Platforms: PS4 (reviewed)

Kratos has changed. Not just his beard; he’s older, more haggard and weary. He’s a man who has seen too much.

As far as allegories for the franchise go, Kratos is a good one. After seven entries of thoughtlessly smashing and killing just about everyone in the Greek pantheon, he and his games came dangerously close to sinking into the oblivion of franchise fatigue. No wonder he’s tired.

The newest God of War, brought to us by Cory Barlog, and the same Santa Monica Studios that brought us the original, elevates everything about the franchise. It takes what worked, what was iconic and meaningful amidst the juvenile testosterone power fantasy, and examines it in the light of a new setting, with a new emphasis on telling a compelling story.

God of War has evolved, as has Kratos, and it’s in every way for the better.

So much has changed

From the first few moments of gameplay it’s clear this is a more thoughtful take on Kratos. God of War III began with a stunning set piece as you battle Poseidon on the back of a Titan, the new God of War starts with Kratos cutting down a tree with his son, and making their way back home through a beautifully rendered forest.

There is very little said between them, as they struggle to recover from the loss of the young boy’s mother; Kratos’ second wife. It’s a tense and palpably uncomfortable relationship, but watching that relationship grow through the extraordinary trials and hardships they endure is the main thrust of God of War, and one of its greatest strengths.

God of War is the story of a journey, both literally and figuratively. It’s a journey of ascending the highest peak in Asgard, a journey of coming face-to-face with the past and the future, and more than anything, the story of a franchise and a character coming to terms with a legacy of violence and a simultaneously exaggerated and overly simplified vision of masculinity.

This game succeeds precisely because it isn’t afraid to embrace what works about previous titles; the over the top action and extraordinary set pieces, while also critically examining that which didn’t work in a genuine effort to make it better.

The diverse and beautiful world of God of War

The realms you traverse in God of War are just as much characters as Kratos, his son Atreus, and the diverse Norse pantheon of gods you encounter. Not only is God of War one of the most ceaselessly beautiful games on any console, the attention to detail put into every single location you encounter is stunning.

The previous God of War games were all about action; the fluidity of battle, the celebration of vicious violence. There were exotic locations and sometimes beautiful locales, but they were always a backdrop to the new combo or weapon you just unlocked, a glorified battlefield with some nice architecture and little else.

Asgard (and beyond) is a world with its own set of rules that are entirely coherent in the context of the game, and it’s a world that gently invites you to explore. It’s not exactly a traditional open world title, but there’s a huge variety of optional side missions and locations you can unlock and explore at your leisure. Throughout the narrative Atreus reminds you that there is plenty to do outside of the main story, that there are side quests aplenty, along with post game content that’s both challenging, rewarding, and thematically keeping with the thrust of the main story.

God of War has some of the most beautiful and thoughtfully meticulous environments ever created in the medium, and the art direction, level design, and technical prowess compliment each other perfectly. Though you do backtrack a bit by the end of the main quest, when the environments look this gorgeous, it’s hard to complain.

A story fit for the Gods

A particularly poignant moment occurs when Kratos loses control while speaking to his son. He starts to scream in frustration, the old, thoughtless Kratos bleeding through, but then manages to contain himself, and forces a more measured response. It’s a simple, subtle moment, there is no grand cinematic emphasis on this quiet victory. Not everything in God of War is subtle thankfully, that would be a betrayal of the heart of the franchise, but this game does quiet introspection just as well as over the top action, and that’s a substantial achievement.

Part of why the narrative is so remarkably convincing is the excellent capture and voice performances by Christopher Judge as Kratos and Sunny Suljic as his young son. Their chemistry absolutely sells the epic story, and manages to effortlessly overcome the occasionally melodramatic dialogue. God of War is a very well written game, with a fascinating and original take on the Norse pantheon, but all of that would be wasted if the acting wasn’t up to par. Other games would do well to learn from this emphasis on quality performances.

The villain might be the weakest of the bunch, but even he is better than the vast majority of one dimensional villains in other AAA titles. Though his motivation devolves into a sniveling, typically nihilistic youth, he is voiced and captured excellently, and some of the most memorable scenes in the game involve Kratos and he...interacting. Interacting very, very violently.

The narrative presentation is polished in just about every regard. Though the story never quite hits the highs of something like The Last of Us, it’s still above and beyond just about anything else out there in any genre, and the single shot presentation is stunning and creatively implemented without ever feeling gimmicky.

It’s a story that explores what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a son, what it means to be a man with a delicacy and thoughtfulness that is rare in any title, even rarer still in violent action game such as this one.

Gameplay

But this isn’t called God of Thoughtfully Exploring the Environments. Kratos hasn’t changed THAT much. God of War is still gleefully violent, and though it veers away from the puerile sex mini games and wholesale celebration of slaughter, there is still plenty of death to be dealt in a variety of ways.  

The combat system is less combo heavy than its predecessors, and the new over the shoulder perspective lends itself to a more tactful and methodical approach to the plentiful hostile encounters. Being able to switch between two weapons and hand-to-hand adds a huge variety of options to combat. Kratos’ Leviathan axe is a particular standout; I never grew tired of decapitating Draugr by hurling it across the room, only to hit triangle and have it fly back into Kratos’ hand like the deadliest boomerang in all the realms.

The new emphasis on shield defense is also welcome, as is the remarkably robust upgrade system. God of War pulls from the RPG box of tools by allowing you to upgrade your gear with currency, runes that imbue special abilities, and materials you find throughout your adventure. Having the option to deck Kratos and his son out with varying sets of defensive, offensive, or elementals specialized armor and weapons is a lot of fun, and later in the game, becomes critical to success.

There are light puzzles as well, and this is one area where the game falters ever so slightly. Though some are expertly implemented, others veer a bit too much into standard video game nonsense like spiked platform puzzles and exploding weak spots. This is a video game of course, but everything else about it is so experimental and different than what came before, these brief sections stand out and break the otherwise exemplary newness of God of War. It feels as though they were an obligation to include, not an organic addition to the environments.    

The only other area where God of War misses a small step is in the enemy design. Previous entries had a huge variety of foes to conquer, but in this entry, you’re more or less fighting the same few enemies throughout. It was a little disappointing to find that one of the final enemies you fight is a just a different colored troll than ones you’d vanquished earlier, and a short sequence where you fight the same enemies from every realm you’ve encountered in a row seemed a little like artificial gameplay padding. It’s mostly just zombies (Draugr) and the occasional troll, and though they look incredible, Norse mythology has all manner of terrible creatures that could have been included. This lack of enemy variation is probably the result of a decreased focus on combat over exploration and narrative, but it was one of the only slightly disappointing aspects of God of War.

An evolution in every regard

The franchise has always been ridiculous, and even the earliest entries have always been fun, if simplistic fun. It knew what it was; a gleeful celebration of excessive masculinity and violence, and though there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the new God of War is better in just about every regard. It still has violence aplenty, still provides the satisfaction of cinematic victory and breathtaking set pieces, but also provides a meaningful story, highly polished gameplay, and an incredibly detailed and beautiful world to explore.

What Santa Monica Studios accomplished with this sequel, and it is very much a sequel, not a reboot, is a total re-examination of what Kratos represents. If before he was a caricature of masculinity run rampant, now he is a tempered, more sophisticated character study, struggling to deal with of the weight of the violence he was born to inflict, and the legacy of the choices he’s made. In many ways it’s a franchise retrospective, and an exploration of the themes God of War always wanted to touch on.

It’s a victorious return to form for a franchise that had almost faded into obsolescence. Kratos is still Kratos, still sullen and tortured, but now that he and the world around him are getting the attention they deserve, he’s also so much more.