Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Available On: PS4
Released: April 20, 2017
“Breaking The Chains”
As fantastic as God of War’s first trailer looked, it also brought up a lot of major concerns. The combat looked downright clunky at times and not particularly deep, and there seemed to be a lot of concern that you might have to spend the whole game protecting that kid. So let me get it out of the way right now, God of War is a great game, even if I don’t agree that it’s the utterly flawless masterpiece that a lot of critics apparently do and in fact, the major changes to the series bring a few more cons than pros.
It’s a testament to the game’s design then, that it’s strengths are so strong that God of War is still a blast to play and one of the better entries in the entire series.
Let’s get the most obvious points out of the way quickly so we can talk in-depth about the games more interesting aspects, namely that God of War’s combat is fantastic. If you were worried as I was, that the axe combat shown off in the game’s trailers didn’t look as cool or versatile as the blades of chaos, the good news is that it absolutely is and can even do a few things that the blades of chaos can’t. The leviathan axe can be thrown for one thing, freezing objects with its ice magic and jamming mechanisms to help you solve puzzles. Throwing the axe has combat applications too of course, flat-out killing weaker enemies or freezing tougher ones in place with a heavy throw. The fact that the axe has to be manually recalled frequently made me feel like Marvel’s Thor, and the axe almost like it’s own character as I strategically utilized both entities to control the battlefield.
Scattered throughout the game are runes that can be swapped in and out of the axe that grant more powerful abilities, taking the place of the “block + light/heavy attack” moves of previous GoW games. Once the axe is out of your hands Kratos gets an entirely different moveset centered around your fists and shield. Unarmed combat is equally satisfying and useful in its own way for taking down certain enemy types, as your fists can stun enemies faster than your other weapons, leaving them open to Kratos’ brutal finishing moves.
Combat is as visceral and satisfying as it’s always been, with the over the shoulder perspective helping fights feel even more brutal and in your face, a little too in your face at times unfortunately. Several times I found myself backing Kratos up mid-fight and awkwardly swiveling around a bit to survey the battlefield, something I never had to do in previous God of Wars and wouldn’t have to do here either if there was a way to zoom the camera out a little. Really, Sony Santa Monica, the less time that the “backing up” sound of a forklift plays in my head as a result of your controls, the better.
Though the God of War games aren’t exactly known for their spellbinding narratives, there are a few entries in the series whose stories manage to rise above the level of “angry man kills a lot of things”, namely Ascension and Ghost of Sparta. And while it’s certainly a matter for debate which game has the best combat, it’s pretty much irrefutable that God of War (2018) has by far the best story.
With the possible exception of Uncharted, I can’t think of any series that begins one of its entries years after the preceding one with multiple significant events implied to have happened between games that go almost completely unremarked upon. Nevertheless, that’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of God of War, with Kratos and his son Atreyus, on a journey to scatter the ashes of the recently-deceased matriarch of their family. While that goal remains the focus of your mission for the majority of the game, God of War presents you with several intriguing mysteries, side stories and name drops along the way that, much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, compels you to press on in search of the answers.
The cast all puts in solid work all around, with an excellent supporting cast and Jeremy Davies as the central antagonist. Ultimately though, this story is a duet, and Kratos and his son absolutely steal the show. Replacing Terrance Carson, the voice of Kratos in the first three games is Christopher Judge, best known as Teal’C on Stargate SG1, a great character in a show full of great characters. While Christopher Judge is great at acting like a stoic badass, he has a lot more range than the tough guy actor he may appear to be and, as with Teal’C, manages to elevate Kratos above the level of brooding murder machine to that of a human being with complex thoughts and emotions beneath his stony exterior.
Twelve year-old Sunny Suljic also does excellent work as Kratos’ son Atreyus, standing out even among the veteran actors he’s called upon to play off of. Though Atreyus has the habit of occasionally sounding like a time-traveller from the early 2000’s rather than a Norwegian child of classical antiquity, with overly sarcastic quips and the odd out-of-place sounding word (which is of course down to the writing rather than Suljic’s portrayal of the character), he’s generally well-acted and generally belongs in the top echelon of video game companions.
Now, if everything up to this point constituted the entire game, God of War would be a nearly flawless game. Unfortunately, several design decisions, mostly done in the name of innovation, let it down in a few major ways.
A little over a year ago, in my Mirror’s Edge Catalyst review, I mentioned that breaking up a linear story into a few dozen pieces and spreading them out across a bland world full of monotonous busywork probably wasn’t the best idea in the world. I was right then and I’m right now, and guess what? Up among the top things that God of War should never be, somewhere between “point and click adventure game” and “dating sim” is “an open-world game”.
Don’t get me wrong, the world itself is beautiful, at least when I could actually see it. In a few areas, I ended up having to turn the brightness almost all the way down so the bloom effect wouldn’t melt my eyeballs. I even think the level design is fantastic, with well thought out enemy encounters, great set pieces and clever puzzles, spiced up by the constant back and forth between the two leads. So how can I be down on the world of God of War and love it’s levels at the same time? One word. Structure. The world of God of War is laid out like a wheel where each of its spokes is a single level. Starting from the center of the wheel, you travel outwards along a spoke until you complete a level, at which point you have to walk all the way back or make use of a slightly clunky fast travel system, and both options mess with the game’s pacing. When a game chooses to focus on story, I want to be told the story and not be distracted by collectables and side quests, even if they’re good ones. God of War’s world design reminded me very much of the game world in Rage, and I hate to say it, but Rage did it better.
Imagine if you tore all the pages out of Stephen King’s It and turned them into a rug. Yes, your living room just became a much more compelling and terrifying place and each individual piece is so artfully crafted that the finished product is still probably looking at a positive review, but you’d probably enjoy it more if had you left it in novel form and weren’t trying to walk on it, even if it really ties the room together.
The other big change is of course that 2018’s God of War is a full-on RPG. Not that the games of the original series didn’t have RPG elements, but nothing like this. Both Kratos and Atreyus have skill trees for each of their weapons, which thankfully aren’t too crazy and about as broad as they should be, constituting a logical evolution of GoW’s mechanics. More irksome though is the presence of a fairly in-depth equipment system in God of War, as well a full character sheet of stats for the player to keep track of, including strength, vitality, defense, ability cooldown and luck. Luck! Why does Kratos have a luck stat? Never mind that all it affects is how much money you collect from enemies and like most western RPGs, money becomes pretty much worthless by the time you’re halfway through the game, Kratos’ luck should be governed exclusively by how fast I can tap the Circle button.
To be fair, it’s possible to largely ignore the equipment system and make it through the game without making it significantly harder on yourself; I mostly stopped bothering with new gear about two thirds of the way through the game, but the same philosophy that makes an open world a bad idea calls the equipment system into question as well. I shouldn’t have to go through the effort of working out for myself which parts of your game to not play in order to have a good time. If a given mechanic doesn’t serve the central focus of your game, that’s a strong argument for simply not including it in the finished product.
More than once I had to check myself to be sure that I wasn’t entirely feeling God of War’s RPG elements just because they’re different from the original series, as I have no patience for the “It’s different so it sucks” crowd. But then I discovered the land of Muspelheim, which perfectly encapsulated my frustrations with God of War. Admittedly a side area, Muspelheim is essentially a giant mountain with nothing but one enemy encounter after another. After fighting a significant ways up the mountain, I encountered a boss version of an elf enemy that fights with incredibly dirty ranged tactics and has the ability to temporarily blind Kratos. While this enemy’s abilities are usually offset by a fairly small amount of health, this boss was completely invincible as long as any other enemy was in the arena, forcing me to engage them while being constantly sniped from off-screen and frequently doing so blind.
It was after about my fifteenth death that I decided that I wasn’t going to beat the elf king today, and it was during my dejected climb back down the cliff that I decided a game that allowed for this awkward backwards climb to the hub area wasn’t just “Not your dad’s God of War”, it wasn’t God of War period. It was in fact, everything God of War is not. And the game has too many moments like that.
It’s all well and good for Link or Geralt or my Dark Souls character to have a difficult time with a boss and decide to leave it for a bit while they go and improve themselves. But Kratos does not do side quests. Kratos does not hem and haw over which wrist guards to equip or spend ten minutes deciding if the enchantment that grants a small boost to vitality would be better than the one that grants a small boost to strength. Kratos does not come back to a boss later.
The fact is that when you make a sequel to a game, particularly one in a long-standing franchise, it carries with it a certain set of expectations, and if you, the developer, aren’t going to meet those expectations, then it raises the question of why you’re making a game in that franchise at all. Imagine if Epic Games made a new Gears of War, and in between gunfights, Marcus Fenix had to scour the neutralized area for healing herbs and the materials to make more bullets. Yeah, the game mechanics would certainly be deeper and you could brag about it in the press release, but the disappointment in the terrible game that you made as a result would outlive any hype you managed to build up for it.
Despite all of that whinging, God of War is a fantastic game and will almost certainly end up being one of the best games of the year. Underneath all of the game’s missteps, it’s still God of War. The deep, hard-hitting combat and excellent level design are still there, and now we can add great storytelling to the mix. God of War aptly demonstrates how it became one of PlayStation’s flagship titles, and why that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
Time To Complete: 30 Hours
Best Advice: Remember To Use Your Fists Occasionally
Also Try: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, The Last of Us, DMC: Devil May Cry, Rage