god of war re­view

Rock me, Atreus

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Sony Santa Mon­ica de­liv­ers the best PS4 ex­clu­sive of 2018

It’s no easy feat, hu­man­is­ing an an­ti­hero like Kratos. An un­flinch­ing wall of sinew and mus­cle, he’s as cold as the frost crunch­ing be­neath his feet, nei­ther re­lat­able nor like­able, just blunt and a lit­tle bit bro­ken, seem­ingly un­moved even by the soft sobs of his only child.

And it’s strange, see­ing our Kratos – that crazed mur­derer of Gods, hith­erto driven by just rage and re­venge – so stripped down. To know that he lives a sim­ple ex­is­tence in a mod­est sin­gle-roomed shack, that this plain, or­di­nary space is where this ter­ri­fy­ing, ex­tra­or­di­nary god eats and sleeps, drinks and thinks. Though still ev­ery bit the brick you-know-what-house we’ve come to know over the years, Kratos is now aged, his face ashen and lined, his beard flecked with grey, his shoul­ders stoop­ing with the weight of ev­ery soul he’s ever crushed, ev­ery heart he’s ever ripped from the safety of its ribcage. He seems hol­low now, as cold as the life­less corpse of his son’s re­cently de­ceased mother, his body a roadmap of scars, in­clud­ing those from where he had once strapped Blades of Chaos to his arms.

Through­out this story Kratos oc­ca­sion­ally turns and picks up his son, Atreus, to help him down from a steep height. He lifts the child as though just pick­ing a daisy, his hands – those huge, strong, ter­ri­fy­ing hands that we’ve seen snap necks like pen­cils – dwarf­ing the child’s en­tire midriff. Some­times, Atreus clings to his fa­ther’s back in a lop­sided piggy-back, im­plic­itly trust­ing his fa­ther to get him safely up the mountain side, or across the precipice. But not once does Kratos touch his boy in any way that looks com­fort­ing or sup­port­ive. There are no mo­ments of af­fec­tion or con­nec­tion. And while God of War doesn’t quite de­liver the pa­ter­nal pain of Sony’s other poster child, The Last of Us, ev­ery time we watch Atreus try and reach out to Kratos only to be un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously spurned, it hurts a lit­tle more.

But this isn’t even Kratos’ story, re­ally. It’s dressed up that way – that’s who you play as, the cam­era pulled in tight over his moun­tain­ous right shoul­der – but as you pick your way through the story – a sim­ple tale of a griev­ing man and child trekking through the snow to ful­fil their dearly departed’s dy­ing wishes – you’ll no­tice things, small things, like the way the bes­tiary is writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of an awed child. It’s just win­dow-dress­ing, a sim­ple ve­hi­cle through which God of War’s spec­tac­u­lar set-pieces and leg­endary hack ‘n’ slash com­bat are driven.

It’s all a bit flam­boy­ant at first, though. You’ll ooh and aah at the beau­ti­ful set-pieces – the frozen vis­tas, the craggy shore­lines, the huge mono­liths glittering above dark, still wa­ters; you can’t help but be im­pressed – but un­til you get to grips with the game’s unique, if per­plex­ing, world, it’s all a bit clin­i­cal and show­boaty. Yes, the travel se­quences can be overly long, but does Atreus need to cram each si­lence with un­so­licited lore and ex­po­si­tion? It de­tracts from an oth­er­wise timely op­por­tu­nity to col­lect your thoughts and plan your next steps, es­pe­cially as, most frus­trat­ing of all, half of these in­ter­rup­tions end with: “Know what? I’ll fin­ish this story later.”

At first, the lat­est of­fer­ing in Kratos’ fran­chise is a con­fus­ing one, your en­vi­ron­ments stuffed with things you can’t do, reach or in­ter­act with and the ‘fast travel’ sys­tem is hi­lar­i­ously un­help­ful and un­use­able for much of the game. And it’s pe­cu­liar, how much you can’t do, es­pe­cially as it’s un­clear – be­yond the oc­ca­sional hint from Atreus, al­though that’s not al­ways a given – if you can’t do some­thing be­cause you don’t yet have the skill or equip­ment to do so, or if it’s just be­cause you’re… well, a bit crap.

And he’s not a fun chap to be around, that Kratos. Sure, he’s al­ways been some­thing of a mardy bum, but par­ent­hood has done lit­tle to sweeten this grumpy fecker up, which means it’s harder than ever to con­nect with him given he can’t spare a mo­ment to con­sole his griev­ing son. On a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions you’ll see Kratos reach out, hand hov­er­ing inches from his son’s small shoul­ders as if to com­fort him, only to with­draw it with a weary sigh, but it gets tire­some, those curt, cut­ting replies to Atreus’ in­no­cent pon­der­ings. De­pend­ing upon your view­point, you’ll find it a sim­ple short­cut to il­lus­trate a fa­ther strug­gling to com­mu­ni­cate mean­ing­fully with his son… or a well-trod­den cliche that falls just on the wrong side of con­trived.

The nar­ra­tive beats don’t al­ways match the ac­tion in front of you, ei­ther. One mo­ment, Atreus is tear­fully plead­ing with you, the next he’s mooching around like a sullen tod­dler. One sec­ond he’s mut­ter­ing “what­ever” un­der his breath, the next – sum­moned to your side to trans­late some­thing, per­haps – he’ll in­stantly re­spond with an up­beat “Yes, SIR!”. No, it’s not a hangable of­fence, but it is jar­ring, mo­men­tar­ily kick­ing you out of a story that you might only have a slippery grasp of in the first place. (There was also a strange five min­utes when Atreus in­ces­santly screamed: “THE FIRE’S OUT – PORT­SIDE!” long af­ter we reached terra firma.

Again, it’s not a deal breaker, we know, but… well, we could’ve done with­out it.)

It’s not all so se­ri­ous, though. There’s a smat­ter­ing of light re­lief, brought most no­tably by the dwarf si­b­lings tasked with keep­ing your weapons ra­zor sharp and stabby, but Kratos re­mains ever surly and se­ri­ous, of­ten stop­ping to lec­ture Atreus on the spoils, sac­ri­fices and so­bri­ety of war. And by gods, do you kill a lot of stuff; while ad­mit­tedly Sony has pared back the vis­ceral vi­o­lence the se­ries has be­come renowned for, there’s still plenty of bod­ies to pum­mel, with some foes – chiefly larger en­e­mies and boss bat­tles, as you might ex­pect – re­tain­ing the eye-wa­ter­ingly painful fin­ish­ing moves so many of us hate to love… and love to hate, of course.

The com­bat it­self is as sat­is­fy­ing as ever, your Blades of Chaos – lost at the end of the pre­vi­ous game – are re­placed by the Le­viathan axe, our shiny new toy. While it’s a per­fectly ad­e­quate re­place­ment, strength­ened fur­ther still by the tal­is­mans and new abil­i­ties you un­lock along the way, it lacks the Blades’ fiery fi­nesse. But com­bat re­mains meaty and fre­netic, with each tweak to your Rpg-es­que stats screen – though out­ra­geously con­vo­luted at first – keep­ing your fights fresh and fran­tic.

Atreus, to his credit, is a wor­thy com­pan­ion too, es­pe­cially if you’ve man­aged to up-skill his abil­i­ties and bow sooner rather than later. While your axe has decent dam­age and range, you’ll come to rely on Atreus’ long-range and pre­ci­sion ac­cu­racy more than you might have ex­pected. And it’s not just a mat­ter of hack­ing any­thing that moves, ei­ther; a se­lec­tion of el­e­men­tal en­e­mies, some of which are im­mune to the icy shot of the axe, re­quire tac­ti­cal fore­thought, and it’s here that Atreus truly shines – just look in the di­rec­tion of the enemy you want him to at­tack, hit the ac­tion but­ton, and it’s done.

And pretty much ev­ery type of bat­tle is here and up for grabs. Spec­tac­u­lar boss fight on the back of a dragon? Check. Arena-based hordes se­creted in hid­den cham­bers? Check. A stun­ning, hec­tic bat­tle set atop a fly­ing Norse ship? Check. Fight­ing en­e­mies in God of War may be repet­i­tive, but it’s rarely a chore.

Pro­gres­sion is a slog, though. It’ll take hours upon hours to un­lock the whole of the duo’s skill-trees, and longer still to keep buff­ing your RPG stats – strength, de­fence, luck, vi­tal­ity and so on – to ac­cept­able lev­els. You’ll amass XP with each de­feated enemy, puz­zle and/or mis­sion – slowly, at least at first, but build­ing in gen­eros­ity the more you play – and Hack­sil­ver, God of War’s in­ter­nal cur­rency, avail­able freely through­out the realms, too (pro tip: smash ev­ery sin­gle de­struc­tible prop you can find, as many coins can be found at the bot­tom of vases and wooden crates). Frus­trat­ingly, some of those skill-tree com­bos and bonuses – though avail­able once your weapon’s at the right grade and you have enough cash – are tied to these stats, re­sult­ing in a strange sce­nario where you’re able to un­lock skills but can’t use them, your vi­tal­ity score still sit­ting at, say, a measly 45 when you need 125 to utilise it.

Your jour­ney will take you to some gor­geous places where the snow crunches un­der­foot and ex­otic flora and fauna dance in and out of sun­beams. Rooted wholly in the nine realms of Norse mythol­ogy, each place of­fers its own dis­tinct land­marks, al­though much of your time will be spent in and around Midgard (home of the hu­mans) and the craggy in­lets dot­ted around the enor­mous Lake of Nine (lit­tle de­lights us more than the sound of clunk­ing over the Alfheimian light bridges). There’s a con­sid­er­able amount of back­track­ing, though, and while the game is cer­tainly less rigid than its pre­de­ces­sors, it’s not quite a sand­box, ei­ther, of­fer­ing a smat­ter­ing of side-quests that can be soaked up in-be­tween the oth­er­wise pretty lin­ear, if not meaty, cam­paign mis­sions.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal puz­zles, too, are de­light­ful, of­fer­ing the per­fect cere­bral re­spite from the hack ‘n’ slash com­bat. Again, you’ll en­counter many things you’ll be un­able to in­ter­act with on your first visit, but re­vis­it­ing these ar­eas once you’ve com­pleted the cam­paign and carry the full set of tools in­vari­ably of­fers a won­der­ful ar­ray of stashed se­crets, your cu­rios­ity – es­pe­cially if you’re a lover of col­lectibles – for­ever piqued by the “per­cent­age ex­plored” score sit­ting on the map of ev­ery area. They’re not all easy, ei­ther, with some of the chests locked by mys­ti­cal runes of­fer­ing a fair few sur­prises as you ex­per­i­ment with your arse­nal, learn­ing to scour each area care­fully, look­ing up as well as down.

Ex­plor­ing comes with its own chal­lenges, and not all are just en­e­mies out to mur­der you, ei­ther. Climb­ing or de­scend­ing the craggy ter­rain re­quires you to look di­rectly at the place you wish to move to next, so un­less you’ve al­ready planned out a route, you can’t just ham­mer the ac­tion but­ton with one hand and drink a Coke with the other and hope to reach there (Nathan Drake, we’re look­ing at you). Nope, un­less you know where you’re go­ing, Kratos will just hang there. A small but fab­u­lous detail, we hope you’ll agree.

It’s a game of two halves, God of War. For the first dozen or so hours you may find your­self frus­trated by the slow lev­el­ling up, a be­wil­der­ing map sys­tem, and per­plex­ing sto­ry­line stuffed with gated ar­eas and trea­sures. Stick with it, though; the more you do, the more of the realms you’ll open… and that’s when the fun re­ally begins.

to be­gin with,you MAY find Your­self frus­trated by the slow lev­el­ling-up,a be­wil­der­ing Map sys­tem, and so Many gated ar­eas

“Do as I say, not as I do, kiddo. Just be­cause I got this tat­too when I was plastered on a stag do in Benidorm doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to go out and get one, too.”

Yes, that’s a guy melded into a tree. Yes, he has one glowy eye and horns. No, it will not be the strangest thing you see in this game. We’re just thank­ful he grew moss to cover his most, uh, sen­si­tive ar­eas.

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