By: Jeffrey Mizrahi
“Everything is different, boy. Try not to dwell on it.” When Kratos says this to Atreus at the start of God of War, it was obvious this message wasn’t meant only for his son. It was a message from Sony Santa Monica, the developers of the game, to me, the player, preparing me for things to come. That what I’m about to experience will be very different from previous games in the series, and that I shouldn’t worry too much about it.
God of War is both a reboot and continuation of the series. The combat has undergone a complete overhaul, swapping Kratos’ blades for an axe, and situating the camera over his shoulder (similar to last year’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Assassin’s Creed: Origins), while the story follows the life of the titular god of war coping with having killed so much in previous games. To clarify, this is the same Kratos as always, just in a new Norse setting. Think of it as Greek mythology is one country, Norse mythology another, and Kratos just moved places and changed his look in order to start a new life. With the actions of his past still haunting him, his main goal is to impart the lessons he has learned onto his son.
The game begins with Kratos cremating his wife’s body so he and his son, Atreus, can fulfil her last wish to have her ashes spread across the highest point in all the nine realms. It’s here we learn that Kratos really isn’t that great of a father to Atreus. He’s very dismissive and curt when it comes to bonding or having conversations with his son, which had me sympathize with Atreus right from the start. While Kratos doesn’t express his emotions by loudly yelling like he has in the past, his quiet demeanor says enough. He’s calmed down since the days of endlessly pounding Zeus in the face, but he’s still not ready to say I love you to his son. Through his silence, it’s clear he struggles with how to father a child. He wants to raise his boy to be a man strong enough to take down an entire army, yet lucid enough to know when to not engage in a fight. He keeps his emotions held back for the most part, showcasing this new man that is way more reflective and contemplative than ever.
This can also be seen from the way the game presents itself in the opening act. Rather than pitting you against a larger-than-life boss fight before you even have the chance to jump like in the previous games, the first actions you perform in the game consist of chopping down wood, rowing a boat, and shooting arrows at elk. Even the first proper boss fight is against a man the same size as you. The way these two brutes fill up the entirety of the screen, makes every punch and kick feel all the more intimate and personal. Rather than being a small character model hacking away at a larger beast, the close-up camera angles let you see Kratos as a man trying to protect his family, and himself, at all costs. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He has hung up his mantle as the god of war and wishes to live life in peace. So, seeing his displeasure with fighting and killing, makes each swing of his axe all the more impactful. However, since one of the main reasons I love this series is because of its gigantic enemies, I was a little let down by the lack of HUGE boss fights early in the game. My thirst was quenched by the second half of the game where Sony Santa Monica puts in one of the biggest bosses I have seen in videogames period.
Forget everything you know about mashing square, square, triangle to clear out large groups of enemies like in the earlier games. God of War drastically changes the series’ hack and slash combat for the better. With axe in hand, you now use R1 and R2 for light and heavy attacks, respectively, and can throw the axe by aiming with L2 then using a heavy or light attack. After you lodge your axe into a draugr’s skull, you then call it back like a boomerang with the triangle button. Even after 20 hours in, I still have a child-like grin on my face when I throw an axe, miss the enemy, punch them a couple times with bare-hands, call back my axe from behind them, and watch as the returning axe finishes off the enemies before resting in my hand awaiting its next toss. The geniuses at Santa Monica also made this axe retrieval system feel magical by having it literally travel back to your hand from where you last left it. Say you threw it at a tree in the beginning of an area, then traveled to another area. The axe will take the amount of time necessary for a flying axe to go from point A to point B. Simply, if you throw the axe right in front of you and call it back, it will take half a second, and if you call it back from another area, it may take 3-4 seconds to return to your hand. This helps add to the games realism and cohesive style, something it focuses on heavily which I will get to later. These new combat systems are extremely intuitive and fun to use, all while feeling classic God of War. While the tools are different, the speed at which combat flows matches the original games perfectly, making you feel right at home if you are a veteran player.
Another new addition to the series are favors, customizable armor, and weapon perks. The favors are fun, deep, and engaging side quests that have as much care put into them as the main game itself. Some of them were hour-long quests that introduced new enemy types and systems, while expanding the overall lore of the world. The rewards for favors are the resources used to craft the best equipment the game has to offer. While the games in the past have had much more linear upgrade paths, God of War has much more flexibility when it comes to how you want your Kratos to look and play like. The way the game introduces these systems is at easy to follow pace, so I never got to overwhelmed with what was going on. There were even times I had to change around some perks on my weapons based on the enemies I was fighting, something I rarely do in games, but the menus were easy enough to use that it never felt discouraging to go around and tinker with what I got.
God of War is presented entirely in a single shot. There is no time the game cuts from the one camera point of view. This means the line between gameplay and cutscenes is literally gone. The way the camera swings around the characters, zooms in on faces, zooms out to show a landscape, then finally lands behind the character to signify I’m back in control, made for one of the most immersive gaming experiences I have ever encountered. Even in visually beautiful games like the Uncharted series where the gameplay looks like a cutscene, there are parts where hitting a button prompt will initiate a cutscene and take me out of the “game” portion. Whether it’s paddling a boat to another area, walking through the realm between realms to fast travel, or calling your axe back from a place you left it 20 minutes ago, you will witness Kratos’ entire journey through the game without missing a beat.
The only bad thing I can say about this game is that it lacks any extras or bonus content outside of the game itself. Every mainline God of War game in the past has had unlockable documentaries and behind the scene videos on disc that would show you the process behind how the game was made. When I first played the original three games, and watched their respective behind the scenes videos, it was the first time I ever saw what it was like to create a videogame and that was really special for me at the time. There are a lot of short behind the scenes videos uploaded onto Playstation’s YouTube channel that I guess are supposed to replace the on-disc content, but I really miss the hour plus long features which highlighted the developers and people explaining their decisions behind the gameplay and story.
God of War is another example of how Playstation’s investment in high budget single-player games is paying off. Sony Santa Monica took a character previously fueled solely on anger and aggression and turned him into a father who just wants what is best for his child. They produced an open world that is worth exploring with worthy items scattered around the map. They took a tried and true combat system that worked, reinvented it and made it something unique. God of War is proof that it is possible to make a worthy reboot that keeps the core of what the series is about in tact, while changing nearly everything else around it.
Jeffrey Mizrahi is a New York Videogame Critics Circle writer/intern. You can find him @MrBrawl96 on Twitter and co-hosting the weekly Playstation podcast, PS Best Friends, every Tuesday.