God of War Review – A Franchise Reborn

Back in 2016, when God of War was shown at E3, I have to admit. My brain shut off briefly. So why am I publishing a God of War review?

A fair ask, given my first statement. Well funnily enough, after my brain “shut off briefly”, I zoned back in.

See the thing is, I had zero attachment to the franchise. I jumped from PS1 straight to the original Xbox, and completely skipped through PS2, PS3, and much of the PS4’s early lifecycle. So naturally, once I realised that it was Kratos stepping out of the shadows onto the big screen, I underwent a minute of “ah I have no interest in this”.

Cast your mind back to the trailer at that E3. It wasn’t at 9:15 that my mind was changed on this entry in the cult franchise, when Kratos and Atreus take on a Fire Troll together. No, it was actually a bit earlier at 7:30. This brief moment of humanity between Kratos and Atreus, when the former realises he’s shouting, and collects himself to calmly scold his son… that was the moment. The moment I realised Santa Monica Studios God of War had taken a step into something that resonated with me, it had matured. Without losing its raw touch and undertone of violence and anger. 

Fast forward to 12/05/2020 when I’m writing this intro, and I’ve now completed God of War 2018 three times, twice on the second to hardest difficulty. I’ve crafted most armour sets, spent too much time messing around in the Photo Mode, and I’ve beaten every single boss and enemy type in the game. 

So it’s safe to say it’s won me over. Let’s get into why. In case it’s important, I was playing God of War on a PS4 Slim, through my 4K TV with HDR enabled.

Gameplay? 9/10 – With the only negative being the puzzle variety, God of War has some of the best moment to moment gameplay of any title this decade.

I’ve got to admit, I’ve now typed and deleted this section 4 or 5 times, because deciding what part of the gameplay I should discuss first has proved to be… challenging. For the sake of making the most sense, I’ll start with what happens the most.

Combat. Combat is at the heart of all the God of War titles, but it’s a little different this time around. Instead of being purely reliant on movement and damage output via extravagant combos and special attacks, God of War 2018 forces you to learn how to defend as well. Gone are the Blades of Exile from the previous game, instead you’re armed with your shield, your fists, and the ever satisfying Leviathan Axe. Let me be very clear now, as I’ll be talking about it a lot in this section, that I think the Leviathan Axe has a shout at being one of the best and most satisfying weapons used across the entirety of video game culture. Before I get into explaining why though, back to my original point. 

Defense. It’s a method of combat not particularly familiar to Kratos throughout the franchise but it’s absolutely crucial here. Fact is many enemies, even the standard level ones, will gladly pummel you if you don’t dodge, block, and parry well. Oh and dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge.

As I suck at parrying in Dark Souls, I’m glad to say that the version on show in God of War is far easier to handle. You can easily block incoming damage just by holding the button, but you’ll likely stagger after big hits, and you won’t be landing many of your own attacks in retaliation. The much more effective route is, if you tap the button as an attack is about to hit you, you’ll bring your shield up and rather beautifully deflect the attack. This will allow you to instantly counter attack. 

Combat is actually extremely engaging across the board, and you’ve no shortage of ways to deal out the damage when required. You have your Leviathan Axe. This can be swung with either light or heavy attacks, and can be aimed and thrown respectable distances in a similar fashion. Throwing the axe with R1 will make the axe fly fast and hit quicker, but it’ll have more dip and do less damage, throwing it with R2 will make it fly slower, but it’ll freeze smaller enemies on impact, and remove a much larger chunk of health in the process. Attached to your axe are light and heavy “runic” attacks. These have a cooldown, but deal tremendous damage. Runic attacks can be swapped out for better replacements and more useful alternatives the further through the game you progress.

Along with this, Atreus can shoot things with his bow to stun and distract them, and aside from your rather nifty little Axe you’re also actively encouraged to attack things with both your fists and your shield, and another weapon later on through the game that goes another step into increasing the variety.

Add all this together and what do you get? A unique, varied, and altogether extremely satisfying pot of mechanics that can run as deep, or as shallow as you want. No two encounters feel the same, and the pure rhythm of it all is almost second to none. Suffice it to say, the combat is simultaneously nothing like I’ve ever played, but ever familiar and encouraging when I’ve got it in my hands.

The Axe especially, is a wonder in combat design. It’s no coincidence that the Leviathan Axe shares the world you’re in with Mjolnir. At a press of a button, the axe will fly back into the palm of your hand no matter where you left it. It’s oh so appealing, and feeling the little vibration as the hilt slaps back into Kratos’ hand is fantastic.

The Axe will also do damage on the return flight path as well, meaning if you’re smart, you can get two hits on the same enemy, from the same throw. In terms of primary weapons in video games, I’d be hard pressed to not put Leviathan Axe right at the top of a list that defines quality. The haptic feedback alone that you get from wielding it is just so damn satisfying, and it never gets boring, at least it didn’t for me.

This rather lovely frost Axe has other uses as well, namely in puzzling. Now puzzles are actually familiar ground for the God of War franchise by all accounts, but as my experiences with them in other titles are minimal, I’ll be up front about my opinions of them here.

I like them, but I don’t love them. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, if I didn’t love almost everything else about 2018’s GOTY winner. See the puzzles (without spoiling anything) usually revolve around you throwing your weapon at something. Maybe several things in sequence, or in a specific time frame. Occasionally Santa Monica studios will ask you to do some basic platforming or problem solving, but it never really stretches you. This might not be a big deal to most, but it’s the one single area of the title that feels half baked. Thankfully the rewards are usually worth it, with some fantastic upgrades available through the more challenging sections.

Along with the aforementioned combat system, a lot of the pleasure in God of War’s world design comes from it’s willingness to let you explore, and discover things for yourself. It’s very metroidvania-esque, in that certain rewards and paths are locked to you until you acquire the tools to overcome them or reach them.

You can also craft and upgrade your armour, abilities, and weapons. Some of this will require XP, other upgrades will require specific materials and currency. This adds quite a deep customisation system, that will allow you to level Kratos up and buff certain stats to make him more effective in different areas of combat. It’s not quite full on RPG, but it’s not far off. Enough that two playthroughs can feel very different.

Outside of what I’ve talked about, a lot of the other aspects of God of War that make it the game it is, don’t necessarily fall into gameplay. I make no overstatement though, when I say that God of War might give you one of, if not THE most well thought out combat experience this generation. Add in the puzzling, exploration, and loot? You’ve got a gameplay loop that I’m still not bored of, despite having seen and experienced everything the game has to offer multiple times.

Visuals? 10/10 – Despite releasing over 2 years ago, God of War still surpasses brand new titles today in its presentation. 

To put it simply, God of War is one of the very few titles I’ve experienced that manages to make a fantasy driven world incredibly believable. The focus on photorealism across every asset in the title is commendable, to the point where you don’t doubt for a second that a hulking brute of a man in Kratos could share the world with Ogres, Draugr, and Werewolves. Every single texture and detail is lovingly crafted by Santa Monica Studio, to the point where you can see the years of pain that Kratos has had to endure, just by looking at his face. 

That’s without mentioning God of War’s whole “thing” shall we say. It was the second videogame ever (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong), to not feature a single load screen or camera cut. The first being Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Hellblade is a 5-7 hour title.

If that doesn’t sound impressive to you, then maybe the fact that a damn high percentage of the original developer team were actually against the idea will, due to production time and energy (40% of the team apparently). The sheer level of immersion alone that this gives the player is astounding, in a way that you don’t realise until you actually think about it.

That’s kind of the beauty of the whole thing, it’s not intrusive. The developers aren’t waving a “Hey look! No camera cuts!” banner in your face the whole time, you aren’t getting obnoxious camera angles and zooms 24/7, it’s purely there to make you as the player, feel like part of the action and it works tremendously well. Less is more, especially in this case.

Much like in my Red Dead Redemption 2 review, I was consistently surprised by how the game would outdo itself in terms of presentation, new areas all look entirely different, with the HDR popping off in some of the more varied locales. 

Overall the visuals are fantastic, to the point of “I can’t actually criticise this”.

Audio? 10/10 – A thoroughly flawless experience, at least for me.

See, throughout my 3 playthroughs I had zero issues. Literally. No audio cutouts, no de-syncing, no static or weird pops like you get in some titles. Nada. Extremely rare to have that kind of audio consistency in any title. This leaves me free as a bird to talk about why I love the sound design and OST.

Every enemy, and sub-class within that enemy type, sound markedly different, from the way they walk, to the weapons they wield, and the sounds they make. Recognising exactly what danger is awaiting you early is no small feat to engineer in any game, but the sound team at Santa Monica Studio really did a damn fine job here. Add in terrific directional sounds, like a projectile coming toward you off screen, or a weapon swinging into you from behind, and it’s extremely well balanced. On top of that, Atreus will say things like “on your left”, “behind you!”, or “one enemy left” in the heat of battle, and those little notes work so well to not only cement these two people as a team, but also to orient yourself and keep from being overwhelmed.

Audio works best when it’s coupled with the world around it, and the gameplay contained within that world, and all 3 of those things work in tandem on an almost unprecedented level. 

Then you’ve got the soundtrack. My god the soundtrack. As most people know, a game’s OST will always work best when it’s working with the action happening on screen. It’s okay to notice a soundtrack, but if it distracts you? That’s a sign of the two not being a perfect fit for any number of reasons. This isn’t a problem in God of War.

If I had to pick any song from the OST, it would be “Ashes”. It combines subtle vocal performances and string sections that wouldn’t be remiss in a Bungie title, quite the compliment coming from me (say what you like about Destiny 2, but it’s music is wonderful). The OST consistently punctuates scenes, and allows them room to breathe in such a way that it’s almost invisible, which is the way it should be.

It sounds like I’m gushing and really, I am. There aren’t many game soundtracks that I’d willingly listen to “in the real world”, but God of War is one of them. It’s beautiful stuff throughout. The same goes for the entirety of the sound design and engineering across Kratos and Atreus’ adventure. Pretty much perfect.

Story? 9/10 – Some very early plot-holes aside, God of War develops into a grandiose and infinitely memorable journey, but one with a humble goal.  

Hey would you look at that! I found something to criticise! 

It’s not much of a criticism admittedly, but it is something that’s bugged me every time I’ve restarted God of War. The main “beef” between Kratos and the primary antagonist Baldur, could literally have been avoided with a mere one or two sentences shared between them.

I know, it’s not much of a complaint. But for all his bluster and temper, Kratos isn’t stupid. Neither is Baldur of course. It just seems a shame that the spark for their rivalry and discourse comes from something so… insignificant? I suppose it’s designed to paint them both in a “punch first, ask questions later” kind of light but still. 

Aside from that though, the story in God of War is fantastic. You step into the footsteps of Kratos, long after he wiped out Olympia, almost single handedly, and retreated to the Nordic lands.

Nordic is important, because instead of being tangled in the disagreements of the Greek gods, Kratos finds himself knee deep in Norse family issues and then some. The main difference this time? Kratos would rather not murder the entire lineage of gods, and would prefer to just live his life quietly.

You, and your son Atreus, have but one mission for the entirety of God of War. Right at the start, literally the first 2 minutes so this isn’t a spoiler, you and your son are preparing the cremation ceremony for Kratos’ wife. Their mission after this? Spread her ashes on the tallest peak in all of the nine realms. 

Needless to say, the road there is long and filled with action, but the goal is uncharacteristically… quiet, for the franchise anyway. I think this is why it resonates with me so much. God of War 2018, outside of all the axe throwing and yelling, is a story about family. About a frayed relationship between father and son, and the grief of losing a wife and mother. It’s just a quiet, refined objective, that doesn’t need exposition or set up. Which is an achievement in and of itself.

Everything from Atreus learning about his lineage, to Kratos disregarding his, to learning what exactly caused Baldur to go so clearly off the rails, and why he visited Kratos and Atreus’ home at the start of the game. It’s all handled so deftly, and it successfully translates the often confusing Norse mythology, into a series of events and characters that are easy to follow and even relate to. 

What is perhaps even more refreshing, is that despite you taking control of Kratos for the entire journey, it doesn’t feel like the entire world revolves around him and his decisions. In fact, most of the “drama” happens before you even set off, you’re just left to unravel it and find an explanation for the ruined land you inhabit. This off centre approach to storytelling is becoming increasingly more common in AAA titles, and it’s very welcome.

Kratos is still Kratos, don’t be worried by my descriptions so far. But gone are the adrenaline fuelled orgies and button mashy murder sprees through Ancient Greece. Instead, it’s been replaced by an older and more weathered version of the man we knew, and that carries over to the entire narrative. 

Acting? 10/10 – Despite suffering from my review of Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War is still, by no small margin, one of the finest host of acting performances I’ve seen.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is almost certainly the finest set of video game acting I’ve ever seen, and it’s a shame that having experienced that start to finish does make me wish that the characters in God of War had more limelight. However this isn’t a slight on the acting, if anything it’s a compliment! God of War toes the line between leaving you wanting more, but no overdoing it on exposition or unnecessary conversation, which is a fine line to walk.

Despite his limited lines early on, Christopher Judge as Kratos does an astounding job, casting the character in his own light, and doing a fantastic job covering the characters growth with his range. Starting off as gruff, blunt, and wholly incapable of demonstrating regular emotions, the growth in his character is astounding throughout the entire 30 hour experience.

Baldur’s voice actor won’t be hard to recognise by people who’ve watched a lot of TV in their time (any Justified fans here?). Jeremy Davies does an almost equal job as Christopher Judge, to the point where I’m always a little sad that Baldur doesn’t get a few more lines in-between battle sequences. Nevertheless, he plays the “drunken uncaring god” thing amazingly well, in what is one of the most memorable villainous video game performances in recent history. 

Everyone else you’ll meet throughout your journey also contribute generally wonderful performances, with the only slight mark being how damn annoying Atreus can be, but even then I suppose that means the actual acting is pretty stellar.

It’s just a very minor shame this wonderful cast of characters, and the others I haven’t mentioned, don’t all get the same amount of love and screen time. Whereas Red Dead Redemption 2 lets each character breathe and grow, God of War occasionally stifles some of it’s most interesting characters with a lack of lines or time in the limelight. It’s a small point of note, but something worth mentioning. 

This isn’t really a criticism though, the acting the game gives you never misses the mark, and it would be harsh of me to knock it for not giving me more, when it’s very possible that “more” would’ve sullied the experience.

Writing? 10/10 – The game gives you everything you want from a God of War title, and then adds in a ton more that you wouldn’t expect.

It’s fair to say that previous titles in this long running franchise, writing hasn’t exactly been… subtle? While that’s often still the same story here, it’s definitely matured in 2018’s title.

Kratos is the perfect example of this. He starts off appearing emotionless and unfeeling, but as time progresses you get the impression that he’s just cagey and has walls up (unsurprisingly, given his chequered past). There’s a fantastic moment early on where he’s talking to himself, out of earshot of Atreus, and it’s the first glimpse of the actual person within the legend.

The rest of the game follows suit as well, with every single character given a backstory and origin. Even if you don’t immediately find out what’s going on, the narrative will eventually tell you. A lot of the world building is done through special collectables, but even then, it’s transcribed by Atreus and you’re given his own perspective on it, and later on Mirmir will chime in as well.

The effort done by the script to make the player feel important is massively appreciated by myself, and it never feels like forced exposition, or that the game is trying to fill in the blanks. It’s very effectively done. 

Especially later on in the title, when Kratos is more comfortable around Atreus and his youthful optimism and curiosity, the writing evolves again, taking on more responsibility to show Kratos as more than just a brute, or a weapon. This doesn’t only strengthen this title, it also serves to shed more light on previous titles, and in many ways reinforce the character growth that so many people might have missed from those games.

If you can’t tell, I like the writing. A lot. It doesn’t stray so far away from the prior material in that it starts to feel alien or out of place, but it handles the more mature setting and characters in a fundamentally impressive fashion.

Performance? 10/10 – Flawless from start to finish, I’m genuinely surprised by it’s technical stability.

In order to sum this up as quickly as possible. 

I had zero crashes, no cases of texture pop in that I can recall, no instances where audio cut out, no noticeable frame drops, and no areas where the game appeared to be struggling. Throughout any of my 3 playthroughs.

The lack of load screens, and camera cuts helps to aid all of this, but could also have potentially added more leeway for glitches and visual bugs. Thankfully it manages to bypass all of this, and deliver what is one of the most impressively stable performances I’ve played through. It never hitched, stuttered, or bugged out on me in any way, and it’s harder to sum up further than that.

As mentioned previously, I was playing on a PS4 slim, which means I can’t speak to its performance on  PS4 Pro, but I’d have to assume that it performs just as well as it’s base counterpart. 

Quick note, while I was on the base console, I was playing through a HDR enabled 4K TV. Which led to what I thought were frame issues, due to the difference between resolution outputs. What had actually happened was my TV hadn’t automatically switched over to it’s “game” setting, which made the display appear framey and kind of hard to look at. To the best of my knowledge, most (if not all) TVs have this setting, so if you’re on a similar setup to me, ensure you toggle this option, it thankfully erased this brief issue.

Fun Factor? 9/10 – Backtracking may put some players off, but God of War is otherwise a constantly evolving and entertaining journey.

To get the one possible thing that might put you off out of the way, I should talk about the backtracking. I mentioned it in my gameplay section. As you progress throughout the game, you’ll notice areas that you can’t reach yet. Without spoiling the payoff, eventually you WILL be able to reach them, it’s just at certain stages of the story the world will shift around you, allowing access to previously blocked off routes and entrances. 

This does lead to inevitable backtracking. If the sound of that bores you, I assure you it never feels that way. The nature in which the world changes actively encouraged me to go back and search for new areas and collectables, and I think you’ll be the same.

Beyond that? You get a damn near perfect combat experience, a fantastic set of characters and the world they inhabit is beautifully created. Add in the new loot system, collectables, and an engaging story line? Yeah I had a blast, from start to finish, multiple times.

I cannot recommend this game enough.

Value? 10/10 – Impressive replayability, an engaging late game, and wide ranging abilities mean you can play God of War more than a handful of times through, and still not see or do everything.

If you play the story, and all the side quests, you’ll finish God of War in 30-35 hours. Which is about my personal sweet spot for a single player experience. That being said, there is plenty to do aside from that. 

You have two optional realms that offer challenging late game activities and access to some of the best armour and upgrade materials, if you’re up for it. You have the collectathon that’s hidden quite well into this title, you have the very well done New Game + system, and 4 difficulties to finish. The hardest of which will almost certainly test every bone in your body. 

For the entry price of £50-60, less if it’s on sale, God of War is a no brainer. It’s got something that will appeal to everyone, and you can replay it almost endlessly if you so desire.

How Much Did This Reviewer Enjoy It? 10/10 – Without a doubt my favorite game of its ilk this generation, God of War is an absolute must play for those who own a PS4, and a proper console seller in it’s own right.

Pretty much as the title if I’m honest. If you own a PS4, and haven’t played God of War, you’re doing yourself a disservice. 

In my opinion the most impressive PS4 exclusive, although Kyle will probably scream “Persona 5!” at you to deafen me out. This is of course my own opinion, but for me it’s a game that was years ahead of its time, almost unprecedented in terms of the care and attention that went into crafting it. 

Is it the best PS4 exclusive? In my eyes almost certainly. It’s actually one of the only single PS4 exclusives that I would recommend buying the entire console for. Console sellers are a unicorn these days, but God of War is one of them.

Is it my favorite action-adventure title of all time?

Yes. I think it is.

God of War (2018) Review
By Zack Daniels.

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