The new God of War shares the same name as the series' 2005 debut.
Despite this, Sony Santa Monica's latest Kratos-starring installment is not a remaster, reboot, or re-imagining of the title that first introduced us to the deity-destroying antihero. 2018's God of War is actually a sequel, picking up some years after Kratos murdered his way through Greek mythology’s “most wanted.”
Much like last year's Resident Evil 7 though, God of War is a canon-following sequel that also serves as a fresh start for the franchise. As such, it's slayed many of the series' sacred cows, including the previous entries' fixed camera, quick-time events, and even Kratos' signature Blades of Chaos, in favour of a number of new features.
If you've been following the game at all, you're probably aware of its more heavily-hyped inclusions, from the fresh focus on Norse mythology to the fact Kratos is now a father sporting a mug full of epic facial hair. Beard and boy aside though, the game sports many other significant changes, such as a less linear structure, a deeper character progression path, and a brand new way to open baddies from brain to bellybutton.
It's how all these elements come together though, that make Kratos' ambitious return not only the series' best entry to date, but also a strong contender for the year's best game.
ABOUT A BOY
Surprisingly, the thing that most separates God of War from its predecessors is its absorbing, emotional storytelling. The narrative doesn't stand out because of the new Nordic setting – though it certainly complements it – but because of the presence of Kratos' son Atreus.
If adding a constant AI companion to an established third-person action series sounds risky, then making that computer-controlled partner a potentially-annoying little tyke should be a recipe for disaster. Against all odds, however, Atreus' inclusion doesn't just work, but makes the game better.
A big part of this is due to the boy's interactions with his father. Kratos' default emotion has always been anger and, while he's not exactly cheery in God of War, he's obviously trying to be more even-tempered around his son. He's not doing this out of kindness, but because his top priority is ensuring Atreus can survive in this harsh world; Daddy Kratos knows where unbridled rage got him, so he doesn't want his son following the same path.
The result of Kratos' tough-love approach to parenting – and Atreus' response to it – is an incredibly believable and organic relationship. Kratos clearly has little experience being a dad, while Atreus, who spent more time with his now-deceased mother, is far from comfortable around his father. This dynamic shines through in their banter and body language early in the game.
What's more impressive though, is how their relationship evolves over the course of their quest to spread Atreus' mom's ashes on the land's highest peak. As Kratos grows more compassionate and Atreus more comfortable, their relationship reveals new, engaging layers. Without spoiling the story, we'll say it's genuinely heartwarming to see Kratos put his hand on the boy's shoulder – after hesitating to do so early in the game – or to hear Atreus' respond to his dad with a confident and cocky “Whatever.”
It also doesn't hurt that Sony Santa Monica isn't asking fans to forget who Kratos was and accept his new situation with an entirely straight face. It's clear the studio isn't blind to the fact the fresh set-up could have just as easily served as a concept for a bad sitcom. There are plenty of funny exchanges between the two, such as when Kratos deadpans, “A soldier only sees beauty in the blood of his enemy.” in response to a wide-eyed Atreus recognising the environmental beauty surrounding them.
Atreus' relationship with Kratos significantly elevates the game's storytelling, but the boy brings more than emotion to the battlefield. Using a single button, players can command him to fling arrows at foes, serving as a fantastic tactical distraction. With a few tweaks to the game's robust skill trees, they can also upgrade his various arrows and abilities.
You needn't babysit Atreus though, as he has no problem holding his own in a fight; even when not directed, he'll capably plant projectiles in the skulls of Kratos' enemies and even mount their backs to strangle them with his bow. Atreus is a great asset on his own, especially when equipped with runic powers – one that unleashes a pack of spectral wolves is a favourite – but it's especially satisfying to combine his skills with Kratos' strength; cleaving an ugly creature in half, while Atreus has them in a headlock, for example, never gets old.
Atreus occasionally needs help fending off foes, but he can't die in battle and he never gets in the way. Even better, he can revive his dad – with a special item – if Kratos is downed during combat. The boy's arrows, imbued with elemental magic, also play a large role in solving the game's various puzzles. Many environmental objects react to the arrows' power, unlocking secrets or otherwise inaccessible areas. The best conundrum-cracking moments come when Kratos and Atreus must work together, combining the former's strength with the latter's prowess with the bow.
DAD OF WAR
Kratos might be a caring daddy this time around, but gaming's most pissed-off protagonist hasn't gone completely soft. In fact, God of War's monster-mashing combat justifiably earns all those adjectives – visceral, epic, immersive – that are too-often showered on action games. Credit is due to the tighter camera, which grants every single encounter with a more intimate feel; the over-the-shoulder perspective puts players up-close and personal to the action, ensuring exchanges pack a punch that you can practically feel with each weighty slash, strike, and blow.
This is further supported by the game's more tactical approach to combat. Rather than slaying dozens of threats from a distance by button-mashing Kratos' chained blades, players are now required to approach each enemy with a bit more strategy. Blocking and dodging aren't suggestions, but necessary tactics that should be alternated with thoughtful attacks. The combat's not quite as calculated – or difficult – as Dark Souls' punishing melees, but it's far more sophisticated and satisfying than previous entries' hack-and-slash approach to bloodying the battlefield.
That's not to say there's no hacking or slashing. On the contrary, Kratos' new Leviathan ax can carve through hordes of creeps. Much more than a simple woodsman's tool, the dual-bladed death-dealer can be upgraded, outfitted with runes and pommels, and recalled in a fashion that'd make Thor's head spin. The latter trick can also be used in a number of slick ways, from solving puzzles to tripping up baddies on its return to Kratos' calloused palm.
Of course, the game's robust selection of RPG-flavoured features ensures you never have to rip apart an enemy the same way twice. God of War is absolutely brimming with character-shaping options, from sprawling skill trees and craftable gear to weapon and armour upgrades, and powerful runes, talismans, and enchantments that grant a dizzying amount of active and passive perks. Toss in Kratos' shield attacks, incredibly powerful bare hands, rage meter – which allows him to literally tear enemies in two – and Atreus' abilities and, well, you'll likely never get bored looking for fresh ways to free foes of their innards.
SEE THE WORLD
While Kratos can dispatch the game's varied line-up of horned, fanged, and winged beasties however he pleases, his arsenal of cool tricks isn't handed to the player on a silver platter. God of War sports a huge map, and players are encouraged to stamp their passport in every corner of it if they wish to gather the resources necessary to grow their character.
This is not technically an open-world game, but it's far from linear; there are waterways to be explored by boat, areas that can be revisited – Metroid-like – when new items are acquired, and even some fast travel spots. In fact, if we had one gripe about the game, it's that its labyrinthine layout occasionally left us confused.
Those brave enough to stray from the beaten path will find hidden treasures, secret levels, and side quests. While there's a good deal of optional content, none of it feels arbitrary or far removed from the central narrative. Best of all, all discovered collectibles, even bits of world-building lore, somehow factor into the game's many character progression systems.
GOD OF WAR VERDICT
Whether you're cracking open a treasure chest or an ogre's skull, you'll find God of War is one of the prettiest games to ever grace the PlayStation 4. From the goriest kill animations to the postcard-perfect environments, the game is a retina-searing stunner on the same level of other recent PS4 exclusives like Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4. And while it sets the PS4 Pro firing on all cylinders, don't sweat it if you haven't upgraded to the new hardware – God of War will have no problem dropping your jaw on a standard system.
Couple the eye-popping presentation with the game's phenomenal storytelling, combat, and character-moulding depth, and we expect to see God of War again when game of the year awards are handed out.