Release Date: April 20, 2018Platform: PS4 Developer: SIE Santa Monica StudioPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Action/Adventure
The thing that has always separated masterpieces from great games is the feeling they inspire. Granted, that’s not a fair metric, but when you play a game that is truly special, you just know it. It goes beyond logic, classification, and even reason.
Well, God of War is a masterpiece, even if it’s a game that sometimes feels like its sacrificing tangible greatness for the chance to inspire a feeling.
The game opens with Kratos chopping down a tree that he intends to use for his recently deceased wife’s funeral pyre. He is joined by his son, Atreus, a precocious young boy whose grief is tempered by the blunt, sometimes cruel life lessons of his father. Not long after, a truly incredible occurrence kickstarts Kratos and Atreus’ journey, which is quite unlike any the God of War franchise has seen.
Play God of War from its incredible opening to its emotional conclusion and you’ll soon find that it’s incredibly difficult to talk about the things that make this game’s story so special without potentially ruining it for others. Perhaps the same can be said of many other games, but God of War is special in the way that it slowly unfolds the layers of its story through moments that are large in the grand tradition of epic God of War adventures and small in ways that we’ve never seen from this series.
The former largely consist of the things that we can’t really talk about – this game goes places you are not prepared for – but it’s the latter that will ultimately define the legacy of this title. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus has been billed as one of God of War’s standout features. For the most part, that aspect of the game works as well as advertised.
The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is a…complicated one. The God of War games up until this point have established Kratos as more of a force of nature than a man. Going into this sequel (although perhaps we should call it a revival), then, it was difficult to imagine how he would ever manage to be a father. Well, the game deals with that as Kratos initially treats Atreus more as a tool or weapon that has to be honed in order to survive in this world.
On the other hand, Atreus is pretty much like every young boy you’ve ever known. He’s energetic, prone to get into trouble, and is capable of reading ancient runes. Ok, that last part isn’t very typical, but the point still stands that Atreus serves as the emotional counterpoint to his father’s stoic nature.
Actually, for as much as people like to take Kratos to task for being a generic character notable only for his bloodlust and the spectacle of his rage, many of God of War’s best moments are the result of Kratos launching into the most epic form of dad mode that we’ve ever seen in a video game. Granted, that has something to do with the fact that we genuinely come to care for Atreus as someone whom we cannot lose (even if he cannot actually die during combat).
Truth be told, though, there are times when Atreus’ dialogue and actions seem a bit out of place. While his perky personality helps bring out a more human side of Kratos, there are moments when he exhibits a “Gee-whiz” attitude that doesn’t really match the circumstances of his situation and what we believe to be his upbringing.
What ultimately makes the Kratos/Atreus dynamic work as well as it does is the way the game weaves their relationship into nearly every aspect of the experience. When Atreus is put in any kind of danger, Kratos launches into an old-school God of War rage. When Kratos teaches his son a harsh – but often necessary – lesson about life and the world, we feel Atreus’ silent disappointment because many of those lessons are ones that we’ve learned, too. We even get to watch Atreus evolve as a warrior as his skills grow greater in combat.
That last bit is especially well-done. At first, Atreus is only able to shoot arrows at enemies at your command. The arrows don’t do much damage and largely serve as an extra parry. However, as the game goes on, Atreus becomes bolder and begins to enter the fray directly. He maintains his arrows – which you can upgrade – but watching his character growth manifest itself in the form of his direct combat is a true joy.
Actually, God of War’s combat is generally a true joy. Early previews compared the game’s combat to Dark Souls, but that comparison doesn’t quite hold in the final version of the title. Everything is much more deliberate and “meatier” than in previous God of War games and you’re rarely left with the feeling that you are not the true powerhouse. It’s just that you now have to consider things like blocks, counters, enemy positioning, and the various attack types it takes to take down the game’s various foes. You feel like a god, but the game does make you work for it.
The star of God of War’s combat spectacular is undoubtedly Kratos’ ax. Time will tell if it will become as iconic as the Blades of Chaos, but it feels great to use. The “gimmick” of the ax is that you’re able to throw and recall it at will. It’s similar to Thor’s hammer in that respect. That mechanic works great during combat – nothing is more satisfying than killing one enemy with a throw and taking out another with the rebound – and is one of the many ways that God of War’s combat keeps you on your toes and inspires you to come up with creative solutions to increasingly complicated conflicts.
The ax is also used to solve many of the game’s puzzles. God of War has always featured a few brain teasers, but this new collection of puzzles features some truly challenging scenarios. You’d think that they might slow down the game’s pacing, but they’re actually cleverly integrated in ways that ultimately leave you feeling just as satisfied as at the end of any major battle.
It’s a bit more difficult to praise the game’s upgrade system. Upgrades are nothing new to the series, but this is by far the deepest example of that system ever featured in a God of War game. Everything from Kratos ax to Atreus’ clothes can be customized and upgraded. You can even fit special runes into weapons and items to grant yourself additional abilities and buffs.
The system itself is fine in a vacuum, but it feels out of place in the context of this world. Early on, the game establishes that Kratos doesn’t really need more than his fists to take down literal gods – fighting bare-handed is perfectly acceptable – and doesn’t need a better wolf pelt to soak up the damage of getting thrown through a mountain. Why, then, does it matter how sharp my ax is or what level of shoulder pelt I have on?
There’s also the issue of the game’s menus. See, there are no camera cuts in God of War. The idea of a one-shot sequence is incredibly difficult to accomplish, and a game without a single camera cut that can easily last 30-50 hours is practically a minor design miracle. However, every time that you have to enter a menu to manage some upgrade or skill boost, it does feel like you’re being taken out of that experience somewhat. Menus don’t kill the immersion, but they do feel at odds with it.
Thankfully, that annoyance pales in comparison to the world that God of War’s focused sweeping shots gradually reveals. No matter what you might read or what you might hear, you are not prepared for the scope of God of War’s world. I’d stop just short of calling it an open-world game, but it is a large world that is loaded with various sidequests for those who desire to seek them. That’s what makes the whole thing work. God of War’s side missions are there to be found by those who want to find them and are in no way shoved down your throat and added to a to-do list log of missions that you’ll never get to.
It’s not just the missions, though, but the side characters and area design that makes God of War’s world so special. You’ve probably seen quite a few screenshots of God of War’s snowy landscapes and thought. “Is that what the whole game looks like?” It most certainly does not. In fact, there are areas of God of War that I would rank among the most visually creative and exciting in any video game I’ve ever played. What’s more is that they all somehow feel appropriate to this world, even if they are, on paper, radically different. There’s even a Metroidvania aspect to some of the areas that allows you to travel between them and unlock shortcuts.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that God of War is one of the most beautiful games ever made. The level of detail on every character is simply stunning – Kratos, in particular, looks incredible – but when one of those well-designed areas meets the game’s daunting graphical engine, it produces a moment that will cause you to stare in disbelief at your screen. The game’s soundtrack is equally impressive, even if it does sometimes take a backseat to some of the visual spectacles on display.
God of War‘s peripheral characters are somehow even more memorable than its levels. The game doesn’t boast a particularly large ensemble, but there are many characters you’ll meet along the way, and every single one of them feels like they’re playing an indispensable role in the story. There are grouchy weaponsmiths with the sense of humor of a drunken uncle, a mysterious magic wielder who sets the grander events of the game in motion, a disembodied head with tons of gossip to share, and many more notable personas who aid – and hinder – your quest. Kratos and Atreus remain the stars, but there are certainly a few people you meet along the way who truly steal the show.
And what a show it is. My biggest complaints about God of War are all related to things that were implemented in an attempt to give gamers more. More options, more gameplay, more mechanics, and more world. In a weird way, Sony’s enthusiasm reminds me of Atreus. The developers are eager to show the world what they can do and, in their enthusiasm, they sometimes overstep into dangerous waters that require the player to step in and reach out an understanding open hand.
While improvements to the game’s menus and upgrade system may have made God of War a technically better game, technical merit has always bowed to the power of a feeling. By the end of God of War, you’ll have the feeling that your emotional connection to the game has led you on a journey that represents something fairly close to the best that gaming has to offer. Any game that has the power to do that must be some kind of masterpiece.