Going into God of War I was cynical on ever really liking it. Though on board with the idea of a reboot in general I was still firmly in the camp that saw Kratos as a character already spent with not much that could be done to refresh him. The preview footage did little to change this with its focus on Tomb Raider-esque cinematic exploring and scripted chattering between the two main characters as well as a seemingly Dark Souls inspired combat system. I am glad to say that right now I'm happily eating bowlfuls of Odin's crow because God of War is the most thrilling action title that I have played in years.
The story of God of War is a lot quieter than the old series. It still has its epic showdowns but they're punctuated now by sections given to small scale interpersonal drama and not just scene after scene of blood-thirsty revelry. It's a style that leans more heavily into the tradition of the myths which it cribs off of. Where Gods involved themselves in the affairs of men and women, bled like them and even had relationships with them. With this shift comes a greater focus on the mortal side of Kratos as well as the tension between it and the immortal God-slaying aspect.
In this then the boy Atreus acts as a cipher for getting to know this Kratos. Though still innocent Atreus is like a portrait of his father as a young man in which we can see a potential for making the same mistakes as Kratos did. Through Atreus the narrative gives over time for reflecting on the path previously taken by Kratos but without having to explicitly dig it all up again. It's an approach which will frustrate some who have come to expect certain things from God of War. But it also gives it flexibility to look forward and deliver on its pivot into the Norse setting without the baggage from the previous arcs holding it back.
This new setting is realised as a twisting labyrinth of paths that will very quickly invite MetroidVania comparisons. All paths lead toward or come out of its central hub area, Midgard, which serves a role similar to Ocarina of Time's Hyrule Field. This hub is a literal wheel around which the distant lands of Midgard revolve and through which Kratos and Atreus will travel to the other Nine Realms. In all parts its design feels retro in the way that early 3D games had similar large expanses but in a world compact enough that the player could still get familiar with the layout easily. This familiarity is important because this is a backtracking game with lots of branching paths off to side-quests and secrets many of which can't be attempted on a first pass.
Much of these secrets are of the loot-em-up kind where items are fed into the game's crafting and equipment upgrading systems. Drops and resources are coloured by their rarity and usefulness. To be honest this stuff can feel more like a concession to currently fashionable gaming trends and doesn't always meaningfully enhance the moment to moment gameplay. The leveling up aspect can undermine also the gameplay balance the game tries to keep where a single level can make the different between a challenging fight and a simple one. But others will engage with these systems more readily if they are coming from Destiny and other loot-centric titles. The satisfaction of seeing Kratos outfitted in newer armour every few hours is hard to deny though some of the later-game sets can diminish a bit the impact of some story sequences.
On the subject of story much of it is delivered through oral histories taught to Atreus by his mother and retold again to Kratos (much like how these legends have survived time through spoken word). Sometimes this story-telling can get a bit dense. So it's maybe not a bad idea to do a bit of side-reading while playing as the game will not always give you enough of a grounding to understand the significance of all events or why certain things are happening. Part of this is due to the way that the game can treat a character's identity as revelatory in itself. So some foreknowledge is helpful here to get the impact of these moments. Especially as much of these lore-dumps serve not just as important context for this game but for future installments as well. So suffice to say God of War isn't a podcast game.
Yet fear not for the game delivers on the brawn as well. God of War's combat has a beautiful but brutal flow to it which only becomes more rewarding with experimentation. The balance between the doling out of new skills and foes helps to guide a kind of creative growth in the player the likes of which we have seen before in Devil May Cry but almost never in God of War. From early on the game does a great job of pummeling into your brain the different effects and uses of your moveset. Early sections will give you lots of 'soft' enemies giving you room to explore basic movement and closing space quickly between enemies. You will pick up also the habit of disabling far off threats and going to town on nearby ones with your fists. These sections of the game show you the fundamentals of firing off hatchets to disable distant threats while exploiting the stun mechanic to beat nearby enemies into submission for a glory-kill style executioner.
Later on you will find yourself in situations where not all problems can be solved with your axe so you find yourself moving even more towards the fists and shield part of your skilltree. Here is where you develop a strategy less orientated towards pure damage and start incorporating attacks designed to reduce enemy defences like shields while letting Atrues do the same for enemies out of Kratos' reach. Your mastery of your combat arsenal spreads out like so until later you find yourself in situations where defence and attack speeds of your enemies are so high that parry and countering them becomes vital. Here and during the post-game the combat meta starts to approach something like Metal Gear Rising.
It's hard not to notice just how much design influence Platinum's best have had on the folks over at Santa Monica. Kratos doesn't move with the grace of Bayonetta or speed of Raiden but in his own way he pays tribute to those other games by taking their best elements (parrying and dodge offset among them) and marrying them with his more lumbering yet still deeply involving fighting style. So there's great cross-over here if you are a fan of those games and a hope maybe that this game's success will help put the spotlight on the slightly flagging 'character action' genre which is more and more niche these days.
In reinventing itself like so God of War has given an old story and an old character a surprising new freshness. It manages all this with the same 'pulpy' style as before but inflected by an approach that's less Todd McFarlane and more Christoper Nolan. While doing so it still manages to preserve the parts of the original myths that matter, the lessons that resonate, and tops it all off with an immensely rewarding battle system and world layout designed with repeat playthroughs in mind. So an extremely successful revival then.