There's a telling scene very early on in the new God of War, in the denouement of an exhausting battle sequence that ends with Kratos and his young son Atreus taking down a massive troll.
Dad's done most of the work, with the arrows fired from Atreus's bow only contributing a bit of damage to the giant beast from a safe distance away. But after the troll dies, Atreus, filled with prepubescent rage, runs up close to it and begins madly slashing at the corpse with his tiny knife, blindly hacking away its flesh, screaming "You're nothing to me!"
It's a hard-to-miss callback to the last time we saw Kratos — in the series' chronology, that is — at the end of 2010's God of War III, filled with the same sort of rage, mercilessly hammering the face of his father Zeus, not stopping even after he was dead. Kratos yanks his son away from the troll. You are not ready, he tells Atreus. And with that, we understand Kratos the dad, and the fear that motivates him: He doesn't want his son to grow up to become him.
On April 20, Sony will release God of War, which simultaneously serves as a long-awaited storyline sequel to, and a much-needed reboot of, the franchise. As groundbreaking as the original series was, it was definitely becoming stale. This new take on Kratos' adventures is happy to slaughter the series' sacred cows as nonchalantly and as thoroughly as its protagonist once murdered the entire Greek pantheon.
This new God of War is an excellent game, lovingly crafted and engaging all the way through. But much has changed. It's not merely the drastically revamped combat, with its over-the-shoulder angle and its emphasis on evasion. It's also the story, and the way it tells that story, with an emphasis on family relationships and quiet, low-key moments.
The most fundamental, and immediately noticeable, change is to the game's camera. The original series was defined by its automatic camera angles, which were carefully hand-placed by the game's designers to always frame the game's action in a specific way.
What this meant in practice was that any scene in the game, no matter how intense the action, could be shown from a dramatic, exciting angle, often zoomed far back to show the scale of the object (or the monster or the god) that termite-sized Kratos was running on, climbing up, or slicing his chain-blades into.
The approach was so impressive at the time that I truly thought many more games would embrace it as a technique, and was surprised over time as few actually did.
In the new God of War, this signature look is no more: The camera is positioned over Kratos' right shoulder, and you control it (and thus his positioning) with the right stick, like so many other third-person action games.
While this does work well to enable a more deliberate, less arcadey combat style, it also saps the series' ability to show off that sort of cinematic spectacle, replacing it with something that looks a lot more like many other triple-A third-person action games.
The environments, while always technically beautiful and occasionally artistically inspired, are now built of fairly simple caves, hallways, forests, and the like, with far fewer moments where you're climbing up the 30.48m-tall buttcrack of a Titan. The camera may occasionally pull out a bit when one of those obligatory moments is happening, but it's only a slight change.
When Kratos leaves his home, Atreus in tow, he carries with him not his signature chain-swords but the Leviathan Axe, which he can use to slash enemies up close or throw at enemies who are farther away. Here's the wrinkle: the axe doesn't return automatically, like a boomerang.
You'll have to press another button to recall the axe from wherever it landed (or, more likely, lodged itself), and it will also hit enemies on its return flight.
You're hardly defenceless if you throw the axe and don't immediately recall it. Kratos will just switch over to a bare-handed fighting style, using his fists and shield to bash up enemies. Punches and kicks don't take off as many ticks on an enemy's health bar, but they do build up its Stun meter more quickly.
Fill that up and you'll get the old reliable QTE indicator icon that says you can smash them up real good and cinematic-like with a single button press. Sometimes, with certain enemy types, you're forced to Stun rather than directly damage, but not often; in general, you get to choose how you fight.
And then there's Atreus, always by your side. You don't control him directly - instead, you have a dedicated Atreus button that you press to have him fire an arrow at whatever enemy you're pointing at. It's difficult at first to remember that you have this option, while you're concentrated on dodging and swinging your axe. But it's important to remember that Atreus should Always Be Shooting.
At the onset, his arrows do very little damage and mostly serve to distract enemies into turning their gazes towards him instead of Kratos. (Atreus can't die and there are no escort missions, hallelujah.) But later in the game, as his weapons and skills level up, Atreus will actually be able to take out small enemies on his own, single-handedly fill an enemy's Stun meter,and do significant damage to bosses.
So right from the get-go, the game offers up a unique, quite fun, style of melee combat that you've got to learn. And the game wastes no time in forcing you to learn it: You're put into some pretty difficult fights right off the bat, often against a variety of different enemy types - there might be some small flying enemies that force you to throw your axe while dodging others on the ground, or mid-sized dudes with slow but unblockable heavy attacks that you have to avoid while shredding up the weaker, faster ones.
(There are even some optional enemy encounters, rather reminiscent of the Talus fights from Breath of the Wild, that wander peacefully until you engage.) You'll quickly be taking on several tough enemies at once, and you're not going to be able to get through them by smashing the Square button in blind rage.
You'll need to learn to dodge, anticipate, take advantage of openings, and work the crowd.
At first, I thought I would have to lower the difficulty level down from Normal to Easy just to get through the game, but that turned out not to be necessary. In part, that was because I was learning about how the game worked, but also it was because I was able to start tackling sidequests that let me upgrade my skills and equipment.
God of War initially feels rigidly linear. For the first several hours, you're confined to a series of hallways and small open areas linked one after the other. But it eventually becomes apparent that the game started you out on the far end of one spoke of a hub.
Upon reaching said hub, things open up. No, the game does not become The Witcher 3 or anything, but maybe it's like Witcher Lite: You can wander around, take on sidequests, find chests, solve puzzles, and beat up more enemies to earn more experience points, all without advancing the story.
As the game goes on, more and more side stuff opens up, although sometimes when you decide to continue on the main story path you're restricted from going back to the hub for a while.
It's not quite completely open world, but that sprinkling of non-linearity still makes for a richer experience, even if it takes the game a few more restrictive hours before it fully reveals itself. Those carefully-controlled hours, though, are necessary to begin telling the game's story.
As God of War begins, we find a Kratos who just wants to be left alone. He's fled Olympus and moved to Midgard, met a nice girl, settled down, had a kid. He's not interested in killing anybody, has no elaborate revenge plots to enact. When his wife passes away (seemingly of natural causes), he's not filled with Spartan Rage™, he just wants to fulfil her final wishes by scattering her ashes from the highest peak in the realms.
Unfortunately, fate isn't about to let that happen, and he finds himself tracked and assaulted by entities who, surprise, reveal themselves to be gods from Norse mythology. A whole new pantheon to slice and dice his way through? Kratos isn't tempted.
He just wants to bury his wife and raise his kid and avoid difficult questions like, say, dad, what are those scars on your forearms? He doesn't want to tangle with the Aesir or the Vanir or any Norse gods at all, he wants to get where he's going and go home.
We glean much of this through his silence, as well as his restrained body language. Even though he's the new, sensitive Kratos for the 90s, in touch with his own feelings, he's not quite ready to open up and share them with Atreus.
Much of the initial story exposition plays out during father and son conversations in between battles rather than through directed cinematic scenes. Kratos is eternally somber and serious, but Atreus, as a typical grade schooler, does like to crack wise at his grim-faced dad. If you think that what God of War really needed all along was a smart-aleck kid sidekick making fun of dour Kratos, well, have I got a game for you.
Besides his growing skills with a bow, Atreus also has a preternatural gift for languages; he's able to read all the runes engraved around the world, while his dad cannot. This is ironic insofar as while I was playing the game I wished I could sit my own kid about one foot from the television so he could read me the frickin' menu text.
I don't know if the entire God of War staff had some sort of Super Lasik surgery as a team bonding exercise or what, but the text in this game's menus is too small for me to read while sitting a couple of metres away from a 42" TV.
This wouldn't be as big of a problem were it not for the fact that God of War sends you into its menus constantly. As you adventure, you start getting loaded up with stuff. Chest armour. Wrist armour. Waist armour. Heavy runes. Light runes. Enchantments. Emblems. A dozen or so consumable resources used to upgrade those things. And beyond that, there's also a skill tree into which you're constantly dumping your experience points.
In an effort to give you many options for how you want to outfit Kratos, the game dumps tons of individual pieces of armour and enhancements on you at a fast clip. At first, finding chests in the world (or solving puzzles to unlock bigger chests) is fun every time, but it's not long before the additional utility that I derived from opening the nth chest in a row went down to almost zero. I don't want to pause God of War every five minutes to read several paragraphs of explanatory text, even if it was big enough to see.
That said, while you don't really need 90 per cent of the stuff the game loads you up with to get through the main storyline, I can see how finding all of these various bits, upgrading them all, and using them effectively might be important if you want to clear out the entirety of the game.
When you finish Kratos and Atreus's story, it's likely that there will still be a lot more for you to do. There are two entire areas of the game that don't need to be visited at all to finish the story, and many more sidequests get scattered across the map once you finish.
I haven't done everything, but with about 20 hours invested into the main story (it's pretty big), it seems like there's another 20 to go, easily. I feel the game drawing me back, even though I've seen all the big revelations, because the combat is just so much fun and the interstitial conversations are so funny.
God Of War
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
"You're kinda scary sometimes."
TYPE OF GAME
Super Smash Dad Melee
Innovative and varied combat system, nice balance of action and downtime, relatable and funny storyline.
World's tiniest text, too many inventory items, less originality.
Sony Santa Monica
The main campaign plus several sidequests, roughly 20 hours.
As a well-known puzzle-lover I am happy that God of War is full of them again. One of the major selling points of the first game was its blending of action and puzzles, but the latter was steadily shaved away as the series evolved - devolved, if you ask me.
While you don't need to solve many puzzles to get through the story, there are plenty of optional ones, which usually revolve around carefully hunting through whatever scene you're in to find hidden runes that unlock chests. The story-critical puzzles that do exist are pretty generously hinted, but the optional ones just leave you to your own devices.
This creates a nicely balanced pacing to the proceedings. You're not just slashing, slashing, slashing without breaks. Often, you get through a major battle to find that you now get to explore the world around you, find secrets, test out your brain cells a bit.
Hey, want to feel as old as Kratos? It's been over 13 years since the first God of War was released for the PlayStation 2. Between its brutal, beautiful combat, its unique and dramatic story, and its groundbreaking camera work, that debut was like nothing I'd ever played before.
It was an entity unto itself. 2018's God of War seems more content to borrow from other successful recent games: it's a little bit Witcher, a little bit Dark Souls, a little bit The Last Of Us, and a little bit old-school God of War.
It feels like more of a trend follower than a trendsetter, a pastiche of ideas. But they are good ideas, done well enough to bring a once-stale series back up from the depths of Helheim.