God of War: Ascension may have been entertaining, but it showed that Kratos had lost the Midas touch. Sony Santa Monica’s reluctance to experiment with a formula that had already been recycled five times prior left one of PlayStation’s best-known protagonists in a precarious position: was there even a way back for the Ghost of Sparta? On the evidence of this sublime PlayStation 4 soft-reboot, all that was required was a change of perspective, mythology, and design philosophy. Easy, right? Read on for our God of War review.
This is a special game, and it’s evident from the opening exchanges. A sequel set many years after the Greek trilogy, Kratos is now a father taking refuge in the Norse realm of Midgard with his son Atreus. At the very beginning of the 25 hour plus storyline, the pair are preparing to cremate the Ghost of Sparta’s late wife. The title lets the outrageously articulated character models reveal their emotions, as the title leans on subtlety for the first time since its inception over a decade ago.
This is a different kind of God of War – and it’s all the better for it. There’s actual nuance to Kratos’ character now; he still exhibits the blind rage of his predecessor, but this is a coming of age story for both him and his spawn. After the events that transpired with Zeus, the protagonist is learning to become a father. Similarly, his son is discovering what it means to be a God, all while the pair journey through several of the Norse mythology’s nine realms.
Structured similarly to a modern Tomb Raider title, the game allows for exploration while simultaneously funnelling you through its pristinely presented fantasy world. There are a handful of side-quests to pick up, gameplay-based challenges to complete, and no shortage of collectibles to snag. All things said, with the dozen or so optional bosses factored in, there’s well over 50 hours of high quality gameplay here – it virtually eclipses the running-time of all previous six games combined.
But this is one of those releases that encourages you to play your own way. There are mini-puzzles to complete in practically every environment, but if the dopamine drip-feed of solving these doesn’t do it for you, then you’re free to push on – minus the loot, obviously. Speaking of which, for the first time in the franchise Kratos is deeply customisable, with his armour and axe including numerous slots for you to alter the character’s attributes – and even his abilities.
While old-school character action fans may balk at the absence of a Street Fighter-esque move list, there’s a grace to the title’s combat system that rekindles the frantic feel of previous releases – despite the change in perspective. With the camera pulled behind the protagonist, a new quick-turn button is essential – while Atreus will bring your attention to incoming threats in a similar manner to the “voices” in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s fast, fluid, and appropriately ferocious.
But there are wrinkles to the action that are all-new. Kratos can throw his axe, stalling enemies before recalling it. This addition, so small on the surface, is weaved into practically every facet of the campaign, as it’s used for puzzles, navigation, and much more. Similarly, Atreus is assigned his own button prompt, and can be called upon during combat to stun or attract the attention of antagonists. There are some foes that can’t even be beaten without the youngster’s input.
This mechanic helps build the bond between father and son, and there’s a real arc to the way that the relationship between the pair unfolds. While moods do change a little hurriedly in places, the character development is more on par with what we’ve come to expect from a Naughty Dog title – which is a compliment, of course. Impressively, the game balances dark subject matter and some fairly heavy tones with a real laugh out loud sense of humour, owing to a superb supporting cast.
And of course, it looks and sounds phenomenal from start-to-finish. Guerrilla Games may have raised the visual bar with last year’s Horizon: Zero Dawn, but God of War releases its Spartan Rage and lifts it ever higher. This is an absurdly beautiful game, which blends hyper-realism with outright fantasy to memorable effect. The character models are staggering, but they’re arguably exceeded by the remarkable environment art. And yes, there are some truly stunning set-pieces which punctuate the plot.
Perhaps the most impressive thing is that the game starts like a rocket, and rarely takes time to breathe. There are a handful of very minor lulls, and the odd climbing sequence may grate in subsequent playthroughs, but for the most part it’s meticulously paced. The title does a brilliant job of constantly introducing new mechanics, meaning there’s always something new to play with before you’re ushered along to the next big thing.
And this will extract the completionist in you, as areas are revisited in Metroidvania fashion, opening up new pathways and secrets that couldn’t be accessed before. It’s a wonderfully designed game that never feels like it’s short on ideas, and its core story has more than enough surprises to keep you engaged throughout its substantial running-time. With multiple difficulty tiers and a hearty helping of side-content too, this is as fulfilling as single player releases come.
God of War is a special game. This reimagining of the famous PlayStation franchise elevates the series in unexpected ways, without forgetting the core tenets that made Kratos a fan-favourite to begin with. This is a sprawling single player epic with an abundance of secrets and a storyline that keeps you hooked from start-to-finish. While it borrows liberally from other action adventure greats, its unique combat and outstanding artistic direction separate it from its immediate peers. A truly impressive achievement.