God of War redefines what video games can accomplish. It’s a technical and technological achievement, yes, but it also plumbs emotional depths—generated and innate—to compose some of the best intimate and outsized story beats in this or any other generation of games. All of this while successfully and simultaneously reimagining a classic’s memorable gameplay and paying homage to that exact legacy. We’ll be talking about this one for years to come.
The setup alone is worth praise, though perhaps it was partly born of necessity. Kratos (Christopher Judge) has, in his later years, become a Dad of War after thoroughly gutting the Greek pantheon of its gods, moving to Midgard, and growing a beard. Also, birthing his son Atreus (Sunny Suljic). After his wife passes, the two are left with an outstanding promise to fulfill: spread her ashes on the highest peak of all the realms.
Needless to say, that process gets extremely fucked up as the duo find themselves squarely in the sights of the entirety of Norse mythology. Old Kratos would solve this in exactly one and violent way, but this new, remorseful, weathered Kratos is different. He’s hung up his blades, putting his bloody and broken past behind him, but the past has an interesting way of catching up to you.
From the first moment, director Cory Barlog turns this simple turn of our antihero into something tender and purposeful. This iconic character without his chains is striking, replaced instead by permanently bloodied bandages. And as one accidentally falls free, we can only picture the blood and viscera that once familiar act would loose upon all of Greece.
It’s a powerful and subtle thing that sets up the tone of the remaining 30 to 40 hours. It feels like Barlog, director of God of War II and part of God of War III, acknowledging the troubled past of the series and that it couldn’t have carried on even if he tried. Not only has Kratos matured but so has he and the games industry and this is his deep ponderance on what that means.
Consider, for instance, the most obvious difference: the gameplay. Rather than becoming a swirling, nondiscriminatory dervish of fiery blades, it is slower and more considered with the new Leviathan Axe. It feels like the best aggregation of the best combat in the modern age, taking a bit of the more methodical, opportunity-based fighting of the Souls genre and a bit of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider blend of long-range and close quarter mechanics and even some of the Arkham series’ free-flowing combo system.
Not enough can be said, in fact, about this axe. Aside from just being a perfectly tuned instrument of destruction with each windup and impact feeling precisely how they should feel, it is also one of the best ranged weapons to come along in some time. The slightly more involved mechanics of aiming, choosing to throw precise or throw hard, and then throwing and recalling gives the same sort of nirvanic chills as the bow from Tomb Raider. The way it sticks into enemies and walls and the satisfying zip as it magically careens back into your hand is all so damn perfect.
It also introduces the great complexity of the combat. You’ll still switch on and off from the axe to deal with enemies that are either dealt with better bare-handed or with a razor sharp implement, but the fact that part of that switch can be both an attack and a move that leaves you without that weapon is genius. You’ll go from hacking and slashing to punching a frozen enemy (it freezes things when it hits) to dodging away to give yourself time to summon the axe back. And as you traverse the skill tree unlocking more and more skills that add additional layers, it’s hard to think of how else it could be improved.
Except there is and it’s Atreus. Aside from being the main narrative conduit for the game (calling back to sensations of Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us), he is also a major part of combat. He’ll fire arrows and kick and choke enemies all on his own, but he’ll also let loose his bow on your command. It’s perfect for dealing with otherwise hard-to-hit flying enemies and interrupting major unblockable attacks, becoming more and more useful as the game goes on. (Not gonna say anymore lest spoilers become an issue.)
But most importantly, it opens up an entire section of your combat brain. As you punch and dodge and slash, you’ll also be hammering the square button to fire off arrows because hey, damage is damage. But it also turns flat arenas into a sort of fourth-dimensional activity where your movements have to consider both what your axe and Atreus is opening up. If you see him going to choke an enemy, you might be dealing extra damage or you can launch into a special combo attack. Or you can freeze an enemy in its place and let those arrows stack up while you deal with other foes.
This is honestly some of the most rewarding gameplay you’ll ever come across. It feels completely new while still obviously coming from that broad and wild system of yore. But we also need to talk about the story because it’s a doozy.
First off, it’s a goddamn technical achievement. The entire game is framed as a single, unbroken Birdman-like shot. It does wonders for drawing you into the world, letting moments linger just the way they should as more can be said in how Kratos lets things go unsaid as the his primary method of communication. (The antithesis of how you could feel how The Revenant was a carefully measured piece of Oscar bait.) But it’s also a limitation that brings about some of the most completely awe-inspiring sequences and shot compositions with not a single moment of this Spielbergian oner being wasted.
We’ll side-step the spoilers following this thread would produce, but know that it’s an intense experience because of this. Barlog slides easily in and out of a breathless tempo that keeps in the series traditions of blood-pumping set pieces while still playing in heart-pounding and intimate drama. There’s a sequence early on (perhaps one of the best in any modern video game) that not only thrills you but shocks you and scares you and teaches you all in one fell swoop. (Barlog actually does a commentary video for this, but don’t watch this unless you’ve played the game.)
For a story that somehow spans far larger than anything in Kratos’ previous pantheon-smashing escapades, it is also the most personal. The tension and story that develops between Atreus—both directly and indirectly as the best family dramas are want to do—is tremendous. The slow turns in character development that smash into rapid plot complications are perfectly tuned. It’s also all bolstered by some truly stunning performances not only from Judge and Suljic but also Jeremy Davies and Danielle Bisutti (whose characters we won’t get into).
Between them and minor players like Brok (Roger Craighead) and Sindri (Adam J. Harrington) and Mímir (Alastair Duncan), you’re never at a lack of entertaining discourse. Some of the best moments are either standing at the crafting menu or in your boat while you explore the world and soak in the Norse mythology. And wow is there a lot to absorb. You are really thrown straight into the deep end on this one.
Oddly enough, carrying anything in with you might be the greatest disservice. Between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Almighty Johnsons and anything else that cribs even slightly from the Norse (looking at you, Final Fantasy games), you’ve probably forgotten more faux lore than you realize. And trying to mesh together fiction with, well, fictional fact is going to cause you some trouble. (Loki, for example, isn’t strictly the god of mischief despite what Tom Hiddleston and Jim Carrey have taught you.)
You’ll have plenty to distract you, though, from your years of historical missteps by just opening your eyes. This is one of the best-looking games out there, and that’s not an easy bar to clear with games like Horizon Zero Dawn out there. There are some parts where, even without any knowledge of the technical limitations of hardware and programming constraints within software, that will have you wondering how the hell is any of it even possible. Like, if you thought the Titans climbing Mount Olympus was impressive, you might want to sit down for this.
Calling God of War a work of genius might be overstating things, but it is a categorically overwhelming endeavour. It’s smart beyond belief (I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around how it takes a legendarily problematic character, keeps his core, and turns him into a matured and beaten figure of a swirling past and present inside and out of the game) and plays like how all action games wish they could play. This is a game we’ll be dissecting and discussing for years.
+ One of the best-looking games ever made
+ Engaging combat that keeps you on your toes constantly
+ Characters and lore that flesh out a stupendous arc
+ A nearly revelatory experience in how games can tell a story
Final Score: 10 out of 10
Game Review: God of War
Release: April 20, 2018
Developer: Santa Monica Studio
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4