In God of War, an ostensibly simple journey becomes something far greater than either of the game’s protagonists had bargained for. Kratos – absentee father, and secret god-killing-machine – embarks on a quest toward the highest peak in Midgard (the Earth, and human realm of Norse Mythology) accompanied by Atreus, his son to the late Faye – whose ashes they shall carry with them.
Faye, who died in unknown circumstances, before the game gets underway, beseeched her loved ones to scatter her ashes to the winds, from atop the tallest of mountains, and everything the Father-Son duo does is incidental to this over-arching goal; whether it be competing in the Trials of Muspelheim (in the fiery domain of Surtr), or plundering the mysterious labyrinth of Niflheim, in search of powerful dwarven artefacts. Fighting, looting and exploring are all means to an end.
The protagonists’ quest is beset by obstacles, not least of which is the catalogue of enemies, straight out of the Prose Edda, which cross their path. In God of War, you’ll do battle with Draugrs, Wights, Trolls, Golems, Giants, Wulvers (Werewolves to you and me), and – of course – Gods; the Vanir and Aesir Gods to be precise. Their motives are unclear, as so much is in this enigmatic tale; the story isn’t driven by events, so much as it is driven by revelations as to the characters’ identities and motivations; you’re playing to learn more, rather than to ‘find out what happens next’.
Whilst God of War (2018) is (at least) the eighth title in the franchise, and is notionally a sequel to God of War III (2010), there is a clear shift in focus away from the titular anti-hero. In this 2018 title, Kratos is old, tired, and seemingly somewhat conflicted about his murderous past. In many respects it feels like he’s winding down, and preparing his boy to take over his mantle – as main protagonist, that is; Kratos patently does not want Atreus to become a hardened killer in his own image; he wants him to be better.
Kratos prepares Atreus physically by teaching him to fight, hunt, and survive; and temperamentally by teaching him in more subtle ways: instructing him as to when to show mercy to their enemies, placating him when he has tantrums, and imparting various ‘wisdoms’ which are coloured by his own abhorrence of his own kind. As the game wears on, Kratos never ceases to surprise; whilst humility isn’t a characteristic readily attributable to a self-made god, Kratos is a far better father than he gives himself credit for – even overcoming his mistrust of the gods when Atreus’ life is on the line.
Atreus is very much the focal point of God of War, with most of the narrative-driving quandaries revolving around him: What is the mysterious ‘illness’ which has blighted the boy? What is the identity of his Mother? To what extent does he know his Father’s true nature? Will his Father come to hate him, as he hates all gods?
Though regarded as the human realm, Midgard is extremely sparsely populated, and non-player characters are few and far between. The handful we do interact with regularly are incredibly well-crafted, however, such as Brok and Sindri. These dwarf brothers are the creators of the Leviathan Axe, which was gifted by them to Faye, and subsequently found its way into Kratos’ hands; he uses this iconic weapon – which, when thrown, always returns to him (much like Thor’s Mjolnir) – in place of his legendary Chaos Blades (now relics of a past he has sworn to bury).
Another notable NPC, who in fact joins the party – albeit as a reanimated head, strapped to Kratos waistband – is Mimir. Renowned for his knowledge of wisdom, and on shaky footing with the Aesir, Mimir makes for a convenient ally, and provides direction and comic relief in equal measure. At various stages of the journey, Mimir regales Atreus – who is almost impossibly curious – with tales of Odin, Thor, Tyr and the other Aesir. Whilst many of these stories will be familiar to those familiar with the lore, they are told with such distaste that we are left in little doubt that they’re frankly a bunch of bastards. These tales – viewed as something of an annoyance by Kratos – are crucially important to the overall tenor of the narrative, and add a growing sense of gravity to the battles which follow.
Many of the game’s side quests are styled as ‘favours’ to Brok and/or Sindri, and involve delving into some mine, workshop or other, in search of loot – Kratos views these as useful opportunities to steel himself for the battles to come, whereas Atreus is more excited at the prospect of learning more about the little fellas (he duly records his findings in a journal, which players can peruse at their leisure). Other side-quests are again favours, but to the spirits of the former denizens of Midgard. Whilst there’s always plenty to do, there aren’t so many side quests as to be unwieldy; it’s a very substantial game, without outstaying its welcome.
As far as combat is concerned, Kratos has a choice of three weapon sets, which are supplemented by ‘runic’ attacks, and a ‘spartan rage’ mode – the activation of which makes Kratos about as easy to stop as a runaway train. Levelling-up entails spending earned XP on new or upgraded moves for Kratos’ arsenal; be it an extra series of blows with the Leviathan Axe, or a devastating new runic attack, such as Breath of Thamur which deals massive amounts of frost damage to those unlucky enough to be in the surrounding area.
Also upgradable are Atreus’ bow shots, which have gameplay benefits in terms of exploration; Light Arrows activate ethereal bridges, making previously out of reach areas accessible, and the Shock Arrows detonate shatter crystals, which will explode to clear barriers from the team’s path.
Gear, in the form of axe pommels, and armour for Kratos’ chest, wrists, and waist, can be bought, sold and upgraded in exchange for ‘hacksilver’ – a currency gained predominantly via exploration, and opening chests of various rarities. Depending on the rarity of the gear, it can then be slotted with enchantments which have a range of different stat bonuses, and can be switched out on the fly to better suit the demands of the task at hand – e.g. by boosting Kratos’ healing factor, or increasing his resistance to a particular kind of nastiness.
The upgrade system – and particularly the interface – is very reminiscent of Warner Brothers’ Shadow of Mordor (I’ve yet to play Shadow of War), of which I was reminded at various stages of the journey through Midgard. Unfortunately, God of War shares Shadow’s problem whereby an XP plateau is reached relatively early, which feels like a shame. For the most part, completionists will find themselves exploring in order to find additional lore and collectibles – such as Odin’s ravens – rather than grinding it out to increase Kratos’ power.
Despite the raw power at Kratos’ disposal, he seldom feels overpowered; whilst nothing can stop him when he’s in the throes of his Spartan Rage, this is time-limited, and when that rage metre runs out you can rest assured the enemies will give as good as they got – or try to, anyway. The fights against Baldur – particularly the first – are absolutely fantastic for this very reason; due to the sheer power of the pair, the battle shatters the beautifully designed nordic landscape, altering it forever. The fact that the God of War team has been able to take such powerful adversaries and pit them against each other in fights that aren’t just spectacle – that are satisfying and fun – is an incredible achievement.
Overall, God of War is an absolute triumph – the visceral combat is wonderfully satisfying from start to finish, and the narrative is a masterclass in character development. Many of the gameplay mechanics and RPG aspects are far from groundbreaking, but if there are any flaws in their execution, they’re very hard to find and even harder to remember. My only criticism is that the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be – but perhaps this is because it isn’t truly and end, but a beginning.