The latest God of War game is all about growing up.
We see it first in a strained relationship between a young son, Atreus, and his father, the franchise’s perpetually angry antihero Kratos. The former is mourning the loss of his mother while attempting to forge a stronger bond with his distant dad, who is at once overprotective and seemingly uncaring as he tries to teach his son how to be a man in a dangerous world, while the latter is struggling to move beyond the uncontrolled rage of his past and become a responsible paterfamilias.
Just as importantly, we see a new maturity in the series’ transition from traditional hack and slash play to something a little more modern and nuanced. The camera is pulled in tight, just over the shoulder of our musclebound protagonist, creating an intimacy lacking in previous God of War games that’s well suited to this edition’s more sophisticated storytelling.
Some long-time franchise fans might be disappointed to see SIE Santa Monica Studio’s series, best known for its epic battles and visceral violence, evolve in such ways. But I suspect there are plenty of players who have also grown up a little over the 13 years since we were first introduced to Kratos who will appreciate the transition. Besides which, after half a dozen games each of which has attempted to outdo its predecessors via bigger set pieces and a growing sense of wrath and fury, it just feels like a good time for a change.
If you’re new to the series, here’s all you really need to know heading into this latest entry, dubbed simply God of War. Once upon a time a Spartan warrior named Kratos was tricked into murdering his own family by the Greek god Ares in order to achieve the power necessary to win a desperate battle. When he realized what he’d done he was overcome with a consuming hatred of all things deific, and he spent the next several games killing off pretty much the entire Greek pantheon to sate his need for vengeance, eventually – and a little ironically – becoming a god himself. God of War III – chronologically the most recent game in the series prior to this one – saw Kratos destroy Zeus and ended with our protagonist’s apparent death.
Fast forward to now, and we learn that Kratos has somehow survived. He’s ditched Greece for more northern climes, residing in Midgard during the time of the old Norse gods. The chain swords once embedded in wrists by Ares are gone, the wounds covered with bandages, and he’s grown a thick hipster beard.
What’s more, He has a new wife and son. However, the game picks up just after the death of the former, with Kratos and Atreus about to embark on a journey to sprinkle her ashes atop the highest peak in all the realms. Cue adventure, starting with a shockingly primeval physical confrontation with a small, strange man – played in wonderfully eccentric fashion by the always odd Jeremy Davies – sent by the Allfather Odin that involves tree trunks used as baseball bats and the cracking of mountains.
So there’s no need to worry; the franchise’s trademark violence hasn’t been diluted. Combat remains core to the formula, highlighted by Kratos’ new Mjölnir-like axe – a welcome replacement for those worn out old chain blades – that is wonderfully gratifying to swing and throw. It even comes back on command at the tap of a button – lethally bludgeoning any enemies unlucky enough to be in its path. And we can feel the ferocity of battle in subtle but effective new ways, from expertly executed controller rumbles to cinematic camera movements – like the harsh, kinetic snap when Kratos catches his hatchet – perfectly suited for the new over-the-shoulder camera configuration.
The series’ strong puzzle DNA remains intact as well.
Scores upon scores of clever conundrums and secrets are scattered around Midgard, from runic language barriers that require translation to challenging environment traversal brainteasers, many of which are tied to the continually evolving shape of the main hub world, set on a lake that drains as the game progresses to reveal secret passages, shipwrecks, and ruins. It’s an extraordinarily intricate feat of virtual mapmaking – made all the more special by the game’s absolutely stunning visual presentation (this is a new graphical showcase for Sony, especially if you happen to play on a PlayStation 4 Pro connected to a 4K HDR TV) – that only grows more gratifying the more you see.
And added to all of this is a new emotional connection with Kratos we’ve never before had. We finally get to see him attempt to redeem himself as a father and family man. And, given his shameful and bloody history – which he hides from Atreus – his relationship with his son is stressed in all the right ways. Their arguments, Atreus’ resentment and worries, Kratos’ overwhelming need to ensure his son doesn’t make the same mistakes he did – it all rings authentic and true on a surprisingly deep level. Kratos is no longer seeking revenge, but rather redemption. He feels multidimensional for the first time. As a dad, I sometimes found myself rooting for and even identifying with him on a gut level, even as he makes clear parenting mistakes.
SIE Santa Monica Studio has leveraged this change in narrative tone to create a kind of strategic combat more befitting a modern flagship console franchise.
In addition to a bevy of axe attacks – the selection of which at any given moment depends on equipment upgrades and the magical runes players choose to equip – players also have control over Atreus’ archery. Kratos’ son runs around the battlefield of his own accord, attacking when he sees openings, but we can command him to shoot specific enemies to stun and damage them as well as summon ghostly beasts to support the pair in combat.
The duo’s interactions create entirely new tactical possibilities not seen in previous God of War games. More than that, their battlefield interplay informs their relationship as father and son. It’s a wonderful thing to watch as it takes shape.
Of course, with so many changes to the God of War formula it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a stumble or two along way, the biggest of which is a frustrating amount of backtracking. As I took on new side quests, found more treasure maps, and gradually gained additional abilities that let me access previously inaccessible areas, I found myself revisiting the same locations as many as half a dozen times over.
The sense of repetition is thankfully mitigated a bit by the progressively changing shape of the main world map, but the need to keep heading back to the same places time and again eventually affects the game’s pacing.
This issue is exacerbated by a fast travel system so limited that I almost never used it, opting instead to run or paddle my way to my destinations. Realizing that players would be spending plenty of time traveling between locations, the writers gave the main characters the ability to burst into random conversations during lulls – including the telling of classic (and revised) Norse myths, related to us by the disembodied head of Mimir. But, entertainingly orated as these stories may be, they are a bandage solution to a problem that really ought to have been solved through game design.
Still, we all know growing up is hard work. Everyone makes a few mistakes. The key is keeping them relatively small, and – as Kratos repeatedly tells Atreus – learning from them. I get the sense that SIE Santa Monica Studio, with some bold changes worth applause, has set out on the right path toward maturing this iconic franchise.