Having spent seven games tearing his way through the Greek Pantheon and all the mythical and legendary creatures that come with it, Kratos found himself facing that question that we all must deal with at some point in our lives: Now that I’ve killed all the gods in increasingly brutal fashion and brought desolation to the whole of Greece, what the hell do I do now? His answer was of course to grow out his beard, move to Norway, and have a kid. Focusing more on story and character than simple ultra-violence, GOD OF WAR is a soft reboot that delivers a deep and engaging tale of a complicated father/son relationship, filled with fascinating new mythology, thoughtful introspection… and yeah, still ultra-violence.
GOD OF WAR picks up quite a few years after Kratos’ last chronological outing, with the chrome-domed Ghost of Sparta having bid his life in Greece farewell, and ventured some ways across the map to find a new mythology to play with. Settling down in or around Norway, Kratos fell in love with a local, had a son, and grew an epic beard that would later go on to inspire the Vikings (presumably). Things don’t stay so quaint of course, and the game drops on in Kratos just as his new love has died, leaving him and his young son, Atreus, to venture across the world together to spread her ashes. Along the way they cross paths with a man who has god-like powers, and once again, somewhat reluctantly, Kratos is dragged back into his old ways, even as he tries to teach his son to be better than he himself once was.
If that sounds distinctly less monumental than Kratos’ back catalogue (many entries of which include plenty of mountain-sized titans to climb/kill), that’s because it kind of is. And that’s not a bad thing. Where previous games have seen the stakes raised with each instalment, adding more blood, more monsters and more gods to brutalise, GOD OF WAR dials things back somewhat, keeping the roster of deities to a minimum, and focuses on telling a more intimate and affecting tale, set amid a new mythology that is so refreshing to explore, and filled with hints as to where the series could go next. That’s not to say that the game pretends its history doesn’t exist – there are plenty of callbacks to Kratos’ old life, and the themes of family and betrayal that are littered throughout the series are strong here, exemplified by a pair of stubborn dwarf brothers, whose rivalry not only provides a welcome bit of comic relief, but also embodies Kratos’ desperate need for a redemption arc before he pushes his son away like everyone else.
GOD OF WAR also boasts a brand new combat system […] that gives a visceral front seat as Kratos rends all sorts of creatures limb from limb.
For a character that has never seen a single hint of development, it’s definitely a little alien to see the Ghost of Sparta trying to be a better man, as up until now all of his tales have revolved around one of a multitude of revenge quests, but it’s exactly the treatment that he needed in order to avoid franchise fatigue. No longer reduced to simply being the human equivalent of the angry emoji, Kratos 2.0 has layers in abundance, with the task of raising his son leading him to reflect upon his life’s many regrets, as he tries to guide his boy along a path that helps him avoid those same pitfalls. For his part, Atreus is much less intriguing than his old man – aside from a few interesting story notes, he mostly serves as a prop in the ongoing reclamation of Kratos’ soul, and has the tendency to come off a little whiny in places – but it is the relationship between them that drives the narrative, and the story of their journey is only as beautiful as it is due to this complicated father/son dynamic at its heart.
No journey across the many realms of Norse mythology is going to be without conflict, however, and that’s where the other major new change to the series comes in. The Blades of Chaos, once a staple of the series, are no longer bound tightly around Kratos’ wrists. Instead, his primary weapon is the Leviathan Axe, a hefty tool of war that is infused with elemental frost magic, and a much more appropriate accessory for the land of Vikings. GOD OF WAR also boasts a brand new combat system, with an intimately close over-the-shoulder camera view that gives a visceral front seat as Kratos rends all sorts of creatures limb from limb. The manner in which he slaughters these beasts ranges fairly well, as there is a deep and satisfying array of moves and combos to unlock through the various skill trees, with plenty of close quarter moves, some fun new Spartan Rage attacks, and even a few useful upgrades to Kratos’ ability to hurl his axe at enemies and magically recall it to his hand, in the vein of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
GOD OF WAR makes sure to give plenty of downtime between fights for players to enjoy the beautifully designed, semi-open game world.
Learning the tricks of the trade from Kratos means that Atreus isn’t completely useless in combat either, and rather than being a burden that the player has to defend, he pitches in on the bloodshed. To begin with, he makes little difference with his Talon bow, which can be fired at whichever enemy Kratos is looking at with a press of the square button, but later on he can be upgraded to assault enemies with some powerful magic attacks, and even source health when his dad’s gets low. These upgrades prove useful as the game wears on, particularly when it comes to boss fights. Though the bosses aren’t as numerous or varied as in previous games – the latter being mostly thanks to the removal of quick time events – those few that remain tend to have a greater importance to the story, and the gods in particular feel much better developed as adversaries, since they are given the space to make an impact without being overcrowded.
Since there is a heavy emphasis on the journey aspect of Kratos and Atreus’ adventure, GOD OF WAR makes sure to give plenty of downtime between fights for players to enjoy the beautifully designed, semi-open game world, and bask in the stirring majesty of Bear McCreary’s powerful soundtrack. With the multiple realms of Norse mythology (mostly) available for exploration, the stunning landscapes can range from lush forests to lava-streaming volcanoes to the frozen wastes of Hel itself, and each has a whole host of secrets to unlock, hidden away behind a series of puzzles that, while not being all that varied, offer enough of an incremental challenge that they never become a drag. Also helping to keep things fresh – not to mention ensuring that the game never takes itself too seriously – is the excellent photo mode, that allows players to layer their screenshots with filters, logos, and best of all, hilarious facial expressions for Kratos and Atreus.
Though not as big and splashy as Kratos’ previous adventures, GOD OF WAR is certainly not lacking in epic moments, with more than enough spectacle to balance its mature and affecting tale of father and son. Like its protagonist, the game series has had to evolve to survive, and this soft reboot is a surprising, but welcome change that all at once pays homage to the original formula while blazing a trail of its own. The mythology is a breath of fresh air after wringing every god and creature out of the Greek pantheon, and uncovering it is an adventure in its own right; the combat is tightly constructed and suitably gory, with plenty of moves and combos to master; and much like the many times he has clawed his way out of the underworlds of various religions, Kratos has returned to the world bigger, bolder, and exponentially more bearded than ever before.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles