It’s been several years since Olympus met its dramatic end at the hands of the vengeful god of war, Kratos. Now in a distant land far from his Greek gods-slaying past, Kratos settles down with a family and plans to live a secluded lifestyle. However, when his wife passes away, Kratos must travel to the highest peak in the Norse land of Midgard alongside his son, Atreus, to scatter her ashes and give her, and his family, closure – but when a mysterious stranger appears and challenges the Ghost of Sparta’s elusive past, Kratos’ journey suddenly takes an epic new path.
God of War is an astonishingly bold direction for the series, abandoning its Greek mythology setting for the land of the Vikings, Norse mythology. It also notably abandons much of what made its predecessors such genre-defining epics, ditching the bombastic cinematic flare, loud orchestras, and rage-driven gameplay that established the God of War brand. Instead, developer Sony Santa Monica Studio has chosen to tell a more personal, tragic story about loss, redemption, dealing with troubled pasts, and what it means to be a father and guardian. This all weighs heavily on Kratos throughout his journey in unfamiliar lands, as he slowly attempts to rebuild a turbulent relationship with his son.
Santa Monica Studio gambled with the series’ identity, and managed to roll a winning dice. God of War creates a unique story, world, and characters to explore, all culminating in one of the most emotionally powerful gaming experiences I’ve ever played. The scale of the world is astounding, and the sheer amount of detail and lore about the Nordic mythos can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but it simply adds to the incredible world-building, making it easily the most immersive God of War to date. Gigantic, decaying statues of Norse gods are scattered around the land, misty mountains linger in the far distance, and enormous, other-worldly structures and monuments impose a devastating sense of Kratos’ alienation in this new realm.
Despite the story retaining the epic, mind-blowing scale of its predecessors – for example, you encounter a serpent so enormous, it can wrap itself around the entire globe – the narrative is firmly driven by character, and most importantly, the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. Their relationship in the game is masterfully written, reflecting a surprisingly realistic bond that tugs at your heartstrings constantly. You see this relationship develop through quieter, more intimate conversations between Kratos and Atreus, either walking through the world or rowing a boat across a lake. It’s all balanced and paced so perfectly, that it never feels forced or takes away from the more action-oriented set pieces. Instead, it anchors the narrative and gives weight to the violence.
Speaking of violence, God of War is still a brutal, bloody affair. The gameplay takes the over-the-shoulder camera angle and makes combat feel more intimate as a result. Instead of the Blades of Chaos, Kratos now wields the Leviathan Axe, a worthy replacement and multi-purpose weapon. It still packs a punch in close-quarters, but it’s also helpful for ranged attacks as Kratos can throw the axe at distant targets and call it back almost instantly. This flexibility in combat allows players to unleash a string of creative, visually awesome combos that feels satisfying and powerful, even after dozens of hours. The Leviathan Axe is also integral to solving puzzles in the environment, as its ability to freeze whatever it gets attached to allows Kratos to freeze cranks, gears, and an assortment of enemies in combat too.
God of War now also sports a surprisingly deep customization system. Here, Kratos can upgrade his weapon, embed it with new abilities, and customize its appearance. Alternatively, you can also craft new armour, which builds strength, defense, and a variety of other attributes. This is all hidden behind the in-game currency and rare items that are earned by either exploring Midgard or defeating certain optional and mandatory bosses, encouraging exploration even further. The skill tree boosts both Kratos’ and Atreus’ performance in battle. Atreus offers a helping hand in fights, and upgrading his abilities lets him provide offense and defense against enemies. Each upgrade is not only significant, but it also just looks and feels spectacular.
Midgard is a massive, semi-open world that captures the grandeur and awe-inspiring beauty of Norse mythology. Many feared that it would be too similar to its Greek mythology counterpart, but in some instances, it’s even more breathtaking and gorgeous to behold. Exploring this world is important as it not only expands upon the history behind the various Norse creatures, gods, and monuments, but also rewards players with additional, valuable items that add to the progression system. Furthermore, it never feels like a chore, as merely exploring the world and listening to Kratos and Atreus’ back and forth banter is wonderfully entertaining and provides much needed breaks between huge story moments.
Santa Monica Studio has created one of the most visually striking video games of all time in God of War. This is especially evident on PS4 Pro, as the visuals on a higher resolution leap off the screen thanks to the games colourful palette, arresting landscapes and masterful world design. Throughout my 30-35 hour playtime, I only encountered occasional dips in framerate on both PS4 and PS4 Pro, though it didn’t compromise the experience at all. It’s extremely polished and runs at a mostly consistent 30fps, but the minor HDR improvements on the Pro add a little more immersion.
The sound design and soundtrack is stellar, from the way certain enemies toy with audio – taking a few notes from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – to the minor details like ambiance, there’s clearly effort put into making the sound match the visual fidelity of the game. The voice acting also deserves major praise too. Christopher Judge turns in a captivating, vulnerable performance as Kratos, while Sunny Suljic delivers an award-worthy performance as Atreus, capturing both his optimistic attitude at the best times, and irrational, annoying persona at the worst. By far, my favourite piece of sound design in the game is the voice of the World Serpent itself, which booms and trembles with all the ferocity of an earthquake.
Game composer Bear McCreary creates a stunning score that strikes a perfect balance of epic adventure and raw emotional power. It escalates and winds down constantly, capturing the journey of both the traversal through the realm and more intimate bonding moments between father and son. It’s one of the best scores I’ve heard in a video game since 2012’s Journey.
God of War is a genre-defining epic, an emotionally powerful story, and a true modern gaming masterpiece. Game director Cory Barlog and the creative force at Santa Monica Studio deserve a huge applause for crafting an ambitious God of War experience that offers one of the most heart-wrenching and shocking pay offs in gaming history. The intimate journey leading up to that stresses the importance of being a role model, a mentor, and father in Kratos for Atreus, humanizing him while tugging at your heartstrings. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s simply an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.
God of War (PS4)
God of War (PS4) is a genre-defining epic, an emotionally powerful story, and a true modern gaming masterpiece.