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After Finally Finishing God of War, I'm Trapped Between Admiration and Frustration

Kat has finally wrapped up God of War's latest chapter, and she has some thoughts.

Analysis by Kat Bailey, .

My secret favorite moment of Galaxy Quest is when Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver venture into the ducts of their television starship-come-to-life and find crushing devices, fire, and other random traps. In trying to perfectly recreate a TV show, the aliens had accidentally included some of its most ridiculous elements.

"Whoever wrote this episode should die!" Weaver's character screams as they run through a fire pit. It's a broad but hilarious commentary on the often absurd action-adventure television shows of its era.

I thought about that scene often when I was playing God of War. Every time I had to navigate crushers, or swinging blades, or any other contrived traversal puzzle, I would think of Weaver yelling in a panic, "This is ridiculous! There's no useful purpose for a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway!"

Caution: Spoilers for the end of God of War are ahead!

To me that one scene highlights better than anything the tension between the smartest and dumbest elements of God of War, which I finally finished late last week. There are moments when it's beautiful, as when you're paddling down a stream listening to tales of Odin from Mimir, a decapitated head who becomes your companion midway through the story (it makes sense, trust me). And then there are moments where you're pushing boxes.

Such contrived moments were perhaps the main reason that it took me three solid months to finally finish up God of War—a 25 hour adventure that I otherwise really enjoyed. They're holdovers from an earlier period of the franchise's history, when God of War was a bloody adventure with sex, death, and over-the-top quips. They exist to balance out the combat and make the dungeons more interesting, but at the cost of breaking immersion and making God of War feel, well, like a video game.

Whenever I wasn't playing God of War, they loomed large in my consciousness, making me want to play literally anything else. But when I finally sucked it up and picked up the controller, I was reminded of how beautiful God of War could be, and how I liked the triangle of Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir (affectionally referred to as "Head" by the rest of the characters). The setpieces were often breathtaking—as in they actually left me short of breath with my heart pounding. Kratos' emotional arc, in which he wrestles with how much to tell his son about his past crimes, was compelling and even a little bit heartbreaking.

The combat in particular was tremendous, and maybe the single biggest reason I kept coming back. Pretty much everyone has gushed over God of War's design at this point, but it bears repeating that the balance between the axe, the shield, and Kratos' fists is amazing, even if the repeated comparisons to Dark Souls are almost completely baseless. The one battle I won against a Valkyrie was a throwback to the days of 8-bit action games, requiring that I perfectly read her attack patterns to determine whether to parry, dodge, or strike. It made for a pleasant departure from the frequently banal combat found in other triple-A games, particularly shooters.

So why dwell on this one facet of an otherwise fantastic game? Because it felt... well... gamey. Often to the point of tedium.

God of War establishes expectations early on. After turning a wheel to lift a gate, you use your axe to freeze it at a certain point so it won't drop down. It's a reasonable application of one of God of War's key mechanics, but it quickly becomes a one-note solution to the majority of the puzzles. See a rope dangling in the distance? Cut it with the axe. Facing a bunch of razor-sharp gears? Freeze one with the axe and duck through.

God of War goes back to the well again and again with these puzzles. Solving them soon becomes a simple matter of time—a hindrance designed to elongate a dungeon's playtime and space out combat encounters. Frankly, they're dull.

God of War's more contrived elements manifest themselves in other ways as well, especially in its final act. Kratos' second escape from the underworld—what's God of War without a good battle through hell?—consists of simple wave-style encounters. Enemies become color-coded to indicate whether to use the Leviathan Axe or the Blades of Chaos, which is a contrivance that goes back to the earliest days of gaming. There's even an elevator battle where you fight enemies from all the previous sections of the game.

This is a common issue with triple-A action games, a side effect of their sheer expense. New assets are time-consuming to create; elaborate puzzles take a long time to design and bug test, and as development wears on, designers will inevitably default to what's already available to them. The price of improved graphics is repetitive encounters and recycled puzzles.

And so I found myself running even more hot and cold with God of War than usual. There were moments where I would be like, "Oh my god, that was amazing," as in the battle with the Valkyrie or the big fight with the dragon that helps Kratos and Atreus mend some of their differences. And then there were moments when I was bored, often when I was dodging under yet another spiked ceiling.

The truth is that I don't know what I would do differently. Cutting the puzzles outright would make God of War perhaps too combat-heavy, putting even more pressure on designers to keep things interesting. It's all well and good to say that a game's puzzles should be more "naturalistic," but it's hard to say what exactly that means in the context of God of War. Maybe the answer is simply not to rely on the same mechanic over and over again as a puzzle solution.

Whatever the case, the puzzles left me feeling conflicted, even as I ultimately enjoyed the rest of the game. I hope Cory Barlog and his team find a way to address this element when it inevitably comes time for God of War 2, which is teased in the final scenes.

I'll leave this analysis on a positive note. After the big final battle with Baldur, Kratos and Atreus finally (finally) climb the highest peak to pay tribute their wife and mother. I braced for one final battle, worried that it wouldn't have the self-confidence to end on a quiet note. How many games have made you think you were at the end, only for the villain to jump in one last time?

But Barlog, who has worked in film, seems to understand the power of a quiet denouement. Instead we're treated to revelations about both Kratos' wife and Atreus' true heritage, then the pair of them descend down the mountain as the credits roll. No surprise setpieces. Just reflection.

It's in these final moments that God of War truly achieves the maturity that Barlog so badly wanted to convey with this entry. And more than crashing spikes or color-coded enemies, it will be my lasting memory of Kratos' latest adventure.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #1 Nuclear-Vomit 2 months ago
    Sigourney looks good in that movie.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 2 months ago
    Games like this fill themselves with puzzles because they know people will complain if the game doesn't last 25 or 30 hours, and 30 hours of nonstop combat is too much.

    I'd rather have a 10 or 15 hour game with no bullshit.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #3 NiceGuyNeon 2 months ago
    I'm just here for the Galaxy Quest love, and that movie deserves all the love. All of it.
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  • Avatar for YERBOMALO #4 YERBOMALO 2 months ago
    @Roto13 this game it’s not even filled with puzzles and plus they are not that hard at least not for someone that been playing video games for a while
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #5 Roto13 2 months ago
    @YERBOMALO If they were challenging, maybe they wouldn't be so tedious.
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  • Avatar for wadekite13 #6 wadekite13 2 months ago
    Biggest dissappoint in the game was there are other realms you cant visit... Why waste space mentioning them?
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  • Avatar for Eb5486 #7 Eb5486 2 months ago
    I did everything in this game, even beat all the Valkyrie and it didnt take nearly 3 months. The puzzles aren't as much as a task as in the older games. I dont know what she is talking about but anyone reading this please dont judge the game on this article before playing it. The puzzles and "box pushing" are such a small part of the game. Also some of those puzzles lead to amazing battles. If this game take you 3 months to beat you were either lazy or bad at gaming. If this game takes you 3 months to beat dont ever touch a Final Fantasy game, Skyrim, Witcher 3, or any RPG. GoW is an amazing game with very few flaws.
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 2 months ago
    @Eb5486 Her point however was not that the puzzles were difficult, but that they were tedious and break “immersion”. Note as well that she praises several other aspects of the game.

    No offense, but I think you showcase perfectly a recurrent problem on the internet: Too many people just don’t understand that criticism is supposed to be nuanced and that criticizing the negative aspects of something (be that a videogame, movie, TV series, book, music, etc., etc., etc.) doesn’t mean is “unredeemable trash that nobody should consume”. It’s way more complex than that.
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  • Avatar for docexe #9 docexe 2 months ago
    @Roto13 Some years ago I would have disagreed, but nowadays with so little time to play, I certainly see the value of a “10-15 hours length” experience.

    Some people complain a lot about how so many AAA games these days are full of padding, or are otherwise open world, multiplayer, or “games-as-a-service”, but considering the choruses in the 00’s who insisted “no one in their right mind would pay $60.00 USD for a game that only has the single player campaign and such a short one as well, I will wait until it’s in the bargain bin”, then for once actually put their money where their mouth is… well, we gamers are in a hell of our own making.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #10 ericspratling56 2 months ago
    @wadekite13 Because they're part of Norse mythology, and could very likely come into play in any sequels, I think.
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  • Avatar for ericspratling56 #11 ericspratling56 2 months ago
  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #12 nadiaoxford 2 months ago
    @Eb5486 I'm sure Kat, the host of the long-running Axe of the Blood God RPG podcast, will heed your advice to stay away from Skyrim, Final Fantasy, the Witcher 3, and "any RPG."
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #13 Xemus80 2 months ago
    I understand the sentiment but it's an odd kind of video game critique that feeling like a video game is now a problem because it "breaks immersion". I'm having a hard time thinking of examples in our hobby where suspension of disbelief doesn't come into play. Maybe it's more of a break here because of how cinematic the game tends to be but I don't see that as a problem with the game itself; it strikes me more as a problem with individual player expectations.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #14 chaoticBeat 2 months ago
    This article gets to something that I was feeling when I played it (I didn't play it for very long though). Combat felt great and everything but it has this big budget game feeling with set pieces and things, like less of an organic kind of context. I'm sure it's a great game and I'd like to come back to it at some point. MAYBE!!! :X
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #15 chaoticBeat 2 months ago
    @Xemus80 Those are interesting points about expectations and cinematics. I guess what popped into my mind is the Forbidden Woods area in Bloodborne. It has all of these dangerous traps and snakes and madmen yet it feels like all that stuff is just there, regardless of whether the player came along or not. Dad of War being a cinematic game definitely makes a difference. If the camera panned around in Bloodborne to the various traps and snakes, I would have rolled my eyes a little, but it just lives there and I ventured to that place as the player.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #16 Kat.Bailey 2 months ago
    @xemus80 The dissonance between the traps and the cinematic qualities of the game was one part of the critique. The other part was that they were simply boring one-note puzzles that dramatically dragged down the pacing, which was disappointing given how smart the rest of the game was. Edited July 2018 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #17 The-Challenger 2 months ago
    But tedious block pushing puzzles are just part of the GoW business. Also, it took this team three games to figure out how to properly open a chest.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #18 Roto13 2 months ago
    @docexe I love when I check How Long To Beat before I start a game and it turns out to be something I can knock out in an afternoon or two. Feels so good. I play long games, too, but when I play a couple of hours of a game and I don't love it it feels really disheartening to know there's 40 hours left to it. I try to finish every game I start, but sometimes I just can't be assed.
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  • Avatar for daveyc02909 #19 daveyc02909 2 months ago
    I also loved the non-big-boss-fight ending
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