04/29/18 – Final Update: In which the journey comes to an end.

Rating: 9.75/10

 

Atreus: “Father? Did something change? The forest feels different, now.”
Kratos: “Everything is different, boy.”

And so it is.

Within the first two minutes of God of War, the team at Santa Monica makes it abundantly clear that they are crafting a game unlike anything in the series so far. I’ve already detailed the vastly different approach taken for the gameplay and the mechanics, as well as how those have paid off in spades, so now we come to the story. And boy-howdy is it ever a story.

The plot follows Kratos and his son Atreus as they make their way to the highest peak in all the realms to scatter the ashes of Faye, Kratos’ wife, and the boy’s mother. The comparitive normality of the concept should be immediately evident to any fan of God of War I-III: games that typically focused on massive, high-concept slaughterfests driven by a very angry protagonist. First, Kratos wanted absolution, and he was willing to kill everything in his path to achieve that end. When it was denied to him, he became consumed by his thirst for revenge and relished in the carnage that followed.

While he was far from a terrible character, he was the epitome of one-dimensional. He did some bad stuff, and now he’s an angry boy… and that was pretty much it. It still astounds me to say it, but Corey Barlog and the rest of the team took that flat conduit for rage and turned him into one of the most grounded, evolving, and genuinely deep characters in the history of gaming. And here’s the real kicker, they did it by harnessing the best and worst elements of the franchise up to this point.

It’s difficult to explain exactly what makes the story so gripping without spoiling literally every God of War game ever made, and I’m not sure I quite possess the linguistic coordination necessary to dance around the finer points of the narrative without going full-on bull in a china shop, so I’ll just opt for the broad-strokes approach. It’s a real shame, because God of War, especially when viewed through the lens of the previous games, is damn near poetic.

Outwardly, the game is about learning how to be a parent. It’s no secret that Kratos doesn’t exactly have the best track record with kids, and he certainly didn’t have a particularly healthy relationship with his father either. So, how would a man like that relate to his son? What values would he teach a young boy? How does a person to whom emotions come with difficulty express himself to a child who craves his approval? These questions are all examined with such intimate sincerity that it’s clear the subject was very close to the developers.

These themes are supported brilliantly by not only the supporting cast but also just about every side quest or obtainable bit of Norse lore. Stories of arrogance, revenge, and family betrayal all give weight to Kratos and Atreus’ difficult relationship, and afford them a plethora of opportunities to talk over these ideas. I’m struggling to find a game with a tighter, better-delivered story, with the possible exception of The Last of Us, although it’s a closer fight than I could ever have predicted.

It also helps that the plot didn’t go in the direction I had expected at all. This has more to do with the character of Atreus than anything else, as his development was surprisingly well realized. As his perspective shifts, so does his attitude. As he learns more about himself and his father, he begins to act differently, but never once did it feel forced or overdone. By the conclusion, I truly felt that things went exactly as they had to in order to do justice to these characters.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that with God of War, Santa Monica Studio has reached a rarely trodden level of narrative complexity and intelligence in games. The way things unfolded and evolved, along with the ever-present themes holding up every story beat, the experience felt far more like a thoughtful, artistic film than an action blockbuster. And if this weren’t enough, they also used the mechanical and presentational differences between this and previous games to further support the story.

I said earlier that the game, outwardly, was about parenting. If this is true, then inwardly it is about the hope for change. Kratos is a violent man with a violent past who does violent things, but does he always have to be? He was a terrible, vengeful god, but must all gods be this way forever? Perhaps even more importantly, is Atreus doomed to the same fate as his father?

While the characters grapple with these concepts, the development team does too, just not for themselves. The God of War franchise is violent a collection of games with a violent history filled with violent things, but does it always have to be? Mature games have always reveled in blood, gore, and sex, but must all serious games be this way forever? Perhaps even more importantly, will future entries be doomed to the same fate as their prequels?

This sense that the developers were trying to build a hopeful future on a bloody past is present in all aspects of the design, from the combat to the puzzles, and is even visually represented on Kratos’s body. On his back, he hangs his axe from a hook in the shape of the Greek symbol for war – which is also the logo of the series. The axe, given to him by his wife after her death, is a bold departure from the arcadey combat of the previous games on a mechanical level, and a symbol of a hopeful future on a narrative level. In this sense, the hook symbolizes Kratos past, and also works as a handy way to store his weapon. The past supports the future, holds it up. This game would not have been nearly as effective on any level were it not for what came before.

It’s not often that I find a game that so effectively resists criticism. It’s no exaggeration to say that just about everything God of War sets out to do, it does exceptionally well. Most any complaint I can think of feels more like nit-picking than anything resembling productive critique. Sure, it’s very convenient that any climbable surface is painted to indicate it’s mountability. Yeah, some of the dialogue is a tad obvious. I suppose the kill animations did get repetitive after a few fights, but even so, they were pretty badass. The only legitimate area that the game could be improved would be to better balance the XP acquisition to upgrade cost ratio so players don’t routinely find themselves with tens of thousands of points in reserve that can’t be used until they’re able to enhance their weapon.

Minor issues aside, God of War is a triumph. With a thoughtful, self-reflective narrative and elegant character development, the story is among the best I’ve seen in years. By combining tight, strategic but fast-paced gameplay and the staggering technical achievement of its camera, this game is as breathtaking under the hood as it is above. Without a doubt the best game on the PS4 and a strong contender for the best of the generation, God of War is a spectacular masterpiece.

It also speaks to the place inside each of us that hopes against all hope that we can be better tomorrow. If Kratos, the god of war, and the God of War franchise can learn to better themselves, maybe we can, too.

 

 

04/27/18 – Update Three: In which I continually underestimate how long God of War is.

 

It was originally my hope to update this review every two days with evolving impressions as I completed more and more of the game. Then, in an act of what I can only assume was intentional obstruction of productivity, Santa Monica Studio released a game that steadfastly refuses to be anything other than excellent. This does not exactly make for an interesting or insightful read when the structure of the review is founded on the idea that my opinions will be changing, no matter how slightly, from the first update.

So, I devised an alternate plan that, at the time, I thought was pretty solid. I would, I said to myself, dripping with naivete, reformat the review and divide the topics I wanted to cover into individual updates. This worked reasonably well for Update Two, which focused on the mechanics, but my folly became apparent when I attempted to tackle the story.

As I made my way through the narrative, it became evident that things were not going to go the way I expected. A few plot twists later, I decided that the only way I could do justice to this (so far pretty phenomenal) story in the review would be to finish it in its entirety, then break down what worked and what didn’t. This, too, may have been a mistake.

You see, God of War is long. Very long. Like 50 hours if you intend to tackle the sidequests, which I wholeheartedly recommend you do, as they’re wonderful little stories in their own right and support the main dramatic themes beautifully. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, another dimension is added to the characters and their relationship. Every time I think a climax is near, the goal post is pushed back just a little farther. And somehow, this isn’t irritating in any way. If anything, I’m glad. Were it not for the timeliness factor involved in writing a review, I’d be content to play just about nothing else for the next two months. It’s exceptionally uncommon for a game to provide so much content and have it all feel hand-crafted, purposeful, and rewarding.

And so, I find myself trapped. I highly doubt that anybody would argue that my time would be better spent writing out 1000 words recovering the topics I’ve already gushed about than it would just trying to get through the game and finally give it a score. I also feel like not putting out any kind of update would be inconsiderate, so here we find ourselves: in the Seinfeld-pitch of updates. Hopefully, in a few days, I’ll be able to compare the new update to a more eventful sitcom.

 

 

04/23/18 – Update Two: In which I have next to nothing negative to say about the mechanics.

 

After around another ten hours or so, God of War continues to impress on just about every level. I’m still unraveling the story, but the characters all have dimension and purpose, so that’s a phenomenal change of pace from, I don’t know… Far Cry 5? The experience still feels less like a revolution in game design than Breath of the Wild, but playing a game this refined is almost as impressive.

I may be out on a limb here, but one of my biggest issues with the original God of War games was how the combat always felt at odds with itself. The goal was to empower players by making them an impossibly mighty warrior who could take down just about any enemy through a combination of button-mashy combos and quick time events. For me, this succeeded roughly half of the time.

I’m entirely on board with button-mashing hack-and-slash games, and QTEs can be pretty cool when they’re implemented properly. The bone I have to pick with the style in God of War I – III is that it feels like the developers never quite decided if they wanted to go all in on the power fantasy, or force some strategy. This is how we get the evade maneuver.

Some enemies require blazing fast reflexes in order to dodge. This wouldn’t be super problematic if it weren’t for the fact that evasion is mapped to the right stick, meaning that the player (whose hand should be too busy mashing square, square, triangle to worry about what the nonfunctional camera stick is up to) needs to quit any attacks currently in progress in order to get out of the way. Again, this wouldn’t have been awful were it not for the fact that there is a strange input lag that occurs for a few frames both before and after you issue the command. Not only does this severely disrupt the flow of combat, it means that enemies can, and do, lock you in a damage cycle where it’s just shy of impossible to get a hit off.

As with so many series irritations, God of War has refined this issue to a razor-sharp point. Borrowing the current generation’s obsession – combat based on locking onto enemies, strafing around them, and dodge rolling when you see their tells while firing off light and heavy attacks – the team at Santa Monica has created the most satisfying third-person action combat since the Souls series. Dodging is now back where it belongs, the goddamned movement stick, and every motion is frame-precise and responsive. This means that they had the opportunity to deliver on the GOW idea of combat that makes you feel like a royal badass, but still requires a tactical mindset.

Without a doubt, the best part of the game, aside from the combat, are the puzzles. The previous games in the series used the static camera angles to brilliant effect in that they would conceal hidden paths or power-ups. This meant that in between slicing up Minotaurs and Gorgons, you would need to engage with the environment and think outside of the box.

This concept is very much present in God of War, just better. The semi-open world and the linear segments alike are bursting at the seams with secrets and treasures if you’re willing to look. Sometimes it’s just a bit of cash, sometimes it’s a rare weapon upgrade, and sometimes it’s a whole new puzzle. Seriously, find your objective marker, and go in the opposite direction. Ten times out of ten, you’ll find something well worth your time.

Replacing the Gorgon Eyes and Phoenix Feathers from previous games are “Iduun Apples” and “Horns of Blood Mead,” which are found by opening Nornir chests. These chests are self-contained puzzles in their own right, asking the player to search the environment for seals to destroy, bells to ring within a time limit or align a sequence in the correct order. I’ve completed around 10 of these so far, and I still get excited when I see them. It’s a rare treat to find a game that excels at many different types of gameplay, and rarer still to find one that excels at pretty much everything it sets its sights on doing.

As always, a few disconnected thoughts:

 

  •  The open-world elements work surprisingly well. The map evolves with the story and continually offers up fresh ways to engage with the world and discover new areas.
  • The side quests (yes, there are side quests; now known as “Favors”) are actually pretty great. If something seems like a fetch-quest, it has so far always proven to be something entirely different. It’s also a nice touch that Kratos couldn’t care less about helping any of these people; he’s only in it for the resources, just like the player in every game ever.
  • The series’ impressive sense of scale is in fact still here, just viewed from a new perspective. It’s dramatically less in your face that it ever was, but that’s far from a bad thing.
  • There have been a couple of more arcadey boss fights in the style of the previous games, but they were implemented so elegantly that they never felt out of place.
  • The voice acting is incredible. Kratos, in particular, has the voice of a god. Oh, wait…
  • There are a few moments where one of the tricks that make the “one take” presentation possible can be seen, but it’s remarkably rare.
  • HOW ARE THE LOAD TIMES SO FAST?? Seriously, it’s insane. Like “less than five seconds to reload after you die” insane. Take that, Bloodborne.
  • Pretty much all of the menu text is really, really tiny. And white, which doesn’t exactly enhance the readability.
  • The leveling and weapon upgrade systems are far from innovative, but they function as well as in any other game, and they do provide enough flexibility to allow you to substantially change your build based on playstyle.
  • Some of the kill animations get kind of repetitive, but there are ones specific to each type of enemy, so that’s pretty neat.
  • There is some incredible variety in the types of enemies you’ll be taking on, and each one requires a specific strategy to dispense with. Far from being irritating, it turns fights into mental gymnastics tournaments and keeps encounters feeling distinct from one another.
  • Dat axe.
  • I’m way into the “press square to son” mechanic.
  • I’m also way into the phrase “press square to son mechanic.”
  • My PS4 routinely sounds like it’s about to explode whenever I play God of War. I guess that explains where the power came from, although I’m still not convinced that someone from Santa Monica didn’t break into my home and replace my system with some mutant hulk variety.
  • There have been a few instances of cringy dialogue, usually from Atreus. They’re generally painfully obvious hints the game has him say when it thinks your lost, but some of his lines in conversation with Kratos are a bit too on the nose as well.
  • In all the time I’ve been playing, I’ve only encountered one bug. One. That’s wildly impressive for a game of this size and scope in 2018.

 

At this point, I feel comfortable saying that God of War is a technical and mechanical masterpiece. The only real question mark in my head at this point is the story. I’m fully invested in the characters and what they’re doing, but there’s still a lot of time for things to turn sour, and great games fail to stick the landing all the time. After I leave my keyboard and plop back down in Midgard, I’ll start plowing through the main questline and begin working on a story-centric update.

 

04/21/18 – Update One: In which I find myself with very little to say that isn’t positive.

 

The original God of War opens as Kratos, at the behest of Poseidon, slays an enormous hydra attacking a ship. God of War II begins with a god-sized Kratos sacking a city and eventually battling both Athena and Zeus. God of War III, arguably the pinnacle of the series’ obsession with colossal scale, opens with Kratos riding the Titan Gaia up the side of Mt. Olympus to kill Zeus and end the reign of the Olympian gods. In a moment that is emblematic of Santa Monica’s intention with 2018’s God of War, the experience begins with an older, wiser Kratos chopping down a tree.

To call God of War a sequel or a reboot feels unnecessarily reductive; it feels more like a ground-up recreation of the long-running franchise. So what happens when you entirely reinvent a series known for its sophomoric attitude and more-is-more approach to violence? Apparently, you get a thoughtful, self-reflective experience anchored by some of the best combat I’ve ever seen in a third-person action game. I’m only around 10 hours in so far, but God of War seems dangerously close to being a legitimate masterpiece.

I apologize in advance if this first update reads as if coming from a fawning fanboy. I’m well aware that there’s still plenty of time for my opinions to rapidly migrate southward, and I assure you that not only is everything I say my genuine opinion, but that said opinion comes from somebody who has always been very lukewarm on the God of War series since my first experience with it. I plan to address this in future updates but suffice it to say that I was awed by the scale and technical ambition of the games, but the stories, characters, and mechanics left me wanting.

One of the most astounding things about the new God of War (confusingly bearing the same identifier as it’s 2005 counterpart) is just how brilliantly well every single change made to the formula improves the gameplay loop while highlighting the most engaging elements of the original games. Again, I plan to go more in-depth on this topic in my next update, but trust me when I tell you that any alterations were for the better.

The most apparent difference is the absence of arcadey fixed camera perspectives. Instead, God of War has adopted a more traditional view over Kratos’ right shoulder, hugging him tightly. While this does lend itself to the more intimate tone the game is shooting for, it has so far sacrificed much of the sense of enormity that has been so prevalent up to this point. Of course, it controls phenomenally and gives the player a new perspective through which to view the massive setpieces, so I find it hard to be upset by the sacrifice.

The combat, too, couldn’t be more different than in previous titles. Instead of a more traditional hack-and-slash, Santa Monica went the route of the ever-popular Souls-like strafe-and-dodge, complete with heavy and light attacks. While rock-solid in its execution, this might not be particularly exciting were it not for the addition of the Leviathan Axe: Kratos’ new weapon of choice. You see, when you hurl it into an enemy’s head (or anywhere else, that just seems like the most practical target), you can press triangle to summon it back to you. The pure tactile pleasure I receive from the rumble-feedback when I snag this thing from the air is difficult to explain, but I’ll stop this sentence before it begins to sound any creepier than it already does.

It is also worth mentioning that God of War is an absolute technical marvel. Character models are richly detailed, textures are stunningly vivid, and the animations are arguably the best seen this generation. If that weren’t enough, Santa Monica decided to present the entire thing as one uninterrupted camera take. No black frames, no loading screens, no cutting from one character to another, and no differentiation between cutscene and gameplay.

If you’d asked me ten days ago, I’d have said this was laughably impossible given the visual fidelity of the game. Yet somehow, the developers managed to squeeze the necessary power out of the system, and as a result, have created the most visually and presentationally impressive game ever made. I have no idea how it was done, but the fact that it was at all is staggeringly impressive.

All of this would be little more than strikingly beautiful window dressing if the story were a weak as, let’s say, the one seen in Far Cry 5. Thankfully, I’ve found it to be gripping and immediately emotional up to this point. I’ll remain as vague as possible on this front, as picking up kernels of plot from context and offhanded dialogue has proven to be one of the greatest pleasures of the experience, at least so far.

If nothing else, I’m thrilled with the way that the narrative has been able to use Kratos’ past to emotionally resonant effect. There is anger in everything he does, from opening a treasure chest to smashing in a draugr’s head with his foot, but there is also conflict. His anger is a tool, but also something that can possess him, as we’ve seen in the four previous entries in the series.

This, along with the wonderfully three-dimensional relationship he has with his son, serves to completely reframe the way I view the title God of War. It’s no longer a power fantasy about slaying giant monsters and having weird threesomes twenty feet from the corpse of the man who enslaved the women with whom you’re soon to canoodle. Instead, it’s a reflective, deep examination of coming to terms with your own past and trying to prevent your wrongdoing from becoming the reality of the next generation. In this way, the history of the God of War franchise is the history of Kratos. God of War is a tragic name for this man who doesn’t want to be as he once was.

I’ve got roughly a million more things to say, but I’ll hold off until I’ve progressed through more of the story. For now, though, God of War is proving to be an unexpectedly thoughtful delight. I’m not sure if I’ve played another game since Breath of the Wild that so flawlessly executes on everything it sets out to do, and that’s incredible. While not as revolutionary as BOTW, God of War delivers some of the most refined gameplay I’ve seen in years, and may just be the first PS4 exclusive that feels truly essential and unmissable. Things could still change, but for now, I’d say that Santa Monica has raised the bar for Naughty Dog, and The Last of Us: Part II has a lot to prove come (probably) 2019.

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