'God of War' Review: Believe The Hype

The bar for Game of the year has been set.
God of War is amazing.
God of War is amazing. Sony / Player.One / Rocco Marrongelli

Speaking from recent experience, having a kid changes you. That it's seen as a cliche speaks to the cynicism you shed when it happens to you. I am suddenly a father. The world is different now.

Kratos understands.

He is a demigod, but you probably know that already. He is also a father and, as the story begins, you learn he is now a widower too. His wife Faye, mother to his son Atreus, has passed away. What remains are Faye’s last wishes, and a gulf between father and son as wide as that between mortals and gods. Her request sets the two upon a journey that softens an otherwise cold story about a Greek god on a self-imposed asylum in Norse Midgard.

The magic of God of War stems from its focus on Kratos and Atreus. Although I imagine the impact will be lessened among those who aren’t parents or, more broadly, aren’t men (there is only one female character of note). But everyone was a child once, and all of us intrinsically understand how important a father’s presence, or absence, can be.

His dad can beat up your dad.
His dad can beat up your dad. Sony

Too often RPGs get bogged down by dense narrative. Here, the father-son dynamic maintains a familiar throughline that keeps your focus on the characters instead of the world-building. By letting the background be background, it shines. There’s an abundance of jaw-dropping views and sleek, mysterious temple ruins. Journal entries gleaned from found narrative abound.

Linear in nature, God of War twists the point-A to point-B construct around a large lake dotted with islands and surrounded by towers that lead to other realms. Charming father/son moments occur during the many boat rides. There is a partial fast-travel system tied to magical gates that, for about the first half of the game, only work one way. It’s a smart alternative to zipping between fast-travel checkpoints over and over, and the map size isn’t cumbersome on foot.

Navigating God of War isn’t always easy, though. Because you can only dock the boats at certain locations, I desperately hugged shorelines chasing waypoints (the map doesn’t zoom in far enough to provide much help, either). This creates a massive amount of ludonarrative dissonance in that you, a nigh invincible Greek god of war, cannot hop out into ankle-deep water and jog up a beach or hoist yourself over a fallen log. God of War excels at making you deeply immersed, so you’re hyper aware when it gets ripped away.

You will want to hop off and go ashore often because you can see a tantalizing number of treasure chests as you travel. God of War is full of loot, most of it hidden or hard to reach, and chasing cache after cache of ancient plunder is both immensely distracting and satisfying. If you have the willpower to ignore the allure of puzzles and rewards (mostly finding and destroying hidden seals to unlock chests or backtracking to use new powers on previously insurmountable obstacles) you can finish the game in ~20 hours. A meandering pace would put you closer to 30 and if you go heavy on the end-game content maybe another 5-10.

Do as much or as little exploring as you like, but I suspect most players will find themselves in the “much” category. The stunning aesthetics of the ruins and temples are surpassed only by the challenging enemies housed within them. Visceral, complex melee combat fuels the action. God of War does justice to the franchise legacy as a premiere place for high-adrenaline button mashing.

God of War has a softer side than previous entries in the franchise.
God of War has a softer side than previous entries in the franchise. Sony

Kratos’ Leviathan Axe serves a dual role. It is his main weapon for most of the game, and can be upgraded extensively. The crafting and customization can be a bit dizzying at first, but soon you’ll understand the value of enchantment sockets and runic attacks. It can also be thrown and recalled at will, making it an effective tool for puzzle-solving. It freezes gears in place too, and God of War manages to squeeze a lot of variety out of the push/pull/freeze physics.

The combat difficulty, even on “normal,” is in a wonderful sweet spot. Enemies scale nicely and you are not simply a meat grinder by game’s end. Killing tough foes yields rare crafting materials, an added incentive that keeps you engaged in fights even if you’re dying over and over. (One tiny complaint: health pickups in battle. I felt I died a lot because of a delay between when I hit circle and when Kratos knelt to get the health.) But for all its wonderful combat and exploration and crafting, it is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus that drives God of War.

A focus on father and son keeps a fantastical story grounded.
A focus on father and son keeps a fantastical story grounded. Sony

Like Kratos, you instantly recognize the ways Atreus is like his father. By contrast, you learn who Faye was by observing all of Atreus’ un-Kratos-like behaviors, too. And he proves to be a worthy companion. He will point out clues for puzzles, and you'll make considerable upgrades to his bow and abilities throughout the game. Anyone thinking God of War could be a bit too similar to The Last Of Us can relax. Atreus and Kratos are a savage duo of front-facing warriors; there is no stealth in sight.

Capturing authentic childhood runs the risk of making a one-dimensional character that is immature, grating and obvious. But the writing, and Sunny Suljic’s acting, succeed in this difficult task. You care about Atreus and, by extension, are concerned about Kratos. A real tension drives the game as you worry what would happen if the worst befell Atreus. It’s clear Kratos worries about the same.

Kratos has a lot on his mind.
Kratos has a lot on his mind. Sony

Kratos’ desperation is palpable amidst his brooding. His distrust of immortals runs deep, and that includes himself. He keeps Atreus at a distance in a futile attempt to spare the boy from collateral damage. God of War turns on a few pivotal moments, and Atreus demeanor adjusts appropriately. At times he has an attitude, and you suddenly miss the affable sidekick you took for granted. And you wonder what you’re going to do to get him back. And what the consequences will be if you don’t.

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