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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.

GOW1

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

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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