written by Derrick Smith
Going into this new God of War reboot, which has fully embraced the theme of Norse mythology, my imagination ran wild with speculative ideas and concerns, mainly surrounding the games all new narrative approach, now that Kratos has a son, as well as the games new combat direction, and how well it would all come together.
With all of Olympus now extinct at the destructive hands of Kratos, a reimagining tale for the formidable demi-god seemed quite challenging to pull off, however after more than 55 hours and 94% of the games trophies under my belt (I’m getting that Platinum trophy), Sony Santa Monica has with no uncertainty crafted their best game to date.
From the very start, God of War is something altogether special. The atmosphere around all that your senses are taking in is pleasantly overwhelming, especially while running on the PlayStation 4 Pro via a 4K/HDR monitor. This new direction is immediately felt from the games splendid musical overtones, brilliant and intimidating voice acting and highly detailed universe. Learning that the game had been in development for more than four years, you certainly see the results, as seemingly every nook and cranny of the environments elicit highly scrutinized details, which is consistent through out the entire journey.
With his anger for revenge a thing of the past, players find a more calm Kratos this time around, who now has a son named Atreus, which Kratos does not know that well and vice versa, due to the complexity of their family dynamic. Their only connection was supported by both Kratos’ wife and the boys mother, who has now died. This unfortunate event organically forces the two together as leverage for one another. However, as is common in many families, the early stages of understanding can be challenging and for Kratos and Atreus, their crash course on how to bond as father and son is no exception.
Having delivered countless exhilarating hours as the unstoppable yet homicidal Kratos of old, Sony Santa Monica now places players in the shoes of a man who while you cheered him on as he toppled Olympus in brutal fashion, now you find yourself hoping that Kratos can somehow experience as normal a life as possible with his son. The dynamic challenges associated with their relationship introduces some of gaming’s best duo narrative experiences since The Last of Us. Instead of simply using his brute strength to decimate legions of the undead, Kratos must now battle his emotions, empathize with his sons lack of and also learn how to tell a decent story, among a few other parental duties. Yet, as the father and son relationship is taking shape, many lessons learned are accompanied by Atreus learning the ways of combat.
While players never fully take control of Atreus, the command implementation of Atreus and his ever increasing combat prowess complimenting his fathers becomes a wonderful spectacle. Any concerns I may have had about journeying with young Atreus who occasionally mentions how he misses his mother and wishes that she was there, were quickly dismissed as the balancing act of the two is simply fantastic. The A.I. character of Atreus never gets in your way and always makes the right movement, even the audible gesturing, assisting with key items within the environment felt organic and natural. Atreus’ combative zeal is supported by the square button, which gives him the command of firing his arrows in the direction which you are looking.
With Atreus, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree as the kid is no coward and does not hesitate to speak his mind, even to his father, who he initially sees as this non-affectionate parent, unaware that dad was the harbinger of death, who in one game took out Leviathan, Poseidon, Hercules, Hades, Cronos, Scorpion and Zeus. This kid truly has no idea…but despite the occasional back talking to his father, which can be understandable in a few scenarios, powering up Atreus and experiencing his acts of bravery in battle has an incredible way of bonding you to his character. With hints of filled rage Atreus can be a ruthless companion as he seems to enjoy choking out enemies and beating them to a pulp with his bow.
If there was ever an early game boss battle to talk about, nothing would be more necessary than the mysterious knock on the front door, which leads to (in this critics professional opinion), the greatest first boss battle in the history of video games. This breathtaking encounter, alongside a few minion encounters sets the tone for the entire ride. Introducing the vastness of this challenging universe, once you venture out into Midgard, the games pacing is met by an attractive list of objectives which run in parallel to the games main campaign.
A first in the series, players are engulfed in well implemented side-missions and (norse mythology) story-telling, all painting a splendid understanding and gameplay experience atop the games gorgeous canvas. Here is where I spent most of my play hours in an effort to loot and acquire the best gear possible for myself and Atreus. While Midgard is the largest area of exploration within the game, other reachable realms such as Alfheim, Helheim, Muspelheim, and Nilfheim are also layered with sought after and important items to be had.
God of War plays out as a fully connected gameplay experience, seamlessly connecting all of its parts or setpieces into one massive undertaking. Early on, traversing the woods while on the hunt for a deer as Atreus’ first animal kill with his father, can seem rather linear, as the discovery of new areas introduce much larger locales. One minute you will find yourself piercing through a cave that eventually opens into a massive cavern with multiple passage ways, leading to new areas, yet you can easily overlook them if you are not carefully scouring. Even if you stay the course of the fantastic campaign without wandering off, which could be difficult to do, the games scale is well presented and wonderfully connected to those triggered cutscenes, bridging it all together.
Going off the beating path of the campaign does not feel as though you have, and here is where the magic happens. Whether pressing along the campaign trail or completing favors, trials, labors, finding all the treasures maps and treasures, gear, artifacts and the like, the game is so well stitched together it all feels like one massive campaign. This is also complimented by the games continued narrative tales, as told while sailing across the water or through the character banter that you never tire of.
While I would not say that God of War is among the largest game worlds of the generation, it certainly isn’t close to being the smallest. Thankfully for players the world offers fast travel options as each area begs you to plunder its wears. The better your gear the more formidable you can express Kratos and Atreus in battle.
So, with the great narrative, stunning visuals, wondrous exploration, how does the game deliver on the combative front? For starters, this Kratos within this Norse reality has grown accustom to his new axe known as the Leviathan Axe, which he wields with punishing resolve.
Impressively, the axe works in the same light as Thor’s hammer, which he can recall back to himself, returning quite swiftly I might add.
This time around the combat is far more deliberate than ever before. Based from the position of swing attacks, both light and heavy along with axe throws, alongside a protective shield, which can also be used offensively, the exchange here is reminiscent of the games of old with a more skilled purpose. Sure, you are still Kratos who can destroy any enemy within his path, yet the enemies this time seem smarter and far more challenging.
The combat as Kratos feels aggressive and once again quite brutal. Varied button mashing offers stylish combo attacks and the new additions to the combat arrives with the inclusion of magic runes which fill two magic slots. These slots work as selective, more punishing power maneuvers which once used have a cool-down cycle before they can be wielded again. These new rune combat skill are earned through experience points.
God of War is an ever increasing, powerful combat experience, only becoming better the longer you explore and discover those hidden gems hiding in plain sight. Early on, the axe may feel limited, however as you learn to mix and match your axe and shield while growing in power and skills, the combat becomes more addicting. Take into consideration that you also have Atreus who as well becomes far more capable the further you go down this rabbit hole and eventually the two of you become a serious force to be reckoned with.
Impressively, Sony Santa Monica managed to offer a great combat experience even without the heavy usage of quick time events, which the previous games in the series were known for. Of course, due to the games of the past overall greatness QTE’s never bothered me one bit, yet with the reboot they were almost completely absent aside from the occasional R3 button press, signaling Kratos to perform a wicked execution or the circle button option which worked more as a quick counter maneuver and was quite effective, especially against those vicious and elusive werewolves.
Because the combat was so flexible and challenging, I found myself juggling between attacks while constantly repositioning myself to avoid incoming enemy attacks. Unlike the games in the series from the past where you could simply hold the block option and avoid taking damage, regardless of your position, here that is not the case. Holding your shield in a blocking position with an enemy attack coming from behind you and major damage is being inflicted upon you. In most battles, while going ham with Kratos, enemies at a distance I tended to give Atreus attacks commands to thin out the herd. Oftentimes, while fighting those larger than life enemies, I tended to execute the more powerful rune attacks or go full Spartan Rage mode while commanding Atreus to inflict his additional attacks to weaken our enemies. The addition of Atreus to the mix adds an impressive level of sophistication to the combat as mentioned before as he can perform on the fly takedown and distraction maneuvers.
Yet, while the combat will certainly put a smile on your face, it can also cause some painstaking frustration to the idea of being Kratos. Maybe it is because Kratos is older and is not as agile as he once was or whatever the case may be, this new deliberate combat approach, which I absolutely love does need some tightening up.
While players can tap down on the directional pad to make Kratos quickly turn in 180 degrees, this does not seem to remedy the painful struggle of battling those difficult Valkyries, who often makes Kratos feel like a sluggish old man, with their super-hero like reflexes. Even the Dark Lord battles can be frustrating as the roll maneuver of Kratos can seem either too slow and or sluggish when you need him to quickly react. The same goes for the shield blocking option, which tends to have a rather slow reaction time against those lightning fast attacks.
However, back to those Valkyrie battles, here the name of the game is do not challenge these mighty Valkyrie ladies unless you are fully equipped as much as you need to be. Yet, regardless, while it was incredibly fun hunting these women down and taking out all eight of them, it was by far the most satisfying yet frustrating combat experience of any God of War game. I would have to say that sometimes I felt cheated in many Valkyrie battles, before somehow overcoming them. Sure, I made a few mistakes here and there as I learned each Valkyries attack chains, however in the powerful state of my father and son tag team force, these battles still came at you like a ton of bricks. I have no problem admitting that it took me literally two hours straight to defeat the Valkyrie Queen. I never walked away from the screen. After every defeat I quickly jumped back into the fray to defeat her and when I did after a little over two hours, lets just say I expressed myself quite colorfully, to the TV monitor of course, as Kratos stood over her body. Was it worth it? Absolutely, I am Kratos and I will not be defeated. However, while the combat is not quite as responsive as previous games in the series, I must say this is the best overall system in the series.
Adequately, the combat has been synched to the games gear sets making this God of War experience closer to an RPG experience. A fantastic addition to the series, gear can be acquired through crafting or purchased acquisitions by collecting the appropriate materials. Similar to Destiny gear levels are designated by common (green), rare (blue), legendary (purple) and epic (gold) gear sets and pieces.
Kratos can now be leveled up by equipping him with the best gear available. Supported by an armor set of chest, wrist and belt wears, gear is measured according to a full stat-line consisting of strength, runic, defense, vitality, luck and cool-down.
Ultimately, beneath the muscular and menacing dexterity fans will learn to appreciate this new take on Kratos. With ever so slight personality layers added to his resolve, our favorite Spartan has become far more appealing and relatable as a character. As more of this fragile characters worldview on life and what he trusts is expressed throughout this experience, you begin to celebrate his maturity beyond the battlefield.
While there are a few frustrating combat nuances, this new God of War experience comes together brilliantly. Sony Santa Monica has indeed breathed new life into Kratos and I cannot wait for the follow-up.