Developed: SIE Santa Monica Studio

Published: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platform: PlayStation 4

Released: April 20, 2018

God of War (2018) offers an entirely new reimagining of Kratos after he spent the past seven games annihilating the entire Hellenic pantheon. Leaving Sparta behind to start a new life in Scandinavia, he is now the composed and reclusive father to a boy named Atreus. We begin the game wondering how Kratos could change so radically. Was he ashamed of how consistently the gods manipulated his reckless anger; how his impulsive rage robbed him of his humanity? Who was Faye, this mysterious and powerful woman who helped calm Kratos’s legendary temper?

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It’s a shame that Faye starts God of War (2018) dead, unable to answer those burning questions. Kratos and Atreus reflect this confusion, both of whom have no idea how to function without their wife and mother, respectively. Kratos is baffled by his new caretaker role (one he is clearly unprepared for), and Atreus has to find something in common with the terse, menacing brute that is his father. This unlikely partnership keeps players on edge, knowing exactly what violence Kratos is capable of and wondering how he would even begin to be a good father.

Of course, their dangerous new home is not waiting for them to be ready, as an attack from a mysterious stranger kickstarts a journey to bring Faye’s ashes to the highest peak in Midgard. Along the way, the father and son pair run into colorful characters, wandering spirits, icons of Norse mythology, and a host of incredible dangers. Yet the most difficult battle of all is one Kratos wages with his parental role, a personal conflict that cannot be won with violence as per the god of war’s usual M.O. He will need to be better than that.

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The examinations of fatherhood are consistent throughout God of War (2018). I already wrote at length about this topic in a separate paper, but it bears repeating as a prominent theme of the narrative. Kratos’s ultimate goal is not to prevent the corruption of his son but to matter in his son’s life at all. Atreus is a charismatic, intelligent, and inquisitive child who can make friends with just about anyone. At this point in Atreus’s life, he only thinks of Kratos as a dispassionate master and a bodyguard who pushes away everyone he meets.

As soon as Atreus can defend himself on his own, Kratos will have nothing but the tenuous and seemingly reluctant relationship his son has with him. His maturation comes from the desire to build a deeper bond with the boy, engaging Atreus’s sense of wonder, being less secretive about his past, and fostering Atreus’s many unique abilities. That was Kratos’s real problem; he overcorrected with his anger until it morphed into ruthless stoicism, dismissing any of Atreus’s interests beyond combat and survival. While discipline was still valuable, intimacy was what really began to redeem the Ghost of Sparta.

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His personal growth contrasted with the violence and strife plaguing the gods of Norse mythology. Odin’s family was notoriously antagonistic toward each other, passing down the anger and violence through the family while creating nastier progeny with each generation. Their relationships were built on self-interest, deception, and fear, with no one in the all the Realms powerful enough to control them. Even the goddess Freya, royalty among the Vanir gods, fell prey to Odin’s deception, sharing her secret magic with him while he planned to use it against her.

I still remember the sight of the bloodied god Modi lying on the floor of an ancient temple, beaten within an inch of his life; not by the player but by his own father, Thor. Such was the consequence of Modi’s failure to defeat the Spartan God and bring Atreus to Odin. It’s through these horrifying acts that we see the cycle Kratos is trying to break. Fathers pass on a legacy of masculine violence to their sons, and the children become ever more hateful for having grown up in such turmoil. Kratos knew he could be better, and players witnessed the start of this change.

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It was honestly wonderful to see so many men resonate with the story God of War (2018) told. I know it was easy for some critics to pick on the excessive male sentimentality over basic paternal kindness, but I think this speaks to the importance of art that heals the wounds of toxic masculinity. How sad is it to think that Kratos took steps in his relationship with Atreus that many men will never experience with their own fathers? They need a blueprint for compassionate, nurturing, and emotionally accessible fatherhood, and laying this groundwork with gaming’s former poster child for terrible masculine impulses was a bold artistic accomplishment.

God of War (2018)‘s other master stroke comes from the combat, which is meaty and impactful as Hel(heim). The weight behind each swing of Kratos’s icy Leviathan Axe is incredibly satisfying, landing on the unfortunate creatures in two swift motions: 1) the thump of the blade burying into the enemy, and 2) the tearing of flesh as he rips the head back out. This two-step cleaving animation amps up the viciousness on every encounter. Kratos can also sheathe his weapon and fight with his bear hands, slowly building up enough stun damage to activate some truly nasty takedowns.

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While previous God of War titles offered wide-angle shots of large combat arenas that would fill up with gratuitous splashes of blood, the fights in God of War (2018) felt far more intimate. While some players will be put off by how understated this new title is compared to its predecessors, I feel like this modern take trades in visual flourish for a haptic onslaught. The combination of strong sound design, well-placed rumble, and slightly sluggish yet immaculately composed fighting animations contribute to the weightiness I’ve been describing so fondly. You really feel like each hit hurts when it makes contact.

And like a slightly more empowering version of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the fighting is not just fun but also an extended allegory for his personal growth. The ice-covered Leviathan Axe is meant to represent the calmer, cooler, and more disciplined Kratos. After all, this weapon requires deliberate attention to about one to two enemies at a time, versus the fiery Chaos Blades that scorched and sliced their surroundings indiscriminately. As Kratos develops a healthier bond with his son, he uses both the Leviathan Axe and Chaos Blades to fight, symbolizing the balance he now maintains between composure and emotional engagement.

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Players can even see the father-son relationship progress through the combat as well. As Atreus improves under your tutelage, he gains attacks and grabs that chain with his father’s techniques. These maneuvers pair well for additional damage, knockback effects, and accumulating stun damage. Speaking of which, Atreus’s bow, arrows, and magical abilities deal incredible stun damage, helping Kratos quickly take down small enemies while he grapples with the larger ones. Taking advantage of Atreus’s abilities can really help clear space during overwhelming brawls.

Combat can easily become cluttered, and the over the shoulder camera angle means that constant environmental vigilance is a necessity. While I believe most gamers can grow accustomed to these frantic skirmishes, I will admit that the energy and particle effects can become excessive. Many enemies make their moves using streaks of light, and landing next to the wrong flash can deal silly strong damage on some of the higher difficulties. Failing to make space can result in a saturated light show of detail that is almost certain to leave Kratos dead.

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However, I don’t blame the development team for wanting to show off their enemies as much as possible. The ogres, dark elves, ancient golems, Giants, Aesir, Vanir, and all other beings in the realms represent a small part of the phenomenal effort to incorporate Norse mythology into the interactive language of video games. Scandinavian folklore is more than just another dumping ground for Kratos’s violent urges. Their stories come together to strengthen the central themes while dictating the direction of the gameplay.

For example, the fast travel systems is built within the branches of Yggdrasil, the tree of life connecting all thing in all the different realms. Kratos needs runes and a Bifrost to access the entire tree (i.e. map) freely. The area of Musphelheim where Surtur trains for Ragnarök is combat challenge tower like in Mortal Kombat XL or Devil May Cry, while the mad dwarf’s lab in Niflheim functions as a procedurally generated dungeon crawler. Players can even challenge the Valkyries to nine optional boss fights, some of the best encounters in the game.

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For more than just new things to kill, Atreus can also learn new languages to access other realms through the Tree of Life. This mechanic is similar to those in Rise of the Tomb Raider or No Man’s Sky, in which secrets can be discovered by slowly learning new languages. This mechanical integration of Norse mythology speaks to a genuine appreciation for the material, going far beyond the bare minimum trappings of new aesthetics and a bestiary of new things to murder. Creativity like this has to be appreciated, especially in the AAA industry.

Unfortunately, this dedication to reproducing Norse mythology with video game conventions means dealing with some less exciting design choices. While I don’t mind Kratos’s relatively slow walking speed throughout the game, it can become a little extra tiresome when trying to pick up all of the collectibles. I appreciate the semi-open world for its cohesion, small yet flavorful side stories, and moments of levity to break up Kratos’s preferred state of silence. I’m less enthralled by the prospect of collecting toys and blasting Ravens out of the sky.

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It’s weird how front-and-center the collectibles are when so much of the substantial content I described earlier is entirely optional. I understand that Musphelheim, Niflheim, and the Valkyries are meant to be fought after the main campaign when Kratos becomes more powerful, but then the game is left sidelining some of its richest, most varied content. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated having what felt like an entire new game’s worth of activities after the story ends, but those other realms held some key variety that may have nicely woven into the main campaign.

What really bothers me about those optional areas, and the game’s design overall, is how dependent I am on loot. I already spoke in detail about how loot systems can negatively impact the games they’re in, but God of War (2018) feels especially throttled by its abundance of pick-ups. The player can spend so much time finding, comparing, replacing, modifying, and organizing the fistfuls of chest pieces, leg sets, shoulder pads, talismans, and weapon pommels they grab on their journey. On top of that, each piece can have as many as three enchantment slots for power-ups and special abilities.

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This diluvian surge of things and items creates artificial difficulty and draws attention to narrative incongruence. Kratos can smash a boulder to bits with his shield during a cutscene, but if I don’t have the right slippers on, then he’ll get stomped into the dirt by a regular foot soldier. Combined with the floating light bursts and particle effects I mentioned earlier, it’s just a little aggravating when the game overrides the skill component by expecting that you’ll be able to soak up some of the damage. The difficulty becomes easier to manage on repeated playthroughs, owing to both practice and ultimately better gear.

Even so, God of War (2018) still can’t help trivialize its quests that involve recovering (narratively) legendary loot. Even if I defeat all the Ancients, kill all the Travelers, and succeed where the mad dwarf king failed (yes, another mad dwarf), the better armor I receive as an award will ultimately be made redundant by something I picked up off the ground or asked blacksmiths Brok and Sindri to make for me. There is a reason the Leviathan Axe and Chaos Blades are so meaningful; they have intrinsic value, narrative significance, and legacies behind them. You don’t get that same resonant quality from a chest pad that you’re just going to swap for coin anyway.

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Loot grievances aside, I feel like God of War (2018) challenged itself to be more than just another story about a violent vindictive god. Kratos was a changed man in a colorful world, learning that the ultimate cure for the trauma he inherited was compassion, not just composure. Of course, not everyone else has learned that lesson. They’d rather fight Kratos than open a dialogue, so players can still have fun on this sentimental journey. Although it occasionally flatters with its use of modern gaming staples, God of War (2018) comes together as a most formidable whole.

★★★★☆ – Strong