|Dev: Sony Santa Monica|
|Release: April 20, 2018|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language|
by Lucas White
I was a ride or die Nintendo kid growing up, but a friend of mine, the turncoat bastard, had a PlayStation 2. And buddy, you best believe we played Devil May Cry and it blew our minds wide open. After that, we found Onimusha. I couldn’t have told you what a “character action game” was before then, but these days, I could write a novel. Naturally, when God of War violently erupted onto the scene, I noticed. That game wore its influences on its sleeves, sometimes literally. But there was one big problem, the thing that really bounced me off the series… Kratos.
The guy on the box was, well, boring. I played game after game and never felt like Kratos was growing up along with me, so I left him behind in due time. I don’t think I was alone there, and I’d like to think the folks at Sony Santa Monica didn’t think so either. So when God of War made its big comeback on stage at E3 2016, the presentation felt like it was addressed to people like me, who loved the genre, but couldn’t relate to the character. Fast-forward nearly two years, and now I’ve played 2018’s God of War reboot. It feels exactly like that – a God of War that exists in the contemporary gaming space, with the running thesis that Kratos, despite everything, is an actual person. I think I buy it.
The crux of Kratos’ newfound character depth is his new family. Sometime between God of War 3 and now, Kratos has found a new lease on life, now surviving in a cabin in the snowy woods of Midgard. There’s no telling how much time has passed, nor is it important. What we do know is that, until the point we start the game, Kratos finally succeeded in burying his tragic backstory and progressing, sans Athena. Unfortunately, the Norse realm is just as full of godly drama as Greece was, and Kratos can’t run from the past forever. Circumstances force Kratos and his son, Atreus, out of their self-imposed isolation and on a journey that will challenge the pair to depths neither expected, but ultimately need.
There’s been much talk about this, and yeah, God of War is certainly a sequel, but it’s also a soft reboot. The fundamentals of this game are totally different that was in place before. Santa Monica has purged the Capcom from its blood, and it has instead drawn from the whole, contemporary video game space. For comparison’s sake, you can see bits and pieces of The Last of Us, Uncharted, Dark Souls, and Destiny. But that doesn’t mean God of War abandons its roots. It’s still about being aggressive, discovering the bolted-on restraints during combat, then dancing around them to sustain nasty combos. But the changes are also diegetic. Kratos is visibly older; he’s still strong, but slower, more reckless, and limited by how much he’s holding back from what he was before. You feel it all as you navigate God of War’s combat systems.
Kratos lumbers as the camera follows behind him, never cutting away for the duration of the game. The player has full control and needs it, as spatial awareness is key to survival. Fighting is done with the shoulder buttons, as we’ve grown accustomed to now. You can link light and heavy strikes together, leveraging heavy attacks to put enemies in juggle states. While the new perspective is an adjustment, series fans will notice familiar visual cues and animations. Kratos still moves like Kratos, although things are slightly different now. What really separates this game from the previous titles are two separate pillars of combat, those being God of War’s progression systems and Atreus’ support.
Atreus is both a passive and active agent in combat. He fights with a bow and small knife, a deliberate juxtaposition to Kratos’ hulking Leviathan Axe. He will act on his own during a fight, based on his available skills and equipment, but the player can also issue a limited set of commands. This is where God of War’s new combat style really shines. Having supplemental commands really expands the options available to the player in the middle of a combo, and that’s what character action games are all about.
You can start a combo string on an enemy, exhaust Kratos’ basic options, and then hit a combo-ender, resulting in a juggle state. While the enemy is still in the air, Kratos can start a new, much more restrictive attack string, but he can’t do another full sequence on his own before the enemy falls. Incorporate some arrows on demand from Atreus, and you can find windows to extend that juggle state, giving Kratos further opportunities to pile on damage. Pair that with the various skills each can learn, and the possibilities and creativity soar.
Skills come from trees tied to each primary offensive ability. Rather than messing around with orbs and whatnot, you simply spend XP on what’s available to add to your bag of tricks. This is supplemented by runes you can slot into equipment, which gives Kratos additional commands that can be swapped in and out as you find more. These can also be upgraded with XP, which adds more passive effects. While God of War is largely a linear affair (with a surprising volume of pseudo open-world side content, mind), individual Kratos builds can vary quite a bit, even with the static skills all bought and paid for.
I’m not entirely sold on all the overlapping systems though, especially when it comes to armor and upgrades. God of War wants to be hands-on, with the physicality of commands and button combinations demanded by an expanding moveset. But it also wants to focus on stats, with color-coded equipment tiers and loot drops that feel like a more tacked-on acknowledgement that the kids like their greens, blues, purples, and golds these days. Kratos can gain access to all kinds of different pieces of armor, all of which commendably change his model and can be mashed up as arm, waist, and chest pieces comprise the available options. Atreus’ equipment can be updated as well, although with more focused options with specific benefits.
The problem I have with this system is that it doesn’t feel balanced or built for the first run-through. Luckily, playing on the default difficulty and learning the fundamentals meant I never found myself hitting any brick walls, unless I stumbled into a side mission not meant for me at that time. But I did often find myself unlocking or discovering new armor options, yet almost never having the components I needed to either get them or keep them upgraded. Resources are scarce, and you won’t ever get enough unless you start grinding. It was frustrating to approach the end of God of War and still have armor that was advertised in-game as middling, despite never even coming across a single component for some of the higher-tier stuff.