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.