Editor’s note: Yes, this review is incredibly late. There was a HUGE mix-up in getting God of War shipped to Miklós, and the courier company we used took several years to rectify the mistake. This resulted in Miklós only receiving the game a couple of weeks ago. WE’RE SORRY.
In 2005, God of War debuted on the PlayStation 2 and redefined the action-adventure genre almost overnight. The series quickly set a new standard that many other titles tried to emulate, with varying degrees of success. Over the course of ten years and spanning two flagship Sony consoles and one handheld, the God of War series saw protagonist Kratos murdering the entire ancient Greek pantheon, with increasingly gory details as hardware specs improved. The series remains one of Sony’s most lucrative, and one with the most consistently positive reviews for each iteration.
This year’s God of War is Kratos’s first outing on the PlayStation 4, and the game is billed as a “reimagining” of the franchise; out with the Greek mythology and in with the Norse, so to speak. That’s not to say that this is a reboot that chucks out everything that’s happened over the last thirteen years. This new God of War very much continues Kratos’s story, only this time things are far more focused and carefully considered in terms of the narrative, and the game’s technical aspects.
In a much more subdued narrative approach to the previous games, Kratos, together with his son Atreus, must set out to scatter the ashes of his late wife. Instead of the revenge-filled, power-fantasy tropes that pervaded the earlier games, we’ve got a God of War that chooses small-scale premises to explore some themes that aren’t often seen in the action-adventure genre. At the forefront is the father-son dynamic between Kratos and Atreus, which constantly fluctuates between genuinely uncomfortable to watch (because Kratos himself is just such an awful person) and cautiously triumphant. When the father and son set out at the start of the game, their relationship is very different to the one that exists by the time the story reaches its conclusion.
While some will argue that the end result is predictable, the process is not without some considerable surprises. These character and relationship developments are some of the best parts of this reimagined God of War, and they’re made particularly more impactful when one considers Kratos’s past and the events of the previous games. While an encyclopaedic knowledge of past events isn’t required to enjoy this game, having some background on Kratos’s story definitely increases the drama in some of the scenes. There’s a lot of subtext to be found lurking in the conversations between Kratos and Atreus, and as a fan of the previous games I found these subtle nods very enjoyable.
Parental themes pervade the game’s narrative in more than just Kratos and Atreus’s relationship. The long-term repercussions of overbearing parenting are also highlighted, as is the debate between nature versus nurture when it comes to raising offspring. What does any of this have to do with God of War? Ten years ago I would’ve said “absolutely nothing”, but I mention it only to highlight just how different this God of War is to its predecessors. While the previous games were happy to get by on flashy violence and tacky, quick-time sex scenes, this reimagined God of War has set out to do so much more. The extreme violence is still there, but it exists with very different context this time. Whereas previous releases in the series included extreme violence because it was one of the franchise’s selling points, the violence in this new God of War serves a thematic purpose: Kratos and his son are fighting to survive on their journey, but in so doing Kratos is also teaching Atreus how to kill; at this point in his life, it’s pretty much the only fatherly advice Kratos is capable of passing down. The levels of brutality in the violence (while less frequent than in previous games) have a larger impact this time around because they’re happening in front of a child, and as the player there’s this underlying concern that Kratos’s actions (and by extension the player’s) are creating a monster out of Atreus. It made me feel a little uneasy at times, which is fantastic because games getting you to feel anything is a massive plus in my mind.
It’s safe to say that God of War has undoubtedly matured in terms of thematic exploration and storytelling, but what about the actual gameplay? The series is known for its combo-heavy combat and liberal use of quick-time events to dispatch larger enemies. A lot of those gameplay mechanics feel archaic by contemporary standards, so it’s good to see that the combat and gameplay has matured along with the rest of the game. The dozens of combo strings have been replaced with a very accessible combat system that makes use of light and heavy attacks. RPG-lite elements allow you to tinker with stats by swapping in and out various runes and talismans to grant Kratos different skills and stat buffs. There are also skills to unlock spanning four different skill trees, and then there’s Atreus himself who, while autonomous (and invincible – thank goodness), can be commanded to fire arrows at enemies to distract them while Kratos murders others.
The combat is quite different, there’s no doubt about that, but at the same time it’s still quintessentially God of War in its feel. It’s brutal, unapologetically violent, and at times very difficult, but I never got to the point where I wanted to fling my controller. Those looking for an extreme challenge will enjoy the post-credits tasks that see you pitting your skills against very tough enemies that you may or may not have found during your initial playthrough. With its Metroidvania approach to the game world, completionists will have a lot to keep them busy even after the main narrative concludes. And it’s definitely a game that warrants extra exploration, even if only to take in as much of its beauty as you can, because it really is a terrifically detailed world that’s at times breath-taking to look at.
Perhaps one of the most impactful design choices is the camera: the over-the-shoulder camera draws you into the brutal world and puts your face right up close to the action. This is exemplified in the fights between Kratos and a mystery antagonist, which are honestly the best boss encounters in the entire series thanks to the dynamic camera that SOMEHOW gives you complete freedom of movement, but also gives you the most superbly cinematic angles on-the-fly. It’s utterly incredible and makes these fight scenes truly some of the most memorable encounters in my thirty-two-odd years of gaming. Even when you stop moving and Kratos is standing still, the camera has this slight shake to it, as if there’s a dedicated handheld cameraman traversing this world with Kratos and Atreus, fixated on getting the most perfect, cinematic perspectives of every moment. It’s probably the best camera the action-adventure genre has ever seen, and every third-person game moving forward has a tough act to follow.
At the end of it all, God of War can be taken at face value for what it is: a 40+ hour, hugely enjoyable action-adventure game that breathes some new life into a very established and already successful IP. But if you take the time to really sit down and examine it properly, this reimagined God of War is (awful menus aside) an absolute masterclass in game design. The entire God of War franchise experience has been distilled into its most focused and polished offering this time around, and the result is an experience that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot, even when I’m not playing it. There were one or two moments where I felt that things dragged a little, and the odd use of MacGuffins did get a little tedious, but none of this was enough to sully the overall experience. God of War is an incredible game that frequently pushes boundaries in design and in creating a cinematic feel for an interactive medium. In other words: the bar has been raised yet again.