Chaos in Midgard
“The time draws near. You must prepare yourself.”
Played on: PlayStation 4
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Genre: Action-adventure, hack and slash
Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: April 20, 2018
I didn’t play the original God of War games at the time of release.
I didn’t have a PlayStation long enough to play them and if I’m being completely honest I didn’t really have much of an interest anyway. Despite how critically acclaimed the main entries are, the general makeup of the series didn’t capture my imagination. The fixed camera angles and hack and slash gameplay wasn’t appealing to me.
Fast forward to 2016 and a new God of War title was revealed. It was a nearly complete reimaging of what had come before and it piqued my interest.
The frantic action was replaced with a more deliberate approach to combat. Instead of the fixed camera angles of yore, we saw a free form, over-the-shoulder perspective in its place. A new setting exploring Norse mythology and a fresh story were introduced. All of these changes marked a stark contrast to what had come before. From the moment it was revealed at E3 in 2016 there was a palpable yet ambivalent excitement surrounding the title.
Upon release it was met with universal acclaim and every aspect of the game was lauded. Not to say that it's perfect by any means, it remains an impeccable experience and as close to flawless as I and many others could have hoped for.
God of War is a success story and my personal favourite game of the eighth console generation. Here’s why.
Father and son
The main strength of God of War 2018 is undoubtedly the character progression of our protagonist Kratos and the new journey he embarks upon.
Here we see a more seasoned Kratos mourning his second wife, along with his son Atreus. Their mission is seemingly simple—reach the highest peak of all the nine realms and spread her ashes. The basic premise is so far removed from the God of War stories that came before and is representative of the overall emotive plotting we see.
I’m not spoiling anything more with regards to the story. It’s too experiential.
Kratos’ role has changed. He was once a rage-fuelled dynamo of wanton destruction. Now he is an older, wiser man. A father, a mentor and a man grieving for the loss of his wife who is setting forth to fulfill her final wish. By the time we catch up with him, he lives a seemingly-quiet life in the woods with his son. Atreus was a sick boy for most of his young life and now he is well enough to accompany his father on his trek to the highest peak.
The dynamic between father and son is established early. Kratos is harsh on his son, encouraging him to be better and not sorry, and rarely even using his name, referring to him only as “boy”. You get the distinct impression he does care for Atreus and wants the best for him but feels as though he needs to be hard on him. Through the exploration of this relationship we see how far The Ghost of Sparta has come—he exhibits restraint where he would have once flown into a blind rage. This is a Kratos who has begun to master the anger that once defined him. He, like his son, has a lot of learning to do—as a father, teacher and as a person—but you feel he is doing his best.
Raising Kratos—a look into the arduous reinvention of an iconic gaming series
All of this is discovered within the opening scenarios of the game, but this new edge to the beloved character would be nothing without meaningful progression. We see Kratos learning and his heart grow. The development of the White Warrior was so involved and ultimately well-received, it became the subject of a feature-length documentary entitled Raising Kratos. It contains spoilers so be wary, but for me it was a great way to cap off playing God of War.
Wrath of the gods
Combat has been reconceptualised in this fourth main series game, in-keeping with the personality of the more reserved and calculated Kratos.
Here we see a more action/RPG approach to battle as opposed to the frenetic action seen in the series so far. The usual bells and whistles are present—attack combos, heavy and light strikes and plenty of mobility. There is loot present in the game, allowing our heroes to receive incremental and infrequent significant upgrades along their skirmish-laden odyssey. The Leviathan Axe, your primary instrument of destruction, is simply sublime to wield. Its versatility is it’s true power. Not only can you use it to defeat your enemies, you use it as a tool and can be thrown great distances in combat and return to you. This not only gives the player an invaluable tool for traversing Midgard, it presents us with varying tactical options. Up close and personal may not be your style, so you can lure enemies in with thrown attacks and whittle them down, and vice versa.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the game is undoubtedly Atreus and his usefulness in battle.
This is no mere escort mission. The boy has an array of abilities which can be unlocked and upgraded over time. With his help, you can turn the tide of battle even when you’re feeling the most defeatist. Using the Talon Bow, he will help you damage, disable and shock your foes, giving the father/son tandem the opportunity to reshape encounters. The creative choice to use dual protagonists had to be somewhat inspired by Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, but ramped up to another level. Not having to worry about babysitting Atreus was enough, but his utility was a welcome surprise.
It wouldn’t be a God of War game without bosses, would it?
While they are less plentiful than previous entries, there are numerous challenging boss fights to keep you occupied. A lot of them are with human/humanoid size enemies. Most of them don’t possess the more monstrous stature like the ones fought in Greece, but their ferocity is on display in different ways. Quite often they’re as exceptionally strong and powerful as Kratos is, leading to bombastic fights filled with destruction. The standard enemies you encounter are fun and challenging, with some bordering on frustrating. I’m still not quite over the dark elves of Alfheim and their tactics. Draugr, trolls, wolves and a whole lot more make the experience as challenging as you would expect, on the normal difficulty level at least. The bestiary is varied and each enemy type is going to present you with a different challenge—the dark elves are elusive, trolls possess brutish might—you will be kept guessing and having to adjust your tactics throughout the whole game.
While the gameplay overall is something new, there are shades of the older games to be found. You get to fight massive creatures, unleash devastatingly frantic and powerful offense along with some simply wonderful surprises inspired by the Greece-set titles.
The realms are calling
What a wonderful decision it was to bring the series to Norway and use this mythology.
While not a true open world, God of War boasts absolutely stunning environments. There are several connected hub areas which make up the overworld. Incredible design and detail come together to create one of the most gorgeous gaming worlds you will ever see.
The basics are outstanding. The Kratos homestead and its surrounding forestry, foliage, snow and ice are beautiful. The vast mountains look impossibly big. One of the standout locations throughout your journey is without a doubt the Lake of Nine. A large body of water containing several statues, vistas and multiple structures, it’s a good thing you’ll be spending a big portion of the game here—it’s sheer eye candy.
Beyond the confines of Midgard we get to see some of the other realms on offer. These more fantastical locations are wonderfully realised, with some subverting expectations in the best way possible. Each realm boasts copious amounts of character and identity—when you’re trudging through wades of dead dark elves, you know it’s Alfheim immediately.
The world itself is littered with a variety of collectibles, but it strikes a fine balance between having enough to do, and not being too overbearing. Accompanying your main mission to the highest peak are a number of side quests. There aren't an awful lot of them but once again there are enough to bide your time when you want to see what else is on offer. Fortunately, barring two in particular, the side quests are not overly taxing or time-consuming. If I had any complaint in relation to them, it would be that there aren’t enough of them.
Skaldic poetry in motion
The performances from the cast here are powerful.
Christopher Judge of Stargate SG-1 fame was a newcomer to the role of Kratos. His physicality, presence and sheer gravitas brought a stoic demeanour to The Ghost of Sparta. His voice acting alone is expressive and powerful, let alone his motion capture performance. The dashes of humour here and there go lengths to humanise the ferocious God of War. The other star of the show here is Atreus actor Sunny Suljic. Despite being a pre-teen at the time, he displayed an incredible range that would make some more accomplished actors envious. This main duo has great chemistry, which translated to an unlikely friendship in real life.
Of course with this being a God of War game, the Norse gods are present. They’re different from the residents of Mount Olympus in several key areas. They’re not enormous in size and some, arguably, are inferior to Kratos in terms of sheer power. This offers an interesting dynamic and helps some battles and cutscenes develop in unexpected ways.
From start to finish the game hinges on serious, emotional tones. Mercifully, there are plenty of comedic moments provided by the hilarious Mimir and brilliant levity from the Huldra Brothers—Brok and Sindri. It’s not all doom and gloom, there are enough tension-breaking moments to keep your adventure from ever growing too dour.
The exceptional soundtrack from composer Bear McCreary
Completing this true artistic vision is the original soundtrack from Bear McCreary.
It’s still a part of my daily listening habits and it transports me back to my incredible experience with this game every single time. The theme song is hair-raising and powerful—the booming vocals are befitting Kratos and son's Norwegian rampage. It’s very much a complete soundtrack. It covers tender, heartfelt highs and lows along with epic, empowering pieces that make you feel like you are the human weapon you’re playing as. Every note feels purposeful with no wasted motion.
With God of War, you’re treated to a cacophony of emotions that you can hear, see and truly feel.
Three years later
As far as modern, single player blockbusters go, this is the complete package—technically, gameplay, story—the works.
If you haven’t played this yet I would implore you to do so. It’s a rare instance of the planets aligning and a calculated risk paying off more so than anyone could have expected. The move forward in time and location was ballsy and could have ended up disastrously. The development of the game is storied and now the stage is set for a sequel that will doubtlessly prove to be a smash hit.
Santa Monica Studio have proven themselves to be one of the best development houses in the world several times over and with this 2018 edition in their much-vaunted series, that reputation has become crystallised.
Don’t be sorry, be better, and play this game.
All images taken from the God of War (2018) press kit here
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