A different perspective on the glory of God of War.
I’m not a God of War fan. That’s not because I have anything particularly against the game—well, except for that godawful fixed camera—but it’s because I missed playing it when I was supposed to. In fact, my first taste of God of War was the underrated Dante’s Inferno. Yes, I realise they’re not from the same series, but that’s where my appreciation for God of War’s visceral brand of third-person combat came from.
When I eventually returned to right the wrong of having not played God of War in its PS2 days (I had the PS3 versions), I made it through the first game but got frustrated with the camera about halfway through the second. There’s a catch, though (there always is): I was incredibly into the epic story and Kratos as a character. I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch other people playing it, so it went to my guilt pile (like far, far too many other games), where it’s remained, alongside God of War III and God of War: Ascension.
All of that backstory is to say that when I recently played God of War—the 2018 version that’s out soon, not the original game—I wasn’t playing it as a massive fan of the series. The thing is, I and any other player who can relate to what I’ve said above, don’t have to worry about getting up to speed or being thrown in the deep end with the story. God of War is a clever soft reboot, in the vein of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, that’s both sequel and a new place to start.
Having exhausted the pantheon of gods and beasts from Greek mythology, this God of War is all about Norse mythology. More than this—and important to my hatred of fixed-camera games—it works as a mechanical reboot for the series. For starters, the camera is free, and it’s a great addition to the franchise. For those worried that fixed camera equals cinematic gameplay, fear not; God of War is still dripping with the kind of cinematic presentation that you could easily see being tackily ripped off in some future Hollywood movie.
In fact, there are times when developer Santa Monica Studio errs too far on the side of cinematic rather than player-friendly presentation. Thankfully, for the vast majority of the time, it works and there are only odd moments of frustration where the camera screws you. Speaking of cinematic, there are times when the delineation between cutscene and gameplay is off, meaning you never know when it’s safe to put down your controller. There are times when cutscenes are just that, and others when they’ll throw unexpected inputs at you.
While I’m on the topic of the negatives, let’s get them out of the way before I enter gushing mode (God of War is a really, really great game).
There are some oddities where it hasn’t learnt from the sins of older games not in the franchise. Like how it has a bunch of samey boss fights, which was the main problem with Batman: Arkham Asylum, or like how it has a touch of Darksiders syndrome with its supposed fast-travel logic. The former is an odd contrast to the layered fights against the usual peons, but the latter seems in an effort to create a seamless world (no loading screens), which falls flat when you realise it’s just buying time.
While a lot of the mechanics are beautifully tied into the game narrative, the ‘training’ for in-menu stuff is relegated to static text screens. It’s a jarring dissonance with the believable flow of everything else and also means, if you’re like me, you might miss out on some of the finer points of God of War’s depth. Outside of items occasionally getting stuck in walls after killing an enemy, the only other gripe I have is how finicky the game is with camera angles to make button prompts appear.
Now onto the good stuff.
Tale as old as time
Without giving too much away, Kratos is still an angry man, but he’s (slightly) less consumed by vengeance and trying his best to be a father. Like The Last of Us, you spend the bulk of God of War rolling around with Kratos Jr, aka Atreus. Like Ellie, Atreus is a full-fledged character and not your average cookie-cutter sidekick; unlike Ellie, Atreus is incredibly handy in terms of gameplay.
He can help with basic platforming, has a knack for sniffing out concealed threats up ahead (he even calls out threats during fights), and even lends a hand in battles. Instead of this being a passive feature, you have active control over him by tapping square to order him to, say, fire an arrow or summon a magical attack. Arrows stun smaller enemies and get the attention of the bigger ones. Because this is a God of War game, you can expect to encounter enemies of all shapes and sizes.
There’s actually a point where the combat noticeably spikes in difficulty. You’ll have your work cut out for you on normal difficulty, especially once you wander into the wrong area. These fights against higher-level foes aren’t impossible, but death is a great teacher in God of War, so expect to visit the respawn screen. Thankfully, the game is generous with its respawns and you won’t have lost a whole lot of time.
Enemies will swarm you, attack from afar, and some negate the damage of your Leviathan Axe. The Leviathan is part battle axe, part Thor’s hammer, in that it can be thrown, and triangle is pressed to summon it back to you. Instead of it being a cheap gimmick where the Leviathan teleports back into your hand, it actually follows proper pathfinding principles on its return trajectory, which means a missed shot can be turned into an axe to the back of the head with the right footwork. It’s just one of the touches that adds depth to what so easily could have been shallow button-mashing combat.
Time your block perfectly, and you’ll automatically counter your attacking foe, opening them up for a combo. Heavy attacks on smaller foes juggle them, and you can get in a few lighter hits while they’re floating in the air. Alternatively, you can stun them with Atreus’ arrows or your fists to perform signature brutal takedowns that are as jaw-dropping as they are ruthless. During fights, even without manually locking on to an enemy, the camera does tend to default to that familiar tight cinematic view over Kratos’ shoulder, but there are UI indicators (or Atreus will call out) to let you know when you’re about to be hit in the back so it adds to the experience rather than detracting from it.
God of War is less an open world and more of an interconnected experience of different-sized hubs, where traversing off the beaten track tends to reveal secrets. There’s a bit of Metroidvania at play here, with inaccessible things that you can return to later. I’m assuming this more guided approach to level design is to preserve the fidelity, and God of War is gorgeous on PlayStation 4 Pro (with only the odd frame drop in fidelity mode).
The thing is, the eye candy adds to the storytelling and deftly directed characterisation, especially when God of War seamlessly moves between cutscenes to gameplay and back again. There’s a confidence and patience to the storytelling that’s wholly engaging, even though I’m one of those players who usually loathes walking between cutscenes.
That’s testament to the godlike storytelling chops of Santa Monica Studio with an IP it’s intimately familiar with. Atreus isn’t one of those distracting sidekicks, he’s integral to the story. Kratos isn’t just a high-fidelity recreation of a rage monster, he’s a haunted demigod whose character growth has taken hundreds of years. There’s a lot that’s familiar about this Kratos, but then there’s a deeper more vulnerable side that makes him so interesting. The same is true of the other characters you encounter, even the villains: every character is treated with respect and feels fleshed-out the more you get to know them.
If you’re an ancient God of War fan, you’ll likely get even more out of this latest entry than I have. I’ve deliberately avoided going too deep into the story because there are some reveals that are best experienced fresh. God of War is one of those engrossing campaign experiences that haunted me between play sessions. It’s just as easy to play for half an hour as it is for hours on end, either chipping away at the rich world or fully immersing yourself in it.
The best bit is even though I’m done with the story (and the way I played it took 25+ hours easily), there’s still a bunch of side stuff that I have every intention of sinking my teeth into. I may not have counted myself as a God of War fan in the past, but by this particular god am I one now.