Games Review: God of War (PS4, 2018), Raw, Punishing, Beautiful and Heartfelt

After over five years in development, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio’s God of War is back and I think you know by now, it’s a triumphant return for one of PlayStations greatest anti-hero’s and god defying badasses, Kratos.

Years have passed since Kratos’s grudge against the Greek pantheon was put to rest. Having barely survived his encounter with Zeus, Kratos (Christopher Judge, Stargate SG-1) has begun a more peaceful life in Midgard, the realm of Norse gods such as Odin and Thor (not that Thor). Married to a woman named Faye and raising their young son Atreus (Sunny Suljic,The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Kratos spends his days hunting to feed his family and trying to put his old life behind him. Faye passes away shortly before the game begins, her last wish to have her ashes scattered from the top of the highest peak in the Nine Realms. Grieving and unsure of how to deal with each other, their adventure begins, but not before an aggressive interloper from the Norse pantheon arrives to give Kratos his marching orders.

Kratos and Atreus’ journey presents a more wonderful, meaningful father-son narrative that I have ever seen in any video game to date. How much knowledge — of the world, of themselves — does a father or any parent share with their young loved ones? We hold things close to us knowing that, if they are believed or accepted once, they can be accepted again and cause more harm than good. Maybe some things from our the pasts should stay there? It’s an amazing layer upon an already heady foundation of monsters, spirits, symbology and gods of Nordic myth. I cannot stress enough how deep it is and, to have remained a fan of the series, director Cory Barlog and developer Santa Monica for all these years, it feels like a reward for a long held patience.

I’m a veteran of the God of War series since its launch in 2005 and I can safely say the combat has never been tougher. The combat, a merging of the classic God of War button mash and more modern, focused action gameplay may not be to everyone’s tastes, it represents a single piece of a game that is in every other respect a masterpiece.

The camera now sticks to a fixed third-person perspective. The combat, even for a long time God of War veteran is fresh and exciting, but also extremely tough, still able to devolve into the kind of eye-popping battles the series is known for. God of War presents some of the best pitched battles in the series’ history purely through how surprising they can be. One moment you’re searching through a new area, the next a troll and 14 other enemies have gotten the drop on you and you’re being struck from behind. It’s intense, made moreso with the combat mechanics not being as forgiving as they were in previous titles. If you’re about to embark on your first playthrough “Give me A Challenge” difficulty might be one to come back to unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Dark Souls pugilist.

Gone are the Blades of Chaos, whirling through the air non-stop, button mashing and quick-time events the sole order of the day. Kratos is now equipped with his Leviathan Axe, a shield and his bare hands, all of which can augmented with various runes, gems and spells, both offensive and defensive. As an off-sider, Atreus is a joy to have on the field as well. He never got in the way of my enemies or objectives, quite the opposite: he would frequently throw himself into the fray as a distraction. This sounds like a clear cut case of child abuse on Kratos’ part in practice, it works perfectly. Atreus can by made to stun enemies from range with a bow by pressing the Square button but can otherwise take care of himself.

If I have a personal, mechanical gripe it would be with the way the shield and blocking works. In the original titles, blocking was a simple tap of the R1 button. No matter which direction you were facing, Kratos would block the attack and prepare himself to dodge or counter effectively. Sadly, I just can’t get my head around blocking in God of War. Dodging and flailing about seem to be my only effective choice when overrun by dozens of enemies at once. Again, for Dark Souls fans this will be nothing new but, for me, trying to attack what’s in front before quick-turning to deal with an enemy attacking feels tough to master. Sometimes it felt like I had no choice but to back away from an enemy to the furthest corners of the battle throw my axe over and over. It felt a little cheap and in some cases underwhelming until I started unlocking more powerful moves and leveling up more. It’s a huge shame this couldn’t be implemented more smoothly because the rest of the game is an absolute bloody delight. Check out my very own gameplay video below which highlights some of the combat and loading times.

Loading times are thankfully very quick should you get yourself killed. For such a richly detailed game to have some of the fastest loading times I’ve seen this generation is a testament to either the power of the PlayStation 4 hardware, Pro or otherwise, when a developer is allowed to optimise for it.

The game may begin as though its on a fairly linear path but it opens up a few hours in and you become much freer to wander off and explore at your leisure., Areas like the River of Nine see Kratos and Atreus using a canoe to explore a huge selection of side missions and tasks from long-dead spirits that need closure, to freeing chained dragons from a nasty Dwarf King’s cruel reign.

What makes this even better is Kratos’s interactions with Atreus littered through each mini adventure, his attitude a clear nod to the player when he comments on the kid’s excitement over such tasks with annoyance. “This is not our concern BOY,”  he growls, “We have other tasks to attend to.” Atreus objects, using reason on his old man, eliciting a grunt of reluctant acceptance. Small touches like these bring huge layers to both the characters on screen and give Kratos more depth than he has ever had in any of his previous titles.

Taking these side quests on and spending the time looking for loot and treasure is worthwhile as you can sell them later for in-game currency called Hack Silver. This currency is what lets you upgrade your equipped armour and weapons, while the game’s second currency is XP. Experience points are used to upgrade skills like the runic magic and attacks bound to Kratos’s axe and Atreus’s bow. The flow of XP is a trickle at first, a tough slog, but becomes a rush the further in you get. I don’t think I missed much in my playthrough, scraping everything out of the first half of the game and even I had difficulty unlocking half of the moves.

Again, this may be down to my chosen difficulty but it’s definitely one of the biggest grinding elements and a hard one to master, especially deciding what piece of armour to use and which to spend that extremely hard to acquire XP on to upgrade. I spent a lot of time in the menus trying to get my head around it all, but that’s all part of the experience and part of what makes it the most unique God of War yet. It never falters on trying to do so many things different, just makes everything new and exciting to get your noggin around.

We’re now in the eighth console generation and it’s becoming increasingly hard to surprise us as an audience. It’s even harder to stun with visuals in a world full of 4K HDR consoles and high end PC builds. Do you remember seeing a game like Metal Gear Solid 4 on the PlayStation 3, while you were still cleaning up your titles on the PlayStation 2? Those leaps don’t happen like they used to. Technology has caught up to a point where only minor tweaks, shadows and much higher resolutions and frame-rates matter more. Narration overpowers gameplay, when previously bad narration and even worse voice acting may have gotten in the way of a better game.

We’ve had some great PlayStation exclusives that perfectly blur those lines in the previous few generations and I hate trying to compare new titles to previous ones but for anyone reading from an outside perspective, here it is. God of War was among the first to bring us a meaningful narrative to a third-person hack and slash title. A few generations later and The Last of Us showed us how a game built around a tightly woven linear narrative can have an important place in the zeitgeist. Then Horizon Zero Dawn, evolving what an open-world adventure can be! I thought that was it for quite some time, but then comes 2018’s God of War, blending everything we love about the aforementioned titles and a shit load more for a whole new generation of gamers and ones of old. Just bear in mind it is one of the toughest yet, unless you throw this on the easier setting, you are in for some wonderfully rage inducing, controller squeezing titles of the last few years. Thank Kratos you’re back in my life God of War! Now go out, explore every nook and cranny the world has to offer and lose yourself in the fierce and brutal world of the gods once more.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Kratos  and Atreus have amazing character depth, compelling narrative and universe to explore, fantastic soundtrack, crisp and detailed graphics, absolutely no loading times or transitions between areas.
Lowlights: Combat is sometimes too unforgiving due to its blocking mechanics, Leveling yourself and your equipment up can a tough slog.
Developer:  SIE Santa Monica Studio’s
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Available
: Now
Review conducted on a PlayStation 4 Pro with a retail code provided by the publisher.