God of War

The sign of a memorable game is how long it sits with you after you’ve put the controller down. Over three weeks on, God of War is still sitting at the forefront of my thoughts.

When looking at the AAA space, games with the biggest budgets also tend to be the most machine refined, focus tested and perfected to be the best possible experience - for better and worse. God of War sits at the pinnacle of this form of prestige game - the art, the combat, the story, the encounters, the side quests, the world, the characters, everything, is fine tuned to the best it can be. Often, games lose that special something in their sanding down of the rough edges. God of War is the exception to that rule, producing an incredibly well crafted experience that stands as a shining example of where AAA games are at in 2018.

God of War is probably the best traditional 3D Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. The world of Norse Mythology that Sony Santa Monica have created for the Spartan warrior/son combo is expansive enough to conjure excitement at the idea of exploring, yet contained enough to not feel overwhelming. The main hub of Midgard unfolds slowly through your 25+ hours with the game, offering the odd intriguing diversion to keep you occupied without having you forgo the next main task completely. Each realm you visit is purpose built for the part they play, with not a sliver of bloat in sight.

Despite the series penchant for absurd spectacle, the PS4 soft reboot feels not just more contained, but tastefully restrained. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that I’m getting older, graphics are sneaking closer to reality, media’s continued push for excessive violence, the world political landscape in general or just a mixture of all of it, but I was happy to see the famed gruesomeness of the series subdued enough to make it less desensitizing and more contextual. Kratos still rips enemies apart and crushes troll skulls, but gratuitous blood and gore is thankfully kept to a minimum.

The initial goal of spreading Atreus’ mother’s ashes is the driving force through the entire game, not just the first step on a wild adventure. Every action through the main quest is performed in service to this goal, and while it certainly is a winding tale of multiple macguffins, trials and moving of the goalposts, the quest is as clear and simple as Breath of the Wild’s “Defeat Gannon”.  That said, it is definitely the relationship between Atreus & Kratos that is very clearly the center of this story - Kratos the distant Dad God, Atreus the humanizing half God child.

The way this relationship unfolds is the key to what reviewers focus on when referencing “maturity”, and their praise is not misplaced. The subtly and growth between both characters in their interactions is easily reminiscent of Ellie & Joel in 2013’s The Last of Us. While the game does cram the idea of a boy going through puberty in a matter of hours, completing the cycle of unsure child to shitty teen to confident adolescent over the space of the game, it feels earned.  

While the volume of characters existing through this story is quite minimal, the characterization around all of them is exceptionally well done. Each of the characters has a well fleshed out backstory and motivations, and come to feel like true inhabitants of this world, rather than just NPC's to exist at the behest of the player. Even the big bad of the game is well acted, well motivated and 3 dimensional.

The way God of War handles dishing out it's (quite extensive) lore is fabulously done, foregoing simple exposition or audio diaries to instead have a more natural approach. Boat rides around the Midgard are filled with tales of of the realm, from small personal stories to epic world changing events. Area specific lore, such as the story of the Dwarf King, is handled with similar flourish.

Every single piece I’ve read on the game mentions it, but it’s still worth saying - the Leviathan Axe feels so fricken good to use. Kratos’ new signature weapon packs a hefty punch as both melee and ranged counterparts, with his fists being just as viable and Atreus’ bow backing you up in each encounter. And that's just the beginning - progressing through the story while expanding and customizing your play style through abilities and combos is some of the most satisfying I've experienced in a game. I loved it so much I kept coming back to play through the optional areas over again, even though I didn’t need to, even after I’d earned the Platinum, just to experience those fights again.

Even now, I want to go pop the disc back in and play this game from the start again, which is something I barely ever want to do. God of War (2018) is exactly the sum of its parts - and every single one of those parts is truly exceptional.