God of War (2018)

Oh man I have been so ready to play this for so long! 2018’s God of War is the long-awaited continuation of Sony’s franchise about one angry man’s vendetta against all gods great and small, only this time he’s bringing the family along with him.

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God of War (PS4)

Released Apr 2018 | Developed: Santa Monica Studio | Published: Sony

When we last left Kratos he was wrapping up his campaign against the Greek pantheon but little seems to be made of it in this newest entry. It’s absolutely a sequel given it ties itself into the previous games, but in a “soft reboot” kind of way – yes, all that stuff with Kratos happened, but this is a new story, in a new land and with a newer (uhh, older) Kratos. For fans of the older games such as myself, I feel that going in to God of War there was some trepidation as to whether it would make any attempt to care about the previous games but it’s grand to see it referenced along the way.

This time however there’s not much in the way of Kratos tearing is way through legions of local deities; in fact, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to call the story relatively threadbare, frankly. We begin with Kratos cremating his wife, Faye, and taking his young son, Atreus, on a journey to scatter her ashes from the highest peak in Midgard – oh yes, we’ve forsaken the Hellenic setting of previous games and the Ghost of Sparta has instead exiled himself in the frozen north of Norse Mythology. The story is actually a vehicle for a touching and oftentimes fraught exploration of the relationship between father and son, as Kratos struggles with juggling his own harsh and cynical self against needing and wanting to raise the sickly yet jovial Atreus. He pushes his boy, tries to force him into being a warrior and hunter, and clearly has wild and massive difficulties being the father he needs to be, and you can’t help but will him on.

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This is, without a doubt, the most human Kratos has been in a long time. Some games in the series have been fairly criticised for portraying him as nothing more than essentially an elemental force of anger and malice, cruelly murdering his way through swathes of enemies. However, other entries – notably the first one, Chains of Olympus, and Ghost of Sparta – stand out not because they have great gameplay but because they understand that Kratos is at his best when he is vulnerable and all 3 drag into the fore his love of family and own crippling self-hatred and doubt at his inability to save them and his own feelings of culpability in their deaths. GoW4 joins these games in that, except this time that’s the entire game. Kratos still has moments but it’s telling that an early moment in the game sees Atreus fluff a shot while hunting a deer and spooks it; he looks fearfully at his father, whose voice raises in his trademark snarling fury before he quickly catches it and forces himself to calm down. Immediately you face the fact that this is a Kratos who is desperate to change and control himself.

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It’s notable that it feels very much like a God of War game but with its own clear identity. Gone is the beautiful flowing and fluid combat of the prior games; in its place is a deliberate, powerful and more visceral system – fitting given we’re seeing an older, tired Kratos who has forsaken his Blades of Chaos and instead now wields the hefty Leviathan Axe in their place. It’s still a combat system built around alternating light and heavy attacks much as before so it does feel familiar quickly, but with something very clearly different about it. The Axe comes with what is surely one of the most satisfying mechanics in an action game – it can be thrown at any time and then with a single button press Kratos reaches out and like Mjolnir returning to Thor, the Axe flings itself back to its owner, smashing through anything in its path. While he waits for its return, Kratos can also simply smack enemies down with his bare hands; like the Axe they also have a full complement of combos and are a weapon in their own right.

Atreus is no slouch in combat either. I would be entirely unsurprised to hear that Santa Monica took inspiration from The Last of Us as like Ellie in that game Atreus can absolutely take care of himself. Primarily armed with a bow, players can call on Atreus to fire away at enemies during combat; later on in the game, not only do his arrows improve but he also gets a bit more like his father and will run fearlessly into combat, tripping enemies up for Kratos to finish off or leaping on their back to stab them with his knife. At the onset of the game he merely plinks away at your foes’ health but by the end he was frankly invaluable, and that alone speaks volumes about this new Kratos’ changed attitude compared to his lonesome and vicious self – for only the second time in the series, Kratos fights as a part of a team, and like that single awesome moment in Ghost of Sparta, Kratos is made so much more powerful as a result.

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Upgrading Kratos’ arsenal has always been an element of the franchise but it’s approached in a new way here. Gathering souls has been replaced entirely; beating enemies accrues XP which can be spent on upgrading different skill trees for both Kratos and Atreus, and exploring the world nets you Hacksilver, which can be spent on buying and upgrading the duo’s equipment. Where once he took on the world with nothing more than a Spartan skirt and unbridled rage, Kratos is a bit wiser nowadays and can equip breastplates, arm guards, and fancier Nordic skirts to take on the hordes of baddies that plague Midgard. Runes can be socketed into his Axe to unlock special Magic attacks, and into his armour to grant passive bonuses to his stats. Kratos’ level works on a kind of loot-relevant system – the better gear he equips, the higher his level climbs, and changing your equipment or wearing lower level gear causes your own level to dip. You can also gather resources from around the game world that allow Brok and Sindri – a pair of Dwarf craftsmen – to construct legendary armour, though naturally gathering these resources is no easy task, and gives the completionists out there something more to do.

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Finding all the armour and resources requires some careful combing of the world, and exploration is very much encouraged in this installment. I wouldn’t exactly call Midgard an open-world as such – it resembles Tomb Raider 2013 in that the game world is actually a series of huge interconnected stages. You can visit and revisit them basically at will, and as you get new abilities you can go back and hoover up any missed collectibles or sort out any outstanding sidequests you passed by before. The world is absolutely stunning in how it captures and represents the snow-covered, barren beauty of Nordic wastelands – not since Skyrim have I felt so in love with that kind of landscape.

Speaking of side quests, this game is similar to Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Horizon Zero Dawn in that it feels like it follows the line set by The Witcher 3. Side quests are typically relatively lengthy – if nothing else, almost all of them require Kratos to venture into hitherto unexplored parts of Midgard, and that takes time for sure – and they all have self-contained little story beats to them. A vast and long-running series of quests involves our pair of heroes delving into Dwarven ruins and mines at the behest of Brok and Sindri as they ask them to seek out ancient artifacts that they can craft with; a personal favourite of mine began with finding one of these artifacts stolen by bandits. Following the trail found a literal dead end, with the bandit leader murdered by his own crew and the pair now needing to track an ever-dwindling group of bandits as the artifact constantly changes hands. The wider writing means there are comparatively few side quests but they’re engaging and exciting, and that’s worth far more than a tonne of guff side stuff.

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Kratos’ changed nature and his inner struggle are even beautifully represented in the soundtrack. God of War’s music is not as bombastic as previous soundtracks but that makes sense – we get a more subdued soundtrack for a more subdued Kratos. It does feel a shame not to get any reprise or even a nod to any of the main themes of previous games, but I suppose it’s a selfish complaint on my part; this game is all about how Kratos has let go of his past and moved on as best he can, and I guess I ought to as well. Compare the powerful, war-like rhythm and brass of the original God of War theme or the terrifying low strings of Rage of Sparta from God of War III to this game’s main theme. There’s still a danger to the drums and low end but the visceral power is replaced by a slower, more reflexive overture and you’d never get that stunning, hopeful swell in a previous God of War game.

In fact, I can’t imagine much of this soundtrack in any other God of War. It’s too subtle, too quiet, too different. The soft vocals and mournful violin in Memories of Mother speak of remorse and the deep, unstoppable sadness that comes with grief, and not even in his most pensive moments did the younger Kratos ever stop to allow his sorrow to blossom. Ashes gives us a marvelous, peaceful soundscape in which a melody washes over the listeners again and again; even when the darker moments rise, they are quelled rapidly, much as Kratos’ anger is controlled, but when could you imagine the younger Spartan ever stopping to appreciate a rare moment of peace?

Lullaby of the Giants has an almost plainsong vibe to it; the opening chants remind me hugely of neo-medieval musicians Corvus Corax. The Dragon feels similar in that it feels like an individual song, not just part of a wider soundtrack, and for that I love it. In general, composer Bear McCreary has succeeded in that across this entire work, which makes it lovely to simply relisten to outside of the context of the game.

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I’ve played every entry in the God of War franchise now (though not reviewed them – perhaps a project for the future here) and I can safely say that this entry sits among the best. Though II and III are personal loves as far as the series goes simply because they have the most fluid and well-built combat, this game joins the first release, Chains of Olympus, and Ghost of Sparta in exploring a far more human and interesting side to Kratos, and for that it should absolutely be applauded. That it comes along with a visceral, heavy combat system that fits our older, wearier exiled God is icing on the proverbial cake.God of War is definitely a must-play as far as the PS4’s catalogue goes.

6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.

 

 

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