God of War is a winner. I’ve gone out of my way to avoid spoilers in this review, but this is a game and a story filled with surprises. If all you really need is a yes or no recommendation: YES. Play this game.
For those that want a fuller sense of what to expect, read on. Spoilers are kept to an absolute minimum.
Kratos isn’t angry anymore.
He’s no ray of sunshine or anything. But he’s older and big-bearded now. He has a kid. He has a wife. He’s mellowed, at least as much as anyone could after being tricked by the gods into murdering their own wife and child (different wife and child, obviously).
Yet for all of that, this is still Kratos. The Ghost of Sparta. God of War gets a lot of things right — it is immediately a Game of the Year 2018 contender — but developer Sony Santa Monica’s smartest move is not forgetting why the series is so popular in the first place.
Kratos leaps and pirouettes through his brutal combos with the same fluid grace he’s always had. There are monsters of all sizes, executions galore, and dazzling visual effects accompanying your every move.
You have more control over the camera now than ever before, and the world itself is designed for exploration — a dramatic shift away from the linear, heavily scripted pathways of past God of War games. Everything is gorgeous, too, easily on par with the top visual powerhouses of this gaming generation.
But Kratos still gonna Kratos. The feeling of familiarity is almost unsettling at first. God of War‘s opening hours tread a safe path, reintroducing familiar, old mechanics in closed-off spaces while slowly amping up the pressure with tougher foes and more varied threats.
Even without your signature Blades of Chaos, the chained twin blades that once defined God of War combat, the new game’s early battles feel like a homecoming. Simple attack combos pour out effortlessly because even though the tools are different, we’ve been here before.
Then you reach the first proper boss fight, a blockbuster set piece that you’ll still be thinking about 20 hours later, and the gloves come off. In hindsight, the easygoing opening sprint is revealed as an understated tutorial.
Right away, God of War makes you feel like the all-powerful, half-man/half-god Ghost of Sparta. Much like the classic Blades, Kratos’s new Leviathan Axe — which can be used in close quarters, as well as thrown and quickly summoned back to your hand — has its own sense of identity. Even with all the new RPG trappings that allow you to level up and become more of a badass, the axe immediately feels like a powerhouse.
God of War smartly dials back the number of weapons you rely on (compared to past games) to a small handful. This depth-over-breadth approach works exceptionally well, with the larger world and longer story allowing you to spend more time learning the intricacies of each of your tools. Expect to spend at least 10 or 15 hours coming to grips with the game before the barest hint of an axe replacement surfaces.
Even when your arsenal does grow, the additions are complementary. Much like the Blades of Chaos in the past, your Leviathan Axe remains a trusty go-to from beginning to end. It has a story of its own that makes it important to Kratos personally — and thus, inseparable from the character — but its combat utility only grows as you delve deeper into the game.
The new story picks up many years after the events of the original God of War trilogy. With all the gods and god-like beings of Greek myth slaughtered, Kratos has moved on and carved out a new life for himself in Midgard, the Earthly world of Norse mythology’s Nine Realms.
Names like Odin and Thor have a special place in the pop culture of 2018 thanks in large part to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But they carry an entirely different meaning in this world, as we learn from Atreus, son of Kratos and a near-constant companion throughout the journey.
Given his history, Kratos naturally distrusts all deities of any stripe. But Atreus was largely raised by his Nine Realms-native mother. He knows the history of this place. He knows the lore, the local pantheon of gods, the beasts and threats. The in-game journal that keeps track of both the story and the lore belongs to Atreus, and the insights gathered throughout your journey are written from his youthful “I’ve learned about this world but not seen it for myself firsthand” perspective.
In combat, Atreus amounts to another piece of gear in your toolbox. He’ll act on his own, but you can also command him to fire his arrows at any foe in sight with the press of a button. The arrows have different uses, but you’ll primarily rely on them to disrupt enemy combos and inch foes closer to being stunned, at which point Kratos can execute them in brutal fashion.
On his own, Atreus won’t turn the tide in combat. The damage from his arrows isn’t high enough for you to hang back and spam the “Atreus, go shoot this” button until a battle is won. But his skills complement Kratos, and using him effectively is nearly essential by the time you reach the later stages of the game.
Atreus also gives this new God of War an emotional core that past games lacked. Again, Kratos isn’t angry anymore. He’s a gruff, emotionally distant parent who hasn’t spent as much time with his boy as he should have, but this journey the two embark on together changes that.
Kratos and Atreus both have much to teach one another, and their increasingly candid back-and-forth propels many of the game’s quieter moments. Both characters are shaped by their experiences together out in the world. They grow and evolve as characters, and you take that journey with them.
There’s also a small-yet-essential cast of characters that you meet along the way. Dwarven merchants Brok and Sindri operate the in-game store, and your frequently comical encounters with them break up the serious tone of things. Later on you meet Mimir, a known figure in Norse mythology who shares his wealth of stories about Odin, Thor, and the pantheon of the Nine Realms.
All throughout this new God of War, you’re encouraged to immerse yourself and really engage with the lore. While each physical space is built much like the past games, with linear paths that often double back on themselves to unlock shortcuts and new routes (oh, hi Dark Souls), secrets and stories are tucked away everywhere.
There are more open spaces as well, including a central, hub-like zone that leads organically to those tighter, consciously directed environments. But you’re meant to revisit old locales and hunt for things you simply couldn’t access earlier. There are plenty of tangible rewards for doing so, but the real joy is a growing sense of how life moves in Midgard.
Mixed in alongside all of that are the sort of massive set piece moments for which God of War is known. To say more than that risks spoiling the fun, but if you appreciate the way past God of War games played with the sense of scale as Kratos took on the skyscraper-sized Titans of Greek myth… well… get hype.
It’s a trite thing to say, but by the time the credits roll the biggest disappointment is that there isn’t more to do. Even in the early going, there are hints scattered everywhere of a deep and engaging set of activities to keep you playing long after the God of War story is over. There are also piles of loot, mostly armor, divided up across different levels of rarity (think Diablo). Each piece you equip confers stat bonuses and new abilities.
Sadly, none of it matters all that much as you reach the latest stages of the game. The toughest challenges hinge on pitting you against foes that just plain outmatch Kratos. Even if you’re able to contend with that, there’s also just not a whole lot to do. A couple of high-level challenges and then… done.
There is a sense that more is coming to this game, as a number of areas on the map remain locked (and are seemingly off-limits by design) even after the story is over. But that can also create false expectations. You see these locations early on and start to anticipate visiting them at a later point, but it never actually happens.
None of this is ever communicated explicitly, either. It’s just something you deduce as you tick off a string of late-game objectives that deliver more loot but nothing new to do with it. In general, God of War isn’t great at communicating how certain aspects of the game work. It’s the sort of thing that could potentially be fixed with a patch, but for now it’s frustrating to find loot you can’t use and see map locations you can’t visit, all with no explanation.
Let’s be clear, though: This is minor stuff. The shortcomings do little to mar the overall experience, and most only become evident after you’ve spent 30 or 40 hours in this dazzling world.
God of War is a special game. It’s the sort of experience that people are going to be talking about for months to come, with a story that hits you right in the feels and smooth, beautifully staged gameplay that clicks immediately like a familiar, old friend.