Kratos has reinvented himself in one of the best action adventures of recent years.
Kratos has changed, and with him, God of War. This is the first game in the saga created from scratch for PlayStation 4, and it comes five years after God of War: Ascension. Behind it there's a seven-game legacy (two on PS2, two on PSP, two on PS3, and one on mobile) that has always followed the same formula - Greek mythology, fixed camera angles, and fast-paced combat based on combos. A huge saga, full of epic moments, some gratuitous sex, and lots of violence, all in a man's - a god's - story of revenge against his counterparts on Olympus.
This new God of War marks a drastic separation from this legacy at all levels, but the protagonist remains. You will once again play as Kratos, son of Zeus and previous God of War, but now in the realm of Midgard. The action takes place many years after the tragic events of God of War III, and in that time Kratos has built a new family for himself. The game starts shortly after the death of Kratos' new wife, which leaves him solely responsible for his son Atreus. Father and son embark on a journey to fulfill her last wish, to spread her ashes atop the highest mountain, and this forms the main premise of the game. It's not a story of revenge, and it's not a story about saving the world. It is instead a very intimate and personal journey for both of them.
During this long and arduous journey, you will meet other characters, rediscover a little of Kratos's past, and above all develop the father-son relationship between Kratos and Atreus. That is the main focus of this story. It's the adventure of a father and a son who, over long hours of play, discover themselves in surprising ways. It's not as emotional or profound as something like The Last of Us, but it's compelling and a journey worth following.
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Kratos is no longer the furious god of the third game, who was completely blinded by rage and without care for human life. In part, Kratos seemed almost a villain in God of War III, but in this new game he is calmer and more thoughtful. Don't expect a 180 change though, he continues to be extremely unfriendly, rude, and aggressive, and whenever he helps someone, it's either for his own convenience or by accident. Atreus balances that attitude. He is younger, more enthusiastic about the adventure, and about meeting other people. Almost naive, he also wishes to be helpful without actually considering what's in it for him. It's a mixture that works quite well throughout the narrative.
So what about the gods? The new God of War is based on Norse mythology, featuring Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and Baldur, among many others. Will you be seeing any gods during the game? Yes, but you must consider this a new beginning. Don't expect to go barging into Asgard to beat the crap out of all the Norse gods. In addition, there are many other elements of Norse mythology present in the game. The Bifrost, Valkyries, Elves, World Serpent, and of course, the Draugr - viking zombies, basically - are all here. There are many references, plenty of surprises, and lots of content waiting for you.
You'll be visiting several locations throughout the adventure, but God of War is not an open world game. It's a linear adventure, even if it's one without loading screens. The story path is always fairly straightforward, but the game is packed with hidden areas and secrets, including dozens of collectibles, features, chests, and various types of challenges to overcome, like the game's most difficult battles. On top of that there are also puzzles, traps, treasure maps, and secondary missions (here referred to as 'favours'), plus secret mini-dungeons. God of War is a massive game, probably longer than the original trilogy combined, although the world itself is fairly linear. The only area that is open is a huge lake which you can explore by boat, and it allows access to small islands, shipwrecks, ruined cities, and a few temples.
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God of War also includes some elements in the Metroidvania vain, in the sense that it involves backtracking. As you unlock new skills and abilities, you'll be able to gain access to areas or objects that you have not been able to reach before. Eventually, you can also access an instant travel system, although it's not fully available until much later in the game.
This new chapter on the PS4 marks a change in narrative style, game structure, theme, and above all gameplay. If the previous games were frantic and combo-based, the new God of War is much more personal, slow, and tactical. Instead of a camera with fixed angles, there's a new controllable camera positioned near the shoulder of Kratos, and instead of the versatile blades of previous games, you'll be carrying a powerful axe. This axe, Leviathan, is magical and imbued with the power of ice. Kratos can also summon it from anywhere, at any time, by pressing triangle, which means you can hurl it an enemy and quickly call it back, making for both a short and long-range weapon.
As the axe has these two capabilities, it offers several tactical opportunities. For instance, you can throw the axe at an enemy and leave it there, making the target frozen for a few seconds. In addition to the axe, Kratos can also use his fists and a shield, along with his son's bow. Atreus can stun enemies, shoot targets, and as he evolves, perform other useful actions. During combat he may become unavailable, either because he's been grabbed by an opponent, or because he suffered too much damage, but he never dies or becomes a nuisance.
These abilities can be evolved with experience points; the axe's long and short range attacks, the fists, the shield, and even Atreus. You can unlock several new moves for each one, and also improve their efficiency. Another element to consider in combat is the ability to stun enemies. If you use Atreus's arrows and Kratos's fists and shield, you will raise a stun bar on the opponents (you have to keep at it, or it will lower), and when this bar fills up you can perform a violent final attack that destroys the enemy, even if they still have health left. One more option to consider during the fighting, then.
In terms of controls, you can block with the shield (and counter-attack with a timely block), use fast and strong attacks, throw and recall the axe, and ask Atreus for help. You can also activate Kratos's fury (you become almost invulnerable and deal great damage), dodge in any direction, and use three equippable special abilities. The axe has two rune slots, and each one (plus a talisman) gives access to a different power. You can create a whirlwind of ice, shoot a shockwave, and even slow time, among other abilities. Atreus can also equip specific runes on his bow which allow him to summon magic wolves, for instance.
All of this provides tactical variety for the player to explore, but we think it's a fantastic combat system for several reasons. For starters, it's extremely rewarding. All the actions have a fantastic weight to them, created by a mix of enemy reactions, the furious animations, an impeccable response to the controls, and excellent sound effects. Summoning the axe, causing it to stun the enemy in front of us, and then cutting its head via a charged attack is something that never gets old. It's a high-quality combat system with room for the player to explore several possibilities.
Kratos also has attributes: health, defense, strength, luck, runic power, and cooldown (how long the skills take to recharge). The game doesn't, however, have a typical system of experience-based levels. Instead, the attributes are defined by the equipped gear, while Kratos's level is defined by the attribute values. You can equip chest armor, wrist armor, and waist armor, as well as equip magic runes, talismans, and handles for the axe. The quality of these items range from common to epic, and each can be evolved multiple times, but it's not as linear as finding the 'better' ones, it's also about finding your play style. For example, a player may focus on strength and defence to enhance melee combat, while another may evolve runic power and cooldown to perform more powerful abilities more often. Or you can create a balance. It's not the same as playing with a warrior, a mage, or a thief - it's not an RPG - but within the specified combat system there's freedom to tweak things.
All of these systems work quite well together and offer a very rewarding experience at all levels. Explore the scenery to find resources, improve your gear, and finetune the set to create a specialised style of play, and then put it into practice during intense battles. It's a fantastic gameplay cycle, though some players may lament the absence of a greater range of weapons. Well, there is one more weapon, which you will get after many hours of gameplay, and it includes its own skill tree, runes, and upgrades. What is? Well, you'll have to discover while playing... but it's glorious (though the axe will still be perfectly effective if you prefer to play with it).
There are many differences to the previous games, but one of the most notorious will be the absence of the jump ability. Kratos can jump here, but only at specific times. You cannot jump during combat for example, and there are no platform sections like in previous games. It's also a limited game in terms of movement, with many invisible barriers. For example, you can't fall off cliffs or descend from a platform unless the game allows it, which didn't bother us at all, but we understand that some fans may have some issues with these restrictions of movement.
Combat and exploration form the bulk of God of War's experience, but there are also small puzzles and traps to overcome. Some are inventive and interesting, but they're not particularly difficult or challenging. No, the true challenge of God of War comes through combat. The variety of enemies in the game is impressive, all with excellent design and specific behaviours, from ice monsters immune to the axe, to flying eyes that blind Kratos, and even witches that can only be stunned by Atreus's arrows. You can't approach all battles the same way, and that pleased us immensely. There are also bosses that provide some memorable battles, even though they aren't quite as grand as those from God of War III (that game is unparalleled in terms of boss battles). There are also other optional fights against powerful enemies, who will certainly offer a worthy challenge to the bravest.
God of War is also a great technical feat. It's beautiful, both from an art and technical standpoint, but more impressive than that is the fact that it runs from beginning to end as a continuous shoot. What we mean is that it never cuts the camera. There are no cuts for the characters to sleep, to remember the past, or to show what's going on elsewhere. The camera is always focused on Kratos or Atreus, and it's as if someone filmed the game from start to finish in a single continuous sequence. It's impressive, and a design feat that must have given Santa Monica Studio nightmares, but they pulled it off. Even fast travel is done through a parallel realm, used to load the map without actually resorting to loading screens. The only time the game cuts the camera is when the player dies or when accessing menus. A word must also be said for some impressive sound effects, great acting, and epic soundtrack.
God of War is a phenomenal game. The fact that, after more than 40 hours of play, we still want more and we're looking forward to restarting the adventure on a new difficulty (we're already playing on hard), should tell you of how much we appreciated this adventure. It's a tremendous game that rewards exploration, and that includes one of the most satisfying combat we've come across in a long time. If you're a fan of God of War, you owe it to yourself to try out this new approach, and if you're not, it's quite possible this game will change that.
10 / 10
Powerful combat system with tactical opportunities, Amazing technical feat, High production values, Long adventure with a lot of extra content.
Not as 'epic' as God of War III, Some fans might be turned away by the changes.