Note: This review contains minor spoilers for God of War.
God of War had Game of the Year buzz all around it leading up to and immediately following release. Even in what has been an exceptionally strong console generation thus far, it’s already being hailed as one of the best PS4 exclusives with a 94 on Metacritic.
I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade — I think God of War is an amazing game in many ways — but for me, it was a bit of a roller coaster of an experience. The game’s characters, narrative, systems, and gameplay all hit very high notes at different times, but I was left just the tiniest bit disappointed with my final experience.
Some of this comes down to the internet hype machine, which I certainly can’t hold against God of War. But other disappointments are more linked to design or story decisions that didn’t connect with me. Franky, there are some things about God of War that I don’t see how anyone could think are good.
I say all of this to get any potential for bias out of the way. This review isn’t a justification for other positive reviews, nor a condemnation of them. There’s a lot to love about God of War and I do think the whole thing is better than the sum of its parts. However, I also don’t think it’s one of the greatest games ever made. That’s admittedly an insanely high standard to hold, but it’s a conversation I’ve seen happen many times surrounding this game. That conversation is important in this context because God of War could have been one of the greats, and, similar to Horizon Zero Dawn, things are certainly set up for the inevitable sequel to be mentioned in that elite company.
A More Personal Adventure
The beginning of the game wastes no time in setting up its new direction for anti-hero Kratos. He’s a dad who’s traded in his goatee for a beard, living in the Nordic wilderness with his family. He’s trying to move on from the sins of his past. But, as these things so often play out, there’s no running away from who you used to be.
The general plot has Kratos and his son, Atreus, making their way to the top of the highest mountain to lay the ashes of their wife/mother to rest. Things become just a bit more complicated when Odin’s son, Baldur, and his two nephews hunt down Kratos for reasons he doesn’t totally understand.
To be fair, I’m still not totally clear on the “why” of things that happen in God of War. The gods just seem to hate Kratos, which seems reasonable. I was far more interested in the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus, which feels weird to say in a God of War game. The larger scale story didn’t grab me the way the smaller moments did. That isn’t to say the story doesn’t boast some grand spectacle, because there were plenty of sequences and moments that invoked the insanity of the first trilogy.
The end of the game definitely delivers on some big reveals that put Kratos and Atreus in an interesting spot leading into the inevitable sequel. I was happily along for the journey throughout, and interesting side characters like Mimir only highlight the opportunity for additional stories. The actual conclusion to the game underwhelmed me slightly, if only because I never connected greatly with Freya or Baldur.
The world of God of War is also fascinating. I’m not really a “gods” buff, whether they be Nordic, Greek, Egyptian, or otherwise, but the history of this world grabbed my attention far more than in the previous trilogy of games. I think some of this is down to the greater detail paid by the story, but also the more open world structure.
Metroidvania of War
In God of War, the Lake of Nine acts as a home base of sorts. It’s where you go between larger story sections; it’s the easiest place to find Brok, one of the dwarven brothers that sells and upgrades items; and it’s the biggest area for random exploration. Most of the side missions take place in other named areas, but the Lake of Nine connects them all.
I think the open world design, by and large, is a positive change. Games nowadays give more freedom to players than ever before, and the corridor action in the original trilogy would feel outdated in a modern context. I like being able to choose when to take on a side mission or explore an area.
The problem with this approach in God of War is that the game operates partially like a Zelda or Metroidvania game and partially like an open world RPG. There are areas you can’t reach in the early to mid hours because you lack a particular item or attack. But there are also other areas that are more softly gated by over-leveled enemies.
Combining both of these approaches led to me often feeling like the game wasn’t doing a good job of shepherding me to the content it wanted me to see when it wanted me to see it.
Here’s an example. You visit a witch’s hut fairly early in the game, and there are multiple side areas that are gated off by a magic seal that you can’t break. That’s all fine and good, as there’s a fair assumption to be made that I’ll visit this place again because of the story. Sure enough, you unlock the magic piece by the time you come around again, so you can progress into that side area.
But wait, there’s another, different gate once you get to this side area. So you come back again later in the game once you have the move necessary to unlock this gate, only to reveal enemies that are far too powerful to take on right now.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that God of War does a bad job of telling you when you should try engaging with its side content. All of this creates unnecessary backtracking and one-hit-kill deaths. Even an open world-lite game should do a better job of this.
Materials Learning Curve
My largest frustration with the game comes down to how the inventory is managed. Things are just poorly explained, and that can be pretty frustrating in a game that tries to make you care about loot. I’ll highlight this with another example.
Early in the game, I beat an enemy that I probably wasn’t supposed to be able to beat and he dropped an enchantment. This was the first enchantment I unlocked, so I was excited to get it on a piece of gear. I went into my inventory and couldn’t even find the enchantment, much less an armor piece I could put it on or even instructions of how it worked.
After playing for a few more hours, I got to a story beat where one of the dwarven brothers gave me an enchantment and showed me how to use it. I had spent all this time trying to learn the system on my own, but instead, the game decided when I was ready to engage with this system. That’s taking the power out of the player’s hands.
This might seem like a small example, but there were several times throughout the game where I’d unlock something and not be able to easily figure out where or how to use it. You gather tons of materials throughout your time in the game, and those are never satisfyingly explained, either. I never knew if I should be spending those resources to upgrade my current gear, saving them to buy better gear in the future, or even if those resources were finite in the world and I should, therefore, be very careful in using them.
God of War, Indeed
Thankfully, the biggest focus in God of War — the combat — is better than it’s ever been before.
I’m more of a button-masher than a combo-dealer in action games, which is probably why I won’t be winning a fighting game tournament anytime soon. But my playstyle works just as well in God of War as a more seasoned fighting game player’s would.
The positive is that there are a ton of different special moves you unlock throughout the game, and I was never short on upgrade points to spend. By the end of the game, I’d pretty much unlocked everything in each skill tree and fully leveled up around half of the special moves — even for moves I rarely wanted to use.
It’s easy to experiment with different combinations that deal out more runic damage or those that make it easier to stun enemies. The potential negative here is that since there are so many options, it’s easy to either become quickly overwhelmed by trying too many things or to simply stick with what you’ve been doing from the beginning. I stuck mostly to the latter strategy, but I did change up my loadout occasionally just to see what else was available.
The combat, while often challenging on normal difficulty, was never hard enough that I felt the need to min/max my build. I used the armor that looked coolest, the enchantments that seemed the most useful, and the moves I liked the most visually.
There’s a good amount of variation in the enemy types, though the mini-bosses felt a tad repetitious. Most of them can be defeated easily by using the same strategy over and over, which takes away some of the intrigue. This is helped in the closing hours by the game throwing more enemies at you at once, but I would have preferred a few different versions of the larger monsters. The exceptions to this are the Valkyries, who are semi-hidden bosses you can’t access until the late game. Each one requires a slightly different approach, and they’re all quite difficult. I beat my first one on the fifth try, my second one on the fourth try, and only tried a few others before giving up. I know, I must suck at video games.
Around two-thirds of the way through the game, you unlock the trusty blades of chaos. This was right about the time where I had become fully comfortable in using the ax, so while I liked having another type of weapon to experiment with, I would have rather been able to access this one earlier. This would allow for a more balanced combat approach from the beginning. Instead, I leaned heavily on the blades for most of the rest of the game, since they’re just way better at dealing with crowds of enemies.
Showcase for the PS4 Pro
Graphically, God of War makes a strong case for being the best looking console game ever made. That doesn’t only come down to visual fidelity — though that is amazing — but also the art design and character animations. This isn’t quite Naughty Dog levels of video game acting, but it’s pretty damn good. The different realms you explore all offer unique visual treats, as well. I’m excited to (hopefully) see additional realms in future games.
I personally like the third-person, over the shoulder perspective, but I definitely see why it might annoy someone. Sony Santa Monica did a smart thing by creating the notification icons and quick turn ability for when attacks are coming from behind, but that can’t compensate for some better camera controls and perspective.
There’s a very cinematic feel to God of War. The fact that the game never has a true loading screen (outside of some fast travel and initial bootup) is quite a feat, indeed. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of obvious loading sections as Kratos takes forever to lift a boulder or open a door, but this decision still creates a sense of constant immersion. The camera often feels like a character in and of itself as it swoops around during story beats or changes perspectives during pre-rendered action sequences. Given the story that Sony Santa Monica is trying to tell, the continuity works.
There are so many epic moments in God of War that remind me of the original trilogy. But there’s also a more interesting setting, better developed characters, and a gorgeous world to explore. What’s tough for me is that the two biggest changes in this God of War compared to previous entries — the open world feel and the gear management — are the two things I enjoyed least.
But for me, the other parts of the game — the focus on story, the deeper combat, the well-developed characters — make God of War better than the sum of its parts. It’s also hard to fault Sony Santa Monica completely for not nailing everything across the board, since there are plenty of new ideas in God of War. I’m more interested to see how the story and world design of God of War change going into the sequel. There are many lessons for Cory Barlog and his team to learn. If they can learn even half of them, God of War 2/II/subtitle will truly be something special.
It’s easy for me to sit here and nitpick God of War to death given the crazy amounts of perfect scores it’s received. But despite flaws both large and small, I can’t look back at my time with God of War as anything other than spectacular. Is it one of the best games ever made? I don’t think so. But is it one of the best games I’ve played in the past few years? Definitely.
So, what did you think of God of War? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to check out my other video game reviews!