You know, I was a bit dubious when I heard that God of War was going to be resurrected. My leeriness increased when I heard it was going to be a beardy Norse father-son adventure.
Thankfully, my doubts were misplaced. Because the 2018 game has proven to be one of the best – if not the best – in the series. I absolutely loved it.
Well, mostly. But we’ll get to that.
(There’ll likely be some spoilers in here too, so be mindful if you’ve not played it yet.)
As has previously been established, I’m a fan of the whole God of War series. I played through the first two on my boxy PS2 until my fingers cramped, and I recently played through the entire fucking series until I was absolutely done with it. It’s the sort of thing that, if shotgunned, leaves you pretty exhausted: there’s only so many gargantuan monster-slaying set pieces you can handle before you just don’t care whose titanic head it is you’re ripping off.
The 2018 game sees the return of Cory Barlog, who directed the first two games. Fans expecting a return to that style of gameplay will be as disappointed as I was to realise that his surname isn’t Balrog. Because though this is ostensibly a sequel to God of War III, it’s a very different beast. There’s slashing and hacking, sure, but those fabled sword-chains aren’t what you’re presented with. Instead, you’ve got a magical axe. A magical axe held by a gruff middle-aged dude who has a son, Atreus, and who lives in a wintry Norse wonderland. And who, in the opening scene, is felling a tree to add to the pyre upon which his dead wife will be burned.
(Norse mythology is handled exceedingly well in this game. There’s a lot of it – and a lot of backstory that’s not completely teased out – so, but this list of books is a good place to further investigate if you’ve an interest. There’s certainly fewer liberties taken than there have been with Greek mythology over the years, which is a great development.)
It’s a much simpler story than other God of War games. It’s about how one pissed-off dude wants to honour his dead wife’s wishes and take her ashes to the highest peak in the land. Everything else that happens in the story is secondary, and serves to act as a kink in that plan. But it’s never forgotten, by the characters or by the game itself.
The game looks remarkable, as you’d probably expect. From the hut where our protagonists begin to mountain-tops, sunken temples, frozen wastes, subterranean strongholds and an enormous lake, it’s gorgeous. It’s an autumnal wonderland, full of things to discover – and that’s before you unlock the a transport hub that lets you visit different realms, different versions of the same space. There’s a lot of attention to detail (and not much you can clip into, though I did fall through the world at one point) and it’s the sort of place that encourages investigation.
A big change is in the way we see the world. It’s immediately different from preceding games, though, as the standard fixed-position camera has been eschewed for a more versatile system. It’s also a game with zero cuts: it runs as one continuous shot, with the system taking over the camera for dramatic effect on occasion. But there’s nothing in the way of loading screens when moving between locations as you’d find in other games in the series. There are instances where animations take a while to run and stop you from leaving a room – I’m thinking of the transport room hub, here – but they don’t provide a splash-screen action stop the way games such as Yakuza 0 or Dead Island would.
The relationship between authoritarian father and curious boy is something that’s crafted pretty well in the game. The player’s opinion of both characters changes as the game progresses and further backstory is revealed, or as certain growth-inducing experiences occur. Revelation and discussion is not something Kratos is big on. “Boy” is his most-used word – hence the whole Dad of Boy meme – but the tenderness he cannot voice is given a lot of time here. There’s moments where he wants to comfort his son but doesn’t know how – and the hovering of a hand, inches away from the shoulder it wishes to grasp in reassurance, is telling. He’s not just a big dude who’s Good At Killing Things, he’s someone who has no idea what the fuck he’s doing, as well.
(For a game which previously explored emotion in a he’s angry because he’s sad kind of way, this is a Big Thing, and one I was glad to see. Even if it is coupled with absolutely terrible boat-trip story- and joke-telling.)
I was also impressed at the way Kratos relied on Atreus to interpret runes through the world. There’s a tension in his ceding control (or knowledge) to his son that’s palpable.
Of course, Kratos and Atreus aren’t the only characters in the game. I found the supporting characters here to be almost as well constructed as the key protagonists. There’s a pair of estranged dwarven brothers, Sindri and Brok, who provide a fair abount of neat-freak and profane comic relief respectively. Their arc through the game is rewarding, as is that of Mimir, who you come across as an advisor in one of the more remarkable introductions of the series.
(He’s also someone who, to my delight, refers to Thor as “a sweaty bawbag”, a term so fitting I can’t believe it.)
Mechanically, the game just works. There’s some tweaks and new additions – there’s crafting, which hasn’t been in a God of War game before, and an extensive skill tree which unlocks fancy moves and spells – and you’ll have to spend more time managing stats and abilities as you would in a RPG. But the fighting is incredible. While I found it weird not to begin the game with Kratos’s signature weapons, the axe which provides the bulk of your baddie-worrying abilities is remarkable. It flies back to the hand with a weighty thump and conveys a feeling of satisfying heft, whether you’re busting heads or scenery. The fighting is frenetic – but measured – and the range of enemies is great. Through the game, your powers and abilities scale appropriately, and when you finally have both the strength and experience to take down some of the bigger bosses, it really is a remarkably triumphant feeling.
Key to success is Atreus. He’s armed with a bow that offers a couple of types of effect, and his support is required if you’re to survive some of the bigger battles. It’s a neat trick: we all know from previous experience that Kratos can Probably Handle This Shit Himself, but offering him a sidekick’s assistance mixes up what’s expected from the series.
(There’s also a lot more puzzling to be found in the game, too. Most of it focuses on the opening of chests through runic locks, and you don’t have to solve them (mostly) to proceed during the game. But it feels good that devs are interested in expanding the game beyond just slashing fuckers to death.)
I found the game to be pretty well paced. I could take my time looking for optional items and completing quests for languishing spirits, but it didn’t feel like stuff inserted to pad out the gameplay. It’s designed to make the land feel like an open world – and for the most part it does – but it’s also rigidly bound by where you are in the story. There’s places you can’t access and things you can’t do until certain times, and heading forward on a major mission always brings an element of excitement, because of the variety which could result. Fight a dragon? Plunder a mine? Face off with a pissed-off god? Try to avert Ragnarok? Anything could happen. But again, it’s all leading to one place: to honour the dead. And when you actually get to honour those wishes, at the end of a pretty circuitous route, it’s a pretty emotional moment.
At the end of all of this tinkering and slashing, I felt that I’d played something significant: a triple-A sequel that was also a reboot. Something that had me excited for a series I thought I’d burned out on. If I’d stopped the game when the main quest finished – well, after the conquering heroes have returned home for a little post-quest god-visitation stinger – I’d have thought God of War was nearly a perfect game. Because in terms of the story that’s told, and the way that it’s told, it very nearly is. I can’t exaggerate how positively I felt towards the experience: it was emotional and gruesome and a lot more touching (and funny!) than the originals, with their dependency on pure rage and rooting minigames.
But I suspect that pure rage and difficulty – something that wasn’t present in the same amount in this game, unless you played it on the more hardcore modes out of the box – is something someone on the game’s team thought would be a good tack-on. And so, tacked on, we have two realms: Niflheim (a time-trial trap-heavy place) and Muspelheim (a battle royale hellhole).
Both of these places are test labs, really. They exist for you to prove how well you’ve mastered the mechanics of the game, but they absolutely feel like busywork. I get that this stuff is completely optional. I understand that neither Niflheim nor Muspelheim are places you have to go to in order to complete the story. And I appreciate that these are places more akin to the wave arenas in something like Borderlands 2 than they are a strict narrative excursion. But the disconnect between those areas and the rest of the game is pretty large. Both lands are grind-heavy, something the main game isn’t. Enter, defeat, rinse, repeat.
That, in itself, is fine. It’s just that these elements feel so separate and lesser when compared to the rest of the game. It feels like something parachuted in, and worse, it makes gameplay elements that’ve felt natural and fun seem obnoxious and clunky.
The reward for these three parts of the game are minimal. Yes, you get some exceptional gear or some fabulous resources for crafting decent armour – but by the time you get them, you’ll undoubtedly have finished the game, so having a fancy-pants pommel for your Axe of Death doesn’t mean that much when you’ve got nobody left to kill.
But the reward for hours of grinding through Nifelheim’s mists in order to rack up the right number of chest-opening wotsits? Sindri thanks you. Oh, good, I’m so glad that a line of recorded dialogue was the reward. I feel much better about all that irritation now!
On top of that, though, we have the Valkyries. Or, specifically, the freeing of Valkyrie souls from their corrupted bodies. They’re the hardest bosses in the game, and while each one you defeat introduces a new pattern to learn, in a Dark Souls kind of way, the final boss is full of spam attacks which can’t be countered. I tried for a couple of days to beat the very last one before caving and watching a video of what happens after.
And what does? Well, not a lot. There’s a little exposition, but in terms of rewards? Eh. Like I say, you have to have completed the game to be in an armour and ability state where you can have even a fighting chance at getting through the thing – so what’s the point of throwing in something completely at odds with the experience the player’s had up to that point? I honestly don’t understand. Did they think the game was too short without this tacked-on bullshit?
Admittedly, it is faintly ridiculous to be so hung up on something like this in a video game. But the thing that irritates the most is that the rest of the experience is so good. It’s platform-buying levels of good. The sort of good that you want to share with people who have no idea (or don’t care) about a bearded Spartan’s daddy issues. It’s just a shame that my final experiences with the thing were so negative.
Let’s see what the inevitable sequel brings. There’s been some great drama set up with one character’s true name and the post-quest stinger. I suspect we’re not finished with Kratos on Ice just yet – and despite my irritation at parts of the experience, I’m definitely keen for more, especially if the mythology is treated as respectfully as it was here.
So, more Dad. More War. Please.