It took “God of War” only 20 minutes to give me a story and characters I cared about more than any previous game in the series.
At the game’s introduction, player character Kratos helps his son, Atreus, aim a bow and take a shot at a buck. Kneeling before the wounded animal, Atreus tries to give Kratos his knife.
“No,” Kratos says. “Finish what you started.”
Atreus tries, but he can’t bring himself to kill the helpless beast. Kratos puts his hand on his, and together, they push the blade into the deer’s heart.
It’s one of many quiet, intimate moments that gave me a somber look at a character who’s forever been known as nothing more than a rage-filled god murderer. And it’s these moments that made me care for characters and their journey in an otherwise action-packed and surprisingly beautiful game.
“God of War” represents the biggest departure for the series. Instead of taking place in ancient Greece, Kratos has moved north and is now living in the lands of the Norse gods. He’s taken a wife who dies just before the game’s start, and her last wish is that you and your preteen son spread her ashes from the highest point in the realms.
It’s a simple task that becomes an epic journey through stunningly detailed environments where Kratos and Atreus grow side by side as they meet friendly creatures and hostile gods alike. And it’s all done without a single camera cut, making the entire experience feel even more personal and daunting.
I recently played through the three main “God of War” games for the PlayStation 2 and PS3, and I was left disappointed. They’re essentially button-mashers with terrible isometric camera angles and largely bland stories. The plot of each game basically boils down to Kratos is mad, and he has to kill some gods to calm his blood lust.
In this soft series reboot, Kratos, though he’s softened by the constant presence of a tender child, is still the classic angry and powerful god killer we know, and his rage shows during combat. Kratos can unlock savage moves that rip enemies to shreds, but the brutality is toned down from the hyper-violent executions you could pull off in previous games. The diluted gore didn’t affect my enjoyment, but I couldn’t help feel the developers were censoring themselves in pursuit of a more “mature” experience.
What did affect my enjoyment—at least at first—was the simplicity of the combat mixed with the complexity of the various role-playing systems the game includes.
Kratos’ leviathan ax is a blast to use; it’s so fun to toss and call back into his hand with press of a button, and it’s vital in environmental puzzles, too. But at the beginning of the game, combat is overly simple. Fighting opens up as Kratos learns new moves, and as the game gets more difficult, it becomes more essential to learn what attacks to execute when. Mix that with Atreus’ ability to stun enemies to open them up for brutal finishers, and you’ve got a recipe for a satisfying dance of blood and gristle.
At least two set-piece encounters left me flabbergasted at the visual and technical splendor of it all. I’ve never experience such amazing combat at that scope or scale. I wish the game included at least twice as many of these awesome moments.
Kratos can swap out certain moves and armor, enchant them, socket stat-boosting gems into gear, and more to boost his strength and other attributes. It’s an odd choice for an action game, and overwhelming at first. It took me a couple of hours to realize how to take advantage of these systems, but once I did, I welcomed them.
If nothing else, “God of War” is a graphic marvel. Environments look nearly photorealistic. I could almost feel the chill of the mountains or the serenity of an old forest, and some surprise locations just felt like the artists took the opportunity to brag.
“God of War” has more amazing moments than I could cover in a review, but the entire experience is engaging and enthralling from start to finish. With a narrative worth caring about, dynamic combat, and a beautiful world to explore, “God of War” is the best entry in the series and one of the best action games I’ve ever played.
Final score: 9.5/10
“God of War” was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 with a retail copy provided by the publisher, Sony.