God of War review
It all starts with the axe. Even if Sony’s Santa Monica Studio had fallen short of its impossibly-ambitious goals - if it had failed to transform Kratos from a hypermasculine icon of fear and vengeance into a stern but loving father; if his newfound spawn-slash-companion, Atreus, came off as smarmy and irksome rather than curious and charming - at least we would still have the Leviathan Axe, one of the greatest weapons that the capitalist conveyor-belts of triple-A development have yet to shunt out. It hacks and it slashes, it sails through the air as sure as an arrow, it freezes frost-zombies and baying wolves dead in their tracks - and, when you’re ready for them to shamble back to life, you call it back to you with a single button press, and it flies into your hand with a crunchy thunk, ready for you to chuck it once more.
The Leviathan Axe is the perfect encapsulation of the new God of War, the first entry in the series in five years. At first, it comes off as bold and inventive, perhaps even a bit revolutionary, largely thanks to its more muted approach. However, as the frostbitten bodies pile up and the snows of the new Norse setting begin to swirl with violent incident, the old patterns of the franchise begin to reassert themselves, one snapped neck at a time.
But by the time I found myself tomahawking my axe again and again at acid-spitting dragons while a Wagnerian choir detonated in my ears, I realized that God of War is the rarest of video game chimeras - a reimagining of a franchise that manages to capture the truly “epic” spirit of the original while also dragging its ash-skinned antihero into a more mature era of mass-market games.
Brash, arrogant, and seething with an endless supply of fathomless fury, the Spartan demigod Kratos was the perfect protagonist for an action game released in the year 2005, ripping and tearing his way through the entire Greek pantheon from Ares on up to his father Zeus, with only a thinly-sketched vendetta and a series of increasingly-contrived betrayals to fuel him. In this reimagining, however, it seems that the Ghost of Sparta’s god-slaying days are behind him, having abandoned the ruined lands of Olympus to remarry and settle into a quiet life in a cabin nestled in the colder climes of fantasy Norseland, the home of Odin, Freya, and Thor. But when Kratos and his son Atreus step out of the woods to spread his wife’s ashes from the tallest mountain in the Nine Realms, they end up rankling a few of the local deities, who aren’t exactly thrilled about having a foreign god roaming their lands.
Previous entries in the God of War franchise hewed closely to the big-budget blueprint of their day - gilded corridors overflowing with hostile horrors that fed into one ultraviolent mythological showdown to another, with very little room for player expression or deviation from a central path beyond their choice of killing instrument. Here, Santa Monica has followed in the footsteps of expansive action-RPGs like Darksiders or even the Zelda series by opening up the world of Midgard for exploration after just an opening handful of hours, seeding it with a variety of optional quests that reward the player with both useful loot and meaningful character interactions. It might sound like an obvious change to make, but the ability to simply turn around, hop in a boat, and listen to an enchanting conversation between father and son rather than engaging in a non-stop combat crawl for the next half-hour really makes a difference, and demonstrates just how far the basic tenets of game design have come in a decade-plus.
That’s not to say that the hack ‘n’ slashing is in any way bereft - after all, beneath the layers of permafrost, this is still a God of War game, and the humming engine of death at the center of it remains extraordinarily compelling, albeit a bit finicky at times. Though it’s easy to interpret the more-claustrophobic close-shot camera angle and the shift in the attack inputs from the face buttons to the triggers as tokens of Souls influence, as your toolkit expands far beyond the vanilla axe-slinging of the first few hours, the fisticuffs lurch more towards the frenetic melee of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games than the measured roll-and-block routine of FromSoft’s fantasy RPGs. Where Dark Souls dials up the difficulty with massive knights who slash off half of your health with every swing of their greatsword, the foes in God of War tend to swarm by the half-dozen rather than trying to out-duel you one-on-one, with each individual enemy presenting a problem that must be solved from moment to moment - parrying fast blows, dodging heavy sweeps, interrupting a fireball with a barrage of Atreus’s arrows, and then cleaving one zombie in twain with a supercharged Runic Attack.
Still, neither the gentle curves of the beautiful Norseland snowdrifts nor the novel rhythms of the re-engineered combat represent God of War’s greatest departure from the original trilogy - or, arguably, its greatest achievement. Rather, it’s the game’s evocative writing and memorable characters that shocked me the most. Yes, the combination of the taciturn, jaded father and his bright-eyed, innocent son isn’t exactly original, even in a medium as cliche-choked as gaming, but their dynamic is so immaculately-rendered that I found myself willing to forgive the occasional contrived moment of conflict between the two.
As the game progressed, it wasn’t the lure of glossy loot nor the crunch of combat that kept me glued to my couch - rather, I just wanted to see what would happen next. From the mother of gods to a germophobic, nebbish blacksmith, God of War takes great care to present its cast of bizarre characters as flawed, rounded creatures capable of both kindness and humor, rather than the glorified murder victims of previous installments. While Kratos’s legacy of violence and apocalypse doesn’t go unmentioned, to my taste, it remains largely underexamined, especially considering the possible effect of the Spartan’s decisions at the game’s closing - perhaps a topic that future sequels will try their best to tackle.
And there will be sequels, of course - this is, after all, a Herculean first-party effort, with a price tag to match. But, for once, they’re absolutely deserved. Let’s not mince words: God of War is a revelatory work, a game of great craft that manages to combine both deft storytelling and mechanical acumen into the most unlikely of vessels - the franchise best-known for sex minigames where you pound the circle button to deliver undercooked thrills (and a flood of red orbs) to misbegotten teenage boys. Much like how Kratos himself has buried the burden of his Blades of Chaos to spare Atreus the grief - the hellish weapon that he used to take his previous family’s lives, in a blind rage - God of War wants to do better.
It beseeches us to do better - developers, writers, even gamers themselves. We can’t undo the past, but we can always change - and God of War’s transmogrification from embarrassing relic to one of the best games of the generation is a feat worthy of Odin himself. And if Kratos can truly change, well, buddy, you can too.