As a sequel of sorts to the #LoveYourBacklog event in February, Ace Asunder and Later Levels also created #MaybeInMarch – this is where you select a game from said backlog and commit to it for the month. I chose God of War, a game I bought back in 2018 but for some reason continually put off playing over the years even as I constantly heard very positive things about it. This was a great reason to fix that and, fresh off of finishing the main story, I am going to elaborate on some of my main takeaways from the game, hopefully without accidentally spending way too much of my day writing about it (we all know how this is going to end… )!
– WARNING: SPOILERS FOR GOD OF WAR AHEAD –
A Family Matter
You can tell that this was a passion project for developer Santa Monica Studio, who had quite a rocky time up until the release of this game, with more than one project reportedly cancelled. I have not played the earlier entries into the God of War series, but even so, you can tell that they focused on maturing the series for this 2018 game and giving it an emotional core of character development focused around main character Kratos and his son Atreus. Much of the game revolves around their dynamic, on a journey to scatter the ashes of Atreus’ mother at the top of the highest peak in The Realms. This is an immediately poignant set-up, and you can sense the disparity of the pair as they are forced together on this path; Kratos is the brooding, sullen figure who resists showing emotion, and Atreus is the enthusiastic child who questions the actions of those around him.
The generally patient pace, with lots of quieter dialogue scenes even amidst the brutal action you would expect in a God of War game, is noticeable throughout. Even that gameplay, indeed, has a deliberate Dark Souls vibe to it, encouraging thoughtfulness and planning, but more on that in a bit. Of course, going for an affecting character-driven approach only works if it is pulled off well, and it is not easy to do; in this case, I’ll say that it mostly – if not always – works fantastically. The relationship of Kratos and Atreus gradually changes from argumentative and secretive beginnings, as Kratos learns to open up and Atreus, likewise, to understand. Naturally, multiple obstacles predictably complicate this along the way. Almost every moment of growth feels earned, the main exception being after the point at which Kratos reveals to Atreus that they are both Gods – a brilliant, delicate scene that sadly is not quite matched by some of the following sequences, where this power goes to Atreus’ head so quickly that it seems jarring. In this part of the game, it is as if there was another few areas needed to give that curve of overconfidence less of a sharp incline and subsequent descent. After this brief misstep it does get back on track again, and it perhaps makes the rushed elements especially jarring when most of the game handles character development so well.
Threats On All Sides
So, those obstacles I mentioned: they are often due to the mysterious character The Stranger, who ambushes Kratos at his Midgard home early on in an epic introductory fight. This battle is exceptional at introducing the third-person combat and frenetic tone of battle. The Stranger is invulnerable to all harm at this point, and you can feel every crunch and impact as Kratos and The Stranger fight with all their strength, literally changing the environment around them, such is the recoil of their strikes. Significant to the energy of these set-pieces is the close-up but fast-moving camerawork, feeling almost like a superhero movie as it ascends to the skies and descends back down to the ground. You eventually find out that The Stranger is Baldur, the son of Odin, who is set on tracking you down. Their path through the game is intrinsically tied to yours, with several incredible face-offs and revelations along the way. You also meet the God Freya, his mother, and the way that she is into the plot is very effective at portraying the idea of how far a parent will go for their child. The story remarkably feels very self-contained even though the game is built around the conflicts of Gods, and that perhaps shows the success of the aforementioned character-focused approach. It is intriguing to compare how the two parent-child dynamics of Freya-Baldur and Kratos-Atreus develop, with Baldur ending up dead because of his inability to change, whereas Kratos definitely alters his outlook because of Atreus throughout the game and they emerge stronger as a duo.
Furthermore, there are other pairings in the game, from the arguing Dwarven blacksmith brothers Brok and Sindri who you help bring back together, and Magni and Modi, the sons of Thor, though the latter are more the source of a fun boss fight than they are story moments. These two-person family bonds are definitely a focus of the narrative, supplying different lenses through which to view the central pairing of Kratos and Atreus. The final sequence of the game reveals that Atreus also went by another name, Loki… This sets up a lot of potential avenues for the sequel, especially as there is a stinger that has Thor showing up at the doorstep of Kratos and Atreus, clearly teasing a showdown in the sequel… So, the themes of family seem primed to to continue, perhaps with a focus on the consequences of killing the son of Freya and the son of Thor. Now, Kratos against Thor is a fight that should be spectacular…
Into the Fight
As I have touched on slightly already, the set pieces in this game are staggering. The battles against Baldur are the most obvious example of this, but the sense of scale is carried even into the smaller-scale encounters against dragons, ogres, and a myriad of other towering threats. I think that I described a dragon fight as “smaller-scale” should tell you all you need to know… A lot of the game is spent in the battles against more manageable enemies, and this is a crucial time where you can experiment to find your optimal loadout of attacks. The main weapon Kratos has in this game is the Leviathan Axe, a frost-imbued weapon which can be thrown and recalled in satisfying Thor-esque fashion, as well as utilised for a whole range of close-combat techniques. Through customisation, you can select different Runic attacks that are stronger but on a cooldown, such as my go-to, a fierce frost beam that knocks foes back and removes a lot of their health at the same time. Whilst those cooldowns are recharging, you can chain combos of light and heavy attacks together, with more options opened on that front as you level up the weapon. It results in a very rewarding pace of combat as you alternate from ranged throwing of the axe, to close-up combos, to stronger Runic abilities as they become available.
I really enjoyed how much experimentation is allowed here, with several options for your Runic slots allowing your combat loadout to feel personal to you. This is emphasised when the story forces Kratos to bring out his Blades of Chaos in order to save Atreus, which are more fire-orientated as a contrast to the frost of the Leviathan Axe. The chains are more far-reaching and better at handling close groups of enemies, but perhaps less versatile when in 1-on-1 situations. They, too, can have a selection of Runic slots, and as you get to the climactic portions of the game you have to learn to switch from the Leviathan Axe to the Blades of Chaos depending on the enemy; the final fight against Baldur, in particular, requires you to switch on the fly. There are several other aspects to combat, such as hand-to-hand combat without your weapon, using your shield to parry attacks at vital moments, and how you command Atreus, who has a bow that, whilst dealing relatively small amounts of damage, can play a crucial role in distracting your foes. Add into this Kratos’ Spartan Rage, which charges up over time to give you temporary invulnerability and extra strength, and there are plenty of well thought-out factors that combine together for a very satisfying combat system key to why God of War is as good as it is.
Seen That Before
The combat may be the defining factor when I think of God of War, actually, as much of the other elements remind me of other games and make me wonder how much the rest of the Sony first-party line-up inspired Santa Monica in their development. Included are Uncharted-style climbing sections, as well as a The Last of Us Joel-Ellie-esque emotional dynamic in Kratos-Atreus, and the re-treading of previously-explored areas in the vein of the modern Tomb Raider trilogy. This game does very well at taking those inspirations and fitting the key appeals of a God of War game into that structure, moulding the hard-hitting combat to work within it. I think that because there is such a deep combat system, as well as skill trees and weapon/armour crafting to match it, the similarities to other games are okay, as it doesn’t feel as though it is ripping off those games, but instead being inspired by them.
I will say, though, that for the sequel – which has already been confirmed – I hope Santa Monica also stamp their own imprint onto other aspects of the game more. Expand the combat system, yes, and give us more Runic options and perhaps weapons to choose from, but Hades showed that Gods and their mythology can also be interwoven into compelling side quests. The world of God of War feels slightly empty, other than a few story-centric characters inhabiting it; I would like to see more of a populated environment, with side quests I am completing for the story resolution as much as I am to get fancy loot.
Another standout aspect, and one that deeply impressed me throughout, was the presentation of God of War. The level of polish and optimisation a first-party game can bring is distinctly on show here, as you progress from one sprawling locale to the next, or even cross from Realm to Realm, each with their own aesthetic styles. Combined with the cinematography of set pieces and cutscenes, it left me spending a lot of time in the Photo Mode (which I shall post my results from soon)! The character models are amazingly detailed, in particular in the case of Kratos; you can visibly see the years of battles on his skin. As well as this, the magical qualities of attacks and environments leave sparkling particle effects around them, though this beauty is often offset by the detailed and violent takedowns Kratos performs on all manner of opponents! The lack of rough edges to be found even in the gloomiest corners shows the level of care (and budget) that went in here, and this is on my base PS4! Imagine it on PS4 Pro, or perhaps imagine the sequel on PS5… Woah. Again; Kratos against Thor? Bring it on.
When talking presentation, we can’t leave it on just the visual front, we have to talk audio too, and Bear McCreary has crafted a phenomenal composition here, with the gospel-like backing tracks for certain moments emphasising the grand meetings of Gods we are witnessing. It’s suitably dramatic and encompassing, often spending a sustained amount of time quietly building in the background before roaring into life for when a set piece begins. As I mentioned earlier, the sound effects compliment an extra sense of impact to every fight, making you feel every punch as it happens and getting across the sense that these are Gods colliding. The way that the voice work ties in as well is sublime, putting across the grandeur of the situation without slipping into melodramatic tones. In particular, the work of the star Christopher Judge as Kratos is an example of that, with those deep-voiced lines of “boy” becoming that of internet stardom – and this is due to how he plays the part in such an imposing yet endearing way, mixing together the awful things he has done and his room for compassion into one complex stew.
Final Thoughts (This Isn’t a Review But It Sort of Became One)
There is a lot more to talk about, but I have almost slipped into doing a full review of this game accidentally, so I really should wrap this up… First, before I go, I am just going to comment on the possibility of whether or not I shall be playing more of this game now that I have done the main story. I feel as though I have so many other games on my backlog (as I explained in my #LoveYourBacklog post!) that I should not spend too much more time with this one for now. I know, I know, if you are enjoying it keep going; but I really would like to finish the other games I have started, such as Control. The main part of God of War I am intrigued to go back to is the quest of freeing The Valkyries, who are essentially very difficult 1-on-1 fights against unpredictable and fast opponents. There are nine of them, and they progressively tougher as you work your way through them. If I did go after them all, I would probably first attempt top get much better gear to go with my A-game. These sorts of hard but rewarding challenges do appeal to me – it reminds me of the satisfaction of beating the hardest difficulty mode of Resident Evil 3 – so this is the part of the game I am most compelled to go back to, moreso than the miscellaneous side quests that would be more just clearing up the map. We shall see, but for now I am going to get onto more of my backlog.
Before I go, here is that teaser trailer once again! No way is it making that 2021 date, though, surely?
Once again I have to say thank you to Ace Asunder and Later Levels for putting all of this together and motivating me to finally play through this game! It feels good to tick it off the list, and who knows, maybe this will lead to me charging through more of my backlog this year. Maybe. Or perhaps I will just fall back down the GWENT hole again, which is probably more likely.
Ah, fine, this was basically a review, wasn’t it? We may as well give it a score!