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Review: God of War Grows Up

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

God of War has grown up. That’s easily the first impression most fans of the series will have when they play the eighth title in the series. If you’ve been playing the series since the original God of War released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, you’ve likely grown up a bit, too.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

Taking place years after the events of God of War 3, Kratos, now older, has settled down in the far north with a family in hopes of a life of peace, and to bury his Spartan past. God of War starts soon after his wife’s death, with Kratos and his son preparing to depart on a mission to carry her ashes to the top of the highest peak in all of the realms—her dying wish.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

There’s a humanity to Kratos that he never really had before—not only because he’s older, and a little slower, but God of War manages to make Kratos into a full-fledged character. He’s not just a tribal-tatted male-power fantasy anymore, but a loving, protective father who has dealt with a lifetime of hardship and grief. Even during his interactions with his son, Atreus, Kratos seems to be self-aware of how grim his existence is—probably why he wants so badly to shelter his son from it. But it wouldn’t be a game without his inability to protect his son—and it wouldn’t be a reflection of real life parental struggles, which is essentially one of God of War’s central themes.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

Not only has God of War grown up thematically, and through its storytelling—you can argue its gameplay grew up a bit too. Gone are the overuse of quick-time events the series relied too heavily on. Sometimes you may be given a button prompt, but overall you have much more agency over how to decide to dole out Kratos’ ultra-violence. Kratos’ signature weapons, the Chaos Blades, are replaced by an axe imbued with the power of frost. It’s an insanely satisfying weapon, as is the overall combat in God of War. You can toss your axe, and have it return to you à la Mjolnir—something I would do on occasion just to have it satisfyingly return on command. There isn’t a combo system, as in past God of War games. Instead, the pace of the combat early on is much slower, and feels more like Dark Souls, but without the stamina consideration. Kratos has a shield with the ability to parry certain attacks, and even rolls to dodge attacks.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

Atreus isn’t just a passive observer on his mission to scatter his mother’s ashes. He fights right alongside Kratos, using his bow as a weapon. You have the ability to tell Atreus when to attack, and as he gains experience through his encounters, Atreus’ effectiveness increases. It’s not just simple role-playing game mechanics, either. Atreus’ combat abilities and confidence are interwoven with his character progression–something God of War does excellently. Atreus’ bow is also essential in many of the various puzzles you might encounter.

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As God of War progresses, Kratos and Atreus can gain and upgrade various skills and gear through systems that should be familiar to anybody who’s played a role-playing game. Kratos’ armor can be upgraded, and various enchantments can be socketed into them, of various rarities. The gear you find throughout God of War is satisfying enough to seek out rarer crafting/upgrade materials in the open-world map.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

God of War takes place amongst several realms, as they’re called in Norse mythology. Midgard is where you’ll spend most of your time, but you will gain access to other realms as your progress through the game. There are lots of puzzles, challenges, secrets, and side-quests to find and engage in, giving excuse to get off of the linear story-path. Not only can you get experience and gear, but the side activities do a great job of opening up the world’s lore, and introduce you to more of its excellent interpretation of Norse mythology. There are a lot of stories and hints of characters that aren’t there, and never make an appearance.

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This is an obvious start to a new God of War series—a continuation of the franchise’s story, but a reboot in mechanics and theme. But even at the end, everything is left extremely open-ended–almost to the point of frustration. For example: there is one point where a character who was previously an ally, upset over Kratos killing their family member, threatens to kill Kratos the next time they meet. But then afterwards there is great expository lengths taken to explain that it was just a heated moment, and next time you see that character it could go either way. There are, unfortunately, a few of these moments.

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As strong as the story starts, and despite all of its hints of epic-ness, it ends up feeling a bit underwhelming. Every plot element hints at a larger, epic story, but ends up being a smaller tale about grief, parenting, and hard questions about the past. That’s okay. But overall, even when the big mysteries are revealed, those moments tended to feel a bit anticlimactic, especially for the amount of attention to the story gives to them, and how much game-time it takes to get there.

Image courtesy Sony Interactive Entertainment

The attention to Norse mythology is fantastic, and its representation so compelling, you can’t help but want to see more. It’s easy to forget that Kratos’ mission is to scatter his wife’s ashes, especially because the plot keeps hinting at all the epicness that will happen in the future, but never actually get to see. Most of the coolest stuff seems saved for the inevitable sequels. But they are sequels I will be eagerly anticipating.

God of War is available on PlayStation 4.

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