Tell me, dear reader, what kind of relationship did you have with your father? Perhaps it was caring and full of love. Perhaps it was sternly repressed and patriarchal. Or perhaps you struggled to get past your dad screaming at you to shoot the undead monstrosity attacking him before his insides were pulled out onto the forest floor.
No, I’m not reviewing The Last of Us again, though in a sense I suppose I might be, and will probably have to keep doing so for a very long time. It’s well-recognised now that the rather dodgy “save/avenge romantic partner” narrative that dominated gaming narrative for a while is slowly being upended and replaced by an arguably more understood motivation – namely, protect a kid from things that want to kill the kid, at least until the kid can grow up and protect its own damn self. Previous entrants include the aforementioned zombie-poppin’ game from Naughty Dog, as well as Telltale’s: The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite, Dead Rising 2, Witcher 3, and that new Wolverine movie.
And now to that list we can add the new God of War, the sequel that’s also a soft reboot, filled with all the stuff that makes for the usual big-budget, critically-acclaimed AAA exclusive title – but perhaps it can be good despite that?
SIT BY THE HEARTH, PICK UP YONDER MEAD FLAGON, AND I’LL TELL YE OF AN ANCIENT LEGEND…
I was never a huge fan of the previous God of War games, but let me give you a refresher for anybody who isn’t familiar with the series. Our protagonist, Kratos, is a Spartan warrior from a hyper-mythical interpretation of Ancient Greece where all the related legends and old religion are completely true, working on a “Clash of the Titans” level. Unfortunately Kratos got bamboozled by the god Ares into accidentally slaughtering his own family, and rode the resulting wave of vengeful aggression for several games, to the point where he’d killed most of the Olympic pantheon and became the new god of war in the process, while finding out along the way that he was Zeus’ secret son. With me so far?
Right, because now we’re dragging a whole new mythos into this story – the Norse gods, Odin, Thor, Baldur, Freya and so on. It turns out in the time since the last game that Kratos skipped town after his run of aggravated deicide and fled to the world of Viking myths and gods to hide out in secret, where he fell in love with a woman named Faye, gave birth to a son, Atreus, and also grew out a big ol’ survivalist beard. Faye then drops dead of… I don’t know, plot-necessitated absence, right at the same moment Kratos is attacked by a mysterious stranger with powers that match his own.
And that’s how the game starts, but frankly this is one of those stories where the plot’s mechanics feel a bit secondary to the character arcs; namely how terrible Kratos is as a father and how badly both he and his son are dealing with Faye’s death. See, you might notice all the other examples of games I mentioned above have father-daughter relationships, but God of War is very clearly not just about fatherhood, but about masculinity as a whole. Kratos comes from a culture where locking your emotions down so you can do unspeakable things is just part-and-parcel of being a Spartan, but both characters are clearly struggling with their feelings anyway and no amount of repression will make it stop, no matter what Kratos thinks. Add to that a violent warrior mentality and that Kratos feels obliged to make his son into a fighter as soon as possible after the attack, and this is clearly going to be the worst road trip since that Vacation remake a few years ago.
Now I have a few issues with this concept. Firstly, while the whole idea of hyper-masculinity is absolutely ripe for deconstruction in the games industry and certainly needs bringing down a peg, the problem is that this whole things takes place in Viking lore, where the only measure of worth is how big the horns on your helmet are and how many villages you can burn down before lunch. A scene where Atreus must try to hold back his emotions as he uncertainly cuts the throat of a deer would certainly make sense in any other situation, except, well… he’s starving to death! The writers seem to have crafted the only world where all of Kratos’ bullshit masculinity lessons actually do apply, and it heavily undercuts the overall message. Yes, Atreus has to kill animals or he’ll have nothing to eat. He has to kill the human bandits or they’ll try to eat him. And he has to shut down his emotions to a certain degree when confronted with the corpse of somebody he’s killed falling over onto him, else he’d go into shock and get more easily picked off by all other threats.
Do you get what I mean? The game spends all this time musing about how wrong Kratos‘ behaviour is, but they all make sense in this very specific situation. I can’t help but feel this dynamic would work better in a time of peace and prosperity, where all of this cold-hearted warrior nature isn’t needed anymore.
Not to mention that the actual engine for storytelling feels contrived and a bit weak – Faye wanted her ashes spread on the highest mountain in all the universe, and rather than cough awkwardly and say “how about just under that tree in the garden instead,” Kratos and Atreus decide to go along with it, and it takes them forever. At one point you think they’re going to accomplish it halfway through the game, but then somebody says “sorry, wrong mountain, the one you’re looking for is over in a locked-off dimension nobody can ever get to,” and you can almost hear the characters groan as they realise that this one job still isn’t over.
All that being said, there is some story stuff I really like. The game’s quite good at the “hell yeah” moments when Kratos or Atreus do something awesome, the changes the two characters go through are solid (if a little rushed at times), and I appreciate the attempt to undercut masculinity in a medium that usually venerates it. I also like how Kratos’ flaws are honestly addressed, and it’s very clear that Atreus is strong in all the places where Special K doesn’t really know what he’s doing, i.e., anything that doesn’t need brute force. At the beginning it feels like the kid is a hanger-on, but by the end of the game they do feel like a team, reflected well by a gameplay system that allows you to upgrade Atreus and his weaponry until he’s a formidable ally in combat.
The only other flaws are those that come as a result of it being a AAA game with marketing obligations. The ridiculously big (and therefore cinematic) world serpent Jormungandr takes up a lot of the promotional material and even gets the lion’s share of the box blurb, but I don’t think he’s involved in the plot for more than thirty minutes tops, and usually to divulge a bit of exposition. There’s also a slightly limp ending that has a very cool fight in it, but then peters out and meanders on for another half hour, with a whole group of promised villains we haven’t even seen yet (presumably planned for the inevitable sequel), and a twist reveal that’s… I don’t know, important, I guess? It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, but it all feels a bit anti-climatic after bringing down supergods a while earlier.
GAZE UPON THE GLORY…
Yes, of course I’m going to tell you God of War has good graphics. You know it has good graphics, it was always going to have them, what with being a big budget game that’s largely sold itself on spectacle. The rest of it could’ve been absolute pigeon guano and the graphics would still be top-notch.
That being said, what works here is what you’d expect to work on any God of War title – a palpable sense of scale. Things can look very, very big when they need to, whether it’s the world serpent looming into view, his distant tail coiled around mountain ranges, or the incomprehensibly huge corpse of giant dominating the landscape, every beard hair looking like a bridge cable as you get closer and closer. Not only that, God of War wisely doesn’t devalue this by breaking out the super-big monsters every five minutes. In fact, I’d almost wished there’d been a few more beasts of that size, but there’s still moments that make it work. One early fight designed to remind us of just how much power Kratos has within him is particularly effective, destroying the landscape in dramatic, spectacular ways as he clashes ferociously with an opponent of equal power.
There’s also some decent sound design in there. Kratos is very ably voiced by Christopher Judge, channeling the character on a level that reminds me a little of Darth Vader, and snapping effectively from rumbling monosyllabic speech to furious screams as battle frenzy takes over. Even Atreus himself is voiced pretty well, though I can’t help but feel that there was a conscious effort made not to tax his actor with any overly-emotional scenes.
Mind you, I’ll have to buck the trends a little and say that I’m not wowed much by the art design. It’s not bad, not in the slightest, but there’s not a lot that really captures my attention. The ogres look like ogres, the giants look like giants, the world serpent is just a big snake and little more than that, and everything looks like how you’d expect it to look, with a couple of exceptions. Some of it is very beautiful presented – the landscapes, for one – but the issue I have is that there’s very little that seems original or sticks in my mind later on, compounded by a penchant for repeating character animations (you’ll notice that one pretty quick).
I also think the game fails pretty hard in making a lot of the world make sense. This is a particular bugbear of mine, but I can’t stand it when games don’t bother to contextualise the puzzles within their games, such as the silly traps in a lot of Zelda. Atreus can waffle on about how these desiccated ruins we stand in used to be a thriving market, but there’s nothing here to suggest that, and all these traps and puzzles with spikes and trapdoors have no reason to be here. They’re not bad or unsatisfying to beat, but they’re complete nonsense in the world provided to us, almost as bad as the puzzle disconnect in games like Resident Evil.
THE GREATEST WARRIORS IN ALL THE REALMS
So here’s my issue with the easy comparison between God of War and The Last of Us: the latter has a decent story, but the whole enterprise is made a little sticky by slightly drab and uninspiring gameplay. Contrarily, Kratos can butcher draugr like an absolute – well, God, appropriately enough – and the hack-and-slash/brawler fighting is actually rather fun, enough to easily paper over any other cracks in the whole enterprise. Gone is the wide selection of weaponry from the previous games, instead brought down to three tidy, well-designed separate forms of attack – an axe that can be summoned back to your hand after you chuck it, rapid fist-fighting that allows you wear down enemies for powerful finishers, and a third weapon that I won’t spoil as it gets introduced later in the game.
But honestly, it’s the first of these that’s the real winner. The Leviathan Axe is fun to wield, freezes anything it’s lodged in, and can be pulled back to your hand at any point just by pressing the triangle button. I’d see a pair of monsters baring down on me, throw the axe at one, holding it in place, unleash a barrage of devastating punches on the other, then duck around behind it and whistle for Old Slicey, watching it scythe through the air, decapitating hel-spawn along the way until it smacks satisfyingly into Kratos’ palm. Along with this is an EXP system that allows you to buy new powers and attacks, most of which I’d forget about immediately until pulling them off by accident and wondering why I didn’t use them more often. And at the same time, Atreus is hanging around with a bow to pick off anybody you tell him to. And though his early attacks are naught but the soft pecks of an emaciated woodpecker on reinforced concrete, he becomes an invaluable asset over time, a nice use of ludonarrative synchronicity to show how he’s growing as a fighter in both mechanics and story.
Not to mention that it’s all open world now. It happens suddenly and quite out of nowhere, but about a quarter of the way through the game you look around and realise that you’re in this big lake with paths leading off to explore, secrets to find and many, many more monsters to kill. And I happily did, engaging in just about all the extra stuff I could. I like doing the side-quests because they provide good rewards and usually have some story tied into them, even if it’s just a bit of byplay between Kratos and son. And I like the puzzles, which though contrived and a bit too “video game-y” are still satisfying to beat, usually using the Axe’s throw-summon-freeze functions in some way. Take note, designers, this is how you make an ability really effective in a game: make sure it has applications both in and out of combat.
Mind you, the open world isn’t quite as open as it could be, with linear routes leading off key locations. In fact, nowhere is the freedom/restraint clash more obvious than the main hub location for travelling between realms, featuring a detailed map showing all the wondrous, incredible places we can’t go, and will never go.
It’s really very odd, trying to select the fast travel option for Asgard and seeing a little message telling you that you’ll never set foot there. And this isn’t uncommon either, there’s about four separate realms out of nine that we never get to even see, despite them constantly being mentioned, and out of those five we do get, three of them are too small to be meaningfully explored, two of those have to be unlocked through side-quests, and one just exists for a single, extendable cutscene where you can’t do anything but follow a single path and then leave again. I suspect this is all to tease us with the possibility of DLC – “The Trials of Svartleartlheimmunjorgunbjork” and so on – but I don’t even feel cheated, just confused.
But I guess it doesn’t matter too much, when Midgard is plenty big enough on its own, filled with all sorts of things to discover, and you know it’s a good sign for a game’s quality when you can smell the ending coming and start doing optional stuff just to delay it. In fact, God of War is the first game in a while that I found myself planning for when I wasn’t playing it, which is always a good sign. “Hmm, I guess next time I’ll try to beat the next stage in Muspelheim, free that dragon I heard about in the north, find a couple more stones for my talisman and then get killed by that Valkyrie Queen again, because Gods only know what else she’s there for.”
VERILY, WHAT SAY YE?
In sum, God of War is a good game, almost verging on being a great one. I know it might not sound like that from the amount of things I’ve been ragging on it for, but all the imperfections can’t impede too much on a rock solid core of combat and decent characterisation. The only really significant flaw it has is being too slow, as our two poorly-groomed heroes shrug their shoulders and go to spend another ten hours fighting gods and monsters so they can dump mama’s ashes on the mountaintop, but on a moment-to-moment experience it can really work, and certainly reminds us that having pretentious story ambitions doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice honest gameplay fun.