God Of War (2018) REVIEW

As inalienable as the cartoonish ‘anime villan’ angst of God of War series’ anti-hero Kratos of Sparta seemed previous to this Norse mythologized reboot, the rehabilitation of the hella millennial, douche-goatee’d, constantly shouting muscle-bro is one of the greater achievements of God of War‘s main storyline. Alone in his tormented and reactive cycle of hysterical revenge-fueled rage from the start Kratos‘ one-dimensional, hapless personality grew more comical with each iteration of the notoriously accessible and gory third person action series. Much of the success of this transformation of the main character is owed to trends in character development within popular single player video games of the last decade as well as a changing AAA industry that seeks to prove it’s continued worth with undeniable production values. The verdict is already out on this game nearly a month after it’s release. God of War has sold well over three million copies and it is widely hailed as a modern masterpiece. While I don’t disagree that it is an achievement I also have to confide that it feels like a ‘first shot’ at a bigger idea that lacks a certain amount of detail to warrant any certain replay value.

Full Valkyrie armor, lots of stat and rage boosting enchantments. Arm guards were not fully upgraded at this point.

Back in 2005 I had finally gained enough adult-assed socioeconomic status by working a terrible job at a community college in Portland, Oregon that I could afford to spend my days off playing PlayStation 2. Because the system was still releasing it’s best games as the PlayStation 3 arrived with a boring thud, the twilight of the PS2 is it’s most memorable age for me with titles like Final Fantasy XII, Rogue Galaxy, Shadow of the Colossus, Dragon Quest VIII, and the first two God of War games. I’d played a few decent third person action games on the system between Rygar, Devil May Cry, and a personal favorite Castlevania: Lament of Innocence but most all of them flopped in comparison to the spectacle of the original God of War. The ease of play, fluid button mashing combat and style were perhaps my favorite non-RPG games on the system until, of course, I played through the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. Without any true challenge to the combat or platforming, and no real need to experiment with weapons or powers, God of War II might have been a thrill to watch but I was essentially done with the series at that point.

Because I had been so impressed by the interpretation of the series by way of Mercury Steam‘s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow that same year, I completely skipped out on God of War III when it came out in 2010. Upon finally sitting down and playing through the game in 2013 I was so frustrated with how bland it was, along with cartoon Kratos‘ constant screaming, I did the shortest review possible on my old blogspot and sold it to GameStop for literally two bucks. I was done and I damn sure wasn’t going to track down God of War: Ascension even though it’s multiplayer/challenge mode seemed interesting. As I’m sure you’ve gathered God of War (2018) is an almost entirely different approach for the series as sheer spectacle, gigantic boss fights, and screaming muscle-boi are all traded for a beautiful Nordic fantasy rendition of Midgard that makes sure that the intimate story is set first and foremost. The old God of War is dead and those seven games that detail the torrid, 00’s blockbuster version of Kratos’ origins are still canon but they are hundreds of years in the past.

The tell-tale sign that I love a game comes as I begin to see the story come to a close and I find myself desperately googling for side-quests, optional bosses, and content that I might have missed. Sometimes I will crank the difficulty to extend a playthrough and others I will seek out the achievements (or in this case, the Platinum trophy) until I am satisfied. In this sense God of War as a video game experience was neither cryptic, clever, or detail enough for my tastes. When I’d read that the game would feature optional bosses it turns out you’ll simply fight a few ogres, and eight Valkyrie with similar move-sets as optional encounters while the rest of the game essentially features scripted boss fights that offer very little challenge if you’ve kept up with side quests and exploration. Not only were the absolute best parts of the game within the side-quests and exploration but there wasn’t enough of it for me personally. I must be some sort of master class video game wizard if the Valkyrie fights are the hardest thing in this game, because only Sigrún took more than 3-5 tries on hard difficulty. So, without huge boss fights and body-chopping horror what the hell is God of War?

Here’s a glimpse of the map. I’d completed every section of the game 100% with every side-quest, challenge and collectible in all six realms.

Tomb Raider. No, really! If you’ve played the first two games from the rebooted Tomb Raider series (particularly Rise of the Tomb Raider) the exploration and ‘metroidvania’-style, where areas and secrets are gated by abilities as well as environmental puzzles, is absolutely echoed in God of War‘s reboot as well. You start with an axe called Leviathan, which was crafted by the Huldri brothers (perhaps the best characters in the game beyond Mimir) in an attempt to right the horrors caused by their masterpiece Mjolnir falling into the wrong hands (Thor). This axe is the most fun mechanic in the game because it is essentially a projectile that returns when called that is equally effective in combat as it is in solving environmental puzzles. You’ll likely have more fun exploring and solving puzzles with your axe than anything else, so savor those challenges while they last. In fact that is one of the most important points I want to make with regard to God of War, savor it’s detailed interpretations of lore and clever storytelling. Don’t race through it because otherwise the rendering of Midgard, the Lake of Nine, and the Nine Realms will pass by too quickly as you play.

If you play this game the Valkyrie side-quest absolutely makes this game and offers the best pure combat challenge of the experience. Don’t skip it, just come back later if they’re too difficult.

The gameplay largely takes alternating stabs between environmental puzzles, pre-set platforming sections, and combat encounters. Early on I saw the difficult, weighty, over-the-shoulder combat compared to Dark Souls and even Lords of the Fallen and in some ways this is correct but your positioning and speed are limited to the point that you’re going to need to learn to parry effectively and consistently to survive even on Normal difficulty. If you search every corner and fight every possible fight in the game you’ll eventually find upgrades/enchantments that allow for faster rolling and movement but parrying is absolutely key to the combat of this game. In fact some of the more effective builds in the game involved enchantments that offer perks with successful parries. Luckily the timing window is fair on every difficulty and unblockable/unparryable attacks are choreographed in obvious ways. You certainly can play this game rolling and dodging like a DEX build in Dark Souls but it will not be satisfying during the harder challenges where you can be one-shot killed if you lose your lock-on during a fight.

There is a semi-deep action RPG set of systems in terms of Kratos‘ character progression. Kratos can wear three pieces of armor (body, arms, waist) and each piece can be slotted with up to three enchantments (depending if they can be upgraded to level 8 or not). The Huldri brothers, Brock and Sindri, are available in each area for upgrades and these upgrades are bought by trading in loot you’ll collect from chests and encounters. There aren’t a ton of armor sets in the game but every resource besides hacksilver (main currency) and Aegir’s gold are limited, and each armor set requires certain materials to upgrade. Early on I was using found armor sets from chests (you’ll find two sets in the first 4-5 hours) and when I found it lacking I crafted the Traveler’s armor set which offers great protection that will suffice well into the Valkyrie challenges, the catch? You have to fight Travelers, large thickly-armored warriors who are powerful and relentless. Armor is very important in this regard because it determines your overall level in the game. Upgrading armor pieces raises your level, as does slotting enchantments into your armor. The stats of the armor you equip don’t at all matter as much as their overall level does and Kratos’ level needs to be be as close to 7-8 as soon as possible to fare well at all against the ultra-poised and hard hitting enemies throughout the game. So, in terms of armor in God of War, conserve your resources until you’ve got a set of armor that can upgrade to 7 or 8 and try to keep a full set because better sets have bonuses when full (health regen, cooldown reduction, knockback reduction, runic dmg increase, etc.).

When Mimir is added to the cast he instantly enriches the entire experience and quickly serves as answers to the greater questions of curious Atreus that Kratos cannot answer.

There is a skill tree for Kratos’ two weapons as well as Atreus’ bow skills. Don’t worry too much about those because you’re going to have enough XP to fill the skill tree even if you don’t do every single side-quest. I would only suggest completely filling out Atreus’ skills first because they are incredibly powerful and always useful. Besides being a distraction and eventually powerful ally in combat, Atreus is a smartly written character that serves as a mirror to Kratos’ ways but an important co-star in humanizing Kratos as a character and figuring out the plot that unfolds, it’s layered mystery coming together as the story ends. Beyond the skill tree are Runes and these provide Runic Attacks that are slotted into Light and Heavy special attacks for both of Kratos’ weapons. Think of them like the Weapon Skills from Dark Souls III where you’ll hold L1 and when you hit R1 or R2 you’ll do one of two special attacks. These are incredibly important in combat as they inflict Burn, Frost, Stun, or Weakening status damage. You need XP to upgrade each one up to level 3, and while it is well worth it to switch them up once in a while, it is more important to get your favorite ones up to level 3 fast. Atreus also has his own runic attacks, activated by holding down the Square button, and these are Runic Summons that play a huge role in group fights and tougher encounters where even one second of stun damage can win a fight. So, there is depth in the combat of God of War but nothing that should be too oppressively RPG for even a casual third person action game fan.

Freya is also beautifully acted and a surprisingly huge part of the plot.

With all of these options in combat and as always the series’ signature last resort Spartan Rage skill that provides invincibility and life-regen you’d think there would be greater variety in the enemy types and combat encounters. I wanted to liken it to Nioh a bit because I felt like you’re really just fighting the same 3-4 enemies re-skinned throughout the game. Floating eyes (Nightmares), Zombies (Draugr), bug people (Dark Elves), ogres, trolls, mages (Revenants), elemental golems (Ancients), knights (Travelers), werewolves (Because, sure…?), and weird fucking saber-toothed tigers with seal bodies that dig underground. Honestly that really isn’t even enough of a bestiary for a 16-bit platformer from 1992 and it pales to the enemy count from previous games. If you do spend the extra time to explore the game you’ll begin to fight these enemies on auto-pilot because they are never particularly clever in attacking you. Maybe I’ve spent too many hundreds of hours playing games like Bloodborne but I felt like the beings spawned from Hel by the great unseen Odin were largely bland and uncreative weaklings. To top it off, and hopefully not spoil too much, Kratos and Atreus never fight Thor, Odin, or really any significant portion of the Norse pantheon outside of two sons of Thor (Magni and Modi) and the main villain Baldur. The most exciting fight in the game is perhaps Hraezlyr the Mountain Dragon and everything after that point was a tremendous letdown because it was such a classic giant God of War fight. Without the Valkyrie fights and some horde-mode like Realm challenges (Muspelheim, Nifelheim) the combat portions of the game almost entirely serve as reasons to interrupt your exploration for collectibles, resources and pretty things to look at.

Alfheim is perhaps the most beautiful of the realms outside Midgard.

To be fair not only is the lore and storytelling ascendant but the visuals in God of War are top tier and perhaps even more artistically satisfying than the overly detailed wilderness of games like The Witcher III: Wild Hunt or Horizon: Zero Dawn. The variety between realms is stunning with Midgard evoking a great Scandinavian lake that reveals its lower recesses in two draining events. I think traveling to Alfheim is perhaps when the game fully impressed me with it’s lush detail and natural feeling mythical world. Of course Midgard is the main event and Muspelheim, Helheim, Nifelheim and Jotunheim serve as quite short but distinct realms but as a whole visiting those six of the Nine Realms was satisfying for a relatively simple story. As I remarked before, the journey and the story are the emphasis here and the spectacle surrounding them might be beautiful but never outshines the interactions of the two main characters. While I’m happy to spoil certain events, like getting the Blades of Chaos later in the game, I think the story should be experienced and not summarized plainly. I will at least say that it is better to not go in expecting them to do more than what they say they will, they have a goal as Father and Son and the story is about the journey towards reaching that goal. It is refreshingly not subversive, or ‘gotcha bitch!’ in delivery and concept.

Honestly, no game looks as good as this on consoles.

The story itself is presented in an interesting format where control of the ‘over the shoulder’ camera is never taken away from the player and there are never loading screens or cut-away scenes that last more than a few seconds… at least outside of the ‘hidden’ second ending. At times you do miss out on facial expressions during banter if you don’t know when/where to focus the camera but, ultimately most of those moments are dad jokes or jabs at Kratos being an overly serious, grumpy twat. In fact I was pretty impressed at Kratos’ voice acting this time around thinking it was the original voice actor but they’ve cast Christopher Judge , best known as Teal’c in Stargate SG-1, in the role and his range and timing within dramatic moments and banter really won me over in erasing the Kratos of the past. You wouldn’t expect it but the presentation and motion capture/voice acting performances are the most effective spectacle of this eighth God of War game.

I took a couple of days after completing the game 100% and getting the Platinum trophy to reflect on it and I still haven’t shaken the creeping feeling of “Thats it?” and find myself wanting another game immediately. Of course the story hints at another game in a ‘secret’ ending and the creative director has stated plainly that God of War is a complete product that will not receive story DLC. Ultimately I don’t think it made sense to create such a detailed and fun combat system with RPG mechanics and a lot of armor sets to grind for that you can only get once you finish the game. I finished the game after I’d first beaten the Valkyries, and then the challenges in Nifelheim and Muspelheim so with the Valkyrie armor fully leveled up I was super powerful and had nothing to kill. Well, frankly whats the fucking point of offering post-game content with nowhere to use it. Sure, I could go back and endlessly grind through the challenge realms for no apparent reason but I’ve got other damn games to play. I guess seeing the world blanketed in snow (a post-game happening) could be interesting but likewise pointless. I haven’t had that same sickening anxiety when finishing a game since Prince of Persia (2008) a similarly grand reboot that rethought a popular franchise in an artistic and personal way within a beautifully realized rendition of an ancient religion’s world… I didn’t want to leave that game world either, and felt that it sorely needed more.

I played this game from 4/20 until 5/09 for 2-4 hours a day, 4-5 days a week. I would say it took me roughly 30-35 hours to get the Platinum Trophy. There is no in game counter for time.

Being left wanting more isn’t a terrible reality coming off a month of entertainment and a $60 investment, so if it seems like I’m complaining about the experience I’m not. I highly recommend this game as it offers a reasonable challenge, a great story, and a finite terrarium of puzzles and Norse lore to sink into. I would likely play the game again on Easy mode in a few years just for the sake of experiencing the story again, but for now easily zipping through every crevice, challenge and collectible across a few weeks has felt like a reasonable amount of fun video game entertainment wrapped within a TV drama miniseries level of storytelling.  Definitely a must play if you have a Playstation 4 and even better with a Pro on a 4K TV.

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Title: God of War
Genre Third Person Action-Adventure w/RPG elements
Released April 20, 2018 | SIE Santa Monica Studio
Platform(s) Playstation 4 Pro
Score 4.5/5.0

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