A reboot is part craft, part magic. It's about finding the core of what made something good in the past, while providing enough that's new to keep long-time fans and new players interested. If you don't go far enough, you've just made another sequel. If you go too far, you risk straying from what people liked about the property in the first place.
The new God of War threads that balance very well. It knows what worked about God of War—solid action combat with mythical battles of massive scale—but it's not content to just rest on that foundation. Let's be honest: when God of War: Ascension rolled around in 2013, fans were a bit tired of Kratos. He had killed every figure in Greek myth and lost the original point of his roaring rampage of revenge. It wasn't about avenging the deaths of his wife and daughter, it was just...killing. The God of War franchise lost focus.
Father Knows Best
God of War (2018) finds focus by returning to the original concept of family. Kratos is joined in this game by his son, Atreus, who accompanies him on the journey. Their collective aim is a simple one: to place the ashes of the boy's dead mother, Faye, on the highest peak of Midgard. A lot of things happen to Kratos and Atreus on their odyssey, but this is the main goal. Not revenge, just the placement of a loved one in their final resting place.
This works because the relationship between Kratos and Atreus is a believable one. Kratos is not a good father. He is a god, the son of Zeus, who tore his way through his world and his mythical family. He was not there for Atreus and it's clear early on that neither character really knows how to deal with the other. Atreus wants to connect, and Kratos mostly wants to be left alone, even by his son. He's a bad dad.
But over the course of the journey, the relationship between the two grows. It's not rooted in just the father-son dynamic, as family is a running theme throughout the supporting cast. The dwarves Brok and Sindri upgrade and craft your gear, but neither occupies the same space because they're not talking to each other. Another character is in exile, mourning the loss of her people and her own child. And the family of Odin paints a dark light over the entire journey; Kratos is essentially a guy who stepped into the wrong neighborhood.
It works as a theme. The tale didn't make me cry or make me think about calling up my dad, but I bought what Sony Santa Monica was selling here. Kratos and Atreus both get things horribly wrong, they hit a few snags, they learn more about each other. Kratos begins the game as a gruff, intense presence barking orders and holding back his feelings like Tsundere Dad and by the end he's... well he's still the same, but Atreus at least comes to understand his father and his place in the world. It's a family, just one where the dad is the former God of War.
Getting Even with Dad
God of War was originally envisioned as taking the action of Capcom's Devil May Cry and mixing it with Western sensibilities. Kratos has wielded a number of weapons over the course of each game, but his signature weapon was the Blades of Chaos, massive knives chained permanently to his arms. God of War's combat was always fast and fluid, with the chains cutting a burning path as Kratos swung them around to dish out pain.
The new God of War looks to replace the Blades of Chaos with a new weapon, the Leviathan Axe. It's not as visually iconic as the Blades, but it makes up for it in feel. Kratos can swing his axe around in melee, but you can also throw it to deal long-range damage. When thrown, the axe can be recalled to Kratos' hand at the press of a button. This is immensely satisfying: there's a welcome thunk when the axe lands in a target and another when it returns to Kratos' hand, accompanied by a shake of the DualShock 4. It just feels good to throw the Leviathan Axe and recall it over and over again.
Combat with the axe is a bit less fluid than God of War players might be used to, but it's a bit more tactical. In melee range, light and heavy strikes set up combos on single targets. When thrown, the light axe attack can be used to trip up enemies who are using shields, while the heavy attack freezes many enemies in place. When you're not holding the axe, Kratos switches to bare-handed punching, which does a good bit of damage and can stun foes. You have options: you might want to throw the axe to take one enemy out of the fight for a bit, while you soften up another with your fists. You can swing wildly, but you're not going to get much out of God of War like that.
The Leviathan Axe is backed up by equippable Runic abilities, which are magic spells bound to Light and Heavy attacks. You'll find a number of Runic abilities during the journey, offering all sorts of area-of-effect and single-target attacks suited to your playstyle. I myself found two and never waivered.
You're also in control of Atreus with the press of the Square button. (Yep, press Square to Son.) Atreus begins helping Kratos using only his trusty bow and arrow. This can deal minimal damage, but it also stuns enemies a bit and can draw the focus away from Kratos. (The kid is invincible. Don't worry about him.) So while you're axing enemies to death, you can also hit fliers or delay enemies with the kid's arrows. And using bare-handed attacks and Atreus' bow together is more likely to put enemies in a stunned state, allowing you to use God of War's executions.
Yep, Kratos' unique style of making enemies deader than dead returns here. By the end of the game, you may tire of certain execution scenes because the total tally of enemies feels a bit smaller than the original games—different flavors of the same enemy die in a similar manner—but every single one looks great and lives up to God of War's history.
Underneath the combat is a system of gear, either found out in the world or crafted by Brok and Sindri. Kratos can upgrade his axe with new pommels, or equip new armor on his chest, waist, and wrists. Atreus also has optional upgrades for his bow and armor.
Crafting armor requires resources that you find on certain enemies or out in the world, normally in the form of Hacksilver, the game's basic currency. The upgrade system is surprisingly detailed, with armor not only feeding six different states, but also having sockets for enchantments and their own upgrade paths. I admit, that I almost felt the system was a bit too obtuse. I found myself paralyzed early on because I didn't want to make the wrong pick with the limited resources and wide variety of choices I had available. There are so many things to upgrade, you could find yourself getting lost in stats, which feels like a drag.
A Father's Journey
While previous God of War games were a linear affair, the new title is something else. It's not an open-world, though there is a pretty significant central hub. The closest analog is another reboot: Tomb Raider (2013). Everything flows back into the central hub in one way or another and as Kratos and Atreus go on their adventure, you'll gain new abilities that will open up new paths outward.
It's somewhat Metroidvania in composition, but not entirely. You'll run into objects and landmarks that you can't do anything about until you get the unique widget that clears them away. Many of these new abilities are also immediately useful in solving the puzzles that are littered about the world. Backtracking is up to you, but if you're serious about upgrading Kratos, it's something you'll want to do.
What I really enjoyed about God of War that I haven't really seen in another game of this type is the shifting nature of the game's central hub. This hub is a lake, which changes significantly as events cause the water level to change. It's an impressive visual on the part of Sony Santa Monica, acting as a marker for your current quest progression, while also offering new puzzles and interesting paths.
East of Eden
Sony Interactive Entertainment just keeps getting better and better at this. I thought Horizon Zero Dawn and Uncharted 4 stood as amazing benchmarks in visual fidelity and art design, but God of War impresses me even more. Part of that is the ability to go wild in terms of environment design. Kratos and Atreus are tromping across all of Norse mythology here, allowing players to see a wide variety of sights.
Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, I actually found myself a bit stunned at some of the things this game was doing. Yes, the semi-linear maps mean that Sony Santa Monica could focus their craft on what's in front of you, knowing that they can hide the next room behind a door or a turn in a corridor, but it's still damned impressive.
You will see other realms in God of War, and each of them is simply a visual splendor. This is bar none, one of the best looking titles on the PlayStation 4. I have to wonder if Sony's first- and second-party studios will continue to top themselves with each new game, because it's getting absurd. (Probably not, as my PlayStation 4 Pro sounds like a jet engine on certain sections of God of War.)
Part of God of War are the centerpiece boss fights and it's here that I'd say God of War only matches its predecessors, instead of surpassing them. God of War III's Cronus and Poseidon are very high bars though, so I'm not surprised to see this is the case. God of War 2018 can go big, but I felt that most of that effort was used for the environment instead of trying to up the scale of boss fights past. There are some winners, they just... don't hit as hard.
Playing through this game overall has been an odd experience. For much of the game, I felt God of War did a lot of things right while feeling like something different from previous God of War titles. The interaction between the new Kratos and his son is much better than angry Kratos wandering through everything alone. The supporting cast is likewise enjoyable. Combat has a different flow, but it's a good one.
But at some point, it begins to slowly bleed classic God of War into the experience. It's like meeting a new friend, talking with them for a while, and then realizing they're someone you knew in high school.
God of War starts "new" and finds it footing before it begins to blend in the "old". And it works. By the time everything finishes up, Sony Santa Monica has set God of War on a new path. It's a strong one that hints at further adventures in other places, even if players won't be going there anytime soon. When God of War: Ascension dropped, the series felt trapped in what came before, but with God of War 2018, the possibilities seem endless.
And that's how you make a reboot work.
God of War on PS4 was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for this God of War review.
This is how you do a reboot. After Kratos lost his way, Sony Santa Monica has set the God of War on a new path. A more measured, nuanced character, a great supporting cast, an excellent combat system, and some of the best graphics in a PlayStation 4 game to-date, add up to a winner.
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