There’s a quote about reimagining God of War from Sony Santa Monica creative director Cory Barlog that has really stuck with me.
“One direction is to just [clear] everything off the table and start completely new,” Barlog said to Game Informer about bringing the series into a new generation on the PlayStation 4.
“But I think the more challenging and interesting direction is to take somebody who is believed to not be redeemable and figure out how to take them to a point where you root for them.”
As unbelievable as it may be, that’s exactly what Sony Santa Monica has managed to do with the latest God of War game. Over the course of an emotionally-resonant and deeply engaging 30 hour playthrough, I found series protagonist Kratos — a once bland lead whose only defining characteristic was a penchant for vengefully killing as many Greek gods as possible — to be, against all odds, a genuinely compelling character.
That’s because Sony Santa Monica smartly knew not to try to avoid or even justify all of the horrible acts Kratos has committed, but instead address them head on. In this new adventure, Kratos is fully aware that he can never undo any of his atrocities, and so he must instead ensure that his son, Atreus, never goes down a similar path.
With Atreus’ mother Faye having passed away right before the start of the game, Kratos is forced to learn how to control the rage that once completely overtook his life and raise his son alone in the harsh Norse realms.
While previous games were all about Kratos seeking out gods to kill, this game is very much about Kratos trying to avoid taking lives whenever possible. As he tells Atreus, they should only ever kill to defend themselves, never seeking to take a life for any other reason. Instead, his goal in this game is a very humble and intimate one — honour Faye’s last wish and scatter her ashes at the highest point in all the realms. However, doing so won’t be easy, as the Norse gods are aware of who Kratos is and have been tracking him, eager to stop him before he can cause any more damage.
With a more mature protagonist this time around, Sony Santa Monica was able to create a nuanced and multi-faceted relationship between Kratos and Atreus. While not explicitly stated, it’s clear that Kratos’ failings with his previous wife and child — as well as Faye’s recent passing — weigh heavily on him. There are many moments where Kratos tries to be softer and more empathetic towards Atreus, like putting a comforting hand on the saddened boy’s shoulders, but is visibly conflicted and subsequently stops himself.
Likewise, it’s clear that Atreus loves his father and desperately wants to please him, but Kratos’ inability to connect with him has lead to some deep-rooted resentment. The ebbs and flows of their relationship — and how the truth about Kratos’ past threatens to upend it — leads to some surprisingly poignant moments that got me clamouring to see more of their story.
Combat is similarly more sophisticated this time around. All other God of War games have been defined by fixed camera, button-mashing fighting that, while certainly frenetic and awe-inspiring, also somewhat made the player feel removed from the action. Now, however, Kratos is followed along by an over-the-shoulder free camera, making combat feel much more up close and brutal. This also adds a welcome challenge to combat, requiring that you constantly rotate the camera and pay attention to what’s around you.
As well, Krato’s marquee Blades of Chaos are gone this time around, replaced with the ice-infused Leviathan Axe, which feels incredibly weighty and satisfyingly brutal in its own right. In addition to basic melee combos, Kratos is able to freely throw the Axe in any direction, which, like Thor’s famous hammer Mjölnir, can be summoned back to his hand. Carefully aimed throws can nail enemy weak spots to deal increased damage, trip them or even freeze them altogether. Likewise, knowing when to call the Axe back, particularly when considering the position of both Kratos and an enemy, can help you do additional damage to whoever’s in front of you as your weapon flies back to you.
While unarmed, Kratos is certainly no slouch either, as he can also attack with a flurry of punches, kicks and shield bashes. These attacks, while less damaging than the Axe, more quickly fill up an enemy’s stun metre. Once filled, Kratos can perform one of the God of War series’ signature ruthless finishers. Over time, Kratos will also acquire new Axe and melee abilities, as well as powerful magical Runic attacks.
Atreus is also a crucial component in combat, supporting Kratos in a number of meaningful ways that make you appreciate his presence all the more. Initially, to help you keep track of enemies on and off-screen, Atreus will warn you of incoming attacks. As you upgrade the boy’s skills, he’ll play an even more active role in combat, stunning, tripping or grappling enemies to leave them open for Kratos to attack. His arrows, which eventually become imbued with elemental attributes, also become increasingly more effective in combat through various upgrades. Best of all, Atreus can never die in battle, letting you focus completely on keeping Kratos alive.
Combat is also influenced by the series’ first-ever fully fleshed out gear system. Outside of completing quests and discovering new chests, Kratos can also visit shops to purchase, craft and upgrade new armour, weapon attachments and accessories, among other useful items.
This doesn’t ever feel tacked-on, either, with different gear affecting Kratos’ various stats, as well as some of Atreus’, making you to carefully consider what to equip before heading out to battle. Kratos’ multiple fighting styles, Atreus’ support abilities and the number of gear combinations all come together to make God of War‘s combat the most dynamic and deep that it’s ever been.
Outside of gameplay, Atreus also proves to be invaluable in exploration. Thanks to his mother’s teachings, Atreus is able to read languages that are foreign to Kratos, helping his father solve puzzles and discover new areas, as well as fill in some Norse backstory. The boy’s knowledge is key to getting around what is the series’ most massive setting to date.
While not completely open-world, God of War still features sizeable areas that are interconnected and varied, encouraging further exploration. Most notably, some of Norse mythology’s famed nine realms are completely optional, requiring that you unlock them through side objectives. In addition to more quests and gear to find, these realms also offer several difficult optional bosses you can fight that tap into Norse mythology in particularly dark and twisted ways.
The rest of God of War‘s characters are also very interesting, including the intimidating yet sympathetic god who Kratos first encounters, Mimir, a knowledgable and highly entertaining severed head and feuding dwarf brothers Brok and Sindri, whose charming sense of humours make visiting their shops all the more worth it. Without going into spoilers, the game’s excellent and poignant conclusion also tantalizingly lays the groundwork for some exciting character appearances in possible sequels.
Stargate SG:1‘s Christopher Judge, who replaces longtime voice actor Terence C. Carson as Kratos, deftly conveys the God of War’s unflinching rage and his newfound somber and reflective side. In stark contrast to Judge’s steely performance is child actor Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), who brilliantly balances Atreus’ youthful excitement more repressed sadness. The supporting voices are also uniformly excellent.
Special mention must also be given to composer Bear McCreary, whose rousing score brings a greater intensity to action scenes and makes emotional scenes all the more affecting. McCreary and the music team even travelled to Iceland to record with a choir there, lending a welcome authenticity to the game’s Norse-inspired world.
From a technical perspective, the game is absolutely stunning, with incredibly detailed character models and stellar-looking environments. On the PlayStation 4 Pro, God of War is even more gorgeous, rendering in 4K checkerboard resolution and HDR that add even more crispness and colour to the already beautiful visuals. PS4 Pro owners can also choose to have the game favour performance instead, keeping the game at a consistent 1080p in order to maintain a buttery smooth framerate that targets up to 60 frames-per-second.
However, God of War‘s most remarkable technical achievement, which is available on both models of the PS4, is its unprecedented one shot presentation. Outside of a brief loading screen when the game is first booted up, you’ll experience no further load times or camera cuts unless Kratos dies or a checkpoint is restarted.
This all helps give the game a more personal feel by always keeping the focus on Kratos or Atreus — enhancing the already strong investment I had in their story.
If God of War has any shortcomings, it’s in enemy variety. Despite being a lengthy and dense experience, I was disappointed to see that there weren’t all that many different kinds of foes to fight. In particular, the large, rock slab-wielding trolls seen in some of the gameplay trailers make up many boss encounters throughout the game. To be sure, the enemies that are in the game have memorable, appropriately intimidating designs, and the unique boss encounters offer the same kind of massive scale you’d expect from God of War, but a bit more variety still could have gone a long way.
Ultimately, God of War is a shining example of how to breathe new life into a franchise. Sony Santa Monica wisely stayed true to the core tenants of a God of War game — visceral action and a sweeping sense of scale rooted in a rich mythology — while also moving the franchise forward with mature and complex characters, narrative and setting. The end result is not only far and away the best game in the series, but also one of the finest games of this generation. A new era of God of War is here, and I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
God of War will release exclusively on the PlayStation 4 on April 20th.