I never imagined a world where I’d be describing God of War as an emotional and well-wrought storyline wrapped around challenging yet well-balanced gameplay, but here we are. Technically the seventh game in the series (console and portable, minus the mobile game), this newest God of War represents a massive shift for the series, introducing RPG elements, a wealth of gameplay mechanics, and a semi open-world setting. I was excited to see Kratos try to rebuild his life after the apocalyptic end of God of War: Ascension, but I was unprepared with just how amazing this new journey could be.
I will do my best to not spoil elements of the storyline in God of War, because unlike its predecessors, this game features a non-linear and highly rewarding storyline. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the more their straightforward action and bombastic storytelling, but this outing is…different.
God of War opens with an older Kratos and his young son, Atreus, on a journey to the top of the highest mountain in the land to complete a sacred task. You see, Kratos, having moved to the Norse lands, has settled down and raised a family. The father/son story that unfolds is rewarding, touching, emotional, genuinely funny, and insightful. The writers at Sony Santa Monica have outdone themselves, and the smallest moments between Kratos and Atreus are profoundly impactful.
As Kratos and his son enter the Norse world of the Gods (specifically, the Lake of Nine) they encounter the more traditional setting over the Marvel-ized version. Specifically, the nine realms of Asgard, Vanaheim, Alfheim, Svartalvheim, Muspelheim, Niflheim, Jötunheim, and Midgard — the last being the realm of men. Sidenote: The Nine Realms exist in the Marvel universe, though I would also consider God of War to be a bit of a reimagining of the original myths as well, though in many aspects it stays more true. Ultimately, the Norse myths are largely represented here, though they benefit from being framed by a different perspective than you might find in Bullfinch’s Mythology. What’s different here is that Kratos isn’t on a progressive killing streak to remove all of the Gods from each realm one world at a time, instead encouraging his son to ignore the petty squabbles of these Norse Gods, eschewing contact with them at all costs.
Too much ale and a man’s heart is laid open for all to see.
It was at the moment I realized that all nine of these worlds exist in the game (though you won’t visit all of them) that I realized that this newest God of War would be the longest of all of them — easily approaching 35 hours or more, to tackle all it has to offer. God of War has always been about fighting your way to a boss, getting something from that boss (their head to turn people to stone, or to light your path, a new weapon, etc.), and using it to solve a puzzle or open a pathway. Here, the world is (mostly) open for you to explore. For the first time, side quests are a subsection in the menu, granting entirely optional challenges that can result in additional lore, loot, and XP. There are still collectables that upgrade your health and rage, but now smaller collectables like carved wooden cups and child’s toys can also yield additional funds for upgrades. What starts as a very personal story for father and son very quickly begins to have major ramifications in the world around them, building to a finale that is both shocking and epic, and zero doubts as to whether the story will continue.
For reasons best explained by the game’s storyline, the Blades of Chaos that once were strapped to the forearms of Kratos are gone, replaced by Leviathan’s Axe — a magical weapon that returns to the hands of Kratos not unlike Thor’s magical hammer, Mjölnir. Unlike Mjölnir, Leviathan’s Axe is imbued with a frost power that can damage, freeze, and even shatter enemies. Or at least, that’s how things start.
God of War has a completely revamped upgrade mechanic that touches all facets of the game. No longer is the progression gated by having a specific upgrade, or having found the right amount of Gorgon Eyes (in this case health upgrades come from Iðunn’s Apples, which have a cool mythology all their own), but instead are gated by a combination of skills and equipment. Throughout the world you’ll find hacksilver (again, cool real-world history), gold, and magical bits and bobs. Visiting Brok and Sindri, the two dwarves that created the aforementioned Mjölnir hammer, according to Norse mythology, gives Kratos a chance to craft his own chest, waist, and wrist armor, bonus-granting pendants, and even new gear for Atreus. You can also upgrade this equipment a few times, adding sockets for gems, and upgrading their stats across six stats — Strength, Runic, Defense, Vitality, Lucky, and Cooldown. It’s very reminiscent of the Diablo III system, though loot drops are far less common.
If you are thinking that God of War is now a full-blown RPG, that’s not entirely true. Sure, the various stats affect our hero’s ability to fend off damage, deal it, or unleash his various powers, but you won’t be juggling inventory or having to grind out levels. Instead, equipment is somewhat rare, must be crafted or purchased, and is wrapped around six primary stats. It’s a nod to min/maxing stat management, but at the end of the day, having the right gear for the job is secondary to having honed the action skills for combat.
Instead of whipping around the Blades of Chaos, Kratos now engages at multiple ranges with his fists or the Leviathan Axe. Kratos can throw his axe at targets (each of which with more than half a dozen target areas), swing it at close range with a light or heavy attack, or smash foes with his fists and a new shield that springs from his bracer. As before, the mechanics are intuitive enough to pick up, but challenging enough to master. When you begin to face challenging (and often very large) foes, your earlier practice will pay dividends.
One thing that surprised me, based on previous games, is that Kratos no longer swims or jumps. Sure, he’ll jump as part of a combat action, but there is no longer a dedicated button for either action. Instead, timing blocks with the new shield takes up the shoulder button press, leaving Kratos a more defensive option than he’s had in the past. Dodging is a big part as well. This is an older Kratos, a little more cautious, especially since he’s not just fighting for himself this time. Timing and nuance rules the day here, instead of raw unbridled devotion to aggression.
To help Kratos in combat, Atreus has a bow that he can unleash, as well as new moves to learn and equipment to craft and upgrade. In the beginning, the game feels like you are in the longest escort mission ever as you shepherd over Atreus (though he can’t die permanently). As his skills and equipment grow in power, his ability to stun enemies becomes invaluable. There were more than a few opportunities after the midpoint in the game where I am certain I would have failed repeatedly without his help. Just as it unfolds in the story arc, my appreciation for Atreus matches that of Kratos.
Magnificent massacre in motion
Running at 4K native resolution on PlayStation 4 Pro (thanks to some fantastically applied checkerboard rendering), God of War’s presentation is a visual feast. I didn’t imagine that we’d see something exceed the jaw dropping work Guerilla Games gave us with Horizon Zero Dawn, but somehow that’s precisely what we have here. From top to bottom, the visuals in God of War are without compare — this is the new game you reach for to show your friends why you bought a PlayStation 4 Pro. I’ve included a slice of combat that is entirely spoiler-free below, running at 4K resolution on a PlayStation 4 Pro — enjoy.
The level of detail and quality in Kratos and his son Atreus are staggering. His leather armor looks careworn, with obvious buckle indentations, gorgeous fur padding where it contacts the skin, and indentation where the straps bite into the material. His shield gauntlet has rivet-placed reinforced plates underneath the shield to create stabilization, his axe hand wrapped in highly detailed cloth. Similarly, his pouches are cross-stitched, the leather looking supple from years of use. Kratos’s skin is equally as detailed. His skin is porous, with well-defined muscle structures, the signature (though somewhat faded) red chest marking buttressed by the scars of a lifetime of battle.
Sony Santa Monica is well known for delivering staggering visual quality, and nowhere is that more clear than the faces in this game. Kratos and Atreus get the most attention, naturally, but the extensive supporting cast of friends and foes are equally as lovingly crafted. Kratos, now on a different path in his life, has grown out a strikingly realistic beard, sporting a few more lines in his face than in his youth. In a world where this level of quality exists, there’s no need for jarring CGI cutscenes.
Through story elements I won’t reveal here, Kratos finds himself in Midgard. The region is deeply rooted in Norse mythology, which is reflected in every space in the game. From large structure to small, every rock, flower, waterfall, lava flow, and shimmering lake shines with detail. I see no evidence of copy and pasted textures anywhere here — the entire game looks like it’s been lovingly crafted by hand, and the bespoke result is absolutely staggering.
Moving a level deeper, the lighting and particle effects in God of War are a tour de force. The bombastic action is accented as his axe bites deep, spraying colored pyrotechnics this way and that. Smashing a foe in the face with the edge of your shield is equally as satisfying as the game pulls a tried-and-true slow motion moment, the shield casting sparks as it impacts. Combined with the physics engine, the game comes to life. Wood explodes and falls naturally, and cloth flexes and bends as Kratos twists to catch his returning axe in flight. It brings everything to life, driving immersion to amazing effect.
On Playstation 4 Pro, we get to see the full HDR color pallet in all of its glory. Gone are the often-muted color schemes of prior games, replaced by a rich and varied color space for worldbuilding. The volumetric lighting highlights this nicely, creating dense fog, falling debris, gorgeous godrays, and beautiful shadows that rarely look jagged as they interplay with objects in the environment.
On a stock PlayStation 4, the game runs at 1080p. The framerate is rock solid, with only the most minor of hiccups when a new area is loaded. While it isn’t as jaw-dropping as it is on the Pro, it looks better than just about anything that has come out for the 4.5 year-old system.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the audio in this new God of War. The music is scored by Bear McCreary, along with lead music producer Peter Scaturro, culminating in a growling Nordic score (with Faroese singer Eivør Pálsdóttir tackling some amazingly difficult singing), with rousing percussion and an amazing orchestral backing. Equally as impressive are the various effects. Kratos smashing his way through the world has never sounded so good.
Alongside this amazing soundtrack and fantastic sound effect work comes some of the best voiceovers I’ve heard in recent memory. Christopher Judge (of Stargate SG-1 fame) replaces TC Carson as Kratos, but his deep booming voice embodies an older Kratos perfectly. Atreus is played by Sunny Suljic, whom you’ll be able to see on the big screen in his role in the upcoming film, The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Both turn in fantastic performances, supported by equally incredible work from a supporting cast that I can’t name as they lie squarely in spoiler territory.
God of War
It’s very rare that a game grabs me this completely, but God of War is, without a doubt, an early contender for Game of the Year. It’s flawless in its execution, and the new benchmark for action titles. Well done, Santa Monica Studios, and thanks for taking us on this entirely new adventure.