Let me just start by saying how much I love that this isn’t a reboot. As soon as I saw that E3 footage back in 2016 my main takeaway was “That looks pretty cool, I hope it’s the same Kratos, moving on to a different mythology having destroyed the Greek one”, and that is the case here. Despite the naming convention this is the same Kratos, older but immortal and still ripped living in Midgard with his new family, having spent the previous God of War games slaughtering a who’s who of Greek Mythology. After his wife Faye dies Kratos must honour her last wish: to cremate her and carry her ashes to the highest peak in the nine realms, a journey embarked upon with his son Atreus, with whom Kratos’ relationship is distant and lacking affection. It’s that central relationship that keeps God of War going, and is its greatest asset: Kratos is gruff and stern, but never cruel, mean or even particularly rude to Atreus. Jokes abound on the internet about Kratos mostly referring to his Son as “Boy”, and he’s not exactly chatty or openly affectionate, but he clearly loves Atreus, and the writing, as well as the performances by Christoper Judge and Sunny Suljic sell the crap out of it. Atreus is sassy and clearly grieving his lost Mother, but is friendly, inquisitive and, crucially for a child, never annoying. Kratos is very different to his previous incarnations, but smartly the game uses those instalments to inform much of his hang-ups and mental state here. Put simply, Kratos realises what a complete monstrous arsehole he was in previous games and he hates it. He is now a weary, tired man; slower to use violence and willing to put up with a whole lot more sass, his younger self brutally murdered people for less. He’s desperate to keep his Son from going down the same path, but unsure of how to do so in any way other than just never telling Atreus anything about what he did. The story has some genuinely touching, moving scenes between the two, with them both growing, shifting and learning from each other as it goes along. Not that it’s all serious though, Kratos gets to be funny now and then in a very deadpan way, and combining him with cheerier, more talkative characters Atreus and Mimir (the revived severed head dangling from Kratos’ belt in the trailers) is a great dynamic.
Whereas previous games in the series followed a largely linear structure with occasional scripted backtracking, this new instalment is full-open world, though it’s a measured, contained open world, and it’s to enable a whole lot of Metroidvania shenanigans. Midgard, realm of humans and such, provides the hub area, specifically the Lake of Nine, peppered with shores full of hidden areas, chests and enemy encounters, access to which often requiring items and techniques unlocked throughout the main story. Taking this a step further is access to some of the other Norse realms, and the obligatory side missions and optional bosses. Items found in the world can be taken to Dwarven blacksmith brothers Brok and Sindri to make armour and upgrade Kratos’ new weapon: the “Leviathan” axe. Pretty much everything Kratos and Atreus use can be upgraded, both generally for increased damage, or in line with more specific stats. Unlike previous games the camera is now permanently over Kratos’ shoulder, making combat a hectic, intimate affair, but he has a lot of options. Leviathan, a collapse-able shield on his arm, surprisingly effective hand-to-hand combat and of course Atreus, who is a far greater asset in combat than one would expect. His moves are absurdly cheap and worth investing in, as he can be the difference between life and death, particularly when dealing with certain enemies. Puzzles make a comeback, this time forgoing block pushing in favour of manipulating environment items and freezing things in place by throwing Leviathan, as well as having Atreus read runes and complete riddles. Throwing Leviathan is an attack, too, and it’s immensely satisfying. Even more so is the ability to recall it at any time, from any distance, potentially hitting enemies on the way back. Enemy design is weirdly sparse, for better and worse. Worse is the recurring sub-boss of a large troll armed with a club it rests on one shoulder. You fight one early on, then they keeping popping up in different colours and with unique names, one of them is even the gatekeeper on the way into Helheim. They almost seem to be thrown in just to give you something big to fight sometimes, and once you know how to deal with them they become little more than a speed bump. For the better is the game’s recurring boss fight and main antagonist Baldur, here re-imagined as a sort of super-strong, perma-shirtless meth head who literally can’t feel anything, to the point where it’s driven him all but insane. He’s been sent by Odin who, in this universe is a complete monster, as is Thor: the two of them doing everything they can to make life miserable for everyone who isn’t them. Odin thinks you might be a threat, at some point in the distant future, maybe? You get got. Be anywhere near Thor, or exist in the same general area as him? You get got. This a crapsack world even by God of War’s standards: these gods have been awful for a long time, and the game sets the stage for them to all come looking for a piece in the sequel.
God of War had run out of steam: with the initial trilogy wrapped up and the prequel games failing to capture the same magic the series needed a drastic shake-up, if it continued at all. Now this wasn’t what I expected but it’s one of those “I never knew I wanted this but I do” situations: gambling on a game where the human equivalent of a spinning saw blade on legs who refuses to take responsibility for his actions does just that, undergoes a complete personality shift and is now a stern but loving Father, undergoing an epic journey with his Son to scatter his wife’s ashes, peppered with pained introspection and reflection on his past actions has, against the odds, payed off in a huge way. I love this Kratos, I love Atreus, and I love this new God of War. I don’t believe it’s the generation defining masterpiece others have called it, but it’s an excellent game I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this new path leads.
By James Lambert