2018 was a good year for games. Red Dead Redemption II, oddly reluctantly and despite its overlong story, offered extended periods of exploratory calm that offered glimpses of gaming’s true potential. Hollow Knight‘s Switch port paired a sublime game with the perfect platform, and offered a superlative sense of discovery and risk. Spider-Man wonderfully perfected its movement mechanics to make traversal its own reward.
It was God of War, though, that felt most representative of the transportive properties of video games, and brought sincerity and complexity to a story that bore repeating. In its gradual, unfurling exploration of Kratos’s version of paternal responsibility it gently explored a character that has been a cartoon for a decade.
The pulpy nonsense of the previous games in the series were enjoyable stories, and defendable in light of the operatic goriness of genuine Greek myth. This soft-reboot took things at a more considered pace, though, and swapped pastiches of character for actual depth and development. The pathos of Kratos’s agony, walking the earth coated in the permanent ash of the wife and children he mistakenly butchered, was never really manifested in previous games. Tonal immaturity and laddishness overwhelmed any attempts at serious conversation.
In this new entry, however, with a new son and another lost love, Kratos’s hard exterior is explored with patience and probity by a story that is far more measured. Of course, it also delivered spectacularly on the show-stopping visual side, and with satisfyingly chunky combat. From huge, enigmatic designs, such as that of the inconceivably massive world serpent Jörmungandr, to smaller but integral mechanics like the sense of weight in Kratos’s Leviathan Axe, developers Santa Monica Studio made so many smart calls.
Beautiful locations, challenging or at times punishing difficulty and a surprising move into a tight but explorable open-world left God of War feeling fresh for a series that looked complete. Recalling the pre-release skepticism surrounding “Dad of War” demonstrates just how one-eyed niche audiences can be, and how roundly wrong a final product can prove them.
One of the game’s surprise signatures, a total lack of cuts between gameplay and story sequences and cutscenes, immerses in a way that Red Dead Redemption II‘s also-lovely interlacing couldn’t quite match. In moments of blockbuster action, players are on edge knowing that at any point they could have control wrested from or suddenly returned to them. This tension only undermines the success of the narrative beats woven in these scenes.