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God of War Review — Land of My Fathers

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God of War Review

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.

God of War E3

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.

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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

Review

American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto

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American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 1

The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.

Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.

The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 2

The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.

Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.

Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 3

The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.

The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.

American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 4

Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.

American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.

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