weapon upgrades. An abundance of experience points can be earned by completing side quests, killing difficult adversaries, or accomplishing milestone achievements known as “Skill Labors.” These labors incentivize players to utilize the robust moveset at their disposal to dispatch their enemies; a moveset which relies on xp and weapon level to increase. While the moveset is fairly limited in the early hours of the game, players will quickly acquire the XP and upgrades necessary to broaden their arsenal. 

Combat in God of War has received a complete overhaul, ditching the pulled back camera for a more intimate over-the-shoulder perspective – akin to that of last year’s Hellblade. The closer perspective in conjunction with fewer, but stronger enemies, turns every engagement into a pernicious dance of timing; as a result, this is undoubtedly the best God of War’s combat has ever been. The hack-and-slash formula of prior iterations was fun for the time but necessarily replaced with a deeper combat system that facilitates challenge. Hard mode should be enough to satisfy any glutton for punishment, but if not, there is the new “Give Me God of War” difficulty setting, which is so tough the game creates an entirely separate save for those who enable it. 

The central weapon in Kratos’ arsenal is now the Leviathan Axe, a weapon which opens up a broad range of combinations for players to experiment with. It cannot be overstated how fun this weapon is to use, as Kratos’ can hurl the axe at enemies, leaving him open to brutally inflict damage with his fists or his retractable shield until recalling the axe at will. Parrying remains a viable option for exposing your enemies’ defenses, while a stun gauge allows Kratos to grab and eviscerate his enemies once filled.

Keeping track of your opponents is made easier by the incorporation of a lock-on feature and a simple HUD, that informs you which direction you are about to receive damage from. For the most part, these systems do their job, however it becomes difficult to account for the volume of swipes, stuns, projectiles and charges with larger groups of enemies and a more limited view of your surroundings. Fortunately, Atreus serves as a competent distraction in battle, opening up enemy weaknesses. The intuitive control system makes it simple for players to sufficiently utilize both Kratos and Atreus simultaneously.

Each of God of War’s punishing encounters becomes a multi-layered trial, which demands focus, precision, timing, and swift reflexes to overcome. The omnidirectional sounds of combat further aid player awareness, as the weight of steel audibly surges through the air or collides with savage impact. The impeccable sound design woven into each intensely realistic combat section provokes a sense of perpetual apprehension designed to keep players on their toes.

For player’s looking to uncover all of God of War’s secrets, rejoice in the fact there are plenty of them – including two optional areas ostensibly serving as endgame content. The first offers a series of difficult arena battles to test your mettle, and the other is a randomly generated realm filled with poisonous gas. The objective is to survive as long as possible while accruing kills and resources prior to escape. In traditional Metroidvania style, certain areas and resources will only be accessible to players once they have acquired the proper items to unlock them – coercing players to return to previously discovered areas to uncover their secrets. 

Verdict

In many ways, the God of War experience has changed dramatically for the better, exemplifying precisely what a mature triple-A title should look like in 2018. A game which injects relatable themes and story into an experience that prioritizes spectacular action, addictive gameplay, and high production values. Sony Santa Monica Studio has retained much of what made its predecessors so irresistible, while introducing a host of new features that push the series in an exciting new direction. Witnessing this Father/Son relationship develop amidst grief and rigorous tension has been one of the most memorable and mending experiences I’ve had with a game in years.    

10

Pros Cons
+One of the best-looking console games to date -Lacks photomode in its current form
+Revamped combat system is brutal and addictive  
+A deeply personal story and a compelling cast of characters to go with it  
+Rewarding exploration and endgame content  

Link to original publication for Bonus Stage: published 4/28/18

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