In my opinion the worst thing you can do with a long running franchise is let it grow stale. Getting comfortable prevents one from pursuing greater things and you keep getting more of the same as a result. Back in 2013, the God of War franchise was starting to become the perfect example of this. God of War: Ascension wasn’t a bad game by any means but the formula was starting to lose its magic after so many entries had been released across the PS2, PSP, and PS3. Sony Santa Monica and Creative Director Cory Barlog recognized this and over the past five years have set out to reimagine what Kratos and God of War can mean to the gaming world. God of War on the PlayStation 4 is finally here and while some elements of the old remain, this is an entirely new take on the long running franchise.
From the moment you click play on the main menu you realize this is not the God of War you are familiar with. This new entry is set many, many years after the end of God of War 3 and we join Kratos who is now in hiding in the Norse wilderness. Kratos is once again a parent as he now has a son named Atreus and this allows us to witness a total transformation of his character. Early on Kratos tells Atreus that everything is different now and that has more meaning to it than just the topic that they are discussing. I won’t touch on any spoilers in this review as this is a game that is best experienced knowing as little as possible. That said the basic story premise of this new God of War is that Kratos’s wife has passed away and you begin the game cremating her body. Her last wish was for Kratos and Atreus to travel to the tallest peak in all the realms and scatter her ashes there.
Watching these opening scenes really shows off just how much deeper the character of Kratos is. He still has his moments of rage as you would expect but there is a more subtlety and restraint shown by him as well. You can tell that he cared deeply for his wife and that he cares a lot about Atreus but he struggles to show his son this. He has to learn to be a father again and what all that means. Over the course of the 20+ hour story Kratos and Atreus quickly grew to become some of my favorite video game characters. That’s not to say that I didn’t like Kratos before but he was always a one note character and this older and wiser Kratos is far better. Now if you just stick to the main story you can beat this game in around the 20 hours I mentioned. However there is so much to see and explore in the land of Midgard and the other realms that I’d say it took me probably around 50 hours to complete the game to 100%. Most of this I did along the way but it’s really up to the player on whether you want to just stick to the story or explore every inch of this world. You can always wait until you’ve finished the main story and then clean everything else up after if that’s what you want to do.
God of War isn’t an open world game per se but more of a wide linear game like the recent Tomb Raiders or some of the levels in the recent Uncharted games. There are other characters in the game who will ask you for favors and unlike most games I found all of these to be interesting. None of the side content in God of War feels like it’s there just to be there or to keep players playing longer. Instead all of it gives more story or introduces other interesting characters in this world. You also usually get pretty good rewards from doing it in the form of new gear or upgrades but more on that in a bit. Outside of these side quests there are other things to do such as various collectibles to hunt down, treasure maps to solve, and even plenty of optional boss battles to challenge yourself with. These were a real treat as many of them were more challenging than even what the main story path throws at you. There is other extra stuff as well but for sake of spoilers I won’t touch on it here.
I mentioned the gear that you can earn and there is plenty of it to be had over the course of the game. Gear can be earned from quests, found in treasure chests or bought from the shops in the game. All of it is color coded with white being the weakest usually and orange being the best gear in the game. Kratos has various stats including strength, defense, luck, cooldown, etc and you can increase them buy equipping different gear. Again the game let’s you play how you want so if you want a build focused more on raw strength you can do that or maybe instead you want more cooldown so you can use your special attacks more frequently. All of the gear is cosmetic as well so it will change the appearance of your Kratos. The Leviathan Axe of course also has upgrades available letting you make it do more damage as well as use different runic attacks by inserting runes into it. Atreus can also be upgraded to deal more damage with his bow or do more stun damage.
Speaking of all that let’s talk about this new combat system in the game. There was a lot of worry leading up to the release about the change of camera perspective and how it would affect the combat that previous God of War fans had come to love. Worry not as the combat in this game is still frantic and brutal but also is more methodical as well. You can hack at enemies with the axe sure with both weak and strong swings but the system goes much deeper than that. Being able to throw and recall the axe at will opens the combat up for so many possibilities. Throwing the axe at an enemies legs can trip them up allowing you to take them out of the fight while you focus on something else or you can follow up on them with more swings or even your bare hands. I loved throwing the axe to trip them and then rushing in to lay the beatdown on them with my fists. Using your bare hands also builds up the enemies stun meter quicker which in turn allows you to perform more brutal attacks on them that can either kill them right away or deal huge damage to them. Outside of combat the axe is used frequently in many of the puzzles in the game with some of them making a lot of great use of it. While none of them are too difficult to figure out a couple did leave me scratching my head for a few minutes while I worked out the solution.
Atreus is also an integral part of the combat system in many different ways. He will call out to you to warn you when an unseen enemy may be preparing to hit you and he’ll engage with enemies on his own as well. The square button allows you to command Atreus to fire his arrows at enemies which you can use to distract them with but also to quickly build up their stun meter. You can only fire so many arrows at a time but they quickly recharge and you can always make upgrades to him to make him even more effective. There are even some enemies in the game that you couldn’t defeat if you didn’t have the help of Atreus. There is no baby sitting going on here and Santa Monica I feel like has created the best companion character in a game with Atreus. I loved Ellie in The Last of Us but Atreus is not just a likable character in the story but so helpful in the combat as well that I feel like he surpasses what Naughty Dog achieved with her.
The graphics and audio in God of War are truly exceptional as well. It’s amazing to me how Sony’s first party studios keep one upping the other to keep raising the visual bar. Horizon: Zero Dawn last year was the best looking game I’d ever seen but God of War manages to even exceed that. I played the game on a PS4 Pro on a 4K TV with HDR and the results are stunning. There are two options in the menu as well that allow you to pick whether you want a better resolution or a better framerate. I went with resolution as the framerate in that mode was good enough in my opinion and I wanted to see the game at its best. The game has such a great art style that mixes realistic looking locations with some truly memorable fantasy environments as well. Every character in this game is also visually stunning and while the cast isn’t huge each one of them is memorable and worthy of being there. Also worry not as there are lots of grand set piece moments in this game as well just like the ones of old.
The voice acting of the cast is so good and both Christopher Judge and Sunny Suljic deliver excellent and memorable performances as Kratos and Atreus. I wish I could talk about all the characters here but you really have to experience them for yourself. The sound effects and music alike are both great too as the sound as you connect with each axe hit really adds to the experience. The sound effect of the axe being recalled is something I never grew tired of either and I spent several minutes early in the game just throwing and recalling it. Bear McCreary has composed a memorable soundtrack as well and one of my favorite in recent years. There are epic moments in the game that he has crafted some fitting music to match but also quieter moments as well. One sequence towards the middle of the game has some softer music that builds into something really epic and it’s one of my favorite tracks in the whole game. Props to him seriously for knocking it out of the park on this title.
If you are a trophy person the game has a very achievable set to work towards. I wouldn’t look at the list prior to finishing the game though as there are many spoilers within it. Don’t worry as nothing is missable here and there are no trophies tied to difficulty so feel free to play on whatever mode you want. I earned my Platinum in the game and none of the trophies are tedious to earn. Now while this game does so many things right there are a couple little things that can be improved on. First off the moments when you have to climb stuff in the game is a bit of a drag as the climbing speed is a little too slow so hopefully they speed that up in future games. I also had an issue with the fact that you were unable to transfer talismans from an equipped armor piece to a new one you want to equip. Instead you had to manually remove them from the old armor and then insert them into the new armor you want to equip. This has since been fixed in a patch however so this is no longer an issue. That said these are very minor complaints in what is an extraordinary game.
God of War is a truly special game and one that will last in my memory for a very long time. Santa Monica Studios has taken this franchise that was starting to grow stale and boldly reinvented it. If you never liked God of War in the past there is a very good chance that you might now. If you were already a fan of the series like myself you are still getting a deep and brutal combat experience but you are also getting a more in depth character driven story and a memorable world to explore. The story, world, combat, and everything between had me hooked from the beginning to the end and I can’t wait to see where this franchise goes next.
*God of War is available on PS4. Reviewed on a PS4 Pro. Review copy provided by PlayStation for the purpose of this review.