Reviewed by Josh Pederson
Played On: Playstation 4
There hasn’t been a game like God of War in a long time. I don’t mean that in the context that there hasn’t been a God of War game in a long time. The last non-remastered entry in the series (God of War Ascension) was released back in 2013 to decent scores, but was praised for all of the things the latest entry was praised for not doing. This is the first time in the franchise’s history that you genuinely care about Kratos, who – for those of you who don’t already know – has quite the tragic past, and quite the potential for a story that packs an emotional punch. Why it’s taken them four numbered entries to tap into it is beyond me, but they finally did it, and the results are beautiful.
God of War or God of War 4 is part Beowulf and part Rip Van Winkle. If you took out the gameplay and left the narrative intact, you would have something that could easily fit into the ancient libraries of Norse Mythology. In a time when story-driven games are being pushed out by battle-royale and micro-transaction driven gameplay, Sony Santa Monica delivered something truly incredible. Not only do you get the hack and slash gameplay that you’ve come to know and love over the years, but you get something else, too. You get a protagonist that you actually feel emotionally invested in. Let’s be honest, in the previous entries, Kratos was cool and all, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of depth. Despite being cursed to dawn the ashes of his wife and child, and being driven by revenge, he was always a pretty one-dimensional character. He grunted, he dismembered monsters, and he had a lot of sex with women on boats. He was basically the video game embodiment of a Limp Bizkit song. That Kratos was nothing more than the vessel that drove the narrative forward. This Kratos, however, is something completely different. This Kratos is the story, and everything else exists as a side note.
If you remember the ending to God of War III, they weren’t exactly clear on what happened to Kratos. Did he live? Did he die? The Internet was on fire with rumors and speculation. When footage surfaced of this latest entry at E3 last year, the leading theories were that Kratos lived and escaped into the realm of Norse Mythology, or this is a different Kratos, a Norse God of War, perhaps. In a 2016 interview with Gamespot, Corey Barlog, the creative director of the game talked about how ancient civilizations had mythological belief systems that coexisted and were all “separated by geography.” Maybe this means that after the ending of God of War III, Kratos got up, dusted himself off and headed north. Maybe they’ll elaborate on this in future entries, maybe they won’t. At this point, I’ll be completely honest and say that it doesn’t matter. He is where is, and after playing the game, I know that I’m not the only one who’s grateful for that.
The moment you start the game, you’re thrust into the world of Midgard, which according to Norse mythology is where we live. You don’t know much about what’s going on, but you see an older, more worn out version of Kratos. His Blades of Chaos are gone (for now), his beard is grown out, and he looks like he’s ready for retirement. Through some dialogue with his son Atreus, you find out that Kratos’s wife and Atreus’s mother just died, and they’re off to find wood for her funeral pyre. This is when the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus becomes clear. Atreus is unaware that he’s part god, and Kratos doesn’t know how to be a father. There’s a distance between them that grows as the game progresses. Atreus misses his mother, and doesn’t understand why his father doesn’t love him. Though Kratos does feel emotions towards his son, love is something that he clearly hasn’t felt in a long time, nor was raising Atreus something he was prepared for. And seeing this dynamic at play is almost heartbreaking at times. For example, there are points in the story where Atreus does everything he can to make Kratos proud, but he messes up and incurs his father’s wrath, and when he does do well, Kratos doesn’t show any pride. In fact, he doesn’t show much towards his son, at all. He seldom even uses his name when talking to him. Unless Atreus is in danger, he simply refers to him as “boy.” Despite this, things aren’t what they seem, as you can see in other places, when Atreus is grieving for his mother. Kratos attempts to put his hand on his son’s back to comfort him, but then pulls away because he’s not sure how. To call them dysfunctional would be an understatement, but this game is just as much about learning to be human as it is about fighting gods and monsters.
Though the first hour of the game is filled with mystery and emotion as you uncover what Kratos has been up to in the years since he finished off the Olympians, it doesn’t take long for the plot to unfold. What you find out is that – as mentioned above – Kratos has a son. You don’t find out until much later in the game that Atreus’s mother is Laufey of the giants. I know what you’re probably thinking, Kratos and a giant? And wouldn’t their son be a giant, as well? They actually address this later on in the game, when your talking head companion Mimir says something about how people always assume that giants are actually giant and not just a race of people. But I digress. After gathering wood for the funeral pyre of his wife, a stranger comes knocking on the door. After a not-so-brief confrontation with the stranger, Kratos and Atreus set out on a journey to fulfill Laufey’s last wishes . . . to spread her ashes in the highest peak in the nine realms.
During their journey, Kratos and Atreus run into the World Serpent Jormungandr, who, if you know your Norse mythology has a grudge match to settle with Thor come Ragnarok (no not the Marvel film). As they make their way up the mountain, to what they believe in the highest peak in the realms, they encounter a black mist, which they learn from the Witch of the Woods can only be extinguished with the Light of Alfheim. The witch helps them use the bifrost to travel to the realm of Alfheim to retrieve the light, but when they get back and make it to the peak of the mountain, they find out they’re being hunted. The stranger who confronted Kratos earlier in the game ends up being Baldur, and he’s waiting on the peak of the mountain, talking to his nephews Modi and Magni, who are after the Kratos and the boy for reasons you don’t find out until later. For now, they’re interrogating an imprisoned immortal by the name of Mimir. After they clear the area, Kratos and Atreus speak with Mimir, who reveals to them that their actual destination is in Jotunheim, land of the giants, but travel has been blocked to keep Odin and Thor from getting there. Mimir tells Kratos to cut off his head and take it to the Witch of Woods, who you find out is Freya, the wife (or now ex-wife) of Odin. With Freya’s help, Kratos, Atreus, and the talking head of Mimir, set off on a journey that takes them deep into the heart of Midgard and across several realms. It would take several hours to write about the story completely, but there’s one major detail that I left out. Kratos hasn’t revealed to his son that he’s a god. Despite Mimir telling him that he needs to reveal to the boy his true nature, Kratos refuses. Why? Because he doesn’t want Atreus to be like him. He doesn’t want him to experience the tragedy of being a god, but what he doesn’t realize is that keeping this secret has a cost.
Enough about the story. There’s so much to it that it would literally take days to cover it all. I want to talk about the gameplay. In an interview with those rad dudes over at Kindafunny, Corey Barlog talks about how for this God of War, they went back to the drawing board, stripping Kratos down to his basic functions. He sat in a room with his developers and asked, “What is essential to God of War, and what can we do without?” Gone are button-mashing combos that were practically impossible to remember in the original trilogy, gone is the overly complicated upgrade system, and they even removed the ability to jump. I’ll get to the reasoning in a moment. They stripped Kratos down and rebuilt him from the ground up, and what we get instead is a more graceful Kratos that’s easier to control and a combat system that’s not just easier to use, but a lot more fun. You don’t have to stress out about getting hurt while doing combos or jumping around while fighting enemies. All of the attacks are narrowed down to two or three buttons, and the dodge function gives you enough space between you and your enemies that you don’t ever find yourself being overwhelmed. In addition to that, Atreus doesn’t just follow you around, he participates in the combat, as well, shooting arrows and setting you up to do some pretty cool finishing moves. He even warns you about incoming attacks when you might not see them. And as the game progresses, Atreus gets access to different types of magic arrows that you decide where to aim, and how to use them to get through certain obstacles.
The upgrade system is far from perfect, but it’s still an improvement. First, though, lets talk about the new weapons. The first thing you’ll notice upon starting the game and getting into your first scrape with mythological monsters is that Kratos no longer has the Blades of Chaos . . . at least not at the moment. Instead, you have what’s called the Leviathan Axe, a magical frost weapon left behind by Kratos’s deceased wife. The axe not only deals frost damage when used against opponents, you can also throw it at them and then call it back to you by pressing the triangle button. This allows you to both fight enemies from a distance and also hit them twice; once while throwing, and if you line it up, twice when you recall. It’s also used to solve many of the game’s puzzles. It’s all about those angles. As mentioned above, you also have Atreus, who can use physical attacks to stun enemies while you finish them off and a bow that allows you to do some pretty powerful and helpful attacks as you upgrade it at various junctions in the game. And good news fans, and spoiler alert . . . the Blades of Chaos are back. They don’t really do anything different, but those too, can be upgraded to unleash devastating attacks. The great thing about both of these weapons is that later on in the game, you have to interchange them to match the enemy types. For example, you can’t use the Leviathan axe on frost enemies because it won’t do anything, just like you can’t use the Blades of Chaos on fire enemies. Some enemies, the bersker types aren’t affected by either. In this case, you have to get physical and use a little hand to hand/shield combat. Back to the upgrade system, though, the Leviathan Axe, Blades of Chaos, shield, and Atreus’s bow can all be upgraded, and the more you upgrade them, the more they do. For example, you can unlock attacks that allow you to easily take out hordes of enemies in one or two fatal moves. The armor system, on the other hand, it’s not my favorite. Not only does the armor system get confusing, the ability to upgrade the armor you’re already wearing makes getting new armor almost pointless, and a lot of the armor that you’re able to find throughout the world doesn’t look like things the Ghost of Sparta would wear . . . not that he has any particular style, because more often than not, he’s got blood all over him.
On a positive note, the dwarves who upgrade your equipment, Brok and Sindri are a welcome addition to the game. They’re two feuding brothers who are each disgusted by the other’s work. One is vulgar and prideful, while the other is a germophobe. They’re always fun to talk to, and mark the first time in a God of War game that you actually care about any of the side characters. They also give you side quests that you can choose to do or not to do, but doing them gets you upgrades and offers an opportunity to level up and gain some experience. Speaking of side quests, the balance between the main game and the side quests is perfect. God of War is and isn’t an open world game. The open world part of the map consists of the different areas that unlock around the Lake of the Nine as the game progresses, and each of these areas allows you the opportunity to help a ghost, or a fight a bunch of enemies pouring out of a black hole, or to explore a dungeon where there might be a dragon or some kind of treasure. If you’re “lucky” or unlucky in some cases, you might even stumble upon one of Odin’s secret rooms, where the Valkyries are imprisoned. Though the fights are difficult, they’re not without rewards worthy of the frustration they might cause. And the great thing about all of it is that it’s all optional. You can do the side quests or don’t, it all depends on how much of a completionist you are. You don’t have to do any of them to finish the game. If you want to just play through the story, you’re welcome to do that.
Everything about this game from start to finish is a masterpiece. Do I think it changed the landscape of gaming? No, what I think it actually did was realize the potential the single player genre has always had but has never been tapped into. In a time when the single player game appears to be going extinct, it’s nice to see a game like this because it shows that a single-player, story-driven game can be impactful. The week the game came out, it was the number one streamed game on Twitch. That’s practically unheard of for a non-multiplayer game. As for where the franchise is going from this point forward, I won’t spoil the ending (and what an ending it is) for anybody out there, but put your fears to rest, this isn’t the last time we’ll be seeing Kratos. In fact, I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing Kratos in many mythologies in apocalyptic proportions. While Corey Barlog has been quite cryptic about what’s to come for the Ghost of Sparta, the latest entry into the franchise has laid some mysterious and potentially amazing groundwork for what’s to come. Play this game. I cannot emphasize it enough. And make sure you go home and rest after the credits roll. Kratos could use a nap, and you could use a surprise ending. Brank isn’t going to be a huge fan of this, but I give this game a ten out of ten.