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2018’s God of War may be gaming’s new mascot for things we didn’t know we needed. Old school Kratos was almost adorable in his blind rage against the familiar faces of Greek mythology. It didn’t just work despite the fact that he was an underdeveloped protagonist, it worked because he was an underdeveloped protagonist. The thrilling, albeit simple character suited the thrilling, albeit simple gameplay. This new God of War takes that foundation and keeps it intact while simultaneously uprooting the entire thing to start from scratch. It may be the smoothest and most successful franchise overhaul in the history of gaming, a medium that somehow manages to love remakes and reboots more than its Hollywood counterpart. The praise for God of War 4, or PS4, or 2018, or just God of War (whatever you’ve been calling it), has been as universal as it is earned. So rather than just review the game, because my feedback may become tediously positive, we’ll also be taking a look into the secret ingredients that land such a historically memorable reception.
Dad of Boi Copies No One
Early doubters drew stretch comparisons to PlayStation’s The Last of Us, as if that’s a bad thing. But the likeness stems from little beyond a camera angle and the presence of a child. I loved God of War’s story, a compliment I’ll elaborate on soon, but I don’t think Kratos’ latest and greatest tale stands up to the narrative depth found in the Naughty Dog classic. Make no mistake; this is a better story than the God of War series ever dreamed of, but I won’t be watching reaction videos of the game’s beginning, middle, and end tearjerkers five years later. Similarly, I don’t think this is an even remotely fair comparison for God of War. One of the most satisfying and thoroughly thought out combat systems of all time is a bit more of a gameplay experience than The Last of Us’ seesaw ride between decent stealth and bland, cover-based shooting. They’re completely different games, and both are required reading for anyone in possession of a PS4. How is it that Sony seems to add one of those to the list every single year? I only just finished complimenting Horizon: Zero Dawn so I could start this review.
Finally, a Proper Epic
God of War’s adventure isn’t overly complicated, but what it lacks in extensive plot is abundant in the many traits of a proper epic. Game of Thrones took the fantasy genre in a more political direction, and very clearly hits the marks of a quality saga. But I still say we haven’t seen a true epic since the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Classic epics focus less on the twists and turns, instead placing all weight on the coming journey and character development in simpler circumstances. They’re grand for the sake of being grand, not overly wordy, and leave an ocean of subtext for diehard fans to sift through to further enhance the experience. Every moment of God of War gives me a storytelling joy I haven’t felt since that cinematically miraculous trilogy. This sense of wondrous immersion is amplified by a beginning-to-end, credits and postgame included, one-shot approach to the game’s cinematography. I don’t know how director Cory Barlog (who should really arrange a legal change to Balrog) and company pulled it off, but a game with zero load screens and zero cuts will make every other game I play in the foreseeable future look like a disjointed mess.
I never expected to love a healthy handful of characters from a God of War game, but that’s exactly what happened. Older, wiser, and more mature Kratos was a surefire hit from the beginning. A character with his past can very logically be taken down the path of seasoned regret if you’re looking to legitimize a series built around a sadistic hero. So I expected to have a deeper appreciation for the big guy. What I did not expect, however, was to fall just as deeply in love with his son. The young male character is almost always a deathtrap. They’re an irritating bunch. Ellie or Elizabeth Comstock? Sure thing. But for whatever reason, a similarly aged boy with a bad attitude can torpedo a game. Atreus, from a character arc perspective, is the star of this show. I would never forego Kratos as the franchise’s lead, but having Atreus by my side added a layer, both narratively and in gameplay, that I can no longer live without. Throw in a great villain, fun side characters, and one of the strongest collective voice acting performances I’ve ever heard. Just like that, God of War’s colorful characters have everything going for them, and they drive the experience from start to finish.
Make Players Happy: What a Concept
The God of War developers seem to ask themselves what players will enjoy most at every turn. Something as simple as throwing the Leviathan axe feels great, and something as complicated as the game’s many upgrades and progression systems is never intrusive. Hours flow from one fight to the next upgrade. Unlocking the game’s next pleasant surprise is the same deal, whether it’s another option in gameplay or geography, everything is paced to perfection. The game also explores a fresh take on this new lore, encompassing the many feats of Odin and his twisted family in a way that far surpasses what Marvel has done with this same canvas. And there’s a menu of playable fun after the credits roll that again take into consideration what would make you, the player, happiest. I already can’t wait to get destroyed by my remaining Valkyrie fights. God of War is brutal without infuriating its players. As I may have already mentioned, they took into account what makes gamers happy.
A Perfect Storm
Just about every corner of this game deserves praise. But the most fascinating study lies in determining how God of War climbed to the highest peak in all the industry’s nine realms. It isn’t exactly the first to do any one thing, yet there’s this perfect storm of good decisions that culminates in 2018’s thus-far game of the year. Kratos’ new groove suffered a somewhat infamous development cycle, as a long five years went into the final product. As a Final Fantasy fan, I call that overnight shipping, but I hear five years is a long time for average consumers. And God of War’s not so convoluted secret is that they clearly spent that time listening to and learning from today’s gaming culture. They borrowed elements from some games, steered clear from others, and added their own flavor to the mix. And that’s what God of War 2018 is: a perfect storm of modern gaming with a hint of Santa Monica Studios flavor. Microtransactions and despicable business practices fit for an iPhone game are public enemy number one? Don’t put them in. People like Dark Souls combat and difficulty? Use that as a basic template, and then add a Leviathan axe. Open world is popular among western gamers, yet sandbox games are paradoxically resented? Create a semi-linear journey that features massive areas to explore for additional content. Season passes before games are even released are tacky? Don’t do it.
God of War didn’t just hide in a cave for five years; they evolved with the times while fine-tuning their masterpiece. There’s a certain depth of story I look for when talking about my favorite games of all time. So I’m not exactly in the “best game of all time” camp that has more of a following than you’d expect. I basically need to suffer an existential crisis and rethink my life to throw that term around. So I can only say God of War is a fantastic must-play that will undoubtedly stand among the most impressive feats you’ve experienced in any entertainment medium. Small praise, I know. Whenever a game gets popular, companies crawl over each other to copy it. Call of Duty launched a thousand First Person Shooters. PUBG launched a thousand Battle Royale clones. Please, developers of the world, do your absolute best to copy this game. Give Santa Monica your best shot. Because whether or not it inspires more of a similar quality, God of War is a role model for an entire industry.