God of War is a muscled and powerful game, though in some ways a disarmingly conservative one. Its decidedly more low-key continuation of the tale of Kratos, Ghost of Sparta, dials down the outrageous fury of its predecessors, telling a more restrained tale of parenthood and acceptance.
We rejoin Kratos an indeterminate amount of time after his Pantheon-razing previous efforts, a newly-bereaved widower in the lands of the Norse gods. Temples have made way for pines and snowdrifts, and Kratos is struggling to connect with his young son, Atreus. When their grief is interrupted by a furious stranger, their resolution to scatter Atreus’s mother’s ashes from the highest peak in the land is tested.
Players control Kratos as he battles his way through meaty and challenging combat to this end-goal, with Atreus as a near-constant companion. They converse throughout, and the evolution of their dynamic is the core of God of War’s narrative. At the outset Kratos’s rage of yore is constantly visible, buckled beneath the surface, and bubbling up when a cast of supporting characters trigger his ire. This is not the irrational beast of older games, though, and Kratos is determined that his son should not learn the same lack of control that haunted his earlier life.
Another distinction between God of War and its earlier iterations is its use of an open world. As players journey from Kratos’s homely hut to the titanic Lake of Nine and its surrounding climes, before travelling between realms and scaling towering peaks, their journey is seamless and reversible. The player is given the agency to explore and find new corners. These corners are as richly detailed as the main corridors of the game, and the entire package is visually ravishing. Art direction and graphical fidelity come together to offer a number of memorable tableaus.
A series that has always involved massive scale, God of War does not attempt to overshadow its earlier efforts, from the titan Gaia clambering up Olympus to even the opening Hydra fight of the very first game. Yet, from a closer over-the-shoulder camera point to the point-blank refusal of the directors to allow for cuts, this massive scale (and it does sometimes return in style) is traded for intimacy. This is a character piece disguised under layers of grisly and meaty action, and distinctly more grounded for it.
The game’s actual play is a satisfying loop of incredibly soft puzzle solving and refreshed combat mechanics. Kratos begins the game armed only with the Leviathan Axe, his Blades of Exile absent, and its heft is remarkably well translated. The throw-and-recall system in particular boasts an incredible intersection of sound and visual design, with a well-timed controller rumble added to mix. This is offers consummate feeling of potency and potentiality. It’s worth noting that the game is much more difficult in its first five hours than the rest of its span, before abilities stack up and equipment improves – this feels at times frustrating, but is so apt narratively that it is entirely forgiven.
God of War’s competent narrative wraps up satisfyingly and quietly, before dangling a tantalising hint at the series’ future. Let us hope that other designers and developers can take note of its achievements and flair, so that Kratos’s next outing does not feel so far ahead of its competition.