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Video Game Review: ‘God of War’

If you follow video games, you might be forgiven for asking why we’re getting another “God of War.” It’s a series that seemed out of new things to say by its third numbered installment, and as a franchise it seemed fairly dead and buried in the wake of a desperate moves to add multiplayer to the mix back in 2013.

God of War” was graphic from the beginning, both in terms of violence and sexual content, but in a way that seemed more willfully edgy than considered. There was an interesting core there, and a compelling, if increasingly difficult-to-like main character in Kratos, who was, at his core, tragic. The question, then, is how do you take a good idea — a modern exploration of a mythology — and save it from series exhaustion?

The answer is a new “God of War,” one that breaks the series down into a few core concepts and mechanics. Around those things, developer Sony Santa Monica has built something rejuvenated, with a change of scenery and a concept previously foreign to the franchise — a sense of responsibility, both practically and philosophically.

“God of War” 2018 opens as a recognizable but aged Kratos, Spartan god of war, guides his young son Atreus through the world of Midgard. For those unfamiliar with Nordic mythology, Midgard is one of the Nine Realms, home to humankind, ruled by the god Odin and his kin, the Aesir. Far from Sparta and the Greek pantheon he wiped out, time has allowed Kratos some amount of peace, and even a new family. But as “God of War” begins, Kratos and Atreus have a bittersweet journey to make.

This being a “God of War” game, the father and son are legendarily waylaid. It turns out that Kratos’ presence in Midgard is news to some powerful individuals across the realms, and the Aesir aren’t content to let him brood his way across their world.

Kratos’ changes and potential evolution are mirrored somewhat in “God of War’s” basic presentation. The game has moved away from a pulled-out overview and shifting cameras to a single, pulled-in view position just behind Kratos. The camera is a constant, unflinching eye, almost a third member of the journey — it moves through story scenes, across characters and scenery, but it never breaks, creating, as Sony Santa Monica has said, a game composed of one dozens-of-hours-long shot. It’s an effective conceit, though I only noticed it when I forced myself to, something I’d label a compliment.

Kratos and Atreus’ chief form of resistance to the challenges in front of them is to fight, and to fight together. It’s strange, historically speaking, that “God of War” is only good in its combat, not great –– this is a series that made a name for itself in large part based on its chaotic, combo-driven gameplay. Times change, though. The combo meter is gone, which is in keeping with the austerity that has swept through the project, but the scale and scope of battle has also been narrowed.

Kratos’ main tool has switched from the whiplike Blades of Chaos of previous games to an ice-powered axe. Kratos can conveniently hurl that axe and recall it at will at any time (which was fun every time I hit the triangle button to retrieve it across approximately 25 hours of time with the game), but otherwise, your practical range in combat is lower than it’s been in previous games in the series. To offset that a bit, Atreus has his bow, and Kratos’ son is happy to shoot enemies that his father highlights, assuming he has the arrows to do so.

To compensate for Kratos’ reduced reach, most battles now focus on just three or four main opponents, rather than the dozen or more enemies that Kratos would often fight in previous games. This number varies, and sometimes there are more, but instead of throwing hordes at you, “God of War” relies heavily on the tightly pulled-in camera and the brutality of axe combat to lend intimacy and a hint of claustrophobia to the proceedings. And, as if to underline the difference in pacing, light and heavy attacks have moved from the controller’s face buttons to the right shoulder button and right trigger, respectively.

I’m sure this sounds like a small change, but the results feel very different from “God of Wars” previous and all of their aging contemporaries. It’s difficult to smash those top buttons the way you might be able to hammer the face buttons in more traditional beat-em-ups, and the holistic result is a game that demands more thought, and more strategy.

God of War
CREDIT: Sony Santa Monica

It’s not all good news. The game’s camera is pulled pretty tightly in on Kratos, and while this has plenty of history in third-person shooters, it hasn’t found nearly as much success or experimentation in this kind of game. It’s easy to lose track of enemies surrounding Kratos, despite the indicator icons demonstrating threats around him. And even when I knew where everyone was, it was often a frustrating experience turning in time to meet them. Hitting down on the directional pad does a quick 180 turn, but using this in combat felt awkward and stiff every time I did it. These are, in all likelihood, growing pains for the series, but it is the one real mechanical hiccup I felt moving from “God of War’s” previous format to this new incarnation.

Not everything is different. You can still stun enemies into a weakened state and perform powerful grapple moves that will often finish them off, as well as build up and channel “Spartan Rage” to beat the ever-loving crap out of everything around you with Kratos’ bare hands. There are still larger enemies that you can hammer down enough to mount and ride around.

Dramatic, action-oriented scenes which progress via timed button presses are also present — one of “God of War’s” most defining characteristics. But these, too, are somewhat different, restrained even, in demand if not execution. Usually, there’s just a button press or two required, with a lot of room for error. As with so many of “God of War’s” systems, there’s just enough familiarity to the series’ gameplay roots for recognition, rather than slavish repetition of franchise history.

Structurally, things are unquestionably different, though anchored in part by the same collection of deconstructed God of War Things. There are chests to wrench open, and there are environmental puzzles (which, thank goodness, are far less “logic-driven” and much more intuitively rooted in “God of War’s” physics system and weapon mechanics), there are still orbs to grab for health. But now this all plays out across an open world where spaces can be revisited and explored.

Sony Santa Monica doesn’t make the transition to a more action-adventure-oriented game without some bumps. Though open, the world is gated both by explicit story progression (ingeniously, I’ll add, though I won’t explain how) and more traditional item progression. You’ll see numerous obstacles and gateways early on in your time with “God of War” that you just can’t overcome or access — that is, until you have the right item or power-up ability.

This is mostly fine, though “God of War” really drags out the distribution of key world-navigation elements — I was almost 20 hours into the game before I fully unlocked its fast-travel system, which is, to be frank, a bananas decision in a game in 2018.

God of War
CREDIT: Sony Santa Monica

But my real bone to pick with this new “God of War” lies with its progression system — or systems, rather. The experience point-based upgrades of past games are still present, as you can unlock more and more abilities for both Kratos and Atreus. But these abilities are locked in tiers behind upgrades to Kratos’ weapon, which can only be earned by defeating specific enemies for crafting materials, which can then be given to a blacksmith.

In addition to those two interlocked progression systems, there’s also a separate collection of character stats for Kratos that determine his effectiveness in combat, all of which are entirely dependent on various gear you can find or buy, and all of which can also be upgraded. This gear contributes to an overall character level that can be slowly increased by finding and upgrading new gear over time.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it kind of is, though if you’ve played much of Bungie’s online shooter “Destiny,” it will likely feel at least a little familiar. The gear system is welcome, and it’s fun to find new loot and to tailor Kratos’ equipment to a particular playstyle, but the “crafting” and upgrade loop is just kind of mess. Most of the time, it didn’t feel like I was building things with components I found around the world — it felt like there were a dozen different currencies I had to negotiate and spend simultaneously.

And the big number tied to gear and stats is important. While “God of War’s” main questline isn’t especially difficult — it’s fun, just, not that hard — there are side quests and combat challenges that are … demanding. These enemies have difficulty indicators, and when I tried to punch above what the game suggested I was capable of level-wise, I got pounded very quickly.

On paper, the infrastructural departures of “God of War” sound particularly dramatic, but this is the kind of game structure the series has been silently pleading for since its inception. Sony Santa Monica has been remarkably successful in creating a deep fiction for “God of War’s” universe — albeit one that heavily leans on “borrowing” from Greek mythology.  

Here, in this new game, all of that world-building actually goes toward, well, building a world. It’s begging to be explored, or, rather, I was begging to explore it, as I had to force myself to stop wandering and finish the game for this review. I still have plenty of “labors” to complete, as the game calls them, and I have every intention of doing them. It’s hard to overstate just how well this all works. It works so well, in fact, that I was sometimes annoyed to encounter enemies in a space I just wanted to explore, or to have my task interrupted by another collection of draugr.

“God of War’s” space is often functional more as an archaeological dig than a living space, viking zombies notwithstanding, which is another departure for a series that has often thrown a dizzying number of new and returning characters at its players. There are less than a dozen real speaking roles in the game, though thankfully, there’s more character development and exploration present than in any previous “God of War.” The performances are almost all fantastic, and often funny, without resorting to the more crass shock value or stunt casting that until now defined the series.

God of War
CREDIT: Sony Santa Monica

Sony Santa Monica needs those performances to work. “God of War” leaves many of the pulp trappings of its history behind, along with a character entirely motivated by a greed for revenge and … whatever the hell actually made Kratos decide he needed to murder almost every member of the Greek pantheon.

“God of War,” meanwhile, begins with funeral arrangements, more or less. It’s not about a reckoning with Kratos’ enemies — not his external ones, anyway.

Some of that reckoning is, indeed, about fatherhood, and it would be easy to write it all off as the latest game to feel like another self-indulgent attempt to seek easy meaning with obvious iconography of a father and his child. But the emotional and philosophical explorations of reckoning and consequences plays out in this space as well. “God of War” 2018 often feels like a story about cycles of violence and abuse — that we perpetuate the violence we experience on those around us in a variety of ways, including with our children. Kratos’ interactions with Atreus are often disturbing and revealing, pulling back the curtain on how the aging god deals with all the death he’s caused, the killing he’s done. Mild spoiler: poorly, is the answer.

Kratos does get an arc in which he develops as a character, as a man, as a father, as does Atreus and almost every prominent character in the game. But the story also stops short of saying Kratos deserves that evolution, even suggesting, albeit at lower volume, that maybe he doesn’t.

“God of War” 2018 almost feels like an acknowledgement of responsibility by Sony Santa Monica. There are small but meaningful nods to the willful, gratuitous excesses of previous games in the series. These aren’t sly winks or nods to series die-hards. Even where Kratos’ stoicism leaves a vacuum of moral responsibility, the invisible narrative eye, through a combination of music, framing, dialogue, and signifiers suggests not that Kratos is a legendary, even mythic badass, but that he was, in point of fact, actually bad, and that up until this point he has never, ever dealt with that, even after finding a modicum of peace after leaving Greece for good.

I admire that there’s no easy solution or quest for redemption here. “God of War” 2018 makes explicitly clear that sometimes, the best possible decision or action is not a perfect one, that just because something is right doesn’t mean that anyone gets to feel good about it. And sometimes doing the right thing will lead to zero personal benefit, or it might even cause negative personal consequences.

CREDIT: Sony Santa Monica

“God of War” 2018 doesn’t completely shed all of its baggage. It’s still incredibly violent, and still sometimes gruesomely so. And it still has issues with women.

There’s no awkward video game sport-sexing, no sexually charged violence against women, no equivalent of 2013’s “God of War Ascension” and its “Bros Before Hos” trophy — no, seriously, this is a real thing that was in a video game. Instead … there just really aren’t many women around. In fact, practically speaking, there’s only one woman character in the game (though more defensive players will nitpick with this analysis).

Regardless, “God of War” 2018 asks questions the series never bothered with before, key in an era of unprecedented graphical verisimilitude. It’s the can we/should we question — for a series that previously glorified in just how wet and shiny the entrails of its mythical monsters could be, how clear an optic nerve might be as a cyclops eye is dragged from its socket before snapping (seriously), it was a relief not to be regularly brutalized by this newer game.

Kratos remains capable of startling violence. But there is a sense that even Sony Santa Monica has recoiled from some of “God of War’s” legacy, and the game is better for it. It is a game that treats its history with respect where appropriate, but without obligation, even in its very concluding moments. This new “God of War” has some rough edges remaining in its transition to something new, but even in its concluding moments, it commits to its vision in a way that few games do — and it’s the first time the series has felt vibrant and important in a decade.

Video Game Review: 'God of War'

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