There’s a temptation to suggest that God of War is a radical departure for the series, but there are just enough links to God of War of old to hook in existing fans while offering plenty of fresh concessions to modern gaming.
With God of War on its seventh outing (4th if you just count the mainline titles), the reboot’s greatest and most immediate move is to leave the previous Greek setting behind, this time taking place in the Norse mythos. It’s a criminally underused theme in games, which handily gives Sony Santa Monica the capacity to surprise. We all know about Thor, Loki and Odin of course, but what about Frigg, Balder, Tyr, Nidhogg and Jörmungandr? There’s a world of wonder at the developer’s fingertips here, and they use it to spectacular effect. Rarely has a game felt like more of an adventure, encompassing frigid icescapes, a giant turtle with a tree on its back to hides a witch’s house, and the epic Lake of Nine. There’s no point dwelling on the environments too long here, as they form such an integral part of the journey that it would be remiss to know all of its many secrets before heading in.
That journey is the recurrent theme of this God of War reboot. Kratos and his son Atreus are heading out to grant his wife’s dying wish - that her ashes be scattered atop the tallest peak in Midgard. It’s a more unassuming goal than we’ve come to expect from God of War, and all the more human for it. It provides the template for an epic trek through the pantheon of Norse gods and realms, each more surprising than the last.
The other key change to the God of War formula is the shift to a Resident Evil 4-style over-the-shoulder viewpoint, rather than the fixed angles of previous God of War titles. This helps make the tale a more personal, immersive one, particularly when combined with the unique no-cut storytelling. God of War is a single scene from start to finish. The camera pans and there are story scenes, but it’s all presented as a single, uninterrupted scene. It’s thoroughly engrossing, although it makes God of War horrendously difficult to put down when there are no natural break points. It was easy to relate to Kratos’ turmoil when I struggled to find an opportune point to make a cup of tea.
It means the entire experience feels fresh as a God of War game, although in reality, it’s more a greatest hits package of the last decade of action adventure. It sounds lazy, but God of War sits perfectly on the intersection between The Last of Us, the Tomb Raider reboots, and yes, Dark Souls. It’s got the storytelling panache of The Last of Us, arguably better in its delivery if not in its narrative; the pseudo open-world design of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and the deliberate, often punishing combat of a Souls game. That’s not to say that God of War offers the same challenge as From Software’s pioneering masterpiece, at least on Normal difficulty, but the light & heavy attacks, dodge rolls, and potentially varied character builds certainly owe it a lot. Crucially though, instead of knocking you down, God of War is more interested in lifting you up. Advancement through the plot and the game is perpetual. It never feels as if God of War wants you to fail, it feels as if wants you to just about succeed by the skin of your teeth. You won’t be stuck trying to kill a boss for days on end. Instead, it’s ceaselessly onto the next big thing, whether that’s a major plot point, a side-quest into a surprisingly sprawling dungeon, or the unlocking of entire new skill trees.
A key factor that helps propel God of War’s kinetic nature is the single cut method. They push this idea to the limit at times, but for the most part, it holds true. There are no loading screens (at least traditional ones) even, the camera positioned behind Kratos practically in perpetuity. This accomplishes several things, all in the name of immersion. Never leaving Kratos’ side means the player is never sucked out of the experience, while it means each and every location of a cinematic adventure game has to be logically connected in a single, cohesive world. It makes any long journey feel ridiculously epic, adding a genuine sense of place to what’s otherwise a wholly fantastical world.
Kratos, too, has completed his transformation from thoroughly unlikeable wife murdering antihero to a stoically amusing father who, while eschewing conventional morality, insists on doing things the right way. He’s dry, abrupt, and often terrible for Atreus to be around, but he’s also unintentionally comedic in just how seriously he takes things. He's the friend who doesn't understand the punchline to any jokes, the overly literal yin to the warbling yang we come to expect from tales of the gods.
Combat, and this can’t be said lightly, is probably the finest it’s ever been in a character action game. It’s about as far removed as you can get from the Japan-centric designs of the Devil May Cry’s and Bayonetta’s of this world, sitting in that thunking, brutal school of thinking that belongs to the Souls’ games, combined with a sense of impact that is unmatched. Kratos’ Leviathan Axe positively thuds into enemies’ skulls, and telekinetically pulling it back into his hand with a thump has to be one of the most satisfying feelings that has ever been put on a humble disc. In the early stages of God of, War I was just throwing the axe at trees in the distance and pulling it back, purely for the inherent satisfaction.
Once players get into a brawl, combat is split into four fairly distinct skill sets, each with their associated skill trees and perks. The Leviathan Axe gets its own tree, and concerns not just axe throws but also melee combat. With the right skills, an axe can be thrown at a Draugr’s legs to trip it up, charged to throw to hit five enemies at once, or used as a head-splitting charged strike. The axe’s capabilities don’t end there either, as its freezing capabilities mean it can be used to freeze one enemy while Kratos batters another, recalling the axe later to finish the job off.
Along with this, there’s the unarmed combat. Kratos’ fists cause a high amount of stun damage. Fill up the stun meter under an enemy’s health and a special execution attack is unlocked. Some enemies will be particularly vulnerable to unarmed combat, while others are weak to the axe. To further complicate matters, Kratos has a shield which is useful for, well, defending, but can also be combined with charges to bash enemies off ledges, while a double tap of L1 executes a shield bash that knocks an enemy’s shield out of the way and leaving them open to attack. During combat, his Spartan Rage meter also fills up. Unleashed by clicking in L3 + R3, this makes Kratos practically invulnerable while he delivers devastating blows with his fist.
His capabilities don’t even end there. Kratos is also able to equip between 2 and 5 Runic abilities at any one time. Typically you’ll have one light and one heavy Runic attack. Runic attacks are magic based and have cooldown timers. They can be equipped, leveled up for more powerful versions, and found in rare loot crates. There are dozens and dozens of different Runic attacks to equip, activating abilities such as an AoE slam that stuns enemies or a freezing ice beam. These Runic attacks can be mixed and matched at will, and you’re typically never far from discovering a new one.
And lastly, there’s Atreus. Kratos’ son is equipped with a hunting bow and various magical arrows. A tap of square sends an arrow towards a targeted enemy, allowing players to send a stun arrow into a Witch as she’s about to cast, for example, providing Kratos with enough time to close the distance and attack.
As you can probably tell, there’s a lot to wrap your head around in terms of God of War’s combat systems. In the interests of remaining spoiler-free, this isn’t the half of it either. It means that whatever your preferred fighting style, you should be able to find a method that suits you. Likewise, different enemies will require adapted tactics, and over the course of the game, the player will be readily tested for just about every possible skill. While this may sound overwhelming, the slow build provides plenty of time to get to grip with the complex systems and the end result is a jaw-dropping maelstrom of axe throws, Runic slams, and head-splitting punches. Truly, this aspect of God of War is unmatched.
Scraping out negatives in God of War is an unenviable task. What’s here is so finely crafted that any minor quibbles do stand out like Thor’s bloodied thumb, but these issues are so few and far between, quickly forgotten during the next epic boss battle that feels like it’s been plucked straight from a Marvel movie.
The environmental movement is certainly a gripe. God of War clings onto its cinematic roots a little too hard at times, offering up a pseudo open-world while simultaneously trying to propel the player through a linear narrative. This results in an over-abundance of invisible walls and, occasionally, a little confusion over what is accessible. Particularly painful is when Kratos can’t hop down a simple four-foot ledge, forcing the player to take the preordained route along a death-defying precipe. Part of the problem here is the lack of a jump button, restricting the player’s freedom of movement somewhat.
Aside from this, there’s some general confusion over the resources and materials used for crafting. There’s no way to see the materials required for an upgrade without going to see a crafter, and it’s also not clear what drops can be found where. Just to top it all off, it’s never obvious whether certain resources are permanently limited in supply or can be farmed indefinitely. It leads to indecision as there’s no knowable worth attached to an item versus the state upgrade it offers. It’s a small issue, but from my playthrough, I’d certainly recommend spending what you want, when you want, rather than clinging on to resources.
These are absolutely minor faults in a game which is otherwise a masterpiece. God of War is one of the most sublimely constructed action games of all time. It may lack a little of Souls' depth, but this is more than made up for with bombastic appeal, setpiece variety, and top-tier storytelling. It's a wondrous greatest hits package of the last decade's finest games; a polishing and refining of what has come before. In that sense, God of War isn't a game that does anything inherently new, but it does do it all with a layer of polish, wonder, and jaw-dropping spectacle that is unmatched.