When last we saw Kratos he was… running around the Hecatonchires in God of War: Ascension. Chronologically, though, we saw him finally exact his vengeance on his father Zeus at the close of God of War III. It’s been long enough that the Greek pantheon has faded into myth and the Norse gods have risen. Kratos, one-time God of War, is living a simple life in Midgard.
He has a family. Or rather, had. God of War for PlayStation 4 opens on Kratos cutting trees for his wife’s pyre. His son, Atreus, stands silent and unsure as both father and son wonder what life is going to be like without a mother and wife to stand between the pair and hold them together. But that’s a worry for a later time — there’s a dying wish to fulfil. Kratos’ wife wanted her family to scatter her ashes from the highest peak in the realms and it’s a wish that her husband means to fulfil, no matter the obstacles in the way.
If this sounds very different from the rage-fuelled Spartan you’re used to, you’d be spot on. The Ghost of Sparta is a very complex character in God of War, displaying emotional depths that were only hinted at in the games released in the previous generation. He’s managed to put a collar on his rage, but it’s made him withdrawn and stoic. He also has no idea how to deal with his young son. The pair, when God of War opens, are wary of each other as they haven’t spent much time together. Kratos battles to show his son his emotional side (which actually exists), opting to impart gruff lessons — at first, anyway.
The boy Atreus is similarly worried about how his father will react to his exuberance, spending the opening minutes of the game — and various instances when he’s waiting for his father — with eyes downcast. He also calls his father “sir” a whole lot, sounding contrite whenever Kratos scolds him. Both Atreus and Kratos have shields up and both worry about how to penetrate the other’s without putting themselves in (emotional) harm’s way.
All of which doesn’t sound much like God of War, on the surface of it. Much of the game revolves around Kratos and his son learning who each other are, how to interact with each other, and ultimately how to like each other. There’s an emotional range to the interactions between father and son, and between everyone sentient in Midgard, that is largely absent from many games. This may be a fantasy game but the interactions feel very real. God of War has set some sort of bar here.
But these interactions and their accompanying story, despite being the major drawcard for God of War, are not all there is to the game. God of War wouldn’t be the series it is if not for the visceral combat we’re all used to, and it’s still here. It’s tempered by Kratos’ newfound restraint, but the Spartan can still dismember enemies when the need arises… extremely violently, too, but he doesn’t seem to actively relish the task. It’s just a means to an end now.
There are several changes to the combat mechanics here. The in-game camera has been taken from a fixed cinematic point to a tighter view that puts you just behind Kratos. Every strike, thud, slash, and grapple is almost tangible as Kratos rips through low-level enemies like they’re nothing and when a dismemberment does take place, it’s in your face. There’s no getting away from it. This has the effect of making you feel far more connected with the combat.
Kratos has weapons at his command starting with the Leviathan Axe, a freezing weapon which can be thrown away and recalled at will. When the awe is thrown (or when it’s sheathed) Kratos switches to his fists — which do little physical damage but which stun most opponents, allowing for some spectacular finishers or a hefty damage-dealing interlude. Spartan Rage sticks around as well, for when you absolutely have to damage every enemy in the vicinity. It takes some getting used to, but a tactical switch between combat types quickly becomes second nature, as you build up enough Rage to unleash the Ghost of Sparta. The Axe can be upgraded with a selection of light and heavy Runic additions, which act as magical attacks that deal damage according to the type of rune you’ve equipped. The Runic attacks can also be upgraded, using the same experience points that confer new abilities on Kratos and son.
The boy Atreus also features as a combat tactic. Players can instruct him to fire arrows at enemies, distracting or stunning them for a hand-to-hand followup. When you’re not paying attention, Atreus tends to roam the battlefield acting semi-autonomously. He’ll attack enemies on his own if you’re not giving him instructions, but for the most part Atreus plays the dutiful son, assisting his father when told to do so. Unless he’s out of arrows, that it. Atreus is controlled with a single button (Square) but using him in battle while throwing and retrieving the axe and dealing stun damage to all and sundry is more intuitive than you’d expect on first appearances. The boy may be unruly at times but he has the makings of a fine warrior.
Path To Knowledge
God of War isn’t a wholly action title — there are several RPG elements to explore. Kratos and Atreus can have new abilities assigned after unlocking items in one of several upgrade trees. These upgrades are limited to the level of Kratos’ axe or Atreus bow — improve one of those and you can improve a new tier of skills. The weapon upgrade also lets you deal improved damage across the board.
These skills tie into the armour upgrades that Kratos has access to. You’ll either find or craft upgraded armour which will up your stats (exactly which stats depends on your item choice). These items can also be upgraded over several tiers and certain items can be socketed with various buff-conferring runes as well. These upgrades feed into a level number — this dictates which enemies you’ll be able to take on. If you’re rocking level 3 armour and weapons and you run up against a level 8 enemy (and they are lurking out in Midgard, waiting for the unwary), you’re going to have a very bad time.
The upgrade system is just the right blend of detailed and simple. If you want to, you can just slap on your newest or highest rated items and go off and slay monsters. If you want to tailor your armour and upgrades to give you an edge with a particular set of attacks, you can do that too. What you can’t do is ignore your upgrades altogether.
On An Adventure
However you choose to kit out Kratos and Atreus, you’re going to be running around some of the most stunning video game settings you’ve ever encountered. Midgard is a semi-open world and you’ve got autonomy when it comes to exploration, though you’ll be fenced in by a lack of upgrades — which is fine, it keeps you away from most of the high-level battles until you’re ready for them. You use a central bit of Midgard as a base point from which you’ll venture out and complete actual side-quests in addition to the main story. There are also other realms to explore — not the full nine of Norse mythology, though. That’ll be explained as you progress through God of War‘s brilliant story mode.
The epic vistas the series is known for are still in place, whether you’re roaming the coastlands with Jörmungandr being inscrutable in the background or coming across Thamur in the frozen wastes, or just witnessing a distant mountain of fire. The scenery is amazing, beaten only by the character animation seen in cut-scenes and even during world travel. There is loads of context-sensitive incidental dialogue which comes out sounding so natural that you’ll have trouble remembering that you’re watching a digital father and son make a significant dent in Midgard’s draugr population. Kratos, Atreus, and those they encounter act, talk, and seem like real people.
God Of War Verdict
God of War is a massive achievement for a video game series. It departs from its past, figuratively and literally, and manages to become more than it started out as. Kratos as an uncertain father and as a thinking, feeling being is a far better character than we could have ever imagined he’d be, and his journey with his son against the odds the world presents them is one you’re going to want to complete. More than once, most likely. But God of War also manages to stay true to its roots, to the point where you’ll have difficulty imagining how the series could have evolved any other way. The game attempts grand things and while it doesn’t always execute them completely successfully, God of War rarely puts a foot wrong. If you have a PlayStation 4, you should definitely have this on your radar.