HIGH The gorgeous vistas of Alfheim.
LOW The near-endless series of plot-mandated fetch quests.
WTF Jeremy Davies, giving his most Jeremy Davies performance.
The idea of a small-scale, character-centric spin on the God of War franchise should sound just a bit silly to anyone familiar with its main character. Kratos has thus far only manifested as a scowling, bellowing whirlwind of stabs and death. His rage brought about the death of his family, and let’s not forget that he responded to this news by, uh, not changing in the slightest. He’s not exactly the prime subject for an intimate character study.
As it turns out, Kratos feels similarly about his former self. Having taken up a life of exile in the forests of Midgard – Greek and Norse mythologies are like neighboring countries in this universe, I guess – this new bearded and funereal Kratos is keenly aware of what a maniac he was back in Sparta. When his son goofs up during a hunting trip early in the campaign, Kratos very nearly loses his temper before stopping himself mid-sentence and uttering his remaining words in a calm, measured tone. This Kratos is determined not to repeat his past mistakes.
When God of War opens, Kratos’s second wife has just died, presumably of natural causes. That leaves their child, Atreus, exclusively in his care. As a father, it’s not enough for Kratos to quell his own violent tendencies – he needs to ensure that his worst characteristics don’t live on in his son. When Kratos observes the boy getting a little too gleefully savage during an early boss fight, he sees himself, and it haunts him. We wouldn’t want Atreus accidentally murdering his family in a fit of primal rage, would we?
The question of whether a solemn, introspective Kratos can exist is challenged continuously throughout God of War. The once-frenetic action series has been rebooted as a slow-paced character drama, and the evolution is felt beyond the cutscenes. The over-the-shoulder camera pulls us in closer to Kratos than we’ve ever been, and the absence of the iconic Blades of Chaos means we can no longer effortlessly slice through entire hordes of enemies at once. This is the most vulnerable Kratos has ever been, in more ways than one.
There’s also a newfound heaviness to God of War’s combat. Kratos has taken to fighting with a battle axe, and while it’s a fine weapon – one that returns to his hand after he throws it – this is far less power and range than we’re used to. By default, attacks are mapped to the shoulder buttons so players can better manage the camera, a handicap they’ve not had to deal with in this series before. Enemies are meticulously picked off one at a time, rather than chopped down by the handful.
There’s still no shortage of gooey finishers, but Santa Monica Studio finds power in restraint – they’re more rewarding because they don’t trigger when every draugr hits low health. In particular, Kratos has one spectacular move wherein holding R2 launches a downward swing that bifurcates anyone who’s on their last breath. It’s brilliant to watch, and all the more invigorating due to the precise timing required to land the blow uninterrupted. We’re actually working for it this time around.
It probably goes without saying that God of War is gorgeous. It seems like every year Sony is putting out the new Prettiest Console Game Ever, and while Santa Monica Studio too-frequently clings to quick-time events and on-rails climbing sections for the sake of showing it all off, I’ll be damned if it isn’t stunning to look at. Also, since the game is presented as a single, unbroken take with no visible loading, setpieces can erupt at any time. One of the best examples is the World Serpent from the game’s early marketing, and while his towering majesty is captured in screenshots, I can’t overstate how awe-inspiring it is for him to just appear and fill the screen with the game never missing a step. However, for the first time in the series, eye-opening moments like that take second fiddle to character development.
God of War is at its best when it explores the father-son relationship at its core. As someone who generally dislikes children, it’s a credit to the writers that I never once found Atreus annoying, especially given the fact that he’s constantly talking. He’s as overconfident as someone would be when they’re too young to understand how dangerous a world like this is. We, like Kratos, worry about how maturely Atreus will treat the inevitable revelation that he is half-god.
Their relationship even benefits God of War’s frequent detours into puzzle-solving, which feel a bit like bonding exercises. Atreus turns out to be the brains of the duo, and his verbal processing of each obstacle makes a lot more sense than when, say, a normally-sullen protagonist blurts out a solution to himself for fear that the player isn’t grasping it. But while I could point to numerous individual character beats as examples of strong writing, the actual plot is a thin, meandering mess, and it’s where God of War becomes continually more frustrating.
From the beginning to the end of this 20-ish hour game, our lone objective is to spread the ashes of Kratos’s deceased wife on the peak on Midgard’s highest mountain, and this straightforward task is prolonged by a seemingly endless succession of setbacks. Kratos and Atreus can barely take a handful of steps before being told they need to run off to some distant realm to retrieve X object required to overcome Y obstacle, and the lack of steady progress becomes almost malicious after a time.
For example, at one point, players go on an hours-long fetch quest to recover an item that will open a portal, only for said portal to be destroyed mere seconds after they finally activate it. No matter how solid God of War’s core mechanics are, it’s hard to see something like that and not feel like one’s time is being wasted.
It’s not even until the end of the game that we’re told why this task was so important to Kratos’s wife. Even disregarding the fact that the eventual answers are unsatisfying sequel hooks, it’s bad story structure to yank us around for so long without communicating what it’s all for. If we’re going to screw around on all of these arbitrary errands, we at least deserve to know why. All we have to go on is the dying wish of a character we’ve never met.
Thanks to these detours from the objective, God of War is just too damn long. It outlives its visual splendor, its enemy variety, and the time it takes for players to fall into a comfortable groove with the combat. Worse yet, it lays the groundwork for fascinating character arcs only to settle for a single, underwhelming twist and the promise of a new trilogy. I enjoyed the game, but there’s nothing so groundbreaking about it as to justify all of the wheel-spinning it does.
It’s ironic that a story about the value of discipline and restraint would feel like it needs more time in the editing room, but that’s the new God of War – promising but aimless. I like the new Kratos, but I hope his next adventure is more focused than this, and I pray that it actually gives him something interesting to do.
*Editor’s Note: As it states in the disclaimer below, this game was completed. Part of Sony’s embargo rules when accepting a review copy was that we were not allowed to spoil certain events. Mike has intentionally omitted certain aspects of the game in order to avoid spoiling things for people who haven’t played yet.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Santa Monica Studios and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is currently available on PlayStation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language. Though it’s not as gratuitous as its predecessors, the new God of War is still full of graphic dismemberments and salty language. No sex mini-game this time, at least.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available and sound cues don’t play a vital role in the game, particularly since there’s a visual indicator as to which direction enemy attacks are coming from. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Several different button presets are available.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.