The Greek pantheon has one of the most diverse selection of gods, deities, titans, and familiars to choose from. Of that number, you have a pretty large section that are instantly recognizable thanks to present-day appearances and the zeitgeist in general. All of this is to say that Santa Monica Studio had a huge, popular tome of names and abilities to pull from with the original God of War series and a short distance to walk to prove those gods were jerk bags. Every Greek poet ever has given them all the ammunition humanly possible for that, which ended up giving the old titles their straight-forward, shallow, and exciting feel.
The God of War of the present wants nothing to do with shallow, gallops away from the button-mashing, and avoids the easy answers completely. What the series has evolved into is one of the closest interactive experiences to a blockbuster screenplay the game world has ever seen.
As I touched on above, shifting to Norse mythology, especially with Marvel running their version of Norse-based Thor, put a limiter plate on how many gods Kratos could come out swinging against. Instead of bringing back the madness of his unrestrained anger, Santa Monica opted for a more focused protagonist with rage simmering from the edges rather than on full blast. The character, his mission, and the world all feel appropriately woven without having to break and reset bones as a result. Everything follows is Kratos’ footsteps and more narrowed vision.
Kratos has let time enough pass to gather himself a small family that has just lost its matriarch when we join in, leaving the god with his son Atreus. Her ceremonial funeral happens and our mission is set: fulfill her final wish and take her ashes to the highest peak in the nine Norse realms. No matter how deep your knowledge well runs of Norse gods, there’s a fresh take present throughout with Thor and Odin playing pivotal roles in building this massive world. I’m much more into Greek and Roman gods and their shenanigans so I met many new faces and names such as Mimir and the World Serpent that are delightful in opposite ways. This was a freshly opened door to a new world for me, giving me and Kratos some common ground to stand on for once.
The story in God of War is refreshingly simple given just how over-the-top previous games famously went. The heart of the story is Kratos teaching his boy how to grow and live when the world around you wants you dead, and how to do it with honor in a “don’t repeat my mistakes” frame. What struck me is the setups throughout that actually paid off in increasingly larger ways. Even the most cinematic of games don’t approach the art of screenplay writing because someone somewhere said it wouldn’t work in a game environment. Santa Monica’s proof here is for the opposite; a small detail such as Kratos covering up a group of floorboards or one of their companions showing fear of a found relic can lead to explosive results. There’s a purpose that a lot of games lack in every cutscene, which is the simplest way in the world to keep you engrossed throughout.
Battling feels slow in the best way. The Souls formula serves the axe-wielding Kratos well as he uses a small collection of base attacks, some cooldown abilities, and Atreus to knock the stuffing out of enemies. Again, the smaller scale allows for fights to be more intimate and calculated, strengths and weaknesses playing a large and consistent role throughout. The few gripes I have are with the few ground-burrowing enemies that seem too resistant to stunning, and some post game material I’ll come back to, but the whole is a wondrous, violent surgery compared to the old arenas. Leveling is present and deliberately slow with a cap at 8 and a color coded enemy health bar system lets you know when to knock or sprint away. I did enjoy the gear collecting aspect as well, but would’ve liked even less of it in all honesty. I didn’t want to scroll through menus for as long as I did in a game this engaging.
Boss fights overall are underwhelming when you consider the mini-bosses. There are still fully-scaled, massive encounters that take you to every corner of an area against foes your size and larger, but too many fall into the common-enemy-made-stronger range. Trolls, for the love of Odin, are everywhere and in every color. There are several times that an enemy is pre-built with enough lore that you know it’ll be a boss of some sort, hopefully one of a new design and danger profile, but it ends up being a troll. A squishy, simple to dodge troll that you fight within the first twenty minutes of the game. I do love the end boss and the big second act meanie. I just wish there was more love to give all around.
To accompany the first time that God of War has gone open zone (not world) is the first time that your playful extras are sewn into the main experience. Muspelheim and Niflheim are a series of battle arenas and a changing dungeon-like, respectively, to take the place of the old challenges. Both perform well enough for post-game grinds for the highest legendary armor, but my favorite deals with the legendary 8: the Valkyries. These are super bosses that Kratos has to be in tip-top shape to successfully finish and will gain both loot and lore as a reward. In a game full of side quests that respect your time, this is the best of the best. My aforementioned gripe here is that their unblockable attacks can sometimes continue through stuns, leading to a cheap death or ten, but most are a few steps away from a respawn point to partially counter this issue.
The beautiful world(s) cannot be ignored here either with colors and scale to match the protagonist himself. Each world accessed from Midgard is its own open zone with the loading hidden very cleverly behind the Tree of Life’s own mechanisms. Midgard is the largest area by far and not all worlds are accessible within the game, but the visual differences really do make visiting each a treat. Alfheim is my favorite visually with cherry and lighter reds dancing across a wide lake of powerful magic, again, making me forlorn for more to do and accomplish within the zone.
God of War has evolved and matured to a degree beyond what some human beings will ever reach, let alone its peers in software. Inside this husk of rage will you find spun mastery in scene building on top of a strong combat system and a world ripe for exploration. I don’t lament too heavily the over-indulgence of character bosses or my other small gripes because I walked away with a redefined passion for a series I never fully cared about before now. If the first run of games was a rock concert that advertised its specialties at every turn, then this is a whispered secret of something truly special to come, and I’m willing to bet that secret won’t stay so for long.
God of War Score: