The God of War series never was my cup of tea. Without question the games featured unrivaled set pieces, fine-tuned gameplay, and epic storylines deserving of acclaim. But, my perception was that they were testosterone-laden gore fests. While I’m not puritan in my tastes, the way I perceived the series as relishing those aspects outweighed everything else, and I spent little time with them. The announcement and subsequent coverage of the most recent entry was different, however. It was framed in such a way that it seemed more mature, and not in an edgy “sex and violence” sort of way. Sure enough, the storyline, and the relationships and acting in particular, exceeded my expectations. It was entertaining to unravel the plot, and equally so to explore and survive the beautiful environments.
Developed by Sony’s Santa Monica Studio and released April 20, 2018 for the PlayStation 4, God of War is a reboot of sorts. It still stars Kratos, the “Ghost of Sparta,” although he is no longer in ancient Greece. At some point before the events of this entry, he relocated to Midgard, the snowy north and backdrop of much Norse mythology. What’s more, he has a pubescent son, Atreus. Unfortunately, Atreus’ mother and Kratos’ wife Faye has recently passed away. The primary driver of the game was fulfilling her final wish: to spread her ashes from the highest peak in the nine realms.
Their journey across Midgard and a handful of the nine realms was fraught with countless obstacles. Kratos was a stranger in a strange land, but Atreus’ knowledge of the local languages and Norse mythology proved invaluable. Just as important was Kratos’ strength and indefatigable determination. Their relationship is perhaps the most poignant in the entire medium. Kratos remained gruff and unmoving, at times seemingly uncaring, but a pessimist he wasn’t. Everything he did was rooted with the intentions of raising Atreus to be a good, self-sustaining individual. He wasn’t perfect though, and had to come to terms with the fact that protection by omission, even with the best intentions, has consequences.
Populating their quest were a handful of secondary characters, each fleshed out in their own right, but contributory to the father-son relationship in meaningful ways. The quarreling Dwarven blacksmith brothers were a favorite of mine. They served as comic relief, and with Kratos as the straightest straight man, were always good for a chuckle. Like the rest of the cast, they were based upon characters from Norse mythology. Now I’m not terribly knowledgeable regarding Norse mythology, but it seems that the adherence to mythology was somewhat flexible. This is understandable, considering the insertion of a Greek demigod, and the impacts of his and Atreus’ actions.
Although the Blades of Chaos, Kratos’ weapon from the previous entries, come into play eventually, a great deal of this game’s combat revolves around the use of Faye’s axe. As expected, Kratos was ruthless in combat and there were many combos and abilities that unlocked throughout the game. Atreus lent a hand as well, firing arrows upon command, and occasionally taking the gumption to wail on an enemy of his own accord. I chose to play on the default difficulty, and from the beginning until the end, I had the most fun when I was barely scraping by. Fortunately, the challenge presented even on this difficulty, meant that was much of the time.
During especially tough battles such as those against the Valkyries, I clawed the DualShock 4 hammering away light and heavy attacks with the R1 and R2 buttons, commanding Atreus with the Square button, dodging with X button, and occasionally using the shield or throwing the axe with the L1 and L2 buttons. These fights definitely contributed to my eventual carpal tunnel syndrome. Speaking of throwing the axe, this was so much fun… or rather, recalling it was. Even when I missed my target, it could strike a foe on the way back. And Kratos had such a visceral reaction when catching the axe; it demonstrated the oomph it traveled with. The axe wasn’t just useful in combat; it also served a role in exploration.
The Lake of Nine served as a central overworld, around which everything centered, similar to Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I spent so much time exploring the many beaches around the Lake, finding all manner of lore, gear, and collectibles. When I first reached it, and after events that increased my access to it, all narrative progression halted: I had to discover what secrets it hid. At every step of their journey, if I spent a little time looking in the nooks and crannies, I was rewarded. Each area and realm was fantastically designed, too. The first time through an area, I’d inevitably come upon an obstacle that required my wits to get around. Upon doing so, there’d be a chain to drop and something that allowed for quick passage if I needed to return. And there were plenty of reasons to return.
In Metroidvania fashion, I frequently came upon chests or rooms that I couldn’t immediately access. Eventually however, Kratos would gain an ability that overcame the specific impediment. My completionist tendencies, coupled with the fact that I enjoyed the game so much, saw that I finished with 100% completion. One thing I’m pretty proud of is the fact that I did everything, save for the last few well-hidden collectibles, without the use of outside assistance. Anymore I take diligent notes while playing games, and for most of this one I did just that. (In fact, I learned the keyboard shortcuts for many accented letters!) It helped me keep track of where I needed to return and why. At some point though, I realized just how wonderful a job the in-game map was at keeping up with this information. For what it’s worth, it was also beautifully rendered, like everything else in this game.
My note-taking also extended to typing out lore and bestiary entries as they became available. Besides increasing my knowledge of the setting, perhaps a little more than just reading them, subtle traits of Atreus’ personality became evermore apparent. More cerebral than his father, he was the one responsible for all of the note-taking and drawing. Accordingly, this was all written from his perspective, with relevant bits about my location in regards to narrative progression thrown in, as well. These were so much more than simple codex entries, and enriched my playthrough.
Although I was looking forward to playing it, I still find it remarkable just how much I enjoyed God of War. An instant classic in my eyes, it’s one of my favorite games on the platform and of the generation, and coming from a series that I’d mostly written off! The juxtaposition of a Greek demigod in Midgard set the stage for creative liberties in regards to the classic characters and storylines of Norse mythology, and the execution was superb. So too, was the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. The struggles in their unique father-son relationship were, ironically, down-to-earth and relatable. They, and the entire cast, were written with believable qualities and portrayed expertly.
The narrative wasn’t the only element influenced me to spend more than fifty hours with the game, combing over every square inch, however. The visceral combat was well-balanced, and never felt cheap. I found better abilities and improved my gear sure, but my acumen was improving with each fight. I never tired of the combat, and relished the most challenging battles. The payoff for overcoming great odds was so, so satisfying. I never tired of exploring the diverse world, either. It’s phenomenal how well-thought out each area was, down to rote hallways and the variety of collectibles. I’m sold, day one, for any sequel(s), and after this experience, will revisit the previous entries with new eyes.