God of War is a triumphant return to form for the Ghost of Sparta. After six similar games with a one-note protagonist whose rage bordered on self-parody by God of War 3, this “soft reboot” is exactly what the franchise needed. The retooled combat system, more open-ended game design, and astounding narrative combine to not only create the best God of War game but one of the best games of the generation.
God of War’s Story
God of War is a personal journey for Kratos and his son, Atreus. After the death of Faye, Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother, the duo go to fulfill her last wish: spreading her ashes at the highest peak of the realms. While this errand sets the story in motion, other integral plot points show up soon enough. I won’t state anything beyond the initial premise as doing so would spoil the experience. Going into the adventure knowing as little as possible is how you’ll get the most out of it.
God of War‘s narrative is driven by character interactions with a level of subtlety that’s new to the franchise. Kratos’ and Atreus’ relationship is the focal point. The “soft reboot” moniker is not used as a means of replacing the old Kratos with an entirely new one that feels like he belongs from another continuity. At his core, this is still the former Spartan warrior known for ruthlessly killing innocents in his pursuit of vengeance.
What The Game Doesn’t Do
This game doesn’t retcon his Greek life to make him an immediately more likable and identifiable individual. Rather, God of War uses the tortured god’s past as an anchor point for his growth. Kratos still shows signs of his indignity and apathetic nature, yet we see him acknowledge these faults, genuinely attempting to better himself for his son’s sake. It’s incredible how Santa Monica Studios has managed to present a more grounded Kratos without dismissing his past as it defines who he is and who he wants to be.
While writing, characterization, and cinematic flair are placed more squarely at the forefront than prior entries, it isn’t at the expense of gameplay. This isn’t a walking simulator by any means. The story is mostly well written with breathtaking cinematography due in large part to the single-shot camera, but combat and exploration still take center stage above all else.
God of War’s Combat
Combat is where the “soft reboot” title makes the most sense. It’s still an action game, but the level of depth and nuance far exceeds the accessibility of old games. The tightened camera perspective combined with the leviathan ax’s heftiness makes every physical connection with a living being feel gratifying. Light and heavy attacks still form the combat’s basis, but extra layers of mechanics and abilities allow for combos and set-ups that’ll make revisiting the old games feel too restrictive.
Atreus performs admirably in combat, acting autonomously until the player commands him to shoot arrows. Aside from inflicting damage, arrows are also used to extend air combos and increase an enemy’s stun gauge. The stun system is one of the more subtle, but brilliant alterations to the formula, adding extra strategic options to encounters.
Kratos’ extensive barehanded move-set is the most reliable way to inflict stun. Some creatures are best defeated conventionally with the ax whereas others are best served through fists. God of War tests the player’s skills through routinely mixing different enemy types that require alternative approaches. These scenarios highlight the intensity and depth combat offers, requiring intense critical thinking far beyond the iconic square, square, square, triangle.
God Of War’s Framerate
Framerate is the only real complaint that can be levied at such engaging combat. Past God of War games have typically targeted 60 fps or unlocked framerates. In the case of the God of War collections released on PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 4 God of War 3 remaster, nearly every game can be played at a perfectly locked 60 frames per second.
Standard PS4 owners are stuck with the 30 fps cap. PS4 Pro players have the option between a resolution and framerate mode. Unfortunately, the loss in image quality is a bit too much for my stomach. God of War is a technical achievement for the generation. You’d most likely want the absolute best image quality to show off the game’s extreme fidelity. That level of awe-inspiring visual splendor takes too much of a hit when switching to the framerate mode. Ideally, next generation’s God of War can target 60 frames per second at the same 4K checkerboard resolution with much higher quality assets. That would be the perfect experience.
Magic In God Of War
Magic returns in the form of runic attacks. They don’t deplete any magic meters, running on cooldowns instead. Some runic attacks have fairly respectable fifteen to thirty-second cooldowns. Others might leave you waiting upwards of a minute or longer. Depending on how often a player finds him/herself using runic attacks, he/she may invest in Kratos’ cool down stat.
God of War features heavily integrated RPG elements with six basic stats: strength, runic, defense, vitality, luck, and cool down. They all do exactly what you’d expect. In a twist on usual genre conventions, earning experience points does not level Kratos and Atreus up. Experience is still earned from battles and completing quests, but xp is used solely to unlock moves from skill trees. The only way to level up is by equipping better gear and placing beneficial stones into armor sockets. Doing so increases the level bar while reverting to worse gear decreases it.
Leveling Encourages Exploration
This unconventional leveling system encourages exploration. Since players can’t rely on leveling up through killing stuff, they’ll feel compelled to explore every once in a while. Unlike past entries, God of War is a borderline semi-open world game. There is a set path with an objective marker directing the player at all times. However, Midgard acts as a hub area with a large lake connecting self-contained linear levels. A small boat is the primary mode of transportation. It allows Kratos to either head straight for the next story beat or dock at optional areas for loot. These levels are just as tightly designed as the main game with very little fluff to pad out the experience. Exploration feels rewarding as completing an area typically ends with decent loot gains.
God of War is one of the most integral experiences for any gamer. It’s one of the most shocking transformations in the industry’s history. None of the gameplay was lost in the process of refocusing development efforts on a strong narrative. You will still kill plenty of shit and it feels so much better than any game in the franchise. God of War is one of the few games that provides good writing along with complex gameplay systems and mechanics. If you care about the industry at all, you need to play God of War.