Let me start this review by saying I was a bit hesitant to be excited about God of War 4 when it was announced. Eight years ago I felt that I was massively burned out on the button mashing, twitch reaction, combo making, mid attack weapon switching, larger than life boss fighting, why the hell is my hand cramping, action games that God of War, Devil May Cry, and Ninja Gaiden had given us in the prior years. I forced myself through God of War 3, simply because I had started the story in 2005, and I would be damned if I didn’t finish it. I came into this game READY to be disappointed, after so many AAA titles have dropped the ball in the last few years. However, after putting about around 15 hours into God of War 4, all I can say is ….holy shit.
Finally, I’d like to issue a warning about this review. Regarding some of the story elements I will be discussing, there will be minor spoilers regarding the overall concepts and setting of the game world this time around. Before I even get to the end of this I will tell you, buy this game. Period. If you’re worried about spoilers, get through the first major boss fight, and then read on.
The God of War series has always had a decent story, that has dealt with some serious themes. However, in my opinion, the gameplay was always so hectic compared to the seriousness of the story, that it almost felt disconnected in a ways. God of War 4 feels more intimate, the combat feels more serious, and it really supplements the story. This is a game about more than wailing on enemies and feeling like a bad ass god. This game is a game about dealing with loss, a reluctant father trying to teach a boy to be a man, and a coming of age tale smashed together in a narrative that may as well have been on the silver screen, given the quality of story telling involved. To set the tone, the game opens up with Kratos chopping down a tree that his second wife Faye had hand picked, among others, to be used for her funeral pyre upon her death. This marks the only time up until the point I’ve made it to, aside from one throw away line, that you can hear the pain that Kratos feels for losing her. Otherwise, he remains outwardly hardened and stoic throughout.
From here you tell the boy, Atreus, who is insinuated to be the son of Kratos and Faye (without completing the game I don’t know if this is correct yet) to hitch the wood to a boat so that you can bring this final marked piece of wood home, and burn up your lost mother/wife in a funeral pyre. Once she dies, Kratos takes the boy on a hunt, which was one of her final wishes, using it as a proving ground to see if the boy is ready to go on the journey they must take to bring Faye’s ashes to the top of a specific mountain, her other dying wish. In Kratos estimation, the boy fails him in several ways. I don’t know what the writers intentions were in the early scenes of the game. However, it feels that the way Kratos refers to him as “boy” constantly, and the rough demeanor he displays towards Atreus, it feels to me that there is sub context of Kratos taking out his grief for losing his wife out on Atreus whenever he disappoints him, as it means he will have to wait longer to take this journey. Kratos declares upon finishing the hunt, which ends with Atreus stabbing a dead enemy repeatedly, “You are not ready.” This point is further illustrated when they get back to their home, and Kratos tests the boy one more time to help drive home the point. Atreus does not know how to use his anger the way that Kratos does.
Moments after this there is a knock at the door, by an aggressive man demanding to see Kronos. This is where the story truly begins, and the gravity of the world around you comes into play. After much antagonizing, Kronos answers the door to a man who looks like a viking, covered in nordic runes and tattoos, demanding to fight Kronos. This leads to one of the coolest and most fun boss fights I’ve played in a video game in a very long time. You realize you are not in a fight with a simple mortal, but a god, and a son of Odin. After years of hiding in a different realm, you have been found out, and they will come for you, and boy does this guy take it to Kratos. In the fight Kratos age shows a bit, as he’s a bit slow off the jump. But, by the end of the fight you realize that even though he IS a god, “old man strength” is legit. Once the fight is over, you let Atreus know that you must start your journey now if you will be able to fulfill Faye’s dying wish, knowing that time is limited before others come for you.
From here, and throughout the rest of the story so far, there are dozens of moments where Kratos has to walk the line between teaching this boy to be a man, while not coddling him and steeling himself to make sure they complete their quest. Atreus walks the line between trying to impress his father, and trying not to blow up at him for never giving him the credit he feels he deserves, while feeling emotionally neglected. They slowly grow closer, while still keeping their distance. It feels a lot more real than a lot of relationships in video games do, and it truly enhances the rest of the story to know their struggle, within their struggle.
The best way I can describe the gameplay is, intimate. Yes there are familiar elements from the God of War franchise, large scale battles, violent finishing moves, upgradable weapon skills, etc. But, I found myself button mashing less than previous entries, and thinking more about what I wanted to do. The fights feel less frantic, and more This could possibly be because I was playing it on a higher difficulty, but also, you don’t have 400 different weapon choices this time around. You spend the game carrying around the Leviathan Ax, an ax left behind by your late wife, which is imbued with the power of ice. The game also doesn’t keep track of combos on the screen with giant flashy numbers this time around, which I think encourages you to make smarter choices in battle. If you’re playing on harder difficulties, you WILL get destroyed if you start taking hits.
Despite only having an Ax as a main weapon, Kratos does have a few other things floating around that can help him out. You have the ability to toss his ax at an enemy, which can completely freeze some of the weaker enemies in the game. Once the ax is out of his hands, Kratos can let his fists fly. You actually have the ability to shatter an enemy if you deplete their health bar with your bare hands while they are frozen. If you attack non frozen enemies with your bare hands, it increases their stun meter as well. His left bracer has a built in shield, that will deploy with a press of a button, which can be used to block attacks or parry. Spartan rage makes it’s way back into the game as well. Once you take and do enough damage, your rage meter fills up allowing you to do a ton of damage for a short period of time. Kratos will also heal a little bit while in spartan rage. You’ll see him flying around throwing hands like it’s friggin Fist of the North Star once you activate it. Atreus also aids in battle. You can aim at an enemy and press a button, which causes Atreus to shoot arrows at them, doing chip damage over time, and helping Kratos build up stun meter on enemies. Once an enemy is stunned you can perform a finishing move on them.
While there isn’t a cavalcade of weapons this time around, you do have a lot of ways to upgrade Kratos. This time around the game peppers in some more extraneous RPG elements. Kratos has several pieces of armor that increase stats, and his over all level. You eventually run into the people who made the Ax that you are carrying around, who give you the ability to upgrade your armor and your Ax, which unlocks the ability to buy new skills. Atreus can upgrade his armor and bow to do more damage, and add random combat effects (he will choke people sometimes so you can attack them, for instance), as well as having his own runes that summon animals made out of light to attack enemies. You can also slot runes into some pieces of armor that add abilities like having a chance to gain back health after doing an execution. There are two slots for attack runes you can place in your ax that gives you extra attack skills that are on a cool down. Often these skills freeze, stun, or push back enemies to give you some breathing room.
One of the other gameplay elements that takes up less of the game, but is actually enjoying this time around, is climbing stuff. In previous God of War games, and many games in general, climbing is usually kind of a pain in the ass. A lot of times the characters don’t move naturally, the jumping mechanics are mediocre, they can be over complicated, and so on. In this installment, it’s streamlined and simple. It’s very obvious where you need to climb, the animations of climbing look great, you can literally only jump if you are visually looking at an area that will give you a button prompt, automatically causing you to jump there with no BS in between. It’s relaxing, and the some of the environments…whew.
The final gameplay elements that are persistent throughout games like this, are puzzle solving and loot collecting. The puzzle solving never feels too complicated, or too easy. You feel like you are earning your prize, without getting frustrated by needless complications in the puzzle elements. The pieces themselves that you will be using to solve puzzles are set up perfectly, leaving little room for the mechanics of the puzzle to break, which I’ve seen a few times in previous games. As far as item collecting, as usual you’ll be collecting items to level up your health, rage meter, collecting crafting items to upgrade your armor, killing ravens, reading murals, collecting a scrolls, reading lore, finding artifacts that you can sell, and so on. There’s so much smaller content in the game that can take up time finding, and none of it feels like it’s “in the way.” A lot of this stuff shows up along the way in the form of smaller puzzles that are engaging and fun. The gameplay in and out, is an absolute home run here. Period.
Visuals and Final Thoughts
I played this game on a regular PS4, on a 4k television. As someone who has seen some of the most gorgeous games Xbox has to offer, on an Xbox One X, I can say God of War 4 looks as visually stunning WITHOUT a PS4 Pro than some of the best that XB1X has to offer. The team has put so much work into every detail of this game. Just looking at some of the set pieces is an absolute pleasure. I found myself stopping to just look at my surroundings from time to time, to soak it all in. On top of that, the range of colors in this game is insane. You’ll spend a lot of your time in wintery/gray areas, based on the set pieces in the story. But, occasionally you’ll find yourself in these bright, lush areas fulled with color that just pops in a way that you don’t see enough in modern games.
One of the other things I truly appreciated about the visuals in this game, is that I have yet to experience any kind of lag or visual slow down, even when a lot is going on at the same time. During fights, the armor moves with your body, the little pouch on your hip swings around, and the physical animations of attacking, throwing, shooting, blocking, everything feel so crisp. Because everything is so crisp and accurate, I never felt “cheated” by the game at any point during combat, making it more enjoyably and rewarding when you win a large fight on harder difficulties.
Santa Monica Studio and Sony Interactive came to remind people that single player games aren’t going anywhere, and put the whole industry on notice. In just a couple of days the game has already become the fastest selling God of War title ever in the UK. On top of that, analyst Michael Pachter told Gaming Bolt that selling 10 million units sounds like a low estimate for God of War. This would make God of War 4 the best selling exclusive on PS4 to date, and put it inside of the top 100 games of all time in terms of units sold. This game is a reminder of what is possible when a studio puts all the right pieces in place, and delivers. All the 10’s floating around are well deserved….and I’ll be damned if I don’t drop one right now.