By now gamers have at least heard the hype. God of War has received universal praise not only as a great game, but as a contender for the best game of this current generation of gaming. Having spent nearly all my free time since its release losing myself in this game, I can tell you the hype is real. Whatever you’re reading about the game, it’s true. It’s all true. This is a remarkable game in just about every area. One that caught me completely by surprise.
But you’ve heard all this by now. The better question to ask might be whether this game will change anyone one’s mind on the series. Will this latest God of War draw in gamers who did not like previous games? Will it draw in gamers who never saw reason to give the series a shot?
Well, that’s a complicated answer. There are many reasons to think it would. There also exist reasons to think it won’t.
Why it Will
Make no mistake, God of War makes many changes to the franchise that somehow manage both to take significant steps forward while also retaining the classic feel of the series. The gameplay is outstanding; it’s deep, diverse, epic, and the Leviathan Axe not only lives up to the legacy of the chain blades, it arguably outdoes them. Kratos loses nearly nothing in translation to the new camera perspective. He is basically every bit as quick, strong, and brutal as he was before.
Where previous games were more iconic for the brutality and spectacle of the gameplay than the actual mechanics, this game actually ups the stakes in the complexity of the combat. The axe gives Kratos a variety of gameplay choices. You can slash up close, throw it from afar, use it to freeze enemies, use it to trip enemies, or use it to pin them to walls. Once it’s thrown, you can use Kratos’s bare hands to shatter enemies or just accumulate stun damage quicker, opening them up to God of War’s signature button-prompt brutal finishers.
Atreus also avoids the fears of adding a companion by operating as an absolute force in combat. While he starts off somewhat limited in his capabilities, by the end of the game he has multiple types of elemental arrows with different effects, grapple moves that open opportunities for Kratos, and melee attacks all his own. His response time to the player’s commands are fantastic. He also avoids the fragility issue forcing players to constantly rescue companions in other games. Atreus is a strength of this game’s combat. With some of the tougher fights, and especially on higher difficulties, he is a necessity to success.
These various tactics come in handy against an improved variety of enemies. Previous games certainly had a huge variety of different enemies, but your strategy against these enemies didn’t really vary. You used your preferred combo or two and they carried you throughout the game. Some bosses would require more advanced use of combinations, parrying, and environmental usage, but overall you were blasting through the game with the same couple combos.
This game has fewer enemy types on paper, but they necessitate a greater variety of strategy. Some enemies are immune to the axe and require fists or a weapon acquired later. Some are best handled through stun damage. Others require ranged attacks. You have enemies that heal, enemies that turtle behind shields, and enemies that attack fast and viciously. There are enemies that hide underground and can take a long time to defeat if not stopped.
By the end of the game, when all these different enemy types start mixing together, players will need to switch weapons, range, aggressiveness, and use of Atreus, and often from enemy to enemy. For those action fans who wished for more depth in God of War’s gameplay, this delivers and then some. I’m still not sure you can put it on par with the combat of games like Devil May Cry 3 or Bayonetta, but it’s at least closer than it was before.
Then again, I suppose gameplay probably isn’t the reason a gamer didn’t like or care about God of War before. Most likely what turned you off was Kratos and the uber-testosterone coursing through the game. Between the romanticism of insane violence and vengeance, the absurd sex minigames and nudity, and Kratos’s one-note toxic masculinity, the original games definitely don’t appeal to everyone. To be fair, the first game told an effective story (for the time) speaking against the person Kratos had become. That doesn’t change those elements within the game and it sequels, though.
Have no fear, this new God of War shares little in common thematically or even content-wise with its predecessors. The violence is still there, for sure. It is a hack-and-slash action game, after all. Otherwise the themes, characterization, and content almost feel like a direct response to critics of Kratos’s previous adventures.
Kratos himself is an entirely different person. He’s a man running from the horrors of his past and harboring no desire to return to it. A lot of the super-machismo male fantasy suff has been ditched. Violence and death are actively spoken against. There’s very little romanticism of violence, and a central theme of the story is actively speaking against it. Kratos is definitely still an angry man, but one who has seen the horrors of violence and vengeance and wants to avoid them. It’s a direct rebuttal of his former attributes.
The central story revolves around Kratos and Atreus bringing their wife/mother’s ashes to a mountaintop per her final wishes, and as such they spend the game in mourning. The main plot never diverges from this goal. There’s no violent goal here. Kratos aims aren’t about killing. Yes, he kills a lot, but it’s never the reason he seeks to do anything. He avoids killing at crucial moments. God of War gives the series a newfound maturity.
This maturity also extends to God of War’s past of extreme violence and sexualization regarding women. There are no sacrifices, no sex minigames, no bare chests at every turn. In fact there’s no nudity at all that I’ve seen. I know when people heard about the game starting with a dead mother, they worried we’d get the same vengeful fridging that the first game delivered, but that is not the case here.
The story told never strays from this maturity, either. It maintains a subtlety unexpected of fans of the previous games. The relationship between Kratos and Atreus drives much of the story, and it is a complicated one fraught with emotional complexity. Uncertainty defines the interaction between the two; uncertainty about being a father, uncertainty about Atreus’s worth as a son, uncertainty about their feelings or shared grief. As the plot develops, the secrets Kratos keeps about his past create a friction threatening their relationship.
This parental theme extends to the main villain as well. Parent/child dynamics are the engine beneath God of War’s hood, not the old standby of vengeance. Santa Monica Studios really nailed it here. They tell a mature, complicated story that hits incredibly epic peaks without ever losing the subtle, personal tensions beginning the journey. This is not your old God of War.
Another problem gamers might have had with the previous games was the use of the Greek mythology. While I love them, they didn’t show much respect for the mythology. They just used the settings and characters to tell stories regardless of the source’s characterizations and such. I loved it, but others may have resented such careless use of the myths. Have no fear, God of War treats the Norse pantheon better. Mostly this comes from a greater commitment to the world of Norse mythology through every step of the world.
As an outsider, Kratos is pretty clueless about this new godly realm he inhabits. This gives the game a chance to teach both him and the player about Norse mythology without crossing into lame exposition. Every step of the game is steeped in old tales and visual lessons that make for incredible worldbuilding. Atreus and another companion tell stories related to the scenery or current events. Translated runes tell you about a location. Hidden shrines provide cool history lessons.
God of War really commits itself to a more proper use of Norse mythology. More than the originals ever did.
This creates a believable, lived in setting steeped in history. One that I had a great deal of pleasure exploring. You explore about half of ten realms, and travel along the branches of Yggdrasil. You meet light and dark elves, dwarves, and gods. You travel Skyrim-esque snowy mountains and fiery cliffs dripping with lava. Every realm is unique and colorful. With all the things God of War does right, the worldbuilding is the biggest surprise to me. I’ve never been more interested in the Norse pantheon.
They do switch the characteristics of some of the realms and play with the characteristics of a couple gods, but these are small issues compared to the overall package, and only for those familiar with their myths.
Overall this is a mature, well-created package that somehow manages to take the best parts of the old games and improve upon a lot of things people disliked. I expect a lot of people who lacked interest in the series will love this one. It’s very much the Resident Evil 4 of the God of War franchise. Just without falling apart at the end like RE4 did.
Why it Won’t Change Your Mind
Unfortunately, there are reasons it may not. Some of these continue old problems, while others are a twist on the old problems, and might be enough to invalidate changes I previously mentioned.
First off is the violence level. I stand by the story not glorifying violence. The gameplay, not so much. God of War very much continues the same visceral violence in its action that made its predecessors famous. Kratos dismembers and decapitates and cleaves in half just like always. In many ways the game has the same issue as a game like Uncharted, where the gameplay’s level of killing doesn’t match the character’s supposed attitude toward killing.
Now, Kratos isn’t meant to be a charismatic good guy like Nathan Drake, but for someone who spends most of the game speaking against violence and killing, he sure does a lot of it. I don’t think the game does anything at all to portray the gameplay violence as anything except cool. There are trophies for each specific method of brutally ending the enemies in front of you.
And sorry to rat myself out here, but it is cool. It’s freaking fun, but others may like it even less than before because of the contradiction of story and gameplay. At least he’s fighting monsters rather than other human beings.
When it comes to Kratos, for all his change in demeanor, he is still a pretty gruff, macho depiction of your typical toxic masculinity. He’s a rough guy who doesn’t show his emotions and can kill things with brutal efficiency. He goes to great lengths to hide his emotions. This isn’t a negative so much as a consistent continuity. There’s no reason Kratos should change completely from the violent asshole of the original games to someone softer and open about his feelings. His portrayal here makes perfect sense with where he should be.
However, many gamers who didn’t relate at all to Kratos may still find it impossible to relate to him. That’s fine. Kratos very much appeals to a certain kind of gamer. Santa Monica Studios did a great job making him a more appealing character, but Kratos will never appeal to everyone.
There’s also the huge issue of the woman inspiring the journey Kratos and Atreus undertake. That is to say, we don’t know anything about her until the final moments of the game. Even then she’s the literal stereotype of the Idealized Mother/Wife. You have no idea what she looks like, no idea how she feels about anything, and even the little tidbits we learn about her past actions treats her more like a symbol than a person.
She really differs little in concept from the dead wife and daughter who inspire Kratos to take vengeance on Ares in the first God of War. So if you weren’t interested in watching a grieving Kratos murder things because of a dead wife the first time, you might not be this time.
It sucks to have this woman who is so central to the plot receive no personality or traits unrelated to being a mother or wife. Anything would have done. The game’s finale eventually reveals some of her motives and life, but it’s a bit too little, too late. The best you hope is that these motives are expanded upon in the next game so she can be more of a character. There is good reason to think that happens, thankfully.
And unfortunately, she represents a larger issue God of War has with women. It’s true they fixed the problems previous games had with immature sex and nudity, but they took the Mass Effect 2 approach to fixing these problems. Namely, they cut damn near all female content altogether. There’s one woman in the entire game. I suppose you can technically solve a problem by eliminating almost all content related to that problem.
(Now, there are 8 hidden Valkyrie fights, and obviously the Valkyries are women. However, I can’t really count optional boss fights as real representation.)
Now, this is a bit of a nitpick. I admit that. The one active woman in the game is a really good, really complicated character. Easily the best in the entire franchise, unless I’m unforgivably forgetting someone. She stars in many of the game’s best scenes and never stops being fascinating. Also, the cast is remarkably small so one female protagonist isn’t some huge offense when there’s only one adult male protagonist and his son.
Still, between only having one living woman and one dead woman who is basically the idealized version of Rose Quartz probably won’t do much to bring in gamers dissatisfied with the representation of women in the other games. Now maybe I just don’t know Norse mythology well, but surely they could have fit more women into the game? Or at least given them lore focus like other characters receive? So many gods, elves, giants, dwarves, and other characters feature in the discovered lore throughout the game. Why not use more of those to mention the Norse goddesses?
Again, this whole issue may unfortunately not be much an issue to many gamers, but for some they’ll find it difficult to care if they didn’t before. This God of War vastly improved on the games before it, though. I need to make that clear. I can’t say it improved enough to bring in the audience who disliked the previous games. Kratos still isn’t appealing to feminist sensibilities in any way.
Overall, I’d expect a lot of people to see the improvements this God of War made over its predecessors and, at the very least, want to try the game. It improves in almost every area. I could complain about the number of boss fights, but that would fall under “reasons you liked previous games but not this one.”
The only question here is really whether it improved enough, not whether it improved at all. And it didn’t just improve, it improved astoundingly. It completely eliminated some of the worst complaints about the previous games in the series. This is a new God of War for a new era of gaming. One that is at least worth a shot.
If you like action games, give this a play.
Maybe you despised Kratos, or the misogyny, or the mistreatment of Greek mythology in previous games. Maybe the gameplay didn’t thrill you like other games of the ilk. Every single one of these issues has been addressed. Maybe you still won’t like Kratos that much. Maybe you’ll grumble about another dead wife with no personality of her own. Maybe it still glorifies violence more than you’d like. I still think every gamer owes it to themselves to try this game.
You have to at least try what is arguably the best game of this generation.