God of War (2018) Review: A Very Exciting Mountain-Climbing Trip

God of War took the gaming world by storm when it was released by Santa Monica Studios back in 2018, just over three years ago actually (the game had its three-year anniversary just earlier in April). People raved about basically every aspect of this fresh series reboot, from the cinematic graphics, voice acting and storytelling, to the gameplay; it was basically the complete package. Unfortunately, at the time of its release I did not own a Sony console, so I more or less accepted the fact I was probably not going to ever play the game until I got my hands on a PS4/PS5. Fortunately, the gods smiled down on me and I was able to grab ahold of a PS5, which is still ridiculously hard to obtain, and thus God of War became my first-ever Sony exclusive experience (as even Horizon Zero Dawn was eventually ported to PC). Now is it the greatest thing since sliced bread? In my opinion not even close, although it is still a damn good game that does a lot of things right.

God of War is in a way, both a reboot and a sequel to the original series. The main protagonist is still Kratos, although the game takes place some undetermined amount of time after the original trilogy, and in the Norse realm of Midgard as opposed to Greece. Basically, Kratos decided to abandon his old life in Greece and settled in Midgard, falling in love with a woman named Faye and having a son with her, named Boy (nicknamed Atreus). Unfortunately Faye is dead by the time the game starts, so the main story revolves around Kratos and Atreus taking her ashes to “the highest peak in the realms” to scatter them. Basically the entire game is a mountain-climbing trip that involves killing a ton of things along the way.

Gameplay:

God of War’s gameplay is definitely the biggest part of the game where I have the most mixed opinions about. Overall, it has a very solid combat system that is super fun and engaging, albeit it starts off a bit slow and only really starts to click once Kratos and Atreus acquire better gear and abilities. The combos Kratos can execute in combat are pretty basic in a vacuum, but being able to swap weapons on the fly (like throwing the Leviathan Axe and switching to hand-to-hand combat, then recalling the axe to finish enemies off in axe mode) allows for smooth transitions mid-fight, and that’s not even accounting for runic attacks, which are his weapons’ “special abilities” that serve a bunch of different purposes from crowd control to straight damage. Atreus is never controllable directly, but he is able to shoot arrows at targets to soften them up for Kratos, and also perform his own runic summons to assist on the battlefield. Mid/late-game is where the combat really begins to shine as that’s when Kratos is at full power, which kept me hooked enough to even start an NG+ play-through (and unlike a lot of games that do NG+, God of War actually provides a lot of incentives to play NG+ with all the new gear upgrades it brings). The gear system is also very well-balanced to support various different play-styles so that there is no “correct” way to approach combat, which is also very cool, even if the gear system is not as fully fleshed out as more RPG-focused games (which is not a problem, as God of War was never meant to be an RPG). The only real negative of the combat system is Spartan Rage, which I think is a pretty boring mechanic outside of throwing giant boulders at enemies (which is frankly hilarious), and I almost never use it if I can get away with it.

Combat aside, the exploration is also one of the gameplay’s biggest strengths. The world is beautiful to look at, especially on the PS5 where the frame rate is a consistent 60FPS. The game blends a “free-world” style of exploration with linear level design, and a lot of the different secrets/collectibles are cleverly placed where some exploration and thinking is required to get to them but are not incredibly difficult to find. That being said, some of the puzzles did get a bit tedious the further I progressed, and I’m playing God of War, not some puzzle game like Portal. I enjoyed the various lore bits scattered around the world the most, as those usually resulted in interesting conversations between Atreus and Mimir regarding what was being looked at. While I will not call this game a Metroidvania, it does incorporate small elements of the genre where some of Kratos’s combat upgrades allow him to explore places he could not before.

The core gameplay loop is pretty solid, but there are a few design choices that I strongly disagree with which keep me from really singing my praises about God of War’s gameplay. First, the camera placement, which I think is awful from a gameplay perspective, especially when coming from “Souls-likes” and other action games like Monster Hunter. The camera mostly being over Kratos’s shoulder makes some fights way more annoying than they have to be, because I literally cannot see half the enemies and have to rely on enemy indicator markings. Compared to a game like Dark Souls, where the camera is always centered around the player and the player has ample view of his/her surroundings, God of War’s camera makes fights feel super claustrophobic. While it is not a problem in most normal fights as most encounters in the game are not particularly difficult (at least considering normal/challenge difficulty), it becomes a huge pain in the ass when tackling the harder fights in the game like the Valkyries where some of them have attacks that literally put them out of camera view. Second, I’m not particularly fond of the default controls, and the game does not have the option to change specific binds (there is an option to change the overall scheme but not individual controls). Spartan Rage being triggered by both control sticks is annoying as I have triggered it accidentally way too many times to count due to how the left stick is bound to sprinting and the right is bound to target acquisition (and finishing moves, for some odd reason). Finally, the enemy variety is piss poor, especially considering how big the world is. I felt like there were maybe less than 10 unique normal enemies in the entire game, and almost all the bosses were just re-skins of a troll carrying a huge rock. It’s a good thing the game’s combat system is as robust as it is, otherwise I would have been bored out of my mind fighting the same enemies all game.

Writing:

God of War’s writing is probably its crowning achievement, from its overall narrative to its world building. The overall story is fairly straightforward in its premise as a classic hero’s journey, but to turn a simple trip to the top of a mountain into a compelling narrative is not an easy task. The game does not have a huge cast of characters; excluding Kratos and Atreus there are maybe five or so relevant characters. With such a small cast of characters in a game that spans likely 20 hours or more (a very rudimentary estimate), it is important that each character is well-written otherwise they would get irritating very fast. The bond between Kratos and Atreus, the game’s most important relationship, is well-crafted and developed over the course of the narrative. While Kratos is indeed Atreus’s father, he does not seem particularly close to him at the start of the game, and is quite clearly not used to acting like a father figure. As a result their relationship starts off rather rocky, though they slowly bond over the course of their travels. My personal favorite characters are Brok, a foul-mouthed Dwarf who acts as one of the shopkeepers in the game, and Mimir, the other main character to join Kratos and Atreus on their journey, though I will not elaborate more on him and how he came to join them. One of the more interesting ways the game chooses to flesh out its character interactions is through the boat rides. While rowing a boat and exploring Midgard, Kratos/Atreus/Mimir will usually begin conversations that involve either storytelling or recounting previous experiences (showing Kratos’s rather poor storytelling abilities), and the game even keeps track of those different interactions, stopping whenever they land and continuing the next time they’re on water again. There are a lot of times where I would purposely wait to get off the boat just because I wanted to hear the rest of whatever the conversation was.

The one part of the story I was not particularly crazy about happens later on in the game, though I will not elaborate much due to spoilers. In short, Atreus goes through his teenage angst/rebellion phase, which is not problematic given his age and the context behind the change, but I was not a fan of how the writers decided to transition him back to the sweet, curious boy that mostly defined his character, in the sense that I felt it was too abrupt, but at the same time maybe it was not a completely terrible choice as Atreus was completely insufferable during that time. That is honestly the only real problem I had with the game’s writing, which speaks volumes of how competent it is. The writing is also greatly enhanced by the voice acting cast, who all did a phenomenal job. Kratos’s voice actor in particular, Christopher Judge, absolutely nails Kratos’s stoic character as well as his fury in battle, and his voice probably leaves a lot of men feeling envious.

Misc/Ending Thoughts:

While God of War certainly looks gorgeous, it also has a very good soundtrack, albeit the soundtrack is used rather sparingly. From a creative standpoint it looks like the directors only decided to turn on the music during powerful scenes, and the music definitely fits those scenes well.

Overall, the game is really good. It is a visual spectacle that also comes with a competent narrative and a very fun combat system. Its only real flaws lie with some of its gameplay decisions like camera placement and enemy design, but aside from that, it is an amazing experience that has left me feeling hyped for the upcoming sequel, God of War: Ragnarok. Not a bad first game to start my PS5 gaming career with.

Rating: For anybody who owns a PS5 and PS+, the game’s free, so it’s certainly worth getting simply because it does not cost anything. If that is not applicable, I would imagine getting a cheap PS4 disc copy is not terribly difficult. While the game itself is certainly worth its retail price tag, I would not try to get it for that because of more available, cheaper alternatives considering it is three years-old.

Software engineer and gaming enthusiast, writing reviews to share quality media; check out my personal site at www.edmondwu.dev

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