If someone had told me three years ago that the God of War series was not only getting a sequel/reboot, but it was going to take a page from Naughty Dog’s (the developer of The Last of Us) character-driven playbook, I would’ve had a good laugh. A new game from a series where the main character is widely considered a one-dimensional killing machine (to a point that’s almost comical) that turns said killing machine into a sympathetic and believable character? There’s no way that would ever happen.
Yet… It did.
This new God of War may not have the same scale and totally bonkers action sequences the series is/was known for, but it more than makes up for that by crafting a brilliant father and son story with many truly poignant moments between them. Seeing an older, wiser Kratos teaching his son Atreus how to survive in the world of Norse gods and monsters (a huge departure from the setting in Greek mythology of the previous games) and doing everything he can to ensure the boy becomes a better “man” than him was such an emotional and exhilarating experience. God of War weaves the themes of second chances, passing on your demons, and the classic paving of roads to Hel with one’s best intentions into a father and son’s journey to fulfill their wife and mother’s dying wish.
While the goal of Kratos and Atreus’ mission is pretty straightforward, Kratos’ legendary reputation as The Ghost of Sparta makes it a much more difficult task. The Norse gods are aware of Kratos’ deeds in Greece (like the time he murdered the entire pantheon) and their actions make the pair’s once simple trek require journeying not only through much of Midgard, but many of the nine realms in Norse mythology. Even then, each different environment brings new dangers and ordeals that Kratos and Atreus are forced to endure.
However, Kratos’ biggest challenge isn’t the draugr, trolls, or even other gods, but something that terrifies him far more than facing death: fatherhood. It feels silly saying and writing that a man who single-handedly killed the most powerful people and monsters from Greek legend is afraid of raising a child, but God of War’s portrayal of Kratos, and how much his past haunts him, makes it easy to believe. Santa Monica Studio painted a masterful picture that shows how terrified the Godslayer is that his son could grow up to be a monster like him. It also helps that Atreus is one of the most well-written video game characters in years. He’s a tough and stoic warrior, an overly-excited or fearful child, and so much more. He most likely won’t build a reputation like his father, but one of his own, and thank the gods for that. A smaller Kratos wouldn’t be anywhere near as endearing or fun as Atreus, and the differences between them are a big part of what makes their relationship such a treat. The phenomenal main villain in God of War is an eerie reflection of Kratos’ past and fears as well, but I can’t say anything else without going into spoilers.
And while I said that God of War’s action isn’t as over the top as it’s predecessors, that doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely insane. I was initially bummed when I heard that there wouldn’t be any quick-time events in God of War, but their removal allows you to focus more on the actual combat itself. That’s great because the new combat system has a fairly big learning curve, and it is fantastic once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Switching between weapons, bashing enemies with a shield parry, using magic, and commanding Atreus to attack with mystically empowered arrows all flow together in a truly magnificent system that makes every single battle totally gratifying. There are also more than a handful of fights, like any where you use Kratos’ bare hands to literally rip your foes apart with Spartan Rage, that remind you that you’re still in control of the ex-God of War. The role-playing game elements, like different kinds of armor that require resources hidden all over the huge world to upgrade, add another layer as well. I can’t wait to compare “my” Kratos, who currently has armor that regenerates health and a build focused on survivability, against my friends’.
With all said and done, God of War breathes new life into one of my favorite video game series with a new mythology, gameplay style, and a narrative that manage to put it above God of War III, which was the best of the series until this point and one of my favorite games ever. After playing the 25-hour story I still can’t get enough of it, and look forward to pouring even more time into finishing the plethora of side quests, completely upgrading all of my gear, and learning more about Kratos’ new world.