God of War has always been a franchise filled with over the top violence, memorable moments and big action set-pieces. The newest addition to the series on PS4 has those things, but those elements are far from the most interesting parts in the experience. Developer Sony Santa Monica took my breath away with its subtle and quiet moments as much as it shocked me with its gigantic scale boss battles and impressed me with its clever, varied combat. God of War successfully weaves together all of this with a touching story, and Kratos himself reimagined as a father with incredible depth to his emotions, cementing him as one of the most iconic video game characters in history.
Built around a tale of grief, the opening scenes share the moments of Kratos and his son Atreus cremating their wife and mother. Her final wish is to have her ashes carried and scattered from the highest peak in the realm, and so the story begins, though with many twists and turns showing that although Kratos may have changed in many ways, the ghosts of his past still haunt him and his family.
The relationship between father and son is engaging throughout, with Atreus consistently wanting to prove that he is ready to grow up while Kratos is always there to remind him that there is still much more to learn before this can happen. As a single father, he obviously cares for his son, but it was clearly the important woman in both their lives that was the emotional glue of this family, and now the grizzly God has to connect with his kid while balancing the idea of teaching him how to survive.
Both characters are so incredibly well written and performed that their dynamic added incredible weight to each scene, with small touches like Atreus seeking approval that he did well after a battle or Kratos considering giving his son a reassuring pat on the back but then deciding it best left alone. It made me smile when Atreus mocked his father’s gruff tone only for Kratos, without missing a beat, agreeing that it is something that he would say and that it was good advice. The back and forth is as captivating as it was with Joel and Ellie or with Chloe and Nadine, making even the most basic exploration feel interesting.
Atreus is incredibly useful in combat as well, acting as a nearly invulnerable ally who can support you with his bow and arrow. Initially he’s more of a distraction for larger foes, but as you progress he becomes vital with his assistance, choking enemies from behind, shooting a variety of different arrows that do damage and cause stun effects and more. It’s just one of the many layers of combat that make God of War so addictive with its moment-to-moment action.
It’s Kratos’ axe, named Leviathan, which is the real game changer when it comes to the combat. Not only can you chain together a variety of combos in quick succession, swiftly slicing apart foes like they’re butter, but it can be used as a throwing tool as well. Calling it back to you after a toss a la Thor with his hammer is completely badass every time you do it, and it can be used as a long distance weapon for enemies or to hit switches that are out of reach.
“…all of the moving parts of combat work harmoniously with one another in a gratifying manner.”
You can also evade attacks or parry them with your shield, all the while using Atreus as your backup. Additional abilities and combos will be unlocked as well, plus there’s the Spartan Rage that you can unleash when in a tight spot to really give your foes a pummelling. It’s a system that takes some getting used to but eventually all of the moving parts work harmoniously with one another in a gratifying manner.
Cleverly, the variety in enemies forces you to switch up your tactics, with some requiring your fists instead of Leviathan, others that shoot projectiles, larger monsters that need you to dodge and weave around them while hacking at their knees and some other incredibly cool and unique ideas that I won’t spoil for you here (they’re much more fun to discover for yourself). God of War has always prided itself on being a violent and chaotic dance of destruction and death, and this is no exception.
You also won’t be “levelling up” in a traditional sense, though experience is gained with each discovery or kill. Instead, you’ll be finding armour on your journey or crafting new armour at the game’s blacksmiths – dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri – who are more than willing to assist Kratos and help with upgrading your weapon and gear. Smartly, the main upgrades only are possible once defeating certain bosses, meaning you can’t really grind to be overpowered; though there are side quests at your disposal that will give you some enhancements that are very much worth your time.
There are parts of God of War that allow you to explore the open world if you wish, and Atreus will let you know when there is time for a bit of an explore off the beaten path. Some of these challenges are quite intense on their own, proving not to be filler in the slightest, but rather enjoyable diversions from the main story that simply add more to the Norse mythology that is present throughout. These quests, along with other supporting characters, allow you to really piece together a lot about the history of Midgard – and while Kratos doesn’t seem interested, Atreus has a child-like wonderment that is very endearing.
The new over-the-shoulder perspective might be an adjustment for fans, but it works well to keep you up close and personal with the action surrounding Kratos at all times. Impressively, the entire experience from the very beginning all the way to the finishing credits can be played in one entire shot. There are no actual cuts from the gameplay to the cut-scenes that play out (unless you die of course), making for an adventure that feels like you’re well and truly living it.
It’s a technical marvel that Sony Santa Monica have managed to achieve these seamless transitions without any drop in quality or action. It also allows for each moment to be truly savoured, forcing you to watch each uncomfortable conversation, each lingering moment of grief and each story beat that would perhaps otherwise have been missed if it was edited more traditionally.
The perspective and the refusal to break away from its impressive one camera shot aside, God of War is a stunning accomplishment when it comes to visuals. The game is beautiful with an incredible amount of detail everywhere you look, but it’s the scale and scope overall that I found astonishing. A giant snake known as the world serpent that you come face-to-face with, a literal parting of the sea and the stunning back-drops that you can see in the far distance as you’re climbing a mountain; not to mention the characterisation of Kratos, Atreus and the supporting cast. It all comes together with a finesse that makes for one of the most awe-inspiring games available on a console today.
Given you’ll be so inspired to explore this arresting and divine world, it’s even more enticing because there are so many secrets to explore and puzzles to solve that are each satisfying to find and complete, with worthy rewards. Using Leviathan to hit well-placed switches, platforming sections with hidden pathways and passages along with combat-based areas with increasingly difficult enemies mean that there is never a lack of things to do, with plenty of end-game content that you’ll want to take part in after the main story is finished.
The Bottom Line
It’s tough to find flaws in an experience as well-crafted as God of War. With all of the action, violence, truly thrilling gameplay elements and mind-boggling presentation that come together so well, it’s the characters themselves who prove to be the most captivating elements on display. Kratos has been transformed into someone that is relatable; someone that you truly want to root for, with very human emotions despite his gruff exterior and stern delivery. He is well balanced by Atreus, representing the child in all of us, with so much to learn and a plucky enthusiasm that is almost unwavering. It’s a refreshingly new take on a series that was already doing a lot of things right, but now I can’t imagine Kratos being presented any other way. With complete confidence in its narrative and design, God of War is a truly spectacular adventure that demands your attention and won’t let it go easily.