“We do what we please, boy. No excuses.” Kratos growls to his son, Atreus, near the beginning of 2018’s God of War reboot. It’s a bold statement that the developers at Santa Monica Studio have taken to heart in retooling their revered God of War series.
In 2013, after years of perfecting its bloody brand of hack and slash combat, the franchise seemed to be at an impasse. The release of the spinoff/ prequel title God of War: Ascension had resulted in a fun but overly familiar experience. It quickly became clear that a spark was missing. The franchise needed to go bold or go home.
Fast-forward five years, and recycling its original title like many reboots, the back to basics God of War (2018) masterfully reimagines the franchise for a new generation. It takes the core experience, the brutal action, larger than life boss battles and stunning spectacle, but refreshes it with a semi-open world, RPG style gameplay and an unexpectedly emotional narrative. The result is a game unafraid to break convention, and becoming all the better for it.
Swapping Greek for Norse mythology, the game tells the story of Kratos and Atreus embarking on an adventure to scatter the ashes of the boy’s mother, Faye, Kratos’ second wife. Journeying from Midgard, the two venture across six of the Norse realms in attempt to honour Faye’s final wish: to be laid to rest on the highest peak of the land. In typical God of War fashion, they encounter freakish monsters and vengeful Gods on their road, throwing a spanner in the works of an otherwise simple father and son road trip.
The simplicity of the story’s setup is one the game’s greatest strength. Not only does it make the game accessible for those who have never played a God of War title before, but it also provides the game with a stronger sense of pacing. If the previous titles felt like one big, epic battle after another, here the pacing of the game is slower and the story much more nuanced as a result. By establishing a clear end goal to the overarching narrative, the game is able to spend more time painting the bond between Kratos and his son. Minor moments like Kratos telling Atreus a story to pass the time while sailing, or Atreus seeking Kratos’ approval after a long battle add an emotional depth to the characters that has been missing in previous games. Moreover, as these quieter moments are frequently wedged between big battle sequences, the ebb and flow effect it creates means you become emotionally invested in their journey, allowing each emotional beat to hit with devastating impact.
Another reason the story works so effectively is Bear McCreary’s sweeping soundtrack. Marked by deep orchestral instrumentals and choir voices, McCreary’s score swells with the action and softens with the drama. It fits the perfectly with the setting and, like the best kind of movie score, it doesn’t just accompanying the story but adds to it.
Marked by deep orchestral instrumentals and choir voices, McCreary’s score swells with the action and softens with the drama
One of the biggest changes to the game visually is the over-the-shoulder camera angle that tracks Kratos in one continuous shot. The closer camera angle feels more intimate and provides greater detail to the action. You no longer feel like a God manipulating Kratos from afar but an active participant in his adventure, from every blood splattering hit and gut punch, both physically and metaphorically. It also helps to orientate the player as, even when there’s too much going on onscreen, Kratos never gets lost amidst the action like he did in the previous games.
From a gameplay standpoint, the game takes a page out of the RPG handbook and introduces an inventory system to the franchise for the first time. As you journey you’ll collect resources that you can use to craft superior armour and upgrade the main weapon in your arsenal, the Leviathan axe. Like Thor’s hammer, the axe can be thrown at enemies and, by clicking triangle, it will float back into Kratos’ hand. The versatility of the weapon makes it effective for both close quarter fights and taking on enemies from a distance.
In terms of upgrading Kratos, the game trades blood souls for the more traditional currency of experience points. You earn experience by finishing battles and completing quests, which can be spent on learning new skills and abilities. Kratos has six core statistics: strength, runic, defence, vitality, luck and cooldown. Depending on the type of equipment you craft and how you spend your experience points, you can adjust the strength of each attribute to cater for your play-style.
There are also now health bars above enemies’ heads meaning you no longer have to wait for a red halo to appear above their heads to know when they’re close to death. It’s a welcome change that allows for more strategic gameplay as you can plan out when to use your special attacks and health pick ups, which is particularly useful for some of the harder boss battles.
However, somewhat regressively, Kratos can no longer jump, instead relying on a button prompt to move between two spots and special marked ledges to climb up. It’s a minor squabble given the story-driven nature of the game, but those who loved the platforming aspects of the previous titles will likely be disappointed in the restrictiveness of Kratos’ movement.
In terms of scope, the game is much larger than any of the previous titles. While not completely open world, each of the six realms has their own map to explore and there are loads of collectibles, upgrades and secrets to find. The only downside to the larger environments is that you’ll be doing a fair bit of backtracking during the story. Luckily, the beautifully rendered locations, from stunning mountain vistas to crystal clear lakes, never make them a chore to return to.
There are also plenty of side missions to keep you busy either during or after finishing the main storyline. Certain minor characters that you come across during your journey, such as the twin dwarven blacksmiths Brok and Sindri, will ask you to complete favours in exchange for rare resources and new weapon upgrades. The high level loot these quests reward you with make them worthwhile undertakings. And if you’re in the mood for testing your mettle there are optional Valkyrie bosses and challenge trials that reward you with even more epic level loot. With all this accompanying a sizeable 20 hour or so story mode, the game’s expansive scope means you can easily spend 40+ hours completing everything it has to offer.