Hot on the release of God of War 4 or just God of War if you want (I don’t, I like clarity), writing this review is something of a challenge for me. It feels like there’s pressure to heap praises upon this game, as so many others have done. This game certainly is a media darling, pretty much getting everybody on board.
Now, because I’m a natural contrarian, I feel slight uneasiness. It’s like I should expect from myself to spit poison at a game that I really like and I’m projecting this feeling on others while at the same time expecting them to lynch me for it. It’s a bad kind of cognitive dissonance. But, but! Far be it from me to refuse a challenge, review God of War (4) I shall!
In God of War (4) we play as Kratos, a half-god, half mortal and 100% badass, years after he exacted his (second) revenge upon Gods of Olympus, moved up North, hooked up with a cool lady named Faye and had a son named Atreus with her. Faye dies at the start of the game so Kratos and boy have to embark on a journey to spread her ashes over the highest peak in all of the Nine Realms as is her last wish. That journey is not going to be easy however, as Kratos is being hunted by a mysterious stranger who apparently possesses the power of a god.
Over the course of the game Kratos and Atreus will travel through the Nine Realms, meet important figures of Norse mythology, some of whom will become their enemies and some of whom will become their allies, and battle countless numbers of monsters standing in their way. What God of War (4) is, is essentially a fast-paced action adventure game with emphasis on cinematic fighting, set in a world of Nordic myths, continuing an epic saga of Kratos- the god of war. Got all of that? Ok, let’s talk specifics.
The beating heart of God of War (4).
I’m gonna do this review slightly different than usual and instead of starting with the graphics, going through mechanics and then story, I’ll begin with the mechanics of the game, because this really is the very core of the game. For God of War (4) to be a good game, everything else could have been broken, nothing could be good, but the mechanics of combat HAD TO work right.
This is also a point of contention because God of War (4) is, admittedly, a rather big departure from the kind of gameplay that the longtime fans of the series are used to. A bit of history first then: traditionally, God of War games play very similar to Devil may Cry– fights take place in closed arenas, with zoomed out, static camera. The point is for the players to be able to see the fights clearly, so that they can have an easy time managing a horde of enemies, chain combos and soak in all the violence. Now God of War (4) is… Not like that. But what is it then and does it work as its own thing?
Zoom in! Zoom IN!! ZOOM IN!!!
Ok so first, the camera is no longer fixed, it now follows (very closely) Kratos’s back. Second, the combat arenas (save for boss-fights) are no longer discrete, discernible locations, fights can now erupt seamlessly during your journey through the world. Third, the controls are simplified, boiling down to heavy and light attacks, dodge and a parry, which when timed well will let you perform a riposte on an opponent. Now this is definitely a complete departure from the series and as an effect God of War (4) plays unlike any of the previous games.
But that doesn’t mean this combat system is bad, oh no, it’s actually really good. Let me explain: Kratos’s heavy and light attacks have an incredibly satisfying feel to them, each swing feels like it’s suitably heavy and brutal and committing to an attack feels like something of a gamble. Riposting an opponent gives you an immensely satisfying “oomph” as the game slows down and switching from axe to shield bashes to bare hands flows naturally. Because the camera is so zoomed in (sometimes uncomfortably closely) the fights feel incredibly visceral and violent and ripping a mob to shreds in close view is super cool.
This kind of combat somewhat reminds of Metal Gear Rising or even actually of Dark Souls. It’s far less punishing than Dark Souls of course, but the principle is the same- maneuver, dodge, block and hack away when you find an opening. And it works AMAZINGLY well. Fights do not get tiring, ever, in fact it’s the opposite, sometimes overly long segments of walking get in the way of me just wanting to kill something. Despite his somber appearance Kratos has not lost an ounce of his touch, he’s just as brutal and unhinged as he always was.
During skirmishes you can utilize the help of Atreus and his bow to great effect- his arrows will stagger enemies and build up their stun meter, which allows you to kill them instantly. It’s all about mixing and matching your playstyle and finding one that suits you and there is a surprising depth and variety here. And of course, I do have to mention this, and mandatory SPOILER WARNING, Kratos’s iconic Chaos Blades, unmistakably missing from the promotional material, indeed appear in the later half of the game. They are awesome as always, giving the player great crowd-control capabilities. END OF SPOILER.
Added to that are frequent quick-time events that look suitably dramatic and impressive. Now a thing that I have to mention is that this coupled with cut-scenes running on game’s engine and being seamlessly woven into the game means that everything has this feeling of continuation that previous God of War games just did not have. You know that feeling when you fight a difficult boss for 15 straight minutes, it has a ton of health that goes down slowly… and then in a cut-scene Kratos ends them with one hit? Yeah, no, no more of that. In cut-scenes the fights are just as lengthy and brutal as in the game itself, lending to a sense of cohesiveness.
At one point Kratos engages in a brawl with the game’s primary antagonist on the back of a flying wyvern. Due to the beast rocking about, you and your opponent will get the upper hand in turns and when Kratos sits atop the lanky bad guy and just pummels his face in Every. Single. Punch can be felt. So yeah, this system IS a departure from the series. Yes, it’s less structured than in previous games. Yes the camera zooms in weirdly like in a movie directed by Tommy Wiseau sometimes. Does it make it worse? Hell NO. It’s FANTASTIC.
The scenery of mayhem.
Alright, now that you know what you’ll be doing in this game, let’s answer the questions: where are you going to be doing it and how good does this place look? The world of the Nine Realms is certainly a marvel to look at. God of War (4) has already been acclaimed as one of the, if not THE best looking game on PC 4 and it shows. The lightning and the shadows, the depth of textures and the quality of animation is outstanding. It easily rivals Horizon: Zero Dawn and in many ways surpasses it.
The entire game was captured in a single shot– every motion of the camera flows naturally from one place to the next. The game is never interrupted by a cut or a loading screen, it all just flows sooo naturally. And the visual style of the game strikes this line between artistic and realistic. Proportions are skewed where they should be, but Kratos, Atreus and all human NPCs look distinctly human. The colors of this world are vibrant and lively, giving it that distinctly “mythic” feel. It genuinely looks like an epic, draped on a wall in a Viking long-hut.
Moreover, the level-design is a treat for someone like me who very well understands the bane of many open-world games failing- namely that they forget that each location has to feel full of details. This is not just accomplished by making a realistic-looking grass, this is accomplished by designing the world in a tight and cohesive way and God of War (4) does that in spades.
Different realms, from Midgard to Jotunheim look distinctly different, each has a style and theme of their own that carries over to the enemies encountered therein and other obstacles that one might bump into like not infrequent puzzles. All in all this game just feels like a landscape, it’s difficult to say what it exactly is about it, but the level-design and attention to detail is just so on-point that despite often long periods of walking uninterrupted, it never feels like a walking simulator, there is just always something to hang your eyes on and there’s always a bit of dialogue accompanying it.
Dad of Boy.
And now we come to the best bit and the thing I wanted to talk about the most- the story of God of War (4). I’ll just go ahead and state this now: it’s FANTASTIC. It’s very much a straight-forward hero’s journey mixed in with a coming-of-age story of Kratos’s son. I cannot tell much out of fear of spoilers, but I can talk about two aspects of this story- presentation and theme. As mentioned, the game was made in one shot, it always follows Kratos’s shoulders and seamlessly moves to different capture points during cut-scenes.
What this means is that playing the game boils down to a single, continuous story, it is never interrupted and there is virtually NO gameplay-story segregation. It’s a very filmic experience, watching this story unfold before your eyes. Moreover the amount of little tidbits of information, small pieces of dialogue and moments of characterization is huge, making it all just completely overtake the player.
Secondly, as mentioned, the story’s scope changes from the Greek mythology to Norse mythology. And although this change is strange at first, it is actually brilliantly woven into the narrative, because what the authors did was capture the themes shared between the two cultural heritages and the underpinning tragedy of Kratos- that things move in cycles, that one cannot fight their destiny, that a person, although they may want to change, simply are what they are in the end. As some of you may know, this works perfectly with Norse myths, as they all revolve around Ragnarok– the prophesized end of days. Odin and his merry bunch wants to stop Ragnarok (because nobody wants to die) but in the end his actions only propel it forward and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And in this set-up, you have the journey of Kratos, old and grizzled warrior who literally destroyed an entire civilization. He feels the weight of all the innocent lives that he took, he knows what it’s like to be a monster, to be chained and commanded, he wants to change on account of his son… But he can’t. Kratos is not a good guy, he’s never going to be. But he’s at least trying to be a decent dad. At some point in the story a huge revelation is dropped and as the story unfolds the tragedy becomes apparent- he’s going to fail. He HAS TO fail. For nothing can stop the coming of Ragnarok.
And like… I’m sorry, I just really like dad stories. Ever since Dream Daddy I have this deep respect and admiration for dads. And I also love coming of age stories. It’s reeeaaally difficult for me to stay objective here, as far as I’m concerned, this kind of story really moves me.
Are you not entertained?
Like I said, it’s difficult for me to be critical about God of War. EVERYTHING about this game is done so freaking well, from combat to story, that the only point of vague criticism I can offer is: it’s different from the previous God of War titles. But I cannot criticize a game for not doing what it does not try to do, I can only look at what the game wants to do and attempt to answer the question: does it do what it wanted to do well? God of War does everything God of War wanted to do SPECTACULARLY. It never drops the ball ONCE.
If you just wanted another GoW title this might not be for you, but… Did you really just want another Ascension? Aaaand I just caught myself that I’d stopped referring to the game as God of War (4) which I guess means I’m defeated. I’m sorry, I tried, but this game is just great, what are you waiting for, go play it NOW!