Like god father, like son
Epic. That’s the one word that kept on popping into my head playing Sony Santa Monica’s God of War. This game is absolutely epic. It boldly evolves Sony’s tent-pole PlayStation franchise, while lovingly embracing the core tenets of God of War. Kratos is older, wiser, and perhaps for the first time ever, feels strikingly vulnerable. That’s because in this chapter he’s not just a god, he’s also learning how to be a father.
Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Family comes first
As a soon-to-be father myself, God of War‘s story really hit home and resonated with me. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, it revolves around Kratos’ struggle to protect his son Atreus. A new danger threatens his family, and given his tragic loss in Greece, Kratos refuses to let history repeat itself.
What’s beautifully poetic is seeing that Kratos’ struggles extend deep inside his psyche as well. We’re so used to seeing the God of War act ultra-violently, but now he wants to leave that past behind. Kratos, clearly, desires to be a good father and live a peaceful, quiet existence. Unfortunately, his brief serenity gets disrupted by the appearance of a vengeful stranger that sets the game’s events in action.
The softer side of Kratos
On the surface, it may seem like Kratos and Atreus’ relationship parallels that of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. And while, yes, there are similarities (such as their age gaps), overall I found the relationships vastly different. For one thing, there’s a greater sense of warmth and tenderness in how Kratos and Atreus interact with one another. Watching Kratos teach Atreus to aim a bow is touching, as is seeing Atreus decipher ruins his father cannot. It’s almost as if together they make a whole.
This wonderful father/son relationship extends throughout the game in fascinating ways. Atreus, being a young and inquisitive boy, often asks Kratos to explain the world around them. Kratos will describe enemies, locations, and help Atreus comprehend their complex and dangerous mission. One moment Atreus will kick a chain down from a high ledge to help daddy climb up. The next, Atreus will piggyback his father and he scales huge mountains. This reciprocal connection underlies the fact that Kratos cannot exist without his son, and vice versa. They need each from tender beginning to brutal end.
A child thrust into manhood
What really impacted me emotionally was witnessing Atreus constantly being forced to act well beyond his years. He’s a child, but finds himself fighting for his life nearly every step of the way. Thankfully, he learns to handle his bow fast and becomes a real asset in battle.
Early on, Atreus is can stun enemies with arrows, giving you a chance to rush close for powerful melee strikes. Later, your boy will gain the confidence to mount enemies for greater damage and longer stun time. His acquisition of skills happens regularly and naturally, making him an increasingly greater asset in battle. Just a few hours in and I was already thinking how arduous the game would be without him. A helpless NPC escort Atreus certainly is not.
To bring us back down to reality, sometimes Atreus gets into mischief doing things boys often do. This includes touching things he’s not supposed to, or wandering too away from dad and into danger. These innocent moments are endearing and relatable, reminding you that while he may fight like an adult, he’s a still kid after all.
As hoped for, God of War features lush graphics and absolutely breathtaking set piece moments. Epic battles with mid-fight cinematics go way beyond expectations and leave your mouth wide open. Gorgeous vistas overlooking vast, detailed mystical realms are ripe for hitting that PS4 Share button. Gargantuan bosses have a level of presence and “wow” factor rarely felt in video games. God of War easily rivals Horizon: Zero Dawn for the best graphics of this entire gen to date. That’s doubly true for those playing on PS4 Pro and taking advantage of the higher resolution and HDR capabilities.
A special mention also has to go to the outstanding voice acting and motion capture. Kratos and Atreus speak with natural and believable tones, and their conversations are entirely organic. Their hand gestures, posture, and facial expressions are extremely convincing. Nothing feels forced, and it helps you to buy into their relationship and experiences together. When Kratos takes a moment to reflect deeply you can feel his internal wheels turning. Likewise, when he gets severely angered you can sense his momentary lack of emotional control. The Santa Monica team took a risk positioning the camera right behind Kratos, but it does wonders to amplify the emotional weight of these moments.
Along with the closer camera position comes entirely refreshed gameplay. God of War eschews the traditional chained blade combat in favour of more visceral, up-close combat. Your main weapon is a Norse ice axe that can be tossed or used to hack-and-slash foes. You also get a deployable wrist shield good for blocking projectiles or hold off rushing enemies.
At first, the new combat approach and pacing might throw God of War veterans off. I especially needed to get a handle on throwing and recalling the axe, moves that are staples in your repertoire. After a bit of time though it was amazing how deep and fluid combat became. I was hurling my axe with greater finesse and followed it up with rushing, crushing combos.
As mentioned, Atreus is also a crucial piece of the combat puzzle. He’s great at stunning opponents and giving you a short window to dash in for the finishing blow. Harder-to-hit flying enemies easily succumb to Atreus’ barrage of arrows. Atreus’ biggest help though comes during boss fights where he provides much-needed momentary distractions.
New weapons, new skills
As you defeat enemies and conquer realms you’ll acquire XP and a type of currency used to bolster skills and buy gear, respectively. These add tremendously to your offensive and defensive capabilities, or can improve enemy drop rates. There are complete skill trees for your axe, shield, and Rage of Sparta ability, as well as Atreus’ bow. Upgrades range from adding new attack combos, to breaking through enemy blocks, to enhancing Atreus’ arrows with light.
As for your gear, you can upgrade the axe or buy protective attire for your chest, wrist, and waist. Upgrading gear requires special crafting parts, found either by defeating tough bosses or in off-the-beaten-path treasure chests. Another element to combat is special runes you can insert into your gear that add entirely new moves. One rune gave me a wind strike attack that blew enemies back and was good for crowd control. Another rune gave me a jumping smash move that froze all enemies within my sphere of attack. I have no idea how many runes there are to find/collect but during my roughly 25 hour playthrough I found well over a dozen of them.
Sony Santa Monica took a few years to rethink and rebuild a bigger, better God of War. The effort has paid off in spades as it’s a monumental achievement that somehow exceeds its lofty expectations. This is the exact type of gaming Sony is world famous for: lavish, richly detailed stories that unfold in breathtaking worlds. No question this is Sony’s best offering so far this gen, and arguably the greatest game to ever grace the PS4. God of War goes well beyond being merely entertainment and enters the elite realm of artistry held by masterpieces like The Last of Us and Shadow of the Colossus, coincidentally games also made by Sony.
God of War once again proves that Sony doesn’t just raise the bar for storytelling in video games, they are the bar.
+ Absolutely glorious storytelling
+ The best graphics of this generation
+ Visceral, intense gameplay
+ Stunning, lifelike motion capture
+ Captivating voice work
+ Rich, beautiful realms to explore
+ Breathtaking set pieces and cinematics
+ Great dynamic between Kratos and Atreus
+ Atreus is a real asset in battle
+ No load times after start
– Axe feels finicky at first, takes practice to master
– Camera and gameplay changes might not appeal to some long-time fans
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 5/5