Games are growing up. It’s hard to think of a better representation of this rapid maturity than the recently released God of War, a complete shift for the series in terms of its storytelling. Carrying on the tale of the endlessly enraged Kratos, we find the Ghost of Sparta a stranger in a strange land. Having fled the home that he single-handedly decimated, he has taken refuge in Scandinavia, the land of the Norse gods.
Kratos’ previous entries detailed a revenge-fueled slaughter of the upper pantheon of Greek mythology. It was a classic juvenile power fantasy, allowing players to stab, tear apart, and generally brutally murder the despondent gods of a familiar lore. While it was clear that Kratos was the true villain of the series by the end, this interesting twist was undercut by his simplicity. He was the definition of a one-note character, less tragic hero succumbing to his fatal flaw, and more maniacal villain who was entirely consumed by it.
While there was a lot of room for improvement in the storytelling of the original trilogy, it feels somewhat unfair to level pot-shots at the series considering how rare good storytelling was in the medium at the time. While the previous entry was released only five years ago, the original trilogy began in 2005. In 2018, things have changed somewhat. Instead of being an afterthought, many triple-A titles build themselves entirely around their plot and themes. The Last of Us is a clear comparison point for the recent God of War, both starring disgruntled dads who must make their ways through unforgiving worlds with their son/daughter figure.
But God of War defines its own identity in the world-weary dad genre, telling an emotional tale of reconciliation between father and son. When we first see the new rendition of Kratos he looks fairly similar to his past self. Despite his more grizzled appearance, he is marked with the same tattoos and cursed ashen skin. In the initial frame he grimaces through his graying beard at a nearby tree, axe in hand. But then we see something new from our protagonist. In solitude, his masculine posturing disappears as he leans his head against the tree in a gesture of sorrow and loss. The tree is marked with a single golden hand-print, the mark of someone who has clearly left this world. Compared to the unending blood thirsty screams of his younger self, he has clearly matured in some way in the intervening years, a shred of humanity coming to surface. But then just as suddenly as this moment appeared, he relapses. His mourning transforms into rage as he brutally hacks at the tree, growing increasingly desperate until it finally falls. We are then introduced to his young son Atreus. Despite conjuring a certain air of warmth, the boy is clearly wary of his father. After a short journey the two arrive home, and is revealed that Faye, Atreus’ mother and Kratos’ wife has passed away. After a solemn cremation, the two embark on a journey to carry out her final wish. They must deliver her ashes to the highest peak in all of the realms.
On the surface, it’s a simple “get from point A to point B” story, a template that is well worn throughout gaming. But as the old cliché goes, this tale is more about the journey than the destination. The bubbly Atreus is ray of sunshine into the harsh and unforgiving world of Midgard, gradually wearing down the laconic Kratos’ morose demeanor. Atreus is a rare child character that perfectly depicts the optimistic naivety that comes with being a kid. Kratos and Atreus’ banter, as well as the various turns in their relationship, transforms what could have been a grandiose story into something much more intimate. Instead of just being a skull-crushing monster, Kratos gradually reveals himself to be a fully-fleshed out person. His bloody past weighs on him; regret over abusing his immense power colors his complex relationship with his son. He hides his previous misdeeds out of shame, bloodied bandages covering his scars from the Blades of Chaos. While he struggles with change, he looks to make a different life for his boy, one free of gods and their tragedy. While there are a few story contrivances here and there in the form of the inevitable relationship down-turns, the writing is strong enough to power through its cliches. In a medium dominated by noisy spectacle, Santa Monica Studio has crafted a resonant story with enough subtly to do its subject matter justice.
One of God of War’s most defining attributes is its dedication to the use of a single sequence shot, presenting an experience without any cuts. This is quite incredible from a technical perspective, cleverly hiding load times throughout the visually impressive world. However, it is arguably even more important for melding gameplay and storytelling. This isn’t just a gimmick, and by seamlessly transitioning between interactive segments and non-interactive ones the usual disconnect between narrative and combat melts away. There is also some in-universe plausibility for the outlandish feats Kratos is able to perform; he is the Greek god of war after all. This plausibility aids in smoothing the traditionally incongruous ludonarrative dissonance that plagues even some of the best game stories, such as the Uncharted series.
By melding its storytelling and gameplay, it feels as though almost every element contributes to the overarching relationship between its two leads. For instance, Atreus is the author of the journal which catalogs different enemy types, giving insights into his character as he describes your foes’ weaknesses. Even the shopkeepers, two dwarves who are the middle of a familial squabble, tie into the central ideas about familial reconciliation. Side missions further flesh out the world and its (mostly dead) denizens, accompanied by custom dialogue from the giant script. The many trips that are made via a canoe are likewise accompanied by unique voice lines, Kratos instilling his son with hilariously bad morality tales. The seemingly unending stream of writing is just one way that the game feels as though it’s bursting at the seams.
The combat system is similarly robust, representing a full transition from the isometric character-action style of the previous games, into something more akin to Dark Souls. The camera hangs just behind Kratos, and the general flow of the fights has a much more deliberate pace than the old trilogy. For defensive tools, there is a two part dodge (tap x once for a juke and twice for a roll), shielding, and parrying. Enemy moves are telegraphed by an indicator which keys in on the direction of the attack, and whether or not it can be blocked. This makes managing the hordes of enemies constantly surrounding you much easier, and results in an experience which feels almost entirely fair.
While it certainly bares resemblance to Monster Hunter or From Software’s output, it feels as though you are always in control of the tides of enemies due to the large number of different options you’re provided in any given scenario. Instead of the Blades of Chaos, Kratos is armed with his deceased wife’s weapon, the Leviathan Axe. The axe has ranged options as well as close quarters ones, and can be thrown to trip up enemies or freeze them in place. As more options are purchased with experience points via a tech tree, a growing list of combos grants more ways to dispatch enemies. By the end game, there is such variety in the tools at your disposal that there is a genuine feeling of fluidity. Enemy diversity grants specific reasons to utilize this abundance of tools. Fast moving dark elves can be crippled through tripping them up with a well-placed axe throw, bigger enemies demand the use of the heavy duty Runic attacks, and floating eyeballs that shoot projectiles can be dispatched with the usage of Atreus’ bow. I found the combat deep and rewarding throughout the vast majority of my thirty-something hour play through, but some of the RPG mechanics completely undermined its difficultly in the later hours.
In addition to purchasing new abilities with experience points, Kratos also becomes more empowered through equipping armor, runes to buff that armor, and through new axe hilts. This improves his level, a metric which is important when comparing the strength and defense of our protagonist against the level of his enemies. Much of the game’s difficultly comes through fighting higher level enemies during the optional side content. These side missions also tend to dole out the best loot, two completely optional side areas holding all of the best gear. Unfortunately, since the main quest doesn’t seem to level scale, this means completing an abundance of side content can completely trivialize combat, even on the harder of the three default difficulties. It doesn’t matter how rich the combat system is when there’s no point in engaging with it. Still in my personal experience this only became an issue in the last few hours, making some of the late side content feel dull.
The world design embraces a semi-open world approach, the recent Tomb Raider titles offering a good comparison point. While the first few areas are almost entirely linear, there is the eventual introduction to a hub area where the side content is introduced. Some of the side content can feel slightly tedious, but is worthwhile for the extra dialogue between Kratos and Atreus.
God of War is one of those rare games that raise the bar for the industry in almost every respect. Despite some progression flubs, the combat is engaging and fluid. It’s a technical marvel, gorgeous both in its art design, and impressive in its almost total lack of load screens. Most importantly, its storytelling remains strong throughout. Although it occasionally dips into some contrivances, it builds on the relationship of its two leads in a fashion that feels natural and earned. A couple years ago I don’t think I would have believed that God of War, one of the most laughably juvenile big budget game franchises, would suddenly become one of the medium’s tent poles for mature storytelling. But Santa Monica Studio has accomplished one of the great turn-arounds in the history of sequels. They have transitioned a blatant power fantasy that was presented on the scale of gods, into one of the most caring and personal stories the medium has ever produced. It renders Kratos’ struggle for humanity, his fraught relationship with Atreus, and the plight of the other denizens of the broken land of Midgard with a precise emotional acuity. It offers an entirely satisfying conclusion to its story, while also setting up for sequels. Not only did Santa Monica complete the Herculean engineering challenge of making a stunning triple-A video game, but they gave it a heart too. Simply put, it’s a masterpiece.
Image Source: Entertainment Weekly