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God of War has returned to reclaim its throne atop the rank of third-person action video games.
Director Cory Barlog and Santa Monica Studio have delivered the first main entry in the franchise in nearly a decade and the reintroduction of Kratos, the central figure in the long-running series known for his unflinching brutality and unwavering single-mindedness, hits every mark it aims for.
The new game wastes no time in presenting a fresh spin on the character, not only through his bushy, Nordic new look, but also through his more reserved demeanor, particularly in relation to his son, Atreus. The young boy, whose mother has just died, is unaware of his divine heritage or his father’s past as a god-slaying Spartan warrior-turned-literal god of war in previous installments.
Early moments between the two showcase a tenderness in Kratos that would seem alien to any past iterations of the character, yet they are handled with such an adroit hand by Barlog and his team that the newfound humanity never feels forced or contrived.
Players concerned over the introduction of a companion for Kratos, a man who tops the list of characters not in need of assistance, need not be. At no point through the playthrough of the game does God of War fall victim to the pitfalls of the dreaded “escort missions” of other games. Both through his characterization (lovingly brought to life by actor Sunny Suljic) and the game design itself, Atreus stands on his own and feels fully fleshed out, a welcome partner in your journey through Midgard.
The game’s central story, which revolves around a quest to the highest mountain peak in the realm to put the ashes of Atreus’ mother to rest, unfolds slowly, with the backstory of how Kratos arrived in the land of Norse mythology and his new family doled out in small doses. Where the narrative succeeds exceedingly is in its handling of the core relationship between father and son, with Atreus’ constant questioning and wonder at the realms they traverse a perfect foil to his father’s grumpy, stoic indifference.
As the journey progresses, Kratos imparts his warrior’s knowledge to his son through countless violent trials and obstacles that present themselves, such as battles with draugr, trolls, ogres, winged dark elves, nightmares and many more creatures from the Norse bestiary. What sets the game apart, however, is how much Atreus’ empathy begins to influence his tough-as-nails father.
Outside of Kratos and Atreus, the game also introduces a very strong supporting cast, including a witch who may know more than she lets on, a talkative sage who thinks he knows everything and a pair of very, very different dwarf brothers with a sibling rivalry that provides the game’s biggest laughs. As is true of the game’s leads, the voice acting is top-notch and even characters with limited screen time are brought to life with charm, humor and, at times, disarmingly genuine pathos.
Battles are plentiful, as is to be expected in a God of War title, but the revamped combat system and the replacement of Kratos‘ iconic Blades of Chaos with the Leviathan Axe is a welcome change that pushes the series forward into the current generation of consoles. Players are able to upgrade Kratos and Atreus’ weapon, armor and skills, adding new depth to a series that has long been known for its fluid, fast-paced combat system.
Different enemies require a variety of attacks to bring down, with combos requiring gamers’ fingers to fly around the controller. While it may seem like a lot to learn for casual gamers at first, the system is intuitive and the controls are tight and weighty, making not for just a comfortable experience but a visceral one that puts one in the action. Coupled with Kratos‘ ever-expanding list of moves is a button (square) devoted solely to the control of Atreus, which seamlessly weaves the young companion into the action. As with Kratos‘ moves, Atreus’ are also upgradeable and new techniques and powers become available as the game progresses.
Perhaps most surprising, and welcome, is the depth of exploration that the game invites. If a player wants, they can simply move from one story beat to the next, uncovering Kratos‘ past and he and his family’s place in this new realm of ancient mythos. However, the game also provides a number of branching side quests that are so well put together and genuinely intriguing that hours can go by before one remembers that they have an actual job to do and a mountain to scale.
The amount of collectibles in the game is also staggering and most, if not all, have a level of lore tied to actual Norse mythology connected to them. Throughout a playthrough, one should not be surprised if they are constantly pausing to read the latest entry Atreus makes in his journal after discovering a new rune, artifact or beautifully carved depiction of Norse myth and then pulling up a Google search to get further information about the game’s inspiration.
The game took Santa Monica Studio more than five years to make, and it shows in every level of design. The visuals and graphical power on display in God of War is staggering by any standard, but even compared to particularly impressive titles over the past year it stands alone. There are no load times in God of War. It is a seamless experience from start to finish, with the camera lingering just behind Kratos right shoulder during battle and exploration and then opening up somewhat in various cut scenes to create a truly cinematic experience. The inclusion of an “immersive UI” setting, which eliminates the map, compass and other HUD displays on the screen, further adds to the engrossing feeling.
The game offers three difficulty levels that range from an easy mode for players who “want a story” to an extreme difficulty for those looking for a challenge fit for a true god of war.
What God of War exemplifies is a series that is not afraid to stray from its established roots. The game pushes the limits of the PS4 graphically and packs so much mythos and backstory into its world-building that at times it feels more like a novel than a video game. The controls are revamped from top to bottom from previous installments, yet maintain the brutal action that fans have come to expect from the series.
By honoring the old while boldly pushing the franchise forward in every fathomable aspect — be it story, controls, customization, upgrades, collectibles, lore, world-building, visuals, acting and overall entertainment — Barlog and Santa Monica Studio have surpassed even the loftiest of expectations with Kratos‘ return. Rejoice.
God of War is exclusively available on the Playstation 4 on Apr. 20.
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