Historically, God of War isn’t a franchise ingrained in emotion. Sure, Kratos is a tragic figure, his past mired in hubris, greed, and bloodlust. However, players were never expected to have anything beyond a cursory emotional attachment to the series lead. These words aren’t intended to diminish Kratos’ character. Yet, it is worth acknowledging that his star rose in a zeitgeist where the mascot character’s reign was beginning to wane if their name wasn’t Mario. Kratos’ success is arguably grounded in his brutality and in the world-class gameplay that made moving him around on-screen an exciting experience like none other. The industry has grown, though; thus, so, too, did God of War need to demonstrate maturity. Not the maturity present in the violence that once secured him a place on a Mortal Kombat roster, and not the maturity responsible for quick-time-event driven sex scenes. Story and character required front-and-center positioning. Thankfully, the other core tenets of God of War, specifically with regards to gameplay, were elevated as well for the franchise’s latest entry.
Several years removed from God of War 3’s explosive conclusion, this entry takes place in the lands of Nordic myth, likely in or around Scandinavia. Kratos, who’s laid new roots with a wife and son, is older and living a relatively quiet life. He’s abandoned the vestiges of his past, evidenced by his maintaining cloth on his arms where the Blades of Chaos once burned into him. This is all made apparent within the first few minutes as Kratos and his son, Atreus, prepare a pyre to burn the body of Atreus’ deceased mother, Faye. Soon thereafter, their mission is revealed. Faye’s sole wish was for her ashes to be spread from atop the tallest peak in the realms.
What follows is a taxing journey for an emotionally estranged father and son. Kratos works to tame his temper while helping the boy quell his own. It’s an interesting dynamic for a character whose distinguishing traits primarily manifest in fury. This development is expertly written and couldn’t have been better performed. Actor Christopher Judge, of Stargate SG-1 fame, takes the anger of Terrence C. Carson’s Kratos and implements new emotions that pervade the game’s narrative—anguish and a semblance of compassion. Judge’s excellent performance is met in kind, thanks to those who play opposite him; this is especially true of Atreus actor Sunny Suljic, Alastair Duncan as Mimir, and The Witch of the Woods’ performer, Danielle Bisutti.
Kratos and Atreus’ adventure is arduous. Players experience as much, but well-crafted mechanics, the open world-inspired exploration, and compelling RPG-elements make the difficult nature of their travels fun. Controlling Kratos feels good, too, heavier than normal, but good. There’s heft to his movement in and out of combat, yet it’s never cumbersome. Of course, this, along with the absence of a jump button, leads to the abandonment of God of War’s hack-and-slash roots. However, these changes are for the better. Combat is methodical, carefully paced and tighter in scope because the camera adopts the over-the-shoulder angle popularized by Gears of War. Therefore, the number of enemies on-screen at once is deflated. This decision, too, elevates the experience.
Kratos’ Leviathan axe provides the perfect weapon for dealing with God of War’s various enemy types. Nothing feels as satisfying as throwing the axe at a draugr, rushing to deal hand-to-hand blows, then pressing “triangle” to recall the weapon and continue the assault with axe attacks. Adding to the axe’s immense power are an upgrade tree and enchantments. Upgrades strengthen the axe’s abilities with additions such as allowing Kratos to target a number of enemies on a throw or launch an attack that sends the weapon soaring through the air like a boomerang after a roll/dodge. Power attacks that work on a cool down timer are also available. Atreus’ bow benefits from a similar upgrade tree.
Meanwhile, enchantments can be slotted into the axe that provides buffers to both Kratos and the weapon. These items, as well as armor and other materials, are purchasable from shops whose owners take part in a fascinating subplot of their own, one in which their character development mirrors that of Kratos’ and Atreus’ relationship.
Interestingly, combat isn’t the Leviathan axe’s sole purpose. The weapon acts as an invaluable tool in puzzles, of which there are countless scattered throughout the dense world. Some puzzles require learning a pattern, quick-thinking with regards to time, or shifting objects in the environment. All are solvable with patience, providing a challenge that never seems too difficult to overcome.
Collectibles, side missions, materials for crafting, and loot populate the world, too. A large hub-section, reminiscent of exploratory areas in Square Enix titles such as the latest Deus Ex or Tomb Raider entries, constitutes the game’s central area of traversal. In this massive space, players traverse using a boat and are able to dock on beaches at their leisure. Every item found and every side mission engaged has a purpose. They either inform the overarching character/narrative progression, aid in world-building or provide a means for upgrading Kratos, thereby further improving gameplay dynamics.
The stories shared between Kratos, Atreus, and their ally Mimir, which delve into Norse mythology, signifies another aspect deserving of praise. All are worth listening to, since they amplify an already stellar experience that’s made all the more triumphant because of its many innovative elements. One such element includes the never cutting, single-shot camera. The glory of the camerawork is most notably on display during boss fights, or what from here on out will be fondly remembered as the best superhero fights gaming has on offer. Kratos battles an enemy early on that echoes a Superman versus General Zod match. Perhaps Mimir in subsequent God of War entries will tell tales of these battles in a manner befitting those that he shares of Thor’s fights with the Giants. Given the twists and turns permeating the narrative’s final act, developer Sony Santa Monica has plans for Kratos’ future that mean to exhibit spectacle and elicit an emotional response of a higher order than is presented here. Simply put, this latest edition of the God of War saga is a masterpiece.