Lords of the God of Uncharted Creed Raider: Journey to the West. A Rabelaisian Review.
It’s been thirteen years now since Olympian pin-up Kratos first strode muscularly onto our screens, his rippling presence and throbbing temple vein one protein shake short of parody. In that time his influence has waxed, waned and now come full circle as he boards the increasingly crowded reboot train bound for relevance city. Now, in an era of increasing scrutiny can this much-anticipated re-imagining appeal to the snowflakes of 2018?
I bulked up on whey powder and lovingly oiled my chest to find out.
Our adventure opens with Kratos looking reflective and pensive as he achingly fondles a tree. Is this a new God of War? One in touch with the wonders of nature and it’s boundless majesty? Such reverie is interrupted pretty much immediately by the prompt ‘PRESS R1 to use the Leviathan Axe’. Hmmm, that’s a promising start. This kind of fauxteractive fauxtertainment has been a mainstay of the series and can work well enough given sufficient bluster and pizazz but it bodes poorly so early in the piece.
In the name of science I decided that for every QTE or un-skippable cutscene I encountered, I would chug a foaming mug of ‘Muscle Tech-Mass Tech: Scientifically Superior Mass Gainer’ and see if by the conclusion of my Homeric voyage I could attain the monstrous ninja turtle-esque physique I so secretly crave. In addition, for every death my soy-boy fingers conspired to deal me, I would do 10 squat thrusts as penance.
I’m anticipating some pretty massive gains.
My first mug of Muscletech goes down smooth as the tree falls to my ripped insistence. I can feel the nutrients pulsing through my doughy frame, transforming me with its scientific blend of buffening compounds. As it transfuses my blood with raw masculine power it conversely becomes obvious that the Kratos we’re dealing with this time around is a different beast to the one to which we have become accustomed in his previous pantheon. Older, more wisened, and marginally more realistically proportioned, there is a sense of weariness to him that is evident from even the opening moments.
Turns out Kratos is sad because his wife is dead and his son is a ginger, so in an attempt at closure and redemption he and his boy set out to place her ashes at the peak of her favourite mountain - and then presumably have a picnic. Of course, things don’t exactly go as smoothly as planned, and in the detours will lie the details.
Initial impressions are subdued. Far from the human blender of previous outings, there is a much slower and more deliberate take on our favourite furious slaphead this time around that emphasises timing, blocks and parries. Combat has been compared to Dark Souls but comparing things to Dark Souls is the 2018 ‘Ludo-narrative Dissonance’ of lazy games journalism. Besides, it’s actually more like Lords of the Fallen (oof). And that’s an ongoing theme. While the original game was quite innovative and ground-breaking upon release, this game is simultaneously very much ‘of it’s time’ while still feeling a couple of generations old in terms of ideas. Did you ever play ‘Darksiders’ or ‘Enslaved: Journey to the West’? Then you’ve essentially played this. Comparisons to ‘Enslaved’ are especially easy. The sense of Déjà vu is overwhelming, and that game came out eight years ago. Since that time we’ve had the likes of ‘Bayonetta’ redefine the ludicrously OTT action game, while ‘The Last of Us’ set new benchmarks for emotional character work and storytelling.
But does it look good?
The new over the shoulder camera, while lending cinematic heft, really limits the flow and joy of movement that was present in previous instalments. It looks great when you’re walking through a magnificently rendered vista but feels incredibly limiting when a sense of kinetic movement is called for. Combat feels slow and repetitious and without either the cathartic maelstrom of the blades of chaos, nor the polished deliberation of a soulslike; it sits uncomfortably in a kind of leaden limbo, in service to the graphics rather than the graft. But the graphics are certainly pretty; even on a standard PS4 they are the game's most immediately obvious upgrade. Routinely stunning, particularly in terms of lighting, they lend some flair to what are otherwise pretty archetypal pseudo-nordic themes. Cinematic to a fault, they will certainly impress those with a penchant for the polish and will probably be a great showpiece for your PS4 Pro and 4k monitor if you’re so inclined.
His beard is so textured you guys.
In tandem with the new combat engine, puzzles have been simplified as well. Taking a leaf from the book of the Tomb Raider reboot, (which in turn took its cues from Nathan Drake) in that they are usually reserved for optional objectives and essentially involve a numbing variation on throwing your axe at something. Whereas early games in the series would fold the puzzles into level design and progression, here they seem to be mostly tacked on to add features to a frame that is already groaning with bells and whistles. Throwing the axe feels great though; there is a real sense of weight to it and pressing triangle to retrieve it and watching it arc back into your grip, sometimes via the exploding viscera of an opponent’s face, is pretty satisfying.
About three mugs of muscletech and 30 squat thrusts in we encounter our first friendly NPCs; a sexy witch (who turns out to be more than she seems), and the painfully unfunny comedic relief of a duo of squabbling dwarves. It becomes clear as we progress that the witch is basically a breasted exposition machine (at least it's not a fuck-spider - Ed), regaling us with exhaustive minutiae on the McGuffins of Midgard that will frame our journey, and the dwarves act as the blacksmiths that will upgrade your gear (what else?) while distributing side quests.
After this, the world opens up a little and you can stumble into areas you’re wildly under-levelled for, leading to more squat thrusts and a vague sense of frustration before you resume following the main quest daisy chain into one of nine independent ‘realms of Midgard’. This is where we start to see a bit more graphical variety, if not originality.
And that more than any other feeling or factor seems to sum up the game as a whole. This is quite possibly the most generic AAA blockbuster I’ve ever played. It feels designed by committee and I can imagine that there was a checklist of features that they felt obligated to shoe-horn in regardless of whether it served the greater whole of the experience. This in turn leads to an unintuitive upgrade system tucked away in layers of flashy menu options that tend to confound rather than empower.
AAA at all costs
This is a tentpole summer popcorn flick, an airport page-turner, a sure-fire intro to annual iteration. It is unlikely to linger. The much-vaunted father/son bonding experience is more Cat’s in the Cradle than Cat Stevens. Kratos is a hard guy to like, and it doesn’t help that all his dialogue sounds like it was delivered into a cup. Gruff and one-dimensional was fine for the deicide of old, but as a foundation for an emotional connection it exposes the limitations of his character as anything deeper than a bearded brick of muscle and blood. I have no doubt that throughout the course of the game, he will soften even as his son hardens, but I’m struggling to muster the enthusiasm to care enough to see it through to that point. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare, but with a renewed emphasis on story I was at least hoping to become engaged in the journey.
At this point, all the muscletech has started to curdle in my belly and I’m terrified I might have a squat thrusting accident after the next boss fight. Which awesomely, turns out to be a dragon. This is the spectacle I had come to expect from the franchise, although tellingly, the most visually arresting moments are ones where control is wrenched away from the player to accommodate the cinematic flourishes that make it sing.
Like Kratos, I soldier on with a stoic façade even as tedium nips at my heels. For a while at least.
The 2018 God of War is a competent game, it will very likely be a successful game, but it will never be a beloved game. It is simply too confused as to its identity and too derivative to really strike a chord that resonates. This is a shame but not exactly a surprise. At around 30 odd hours to finish the main quest, there is certainly value to be had here, and there is fun to be had as well, but if you think that in this day and age you deserve something other for your time and money than the shine of the status quo, then vote with your wallets accordingly.
There has been a lot of talk about the change in direction leading up to release, but it turns out to be a bit of a misnomer. This is a different God of War, but it turns out they've replaced 'more of the same' with 'more of the same'.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my legs hurt.