God of War (2018) Review
“Family. What I alone could never be.”
“Everything comes back to the tree.”
Life is a cycle. A cycle of emotions, of reproduction, of familial discourse. They guide our hands through development, each our own unique form of maturity, yet biologically similar. Often fatefully similar. Is Fate biological? Doth my father’s hands wield a blade as my own for the sake of destiny? Do I force a knife into a suffering deer I have taken down for the good of its Life or my own? Does it matter?
. . .
Violence in God of War feels spectacular. I can feel the massive weight of each blow Kratos lands upon his enemies, largely thanks to the Dualshock 4’s vicious rumble. But visually each hit is a delight, as well. The complexity of the combat demands attention and patient skill from the player, allowing a tactical combo to satisfy upon conclusion.
“It feels good to be strong, you know?”
“Yes. I know.”
Kratos replies dejectedly to his son. This is a continued story of a man, turned god, who is struggling to move on from his obsessive past; all while simultaneously teaching his own son to reject the violent capacities inherent within him. It is at once a struggle to mature, to learn to use anger as a tool for survival, not a means of retribution; but self-denial acts as a common motif, largely expressed through gameplay. A progressive mental migration away from the toxic masculinity which once fueled his ego, as well as the prior games in the series, allowing the latest God of War to develop the themes of its predecessors into a more modernist experience.
“The cycle ends here. We must be better than this.”
There are quite a lot of great quotes from God of War. The game has a heavy emphasis on storytelling, most notably in the unique unbroken shot perspective, following the protagonists without once cutting away or fading to black. It creates a far more intimate, literally down-to-Earth experience than what players have been used to throughout the series, illustrating a powerful god striving to act as the man he wishes to be.
“Gods mean nothing to them. Men should not pray to monsters.”
My favorite moment in the game occurs whenever Kratos and Atreus crawl through small openings together. The camera places them side by side, crouched low, maneuvering beneath stone crawlspaces, the player’s control dictating each other’s movement simultaneously. It captures the father-son dichotomy that lies at the heart of the game’s central narrative motives — the balance between Nature and Man, Father and Mother, violence and mercy — in a wonderful mesh of visual and interactive storytelling to get the point across.
In fact, the father-son narrative acts as an extended dialectic conversation, not once interrupted by a break in time or sequence. The camera follows the two protagonists ceaselessly, like the longest long shot ever filmed, as they ruminate on faith, pondering the dividing line between survivalist instinct and moral choice.
“We should free him.”
“He will attack.”
“Yeah but, it feels wrong to keep something caged like this.”
Often the fantastical situations involving the two protagonists undermines the human themes being explored within the father-son narrative. The game is at its best when Kratos is guiding Atreus’s hand to slice the throat of a deer, rather than sending them careening down an embankment, musical score dramatically blaring, in a cutscene intent on providing nothing but empty excitement.
Fortunately, God of War is a magnificent treat for the eyes. Vibrant forestry, snow-capped hillsides, wonderful rivers and lakes. Grandiose vistas emphasize a juxtaposition between the main characters and the enormity of their universe. The resplendent visual experience itself underlines Kratos’s godly nature, serving as an obstacle to his human struggle to raise his son mortal.
AAA titles seem to be taking a cue from walking simulators, increasingly exhibiting acknowledgment of the importance of landscapes in promoting exploration. God of War is a prime example. The series has always featured wonderful sights to behold, but the beauties of the natural world which are primarily on display, to support the human quest at the heart of this latest installment, often calling to mind Proteus or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, at its best. Meanwhile, level design is primarily action/adventure-influenced, recalling the layered, evolving hub world of Batman: Arkham Asylum.
A staggering amount of attention is given to detail and the design of each environment. God of War is consistently stunning to look at, the ability to explore its terrain allowing all the more appreciation for its beauty. However for as ambitious and wonderfully realised the overall scope of the game is, in the tradition of modern action games, this title houses an abundance of flaws which hold it back from greatness.
. . .
Father says I need to learn to focus more. My anger is getting in the way during battles. But when he fights, all I see is rage. Sometimes I’ll get distracted by the anger in his eyes. They seem so focused, so intent on destruction, but so angry. Why can’t I fight like that? How has he learned to do that? Will I?
. . .
A large portion of the game is a textbook of information, be it through entirely-expository dialogue or extraneous journal entries. This undermines the humanity placed front and center within the Greek-mythological context, forcing in far too much lore for the sake of explanatory thematic depth.
There is literally a head Kratos takes along for the ride, who usually serves to only feed the player superfluous information regarding the lore of the lands. A little ambiguity would certainly be welcome, especially given the naturalistic, suggestive dialogue between the characters. It feels like the developers felt obligated to explain the complicated mythology behind its settings; but less would undoubtedly prove more in a grand quest such as this.
Meanwhile, the borrowed concept of “Journal Entries” is fitting in God of War since Atreus is the one writing the info down. Like the player, the boy is learning throughout the journey, and these written entries allow insight into his pursuit of knowledge. However, it can really interrupt the flow of the game, similar to DOOM’s (2016) misguided storytelling. Especially given how after nearly every encounter there is a scripted dialogue sequence, plus a new entry to pause the game and read.
Some scripted scenarios require an action from the player, while others don’t, and guessing which ones do or not is frustratingly unintuitive. The original series entries used Quicktime Events as a means of creating tension while also inspiring a feeling of power, making the brief action scenes feel satisfying when correctly attempted. The lack of quicktime events here is actually a downgrade. Confusingly, there are so many instances where an on-screen button prompt would have helped make the experience more free-flowing and interpretable. This is probably the most baffling design change.
Also, when traversing environments, such as climbing or opening doors, flashing the Circle button on screen is rather jarring. The developers don’t seem to trust players to acknowledge the Circle button being the primary mode of performing actions, so they have to constantly unnecessarily remind them.
In fact, the developers seem to not trust players much with anything, especially when it comes to preserving their precious narrative intentions. Structured dramatic scenes will strip most control away, sometimes disallowing them to even turn the camera around. It begs the question of giving control in the first place, plus it causes a distinct disconnect between narrative and gameplay. It is not exactly a game-breaking issue; just an instance of lost potential.
Thankfully, much of the game’s systems do integrate mechanics into storytelling. One of my favorite details displays the Health Bar increasing as Kratos magically heals himself after an early battle with “The Stranger.” It’s almost a modern attack on cutscenes that wound a character, even after they’ve been absorbing bullets like a sponge during the prior gameplay sequence.
Combat is the crux of the game’s success, however imperfect it remains. The game is equally complex as well as actually more forgiving than Kratos’s first venture. Attacks may be cancelled out now by dodging or blocking, providing more room for button mashing bliss without sacrificing the need for an acute awareness.
Upon finishing combat encounters, it’s a good idea to intentionally die if left with a sliver of health. Returning to the last checkpoint grants the player full health, which seems like an unfortunate side effect of the checkpoint system the Santa Monica decided to build into the game.
But patience and strategy are key to beating difficult enemy types, of which there are a comfortable variety. The upgrade system works wonders as a means of improving Kratos’s abilities, taking its standard lite-RPG influences and stripping away the more extraneous enhancements. Kratos weaves across the battlefield with wonderful fluidity; the game normally regulates its opponents appropriately, with waves of specific types accompanying more stronger opponents, resulting in miniature bouts of intense warfare.
The Stun meter is a brilliantly innovative twist on the archetypal combat points system. Instead of racking up combo multipliers, a bar fills during a player’s strings of uninterrupted hits. Filling that bar allows Kratos to perform a satisfying finishing move on the enemy, simultaneously breathing more intensity into the combat situations while ridding the HUD of any unnecessary clutter.
God of War’s combat suffers from a crucial issue: it wants to both satisfy and challenge the player equally, but is forced to make sacrifices in order to accomplish this duel concept. Landing a blow on enemies feels tremendous, thanks to the rumbling Dualshock 4 and impressive sound design. However, the complexity of its engagement often relies on throwing many enemies into the same room as the player, in an effort to disorient them rather than demand actual skillful understanding of the techniques at their disposal.
The limited camera view — a deliberate far cry from the stationary, intended POVs in prior installments — creates a more intimate and harrowing experience, but the combat mechanics don’t correlate with its design. An effective sense of claustrophobia is conjured, but the effect is squandered by a rote attack warning mechanic, which is essentially an out-of-place quicktime event telling the player when to dodge. It fails to incite player awareness, which is especially frustrating given the acute detail put into enemy design. The game frankly holds the player’s hand a bit too much.
Fortunately, some subtle creativity is nearly always on display, demanding players’ acknowledgement of the skills Kratos owns. The backtracking methods involved are quite reminiscent of the Metroidvania style of development; only here they require far less actual thought process to complete. It’s by no means a complete disappointment in regards to level design. In fact, the systems in place usually mirror an element of the Roman mythos that acts as the primary narrative motif throughout. Which is great, since it successfully goes a step further in merging gameplay with storytelling, even if the systems lack complexity.
But these mechanics ultimately prevail in a game like this because the narrative is such a primary focus. The original God of War games were at their worst when attempting to shoehorn in important plot segments, since the entire purpose of Kratos’s characterization revolves around his lack of empathy. But the subversion from that original intent is exactly what makes God of War (2018) so intriguing.
Kratos is forced to become a role model for the young Atreus, guiding him along his path to maturity without allowing him to become the tragic figure that Kratos himself embodies. The player is essentially assigned the role of both the experienced playable protagonist and the naive Atreus, caught in a liminal space between embracing violent, impulsive tendencies and maintaining emotional stability in the face of confrontation.
Violence truly feels great to experience in God of War, which reflects Kratos’s inner struggle in escaping his murderous past. Now a father, he acknowledges the responsibility to primarily lead his son through his own development, but tries to keep him from becoming something he naturally is. In Kratos’s efforts to escape his past, he forgets to accept who he is, does not understand the importance of allowing acceptance itself to serve as a means of learning.
“You cannot change. You will always be a monster.”
The rest of the gameplay, however usually fails to match the same level of stimulating quality. Most of the collectibles are obtained through filler side content. I can’t describe how many times Atreus pointed at a pot hanging above me out of sight, saying “Look up there!” so I could throw my axe and grab its belongings. There is nothing engaging, challenging, or at all satisfying about this small task. And it would not be such an issue if the other side objectives were any less obtrusive.
Finding three hidden runes to unlock a single chest depends on players’ OCD inclinations to collect any/everything in universe. Exploring largely relies on finding a chest to open by pressing a button, immediately congratulating the player for going out of their way to walk a few steps to the left of the actual intended path before moving onwards. This works in the original game because the fixed cameras are meant to trick audiences, so the reward for finding a hidden chest with upgrade material is a feeling of cunning, as if they outsmarted the developers and their programming. But here, it is mindless busy work, tacked on to distract from the overall linearity.
Ultimately, God of War occasionally suffers from what plagues The Last of Us: wanting to tell an emotionally-charged tale while cramming in as many “gamey” incidents as possible. Fortunately, the storytelling in God of War is much more interestingly rooted in the combat than TLoU, successfully involving the player into Kratos’s tale through thematic systematic engagement.
The Last of Us similarly wants to engage its audience in a seemingly hopeless scenario where survival is gripping, fraught with danger around every corner, and demands attention to resources and defense. But where that title crumbles due to its obtrusive ludonarrative dissonance, God of War succeeds by involving the player in its protagonist’s own motivations.
Much like its predecessors, Kratos exemplifies the common gamer’s mindset: give them weapons, areas to explore, and enemies to kill, and they will seek engagement in those very tasks. But at the heart of this divergent sequel is an effort to overcome that very attraction to violence, and constantly floundering.
In both titles, the beauty of the world determinedly clashes with the bloodshed spilled; the natural elegance is obscured by beings intent on killing the player. Only in GoW, this is motivated by an emphasis on contradiction: a father struggling to teach his son survivalistic competence, while attempting to ignore the inherent attraction towards violence within him.
Throughout the father-son journey, the looming mountain peak stands in view, taunting their pursuit, beckoning them towards a final goal. It is a visual symbol for reaching the climax of an upwards battle, suggesting the internal conflicts both protagonists are simultaneously dealing with as they deal with each other. The player is caught in the middle, essentially assuming the roles of both Kratos and the boy, shaping themselves into a more well-fitted survivalist while also moving towards a more benevolent future.
. . .
I wonder what father is always thinking whenever we are travelling. Does he know where we are headed? What are our plan is to reach the summit? Does he miss mother like I do? No, not like I do.
I can’t help but wonder why he is so motivated to take her ashes there in the first place. Why he has to be the one to carry mother around. Does he even stop to look around him? At the amazing things we come across on our journey? To breathe in the air, and remember why we are doing this in the first place?
Or is he just waiting for his next victim to inevitably arrive?
. . .
Vengeance is not the end goal for this God of War game. The mountain is in fact a MacGuffin for articulating progression as the player works towards it, culminating in a conclusion intentionally left unsatisfied (and promising much more for the future). The journey is arduous and often depicts the two protagonists facing gargantuan, immortal obstacles standing in their way. This allows the audience to play god, with all the power such a role promises granted to them, all while delicately humanizing its characters through familiar familial relationships, typical of the mythologies which the narrative is so rooted in.
The game then becomes a commentary on the cyclical nature of development. A parent is willing to die for their kin if their Life is at stake; and this notion allows the storytelling traditionally aligned with the series to turn inwards on itself, hinting at tragic circumstances to come. Mythology has always conjured a universal allure, largely influenced by the family relationships upon which its stories are founded. God of War crafts its own mythological tale, eager to explore that universal allure by placing the player directly into it.
God of War is so impressively ambitious that it often cannot help but falter under the weight of its own scope. It is derivative of its influences and series predecessors; features trivial collectathon sequences of puzzle-solving; repeatedly undermines its focused, relatable narrative with gratuitous exposition. But the overall product is an incredibly gorgeous, satisfying, provocative, time-consuming experience, more polished than flawed, more impressive than not.
It’s a game where the divine turn ordinary, but their powers shine through impossible situations. A mother is lost, a father and son seek to put her to rest. The entire story is founded upon this established idea. An idea so beautiful it takes the duo (the player) through a wondrous mythological world of dynamic environments, attached to their own histories of development and decay.
It is a game so beautiful it often can’t help but feel so ugly. Because it understands that goodness stems from evil, that the two go hand in hand. Like achievement and tragedy. Like a mother and father. Like an axe and a butterknife. Like a father and son. Like a god and a man.