God of War was developed by Santa Monica Studio and released on April 20th, 2018; coincidentally celebrating it’s one year anniversary just a few days ago.
My history with the God of War series up to now has been spotty. I thoroughly enjoyed the first game of the series, then increasingly lost interest in the sequels as I started getting into games like Dark Souls instead. I always seemed to miss the hype for these games considering I always played them years after they were released. I figured, why break that tradition now!? It’s one year after God of War was released, one pretty fantastic Black Friday sale later (thank you $15.00 pickup) and here we are.
I’ve always been more of a fan of Norse mythology over Greek and I was shocked when we got our first gameplay of this grizzled, new Kratos in Midgard. I was so impressed and shocked by what I was seeing that I made my then girlfriend watch it…who was subsequently unimpressed by what she saw. None the less, I was ready to dive back into a world that included Kratos.
The very beginning of the game follows Kratos and his son Atreus as they collect wood to bring back to their home. Once you arrive back, you find that your wife has died and the wood you’ve collected is for her funeral pyre. Kratos collects her ashes and intends to fulfill her wish of them being delivered to the highest peak. You’re then attacked by a tattooed stranger claiming to know what Kratos is, and we’re off to the races.
I won’t get into spoilers in this review, which will be incredibly hard considering how well some of the story and plot elements landed for me. The story is heartbreaking, anger inducing, frustrating, foreboding, hopeful and always engaging I was always compelled to move forward and for the first time in awhile, really thinking about the story outside of actually playing the game.
I love the way that lore and exposition is handled throughout God of War. Too often, it feels generic, forced or out of place. Here, we have Jotnar Shrines, scrolls and rune tablets that are scattered about the world for you to discover. Once found, Kratos will direct Atreus to read the information, which he writes down in his notebook for you to dive into later if needed. More notably, while you’re traveling throughout the realms and are occupying a boat, characters will interact and tell stories of the gods. You’ll even pick up on that story the next time you’re in a boat if you decide to dock mid-story. Everything feels real and completely natural to the world you are immersed in.
There are unique moments of story telling scattered throughout God of War as well. There is one moment where you are descending down a large circular elevator. The lower you get, the more tapestries appear on the walls, allowing your characters to comment on each as you progress downward. You’re likely meant to not notice a new area loading, but it’s put to good use by having this moment for you to spend with the characters.
Without delving too much into the story itself, there are moments that I experienced playing this game that won’t leave me for quite some time. I love what Santa Monica Studio does with Kratos and the person most affected by his actions, his son Atreus.
I had just mentioned that there are moments in the story that will stick with me for quite some time, and those moments are accompanied by amazing images. I’m sure there are many games out there with better graphics, or better lighting, or better scale, but God of War packs everything in together for this surreal experience. I typically don’t stand around in games often to take in the scenery, I did here many times. After around 10 hours of play time, I had more screenshots for God of War than I did for games I had spent hundreds of hours playing.
I was mostly surprised by how different locations looked within even the same realm. You’ll encounter very colorful areas with different palettes, and that will be contrasted by a dark area with scattered lighting in the very next area. I was always excited to move on to new locations and to see what was in store fro me next.
The world can be very deceiving upon first glance, especially if you have experience with other games in this series. It’s very linear for the first few hours, but then you arrive at what is essentially the central hub of the game. From there, you have multiple side areas that you can explore and dive into.
This central hub acts as nearly three different maps as you progress through the game. Events happen to where more of this central hub opens up to you, enticing you to re-explore those areas once they’ve been expanded on.
This is something I both enjoyed and disliked. Whenever an event like that happens, I want to explore it and grab whatever I can that is now accessible. What God of War also does, it limit certain chests, quests, lore pieces and more, to the items that you have. You may need a certain type of arrow to progress further here, and a specific weapon to progress there. This meant that I felt the need to explore every area each of the three times when more became available, but also multiple more times as I progressed with new weapons to access things I couldn’t previously. It’s a lot of backtracking and it did wear on me as I got further into the game.
The bulk of the game does take place in Midgard, but other realms do become opened up as you progress through the story. Don’t expect the depth of Midgard X every other realm though. If Midgard is a full pizza, each of the other realms would just be one slice for you to take in. It left me a little disappointed to not be able to explore other realms in the way Midgard is presented, but I do understand that it would be an incredibly massive game if that’s what was offered.
Typically, players cringe when they found out that you have some sort of sidekick or perpetual escort mission attached to your main character. I’m happy to say that God of War handles this really well. First, your son, Atreus, doesn’t die, so you don’t have to worry about things like reviving him or running into a Game Over because you were focused on mass murder elsewhere. Second, he adds a lot to Kratos as a character throughout the entire game.
Going into the game, I had already heard the endless memes involving Kratos saying “Boy” hundreds of times, but it didn’t prepare me for how effective I felt a simple word could be coming from Kratos. It was comical, yet had this weight and gravitas to it.
The banter is fantastic between Kratos and Atreus. You can pick up a large object just to have Atreus say “are you going to carry that everywhere?” and Kratos respond “I just might.” Before engaging in a fight with a troll behind a cage, Atreus would say that the troll feels awful being trapped behind a cage. After freeing and killing the troll, Kratos sarcastically asks Atreus what the troll is thinking now?
Comedy and sarcasm are just one facet of their relationship. You can tell that their bond is strong, but also just as fragile at the same time. It truly is complex and brings you on a journey as you play through the story. At times I sided heavily with Kratos, other times with Atreus. Each of them has an arc that is realized, and I loved watching it unfold.
Despite the location in this review, combat is actually the last section I even started when writing. I feel like that in itself is a testament to how far God of War has come as a game series, where I feel its main pull early on was of course, combat. What’s even more surprising, is that combat isn’t even a downside here, it’s just as fantastic as the other aspects of the game that I touch on.
Your main weapon is the axe Leviathan, another departure of what veterans are used to in playing this series. You begin with your typical light attacks and heavy attacks as well as a big surprise to me, Mjolnir mode. You can throw Leviathan at your enemies, then press triangle for it to come flying back. I’m sure every other person has made the comparison to Thor, and I don’t care, it was so unexpected when I saw that and I had fun every single time I threw Leviathan.
You also have a shield that sort of springs outward from your cuff dramatically which is used to parry enemy attacks, or join in on relentless combos itself. Spartan rage is back which allows you to go into this relentless flurry to take down your enemies.
As you complete quests and kill enemies, you can unlock more attacks and combo attacks for each sub section. You’ll have skill points for shield, Leviathan, Spartan Rage and others to grab throughout the game. As you level up your weapons and complete story beats, more skills unlock which increase your options during battle.
Fighting is just so satisfying, and I continually kept surprising myself as I got deeper into the game. For example, one skill you can grab for your Leviathan is a charged R2 attack. Alone, it’s powerful and does a lot of damage if it lands, but if you use it as the last attack on an enemies health bar, whoa. Some of the kills using this method made me audibly say an expletive or two. It also drove me to finish fights with this attack on every new enemy that I faced just to see what happens.
As you progress, you’ll also get light and heavy runic attacks that you can attach to your weapon. These attacks will have a cool down attached to it and add to the depth of each fight. There’s much more involved than what I’m describing here, this really just scratches the surface.
Puzzles: I was surprised how much I enjoyed puzzles in God of War. Even more impressive, is how each of them feel difficult, but not to the point of frustration. For example, there are many chests throughout the game that require you to smack three gong-like items within a certain time frame in order to unlock the chest. Some are straightforward and you just need to aim with Kratos, throw Leviathan, return it and aim for the next.
Some, however, require you to re-position yourself or become a little more creative to pull them off in the given time frame. One time, I threw Leviathan to the side of one gong and ran over to the next one which was a bit of distance away. When I called Leviathan back, it smacked the gong and I was able to hit the other two easily from my current position.
Characters: I’ve gone into some detail regarding Kratos and Atreus, but you also run into a strangely low amount of side characters through your adventure. The thing is, they’re all great. There were moments with each of them that made me laugh multiple times and they all felt real for the world we are playing in. I don’t think enough credit is given to how side or minor characters are written in games because they are inevitably overshadowed by your main characters. God of War ignores that notion and treats every character you encounter with finesse and care.
Traveling Realms/Portals: This issue crept up on me as I got further into the game and had traveled realms multiple times. I felt that it took quite a long time if you did decide to switch things up during your playthrough. For example, you unlock portals throughout each realm that allow you to fast travel. This is done by stepping into a door to a branch of Yggdrasil, and stepping through another door to your intended destination. This takes around 45-60 seconds from start to finish. Traveling realms requires you to go to one location, set up the realm you want to travel to, let it do its thing, wait for the path to open and you’re good to go. This can take a few minutes.
If you are in a far off location in Midgard and want to travel to another realm, you have to get to a portal, go through the process of getting to the central hub, go through the process of traveling to another realm, then possible go through the portal travel process again in that realm to get somewhere else. It was to the point to where at times I decided not to put in the effort to travel realms to switch things up and just continued to explore where I was instead.
Upgrades: There’s a large amount of armor sets, runic attacks, pommels and more that you can upgrade throughout the game to increase your stats. Item sets typically have a focus stat such as strength (increase damage) or cooldown (reduces cooldown of runic attacks). It’s up to you as the player to decide on an area of focus, and I appreciate that. This playthrough I went for straight damage in strength, but I can see myself hitting runic and cooldown to take more advantage of my weapons runic attacks in battle.
God of War is one of those games that you would use as an argument against those who say that video games don’t qualify as art. It has compelling storytelling, interesting characters, breathtaking visuals and emotional weight. I felt Kratos’ pain as he plunged towards his past self that he was desperately trying to escape from, felt his fear as he protected his son from harm and I felt his pride as his son progressed further towards manhood. God of War is a unique gaming experience and I can’t wait for this story to continue.