God of WAR
Has Sony Santa Monica Studio really managed to bring emotional weight to the killing machine Kratos?
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 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
above: “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.”
above: 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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