Early on in God of War is a scene where Atreus, the son of series protagonist Kratos, attempts to hunt a boar. The player, assuming the role of Kratos, assists the boy in aiming his bow before telling him when to fire. The scene, like all of those in the game, seamlessly transitions from play into exposition then back again, blurring the lines between story and gameplay. A few minutes later, Kratos attempts to aid the boy again in finishing off the boar, but the latter shrugs his father off, confident in his own abilities to conclude the hunt. The whole experience is quiet and reserved, almost as an attempt to translate Hemingway-inspired diction to video game form: a dedication to show and not tell. Despite God of War‘s massive setpieces, staggeringly beautiful locales, and meticulous design, the game shines most in these small moments—in the subtle meditations on everything from paternal relationships to loss. Without an ounce of hyperbole, Santa Monica Studio has succeeded in providing a story-driven experience that offers the greatest amount of immersion ever witnessed in a video game.
Transitioning Kratos from his previous rage-fuelled self into a wiser, older patriarch must have been a difficult job for the writing staff, but the characterisation feels natural. All of the writing, in fact, feels like easy and cautiously contained, professionally measured prose. A line or word never feels wasted, ensuring Kratos’s preference for understatement never falls into contrivance. Story-wise, God of War surprises by how Santa Monica Studio is able to incorporate references to previous series iterations without having them cloud the main story. Underneath Kratos’s calmer veneer, the same vengeance-fuelled rage of his youth exists, albeit muted: God of War is not a reboot for Kratos; instead, he represents a natural maturity all men go through. Thematically, too, the title hits all the right boxes, translating its almost psychedelic representation of Norse mythology into a story that is decidedly modern and pertinent in its undertones.
Despite this attention on smaller moments, God of War delivers tenfold on the series’s trademark bombastic gameplay. The systems are streamlined and modernised in all the right places, delivering a combat system that feels responsive, weighty, and punishing. Kratos may be a father now, but, deep inside, he is still a resident expert on deicide and combative chaos. Players can still whoop ass old-school Kratos-style, but will need to put much more thought into doing so compared to previous instalments. Kratos’s moveset adapts organically throughout the story, with the player choosing what styles and abilities to equip and upgrade. Even towards the conclusion, God of War continues to throw new abilities, playstyles, and challenges at the player. The title never allows users to be comfortable, either thematically, narratively, and mechanically.
God of War has traded in the previous iterations’ over-reliance on weapon variety for a reduced armoury, but has offset this lack of choice with detailed upgrade paths. Players may initially be disappointed at God of War‘s rejection of weapon saturation, but, for the long-term, it offers the most rewarding, punishing, and downright satisfying combat of the series. In having only a few weapons, players must think carefully about where to spend money on upgrades, armour, and where to commit experience points. Much like Kratos, the mechanics have matured, prioritising detailed brevity over flashy shallowness. Atreus, too, serves as not only an effective story contrast for Kratos, but as a gameplay contrast. Players can direct Atreus during combat, who will aid them with his bow, both stunning and damaging enemies in turn. The AI for Atreus never gets in the way; the decisions it makes are always sensible and needed, without allowing the player to become overly-reliant on it. A nice addition is the customisation for Atreus, which is as detailed as that for Kratos. Players can purchase armour and upgrades, which directly affect how Atreus functions, ranging from how often he picks up health vials to brand new abilities. The symbiosis of father and son, both in gameplay and theme, makes the title feel like less of a single-player action-adventure and more of a two-man party RPG game
The inclusion of the RPG systems as a whole may seem an odd choice at first, but God of War shows that action games and RPG design can intertwine without diluting either. Initially, the RPG mechanics appear as RPG-lite, but the more hours players put into the game, the more the systems reveal themselves to be intelligently designed. To tag “lite” on the end would cheapen the impact, as Santa Monica Studio has paid as much attention to levelling as to the excellent combat system. Just as any player would in any good RPG game, God of War expects them, especially on the brutally rewarding higher difficulties, to change their armour and playstyle around different bosses and enemies. Some adversaries will respond better if Kratos goes all out on min/maxing his strength, whilst others favour a more defensive, cooldown-reliant approach.
Visually, especially on PlayStation 4 Pro, the Norse-inspired worlds of God of War shine. The graphical achievement is not in the well-designed setpieces, but the sheer consistency of graphical fidelity and beauty on display. Open vistas and mountaintops certainly steal the show, but in the smaller moments, such as walking through a cave, paddling a boat along a quiet shore, or simply passing some time in the blacksmith’s workshop, players can see the depth of aesthetic care and attention the project has received. Watching steam rise off a cold stone after being hit by water or the subtle wind on snow-tipped mountains is a marvel in a way that is unparalleled in third-person console design. The absence of loading screens, cutscene breaks, and any form of immersion cutting helps immensely, as players will struggle to unembed themselves from the game’s cocoon of paramount visuals.
Side quests are, surprisingly, an integral part of the experience, also. These optional objectives are not merely padding, but important extensions of the universe’s lore, characters, and the central narrative. God of War has abandoned the over-reliance on fetch quest nonsense (which is anchoring contemporary gaming) for self-contained tales that marry interesting gameplay challenges with an enthralling story. The conclusions to the quests are rewarding, both in terms of narrative and gearing possibilities. If Skyrim is the size of a lake with the depth of a puddle, then God of War is the opposite. The title subscribes heavily to the doctrine of quality over quantity, leading to an adventure that dwarfs the majority of other RPGs despite their often larger worlds and magnitudes.
Above all, God of War is a surprise. By perfecting the current trends in the gaming market, the game has become an outlier in how to properly design a AAA experience. The combination of systems, which have failed numerous times in other games, somehow work thanks to the amount of effort, time, and love the studio has poured into the title. The title has transcended the bloody roots of its origins, trading in a shallow representation of vengeance for a meditation on power and revenge that feels more mature. The scariest thing about God of War is that it is destined for sequels, but with a foundation this excellent, the series could reach untold heights. Despite all the gameplay and visual successes, God of War‘s greatest feat is tell a story about family in a way that feels timeless, with the writing taking care of all the idiosyncrasies and implicit machinations of patriarchal relationships. God of War is a game about fathers in a time that dearly needs them and that should be appreciated.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4