FAIRBANKS — “God of War” for PlayStation 4 is an achievement in video games.
It stands head and muscly shoulders above the field as it weaves combat and story in a way that would be a standalone accomplishment but is made even more impressive as a reinvention of an established video game series.
The original “God of War” games pitted Kratos, the half-god son of Zeus on a mission to get bloody revenge on the gods of Greek mythology. The games were accomplishments for their time, combining a satisfying, combo-driven combat system with over-the-top violence and astounding graphics for its era, but were somewhat shallow when it came to the story. Kratos hated the gods, so he was going to hunt each and every one down.
“God of War” catches up with Kratos, who’s left Greece because — surprise — he accomplished his mission and moved onto Norse mythology. But instead of dropping Kratos right into the middle of a war on a mission of revenge against Thor, Loki and Odin, we find the anti-hero has settled down in a small cabin in the middle of a mythical forest in the realm of Midgard. The opening moments of “God of War” are quiet and pensive.
It’s already a huge change of pace from the first game, but we also quickly discover that Kratos is now a father.
Atreus is his small, timid boy made even more small and timid when compared to his gruff, muscle-bound superhuman father. But it’s this juxtaposition that is just the first of many masterful combinations of storytelling and gameplay contained in “God of War.”
The greatest accomplishment of “God of War” is the story it tells not just through dialog and cutscenes, but also through the moment-to-moment gameplay and combat. The two are perfectly interwoven with each informing and shaping the other. Stories in previous entries to the “God of War” franchise — as well as almost every other video game for that matter — were largely window dressing; an excuse to pit the player against the gods of Mount Olympus.
“God of War” tells a much more personal and complicated story about the relationship between Kratos and Atreus after their life is disrupted, and they set out on a mission to deliver the ashes of Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother to the peak of the highest mountain in the realm.
Kratos is largely the same Kratos players will remember from the original series. He may be a little more quiet, he’s grown a beard and he’s swapped out the chain blades for an axe, but he’s still every bit the warrior from earlier games.
Atreus will assist Kratos with low-damage arrows that can stun enemies during combat and helps translate the many runes you’ll find throughout the game, but is pretty much useless and whiny early in the game. He’s not ready for the adventure ahead and Kratos, who’s unaccustomed to being a father, tells him as much.
But as Atreus progresses throughout the game he becomes more capable and confident, which most games would spell out in dialog or a cutscene, but is told slowly, fight-by-fight in “God of War.” Just as Kratos realizes that his son is growing up and becoming resilient so does the player.
The storytelling is assisted through beautiful graphics that not only render one of the most impressive video game worlds ever seen — filled with massive snowy peaks, enormous enemies and detailed areas to explore — but provide nuanced and emotional performances from each character. Kratos’ inner conflict and worry about his son is often etched across his face, while Atreus is every bit the shy 10-year-old kid.
The over-the-top violence is still here, which means that “God of War” is not for every gamer. But here, too, the “God of War” also finds a way to give the brutal combat context. The world of Midgard is dangerous and violent, giving reason to why Kratos is so concerned about the fate and safety of his diminutive son.
Luckily, though, the game developers have spared you from having to constantly worry about and protect Atreus throughout the game. Atreus may not be much of a warrior, but he is pretty good about staying out of danger and you’ll only infrequently have to interrupt a fight to save him.
The story “God of War” tells is not nearly as straight of a line as is suggested in this review, however. The game is set in an open world where the player can tackle side quests and explore missions and even other realms to unlock new gear and skills as well as reveal additional bits and pieces of the story.
The main story unfolds with twists and turns that are better not spoiled, but it’s filled with rewarding interactions between Kratos and Atreus as the two grow and learn together.
You’ll still be battling ogres, dragons and, yes, even a god or two, but the lasting, resonating moments of “God of War” aren’t found in chopping the head of some beast or bringing a god to his knees because, for once, they’re the window dressing on the story.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If You Play
Game: God of War
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro)
Price: $60 both physical and digital
Internet usage: Download around 45 GB
Release Date: April 20, 2018
ESRB Rating: Mature