As a sequel to one of PlayStation’s most iconic franchises, the latest God of War had a high pedigree to live up to. But instead of aiming for a conservative return-to-form, Sony Santa Monica threw out everything fans expected and created something remarkable. While this all-new God of War might have more emotion and a higher polygon count, it still contains all of the rage, style and brutality that made the seminal hack-and-slash series a household name, and sets a raises the bar for what big-budget, blockbuster gaming is capable of.
Compared to the monumental scope of its predecessors, God of War’s story is kept intimate. Now living in the realm of the Norse pantheon, Kratos, along with his son Atreus, embarks on a quest to scatter the ashes of his late wife Faye from the peak of the tallest mountain in the Nine Realms. The pair don’t seek trouble, but are quickly noticed by a handful of venerable Nordic deities bent on revealing Kratos’ bloody past to his young child and expelling him from their land.
While there are minor diversions along the way, the focus of the story stays on Kratos and Atreus’ journey to fulfill Faye’s dying wish. Instead of a rotating gallery of colorful gods for Kratos to encounter, this new God of War only involves a handful of figures from Norse mythology. There’s a decent amount of lore to be found if players search hard enough, but much of the history of the game’s lived-in universe is relegated to ambient conversations and collectibles, which may disappoint those looking forward to a comprehensive exposure to the Nordic gods.
Near the end of Kratos and Atreus’ journey, traditional Norse myth does play a larger role in the story, but the game abruptly and inconclusively ends before it can be utilized in an interesting way. Rather than existing as a self-contained adventure, God of War leaves plenty still on the table at its conclusion, undoubtedly to set the stage for more sequels with the father and son duo.
While the overarching story of Kratos and Atreus is uneven, the real draw of God of War’s narrative is the portrayal of their relationship. Transitioning Kratos from a hardy, merciless warrior to a doting father could have been a tonal disaster, but the writing and voice-over delivery makes his reformation feel completely authentic. The dialogue between the two is nuanced and three-dimensional, and their relationship takes some unpredictable, if occasionally unbelievable, turns.
Just as the story is kept personal and intimate, so is God of War’s gameplay. Gone are the days of epic, quicktime-event-filled boss battles with towering deities. Now, there are only a handful of gods that the pair encounter, and even less that Kratos kills. But despite their comparatively small scale, the boss fights are beautifully directed and intense.
The minute-to-minute combat is also just as brutal. There’s a satisfying weight to Kratos’ movements, and all of your attack options convey that feeling of being an impossibly powerful and angry demigod. As the game progresses, God of War gradually adds more layers to combat, and the rhythmic dance of battle becomes increasingly elaborate.
RPG elements like crafting, gear, and upgradable special moves provide additional complexity, meaning it’s possible to plot out Kratos’ growth to fit particular build, or to temporarily specialize his stats to better suit a difficult enemy encounter. Atreus is also an important part of combat and carries his own gear and abilities. I found myself fully upgrading Atreus’ magic and bow abilities before my own, because he was just so useful in finishing off a stray enemy or assisting in crowd control.
All of these elements come together to create one of my favorite combat systems in years. After completing the main quest, I immediately jumped into the endgame content, and welcomed the opportunity to keep experimenting with Kratos’ higher-level abilities in the game’s challenge maps. Battles have an addictive cadence that the game keeps expanding on, and the core fighting system is God of War’s greatest strength.
As for the mission structure, the game’s open world design is a mixed bag. Getting to explore the detailed realms of God of War has its grandiose moments, but Kratos’ surroundings aren’t as expansive as they initially appear. In the worlds outside of Midgard, things get pretty linear, and the environments aren’t populated with much besides some brain-dead collectibles. Most of the side quests Kratos discovers aren’t terribly interesting either, but the Mad Dwarf King’s fortress is one exception. It’s easy to miss if you don’t stray off the beaten path, but it’s a fantastic diversion with great environmental storytelling. If every side quest in God of War felt as realized as that castle, then perhaps the Nine Realms could have felt like a true open world, instead of an open-ish arena full of distractions
From a visual standpoint, the game is stunning. Even on a vanilla PS4, I was able to make out the pores of Kratos’ skin and his pick up on his layered expressions while speaking with Atreus. His greyed beard and sunken eyes give plenty of information without saying a word, as it’s clear the blood-stained history that he’s trying so hard to hide has begun to physically manifest. I was eagerly awaiting the moment Kratos’ past would break through his stoic exterior, and the morally idyllic picture he tried to paint of himself for Atreus would crumble. It’s one of the first games where the captured body language and facial expressions feel like they convey actual meaning, which makes character interactions during cutscenes engaging and genuine.
The environments are also tonally consistent. Like in Norse culture, water and boats play a major role, and every realm you visit looks like concept art immaculately brought to life. From the muddy shores of Midgard to the glimmering elven forest of Alfheim, every location you venture to in the Nine Realms feels grounded yet fantastic. Walking through snow or mud leaves a trail of footprints, and while every environment isn’t equally expansive, they’re all breathtaking to wander through.
This new God of War continues Sony’s legacy of stellar, blockbuster first-party titles. PlayStation once again proves itself as an innovator for cinematic, ground-breaking big budget games, and the abundance of praise that Sony Santa Monica is receiving is completely deserved. It’s an experience that pushes the envelope in every direction and gives us a glimpse of the caliber of games that we can look forward to playing in years to come.