God of War was a franchise storied with issues that I felt it could never escape. Rampant sexism, the fetishizing of gore, and above all, a main character that is in almost every way irredeemable. It comes from an era of title, others of which have transgressed on to the modern day, evolving to be modern franchises, while God of War couldn’t be, and I can’t exactly say why the tentpoles of violence in games remain steadfast today. I can say the team at Sony Santa Monica, led by God of War 2’s director Cory Barlog, clearly worked tirelessly to bring God of War into the modern day. Beyond that, they made what was once a despicable anti hero into a complex protagonist, and Kratos’ new interpretation holds true to its demons of the past, while still coming into the modern pantheon of video games. While God of War is not without issue in its execution, it takes massive strides in modernizing such a flawed series, and unquestionably succeeds in course correcting something I thought to be a relic beyond redemption.
God of War is different, and anyone familiar with this quasi-reboot/continuation combination knows that just from looking at it. The perspective has come down to a third person, behind-the-back look where you’re tight on Kratos through your entire journey. What’s more, the game never breaks its shot, and even through loading screens and the ferocious scenarios you find yourself in are rampant, God of War never takes a single camera cut.
From this perspective you follow Kratos, who has aged considerably since leaving Mount Olympus at the end of God of War 3. It’s firmly stated that this is Kratos though, and while this character has clearly been through a lot, it’s very much the same monster we saw tear through every living being in Greece. We also follow his son, Atreus, on this journey; a son he had with a woman we never see, Faye, Kratos’ now lost love, as we pick up the story shortly after her death. Her final wish was to have her ashes spread from the tallest peak in the realms, and the game sets Atreus and Kratos off on a journey to fulfill this final desire, taking them on quite the quest through the new setting for the Ghost of Sparta: Norse mythology, taking on the likes of Midgard and the surrounding realms.
What works, above all else in God of War, is Kratos. I think it’s safe to say that the depth of his character was not only non-existent before, but actively atrocious. What he was before was a surrogate for violence, and from God of War’s presentation alone you can see that it’s attempting to course-correct. His son, having his son, and most importantly, his relationship with Faye that we never get to interact with directly, re-shaped Kratos in a supremely meaningful way.
The reason this works is because it feels genuine, natural, and right. This feels like where this character would be however many dozens or hundreds of years later. A lot of the dialogue Kratos exchanges with characters through the journey, which is in the grand scheme of things not much at all, retroactively works to contextualize who Kratos was and still is, to some extent. And it doesn’t feel like an unnatural fit. It feels true to the character. It’s an incredibly thin line to walk, and the team at Santa Monica navigates it deftly.
Hearing Kratos’ stories and his explanations on his approach to the world to his son, we see why Kratos is the way he is, and we also believe that he just never really had the need or opportunity to talk about it before, but passing his legacy onto Atreus, whom he wants to survive above all else, is the only reason we need for the story of this game. He wants Atreus to be better than him, and is the first to say that the Kratos he was and still is is by no means a role model. God of War spends just the right amount of time truly addressing Kratos’ demons, and doubling down on the fact that he is not a good person, nor will his acts in the previous stories be forgotten or forgiven, all in the hope that Atreus does not need to carry that same burden.
What doesn’t work in all of this, unfortunately, is Atreus. While there are several attempts to define him as a character worthy of interest, ultimately they all fail. He never quite clicked with Kratos, and it was never really believable for me when he would stray from his path we are introduced for him at the beginning of the game. Ultimately, Atreus isn’t really anything. He’s a brat, loyal, incredibly helpful in regards to combat, and feels like he is kind of there. Atreus’ only achievement is what he brings out in Kratos, and his very binary stances of following instruction and listening to Kratos without question to brief moments of rebellion feel forced, are cringeworthy, and all fall flat.
Atreus struggles to find any character at all when compared next to Kratos, which is even more frustrating because of the subtle and powerful performance put into this character we have known for so long, and in my case, actively disliked, is typically so good as a result of Atreus and what he signifies for Kratos. But while that effect is felt and that relationship is certainly well established, Atreus is never enough of anything in any given direction to make any significant impact. It was hours into the game before he even started showing any signs of character at all, outside of a “yes sir,” or a begrudging agreeance. While this could be a tool to established how awkward their relationship before this journey was, it never comes across as something as deep as that, and not until the very end did I feel like significant progress was made in making Atreus stand out as a character worth caring about at all.
Where Atreus and Kratos’ relationship does work, and exceedingly well, is in combat. God of War’s traditional isometric combat has been completely changed to fit in with the behind-the-back perspective, and it’s been altered with the change in tone to a similar yet completely different degree. Above all: it’s absolutely excellent.
Kratos and Atreus are a tag team of fighters, and while Atreus is very infrequently in any actual danger, he assists your up-close-and-personal combat approach with his bow. While he supports with flurries of arrows, with altering elemental types to accompany it, Kratos sinks in deep with easily one of the best changes to God of War, the Leviathan Axe. It’s hard to convey in words just how good this axe looks and feels, but it is the core of your combat talents, it is dynamic and powerful, and every swing with it feels weighted and heavy in a way that God of War combat never has before. The biggest draw of it, which has been seen across many a trailer, is throwing the axe and calling it back at any time from any distance. Later on in the skill tree you can even call it back right into a transitional combo move, leading from attack to attack naturally, creating a sense and flurry of combat that is simply astounding in how well it is executed upon.
What I love move about the combat is how labored every move and animation is. It’s those intense moments of being surrounded by enemies, which happens very frequently, and the sensation of having to pull out all your resources that gives this true sense of desperation to Kratos. He feels like he is working to survive, and this feeling, coupled with the heavier approach to the story, creates a universal tone through God of War, one felt in every act you take from adventuring to fighting, and it’s easily the strongest compliment I can give the game: it’s fluid and consistent in a way that reminds me deeply of the The Last of Us.
I don’t mean this to be a reductive comparison either. Combat feels labored, and you feel every hit and all the weight behind it as the player. It’s a sensation that’s hard to evoke, but it translates outwards to all aspects of God of War, from exploration, to dialogue, to even opening chests and finding supplies. It’s all weighted in a way that carries its universal tone, and it’s felt in all aspects of the world and characters.
There aren’t many others that you meet along your journey, from incredibly talented and vulgar dwarves, to other figures in Norse myth, but each has their own impact on Kratos and Atreus, and help push that relationship forward. While some standout more than others, one character in particular, a witch who you get to know over your journey, never found her footing for me. While I empathize with where they try and take the character, especially with the entire narrative of the game circulating around parenthood and the sacrifices, hopes and dreams that come with that, much like the relationship between Kratos and Atreus for the most part, it never quite clicked. In fact, I think she is failed at multiple points as far as direction she was taken, which continues the frustration with female characters in this franchise that has been a massive part of God of War’s lineage. Much of the supporting cast range from entertaining to forgettable, save for the members of your party, one of which I don’t want to give away, but acts as a very fun vehicle for storytelling and worldbuilding.
And while that world isn’t vast in the same way a Breath of the Wild world is, God of War’s take on Midgard is dense and rewarding; I found myself constantly wanting to explore more. There are a whole lot of similar puzzles that end up acting as filler between areas, but they were never annoying or frustrating. They use the abilities laid out for the player in really neat ways that was mixed up just enough to never get old. Much of getting around these places is rowing a boat that unfortunately controls just awfully, but as far as being the only part of the game that doesn’t feel great, and a part that never involves tension or combat, it’s partially forgivable. The world sits on the massive Lake of the Nine, so rowing from stop to stop in order to uncover more secrets and more side areas is the crux of every break between main events in the story.
What I love is how well realized this world feels, as more and more of it uncovers itself as the story progresses. Massive areas that I was surprised to see were totally optional made up some of my favorite quests in God of War, and there are areas added on top of that that lean into the strengths of combat, such as procedurally generated arenas and combat challenges. All these are optional, but for the glory of seeing them they’re worth exploring alone.
It’s hard to be overly frustrated with God of Wars failures, as the main moments of the game, which is to say almost all of it, the exploring, the combat, the worldbuilding, is all to a level of polish rarely seen in games in general, but consistent with Sony’s first party output. This polish and gleam also encompass another issue, if slight, I had with the game, which was how cookie-cutter it feels at times.
I don’t mean to take away from the successes God of War achieves with it’s excelled polish, but much of the narrative-delivering aspects of the game, whether they be rooted in exploration or inter-character dialogue, feel almost one-to-one lifted from other single player titles. How characters talk to each other especially feels very out of place for God of War at times, where it’s driven and led by its subtle motions and movements with Kratos, it’s very obvious expository dialogue feels actively off. Much of God of War in regards to its characters feels like this, lifted from other titles, and as it sits so juxtaposed to an original and inspired take on combat, these wholly unoriginal bits of writing and storytelling standout as off and detrimental to everything God of War does right. While it’s a difficult to describe issue, it’s one nonetheless. I wish God of War leaned more into what makes it unique, versus what makes feel like a Sony first party title.
God of War is one of the most polished and beautiful titles I’ve seen since Sony’s last major first party release in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn. Carrying the mantle forward for Sony’s camp, while the inspired team at Sony Santa Monica pulls Kratos and this franchise up from the depths of antiquity, God of War helps bring a once-important franchise back into the fold. While still flawed in how it builds many of its characters, this new team gets Kratos done right, evolving an anti-hero in a way I could have never thought possible. The world of Midgard and Kratos stand proudly alongside an inspired reinvention of combat in this great first entry in the new era of God of War.
God of War was purchased by the reviewer and played on a PlayStation 4 Pro system, almost exclusively in “Favor Resolution” mode.