Arcade Slasher Turns Thought-Provoking Journey In Latest ‘God Of War’

The world in “God of War” could be the most visually appealing since “Horizon.” Many emotional storytelling moments are centered before beautiful setttings, such as in the image below. And, in traditional “God of War” fashion, the combat and gore remains one of the game’s staples, as pictured at bottom. Screenshots in photo mode on a Playstation 4 Pro | Background image courtesy of Sony Santa Monica

“Keep your expectations low, boy, and you will never be disappointed.”

The line was one of the surprisingly many spoken by a once one-note character, Kratos, in the latest Playstation 4 exclusive, “God of War.” I, however, did not heed Kratos’ advice and held very high expectations for this title. I was not disappointed in the slightest.

Where do I even begin with this game.

Let me start with some ground work to explain just how far Santa Monica Studios has come since their last God of War game, “God of War III.”

The very first God of War game was released on the Playstation 2 in 2005. The arcade-style button-masher featured Kratos in his battle with the Greek gods. Story was almost non-existent, at least it was never a focal point. Instead, insane and brutal combat sold the series.

To prime myself for the new release I went back and played the only game of the series that I could on my Playstation 4, “God of War III.” Everything I heard and read about the series was true. It was a button-smashing extravaganza featuring bombastic boss battles which almost always usually ended in someone’s appendage or head being removed from the rest of their body. And Kratos never spoke, he yelled — a lot

Even though video game influencers said you didn’t have to play a previous title to know what was happening in the new “God of War” I wanted to anyway. It felt like the new title would be story-driven and I didn’t want to miss out on any of the details.

I went into “God of War III” planning to learn a lot about the series as a whole. Boy, was I wrong. I played through the entire game in 11 hours, I enjoyed it, but I was still left to reading about the series’ history on a Wikipedia page. I’m glad I did.

Which brings us to the latest installment, “God of War.”

The video game industry is evolving. For anyone who appreciates it for the art it is it’s clear to see. Game directors, engineers, writers, producers and developers have grown with the still incredibly young industry. Games used to just be “for fun,” and gave gamers a chance to play around in a virtual world. Like the early productions in the “God of War” series, games were still — at that time — made to be fun. The idea of hacking and slashing hordes of enemies with flaming chains sounded wicked cool to someone in their early 20s.

Today, I’m a 36-year-old father of four kids. Hack and slash is fun, sure, but a good story is the new high for this gamer.

I listened to countless interviews with “God of War” Director Cory Barlog, and the one theme that continued to resonate with me was his explanation of how he’s grown up and how the video game industry continues to grow up. Games can be more than a fun experience, they can BE the experience. They can tell stories in no other way a 90-minute movie or 500 page novel can. “God of War” has laid the roadmap for how future games can and should be made.

Story

I put myself in media blackout prior to the release of this game because of all the potential spoilers filling the Internet and Youtube channels. I’m glad to say I was successful in this pursuit; so should anyone reading this hope to play the game with virgin eyes, I’ll provide the same courtesy and refrain from any storyline spoilers. I am going to mention, however, some of the character growth in the game (some of you may consider it spoilery, so be wary).

At the ground level the story in “God of War” is incredibly simple. Kratos’ wife has just died and per her wishes her ashes are to be spread on the highest peak of all of the realms. Simple, in the theory, but there are so many layers beneath the surface that together lead to a much more fulfilling adventure.

I’m not a God, although I like to think I am sometimes. Regardless, I was drawn naturally to the story between Kratos and his son, Atreus. You learn very early on in the game that Atreus has no idea his father is a God. Their relationship is distant, Kratos doesn’t know what to say to his son and Atreus, who was incredibly close with his mother, feels wronged it wasn’t his absentee father who had died instead of his mother.

Early on in the game Kratos dispenses advice to his son the kind of way you would expect a God of War to do so. The way the story progresses along their journey, the way Kratos changes and communicates with Atreus, however, is the true arch of the story. It’s definitely what I was drawn to as a father of two sons. Seeing Kratos struggle with how to interact with his own son during certain situations: should he put his arm on his shoulder and console him, should he let him go and not be so protective, should he trust him or should he reveal truths that he worries may hurt him? There are a lot of paternal moments that help humanize the game and story.

Gameplay

One of the best storytelling features in this game happens to be one of the more unique aspects not found often in gaming today: the single-shot camera. Many movies have performed the trick, a long-take scene where the camera never breaks away from the scene, it just flows as one continuous shot.

“God of War” took a bit of a risk of implementing a one-shot camera, and boy, did it pay off.

This is the first game I’ve played that features zero loading screens, absent from the time you actually load the game. There are no cutscenes, flashbacks or narrative storytelling layered over still images. “God of War” pulled off the remarkable feat of telling an amazing, cohesive story intertwined with normal gameplay.

A minor element of the story but a huge tool in combat is Kratos’ Leviathan axe. The lumbering weapon passed on to him by his deceased wife fits in with where the protagonist is in his life — attempting to keep low by living a slow, methodical life. The axe has received a lot of praise for how it was implemented in this game, and rightfully so. A series of events in combat could play out with you as Kratos throwing your axe at one enemy thus freezing him, shield-bashing another and simultaneously calling your axe back to rip through a third enemy looking to land a hit — and if you’re really good, calling it back as you jump in mid-air to slam the ground before your enemy. And this doesn’t even mention your all-the-while spamming of the square button to unleach Atreaus’ arrows upon your enemies. The idea of actually giving the player the control over calling the axe back with the touch of a button was genius. Like many aspects of this game, it makes every action deliberate and meaningful.

Like many games in their multiple iteration, the skill tree and gear sets have expanded. I found myself sticking to a handful of special skills that served me well, but there are more than a few dozen to choose from and unlock. Like many games that attempt to give the player a lot of options, I found some to be unnecessary. Likewise, there are dozens of armor options but once you are able to obtain and craft the epic armor sets there is very little reason to wear anything less. Again, it’s great to have options but not that great to give players no reason to wear anything different aside for appearance.

Speaking of options, there are plenty of things you can do in this game. I was very curious to hear how long it would take to complete the game and there were a number of timelines being thrown around by game reviewers. Because the game does such a good job of blending open-world quests with the main story, players will find themselves sidetracked yet feeling as though they’re still on the main mission line. I have to estimate because there is no in-game timer, which was a huge letdown and I’ll never understand why it wasn’t implemented, but I’d say the main campaign was around 20 hours to complete. However, I poured easily 50-60 hours into obtaining the platinum trophy.

Like I said before I went on a tangent, there is a lot to do: battle tasks, lore markers, Odin’s ravens and Valkyrie battles, to name a few. Oh, the Valkyries. I won’t get into their reason for existence, but only that they are the most challenging enemies in the game. I’m pretty sure I spent a few good hours just attempting to kill a few of them. The battles may be the most chess-match-esque ever. I liken the task to a boss from “Bloodborne” or “Dark Souls.” There is a lot of dodging and counter-attacking involved, not to mention frustration and a rush of adrenaline while striking the final blow.

Last Words

There’s too much to like about God of War to mention the very few, minor issues. So I’ll just mention the one that irked me. The game prides itself on being as organic as possible — missions and normal gameplay are seamless. However, without spoiling anything, I recommend players listen very carefully during what feels like the end of the game, when the credits are rolling. While credits rolling in most games means the journey has ended, in “God of War,” the journey is just beginning — in a manner of speaking. So when you think you’re finished, listen very carefully to a verbal command or else you’ll miss a telling, official end of the game.

Some final notes:

¯ I love how nothing gets repeated in this game. Despite it being open I find no repeated messages as I explored off the main storyline. It all flows so well, it knows where I am in the story and the few NPCs respond accordingly.

¯ If you’re a platinum trophy hunter, fear not. The 100 percent is very obtainable. I played the game naturally without looking up any guides and I was only left with missing six ravens and four treasures for 100 percent completion.

¯ Don’t waste your time or currency upgrading any gear/accessories below epic. The stat jumps are minimal.

¯ Enchantments play a critical role in upgrading Kratos enough to battle Valkyries. Certain Valkyrie will require different loadouts. Take the time to experiment. As a side, I would really like to see a gear set update in this game to give players an easy way to switch loadouts.

¯ Get used to Niflheim. You’re going to hate the mist-filled world at the start, but take the time to learn the map, upgrade your resistance and grind through it a number of times. It will pay off in the end, trust me.

¯ Don’t forget about Atreaus and his skill tree. I actually raised his arrow stats first and it’s incredibly helpful in battle, especially when you have to stun an enemy. Atreus’ use of arrows plays a pivotal role when facing off against Valkyrie.

¯ And lastly, it’s easy to want to explore everything in this game early on, but don’t bother just yet. The world opens much more as you progress. If I played again I would stick to the main story first and then delve deeper into exploration and side missions. I think the story would feel just a little tighter had I played it this way.

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