In 2007, Chris Roper from IGN said that in moving from God of War to God of War 2, Sony Santa Monica Studio (SSM) improved nearly every aspect of the original game, but also that these improvements were evolutionary, not revolutionary. In 2018, God of War 4 is a revolution. Sony Santa Monica has created an achievement. As the first God of War game since 2013, something in the tried and tested formula needed to change. Sony Santa Monica has effectively done this with God of War 4. The game is different enough to reinvigorate the series but similar enough to deserve the God of War name. It balances delicately between the new and old, creating a dynamic of constant excitement and nostalgia. In giving the players a deep, rich and new experience, Sony Santa Monica further highlights what it was in the God of War formula that made the series so special.
God of War is a series built on action. Previous titles were essentially various distractions in between combat sequences. However, moving from fixed cameras and still environments to an over the shoulder perspective, SSM has changed the formula. The question is, does it work?
The combat in God of War has always been a key reason for the series’ success, with so many games being influenced by the hack and slash style. It feels like God of War 4 has done what no game inspired by this style has before. God of War 4 is able to take the constant adrenaline inducing thrills of large enemy mobs and huge weapon variety from the original trilogy and present it in a way that feels unique. The combat doesn’t look like traditional God of War hacking and slashing, but it feels like it.
Kratos’ weapon variation in God of War 4 has a similar scope to other games, but the differences in the play styles that these weapons offer feel much more significant. The simple differences between unarmed combat, the Leviathan Axe and the iconic Blades of Chaos mean players can more clearly understand the point of each difference. This leads to actual variation in the way you can fight enemies. In the original trilogy it was almost inevitable that players would fall back to the Blades of Chaos and the standard way to play. Now there are distinct and clear differing play styles, each as valid as the other.
One flaw that shines through when the difficulty increases is the new emphasis on dodging. With an over the shoulder perspective, the combat has a feel to it, reminiscent of Dark Souls or Assassins Creed: Origins. Players will need to time when to attack and when to dodge. However, the key difference between God of War and Dark Souls is that Kratos’ dodging comes across as unresponsive. While it isn’t noticeable when fighting through the majority of the game, it’s when fighting high level enemies and bosses that it shows.
The problem is that fighting these tough enemies is unfairly challenging. Dying to an inaccurate hit box or inconsistent attack telegraph feels cheap. A game like Dark Souls, for the most part, makes the player feel responsible for their own death but in these harder fights it felt like the game had let me down and not the other way around. It is only noticeable when fighting enemies that are well above the player’s level, meaning mistakes cost more health. However, despite the level and gear system feeling unnecessary and at times intrusive, players should be able to seek the challenge of harder enemies as a means of testing their skill. Players shouldn’t have to wait until they have better gear just so they can tank an unfair hit.
Exploration in God of War 4 is the best in the entire series and for one reason. Without the use of fixed cameras, SSM has opted to then have zero camera cuts. The entire game plays in one shot. As a result, navigating the world and switching to and from combat feels organic and natural. Not once is the player’s immersion broken, which is something SSM should be commended on. The “one shot” aspect of gameplay is something that needs to make its way into more games.
God of War 4 opens the formula up, making the previously linear game now open world. The hub area, known as “The Lake of the Nine”, is explorable by boat and allows players to uncover completely optional pathways fit with side missions, dungeons and plenty of secrets. While it is a refreshing change and adds a lot more content to the game, it seems at odds with itself.
With the game and narrative being told in “one shot” there’s no indication of when to explore or any organic transitions from the open world sections to the linear narrative moments. The game will try to keep players on a continuous ride through the “one shot” but the open world exploration forces players to wrestles control away from the game. It could be minutes or hours until you return to the Lake of the Nine and explore again, but there’s no way of telling.
Another aspect of the world that is a step down from previous titles is the puzzles. Other God of War games had more, but more importantly they were more challenging. This might be because the fixed camera angles gave the developers more control over what the player can and can’t perceive. With many of the puzzles coming down to having to find and break rune stones, there’s nowhere near as much satisfaction. When the player connects the pieces in their head and figures out the puzzle in previous games there’s a “eureka” moment. This moment is lost if the challenge is running around a room, looking up and down, just to find a thing to hit.
One of the defining features of the series is its amazing boss battles. With the series opening with Kratos battling the famous Hydra and ending with the entire Greek pantheon, God of War 4 had some series expectations to live up to. Despite a change in style and tone, SSM’s excellent boss battles and the epic scale shine through as one of the essential ingredients in God of War’s success. Long term fans of the series will immediately feel at home with the over the top and exhilarating action, while being rewarded with objectively fun boss fights.
In every major fight, all the elements come together to create moments of mythological grandeur. Whether it be the big enemies, being trolls, giants and dragons, or the little, being the quick and agile gods and valkyries, SSM have mastered the sense of epic awe that the series is known for. Special mention needs to go to the battles with the Stranger. As a recurring boss, each fight has a cinematic weight to it. The way he and Kratos fight feels raw and personal.
God of War 4’s main selling point is the shift from Greek to Norse mythology. While disappointing for fans of the ancient Greece theme, this necessary change gives God of War a complete rejuvenation. The new Norse theme retains the same epic tone, while offering a refreshing new style.
Sony Santa Monica has outdone themselves with the land of Norse mythology. The world and lore of Norse mythology is a refreshingly accurate change from what is presented in movies and TV. The gorgeous foliage of the frost covered landscapes, the beautiful architecture of grand mythological structures and the ridiculous detail of the Scandinavian artistry gives God of War a strong and unique visual theme. However, it also feels familiar. The mythological setting of Greece carried a distinct magnitude to every weapon, building and creature. That same awe-inspiring breadth of the Greek world is on display in the Norse mythological world. With a wholly new setting, the gravitas of previous games draws out the magnificence and splendour of Norse mythology. The game still feels grand.
A perfect example of what makes the game’s setting so special is the section that takes place at Thamur’s corpse. Kratos finds himself in a frozen tundra, surrounded by the cold blizzard. However, Thamur, a jotun or giant, slain by Thor before the game, lies dead across the frozen wasteland. In a continous shot the player will go from head to toe, through underground caverns and up across giant hammers. You are an ant navigating the great giant’s corpse but also carving a path of destruction across the barren waste. It is this balance between your small place in this vast world and your great impact on the grand areas that make you not only a spectator to godly actions, but a god yourself. SSM is able to use this great setting to establish a magnificent world, but then build the player and Kratos up to match the epic scale of this world.
The sound design is simply amazing. There is a heavy meatiness to each punch and hit that really makes Kratos out to be a mighty god. The solid thunk of the Leviathan Axe when it returns to Kratos makes using the weapon so much more satisfying. As enemies are ripped apart by Kratos’ bare hands, players can hear the individual tear and crunch of bones. Draugrs, the basic skeleton mob that fills the game, have a delicateness to their rattling bones them that makes them feel really undead but also a visciousness to their snarling that makes them feel cursed and horrid. The roar of an angry ogre or troll brings a menace to every battle.
On top of the superb sound is the excellent voice acting. Main characters are acted to near perfection with Atreus sounding like a vulnerable but confident boy growing into manhood, and the Stranger having a dark menace in his tone. Supporting characters like Mimur, Brok and Sindri have distinct and individual personality in their voices. Each character is well done but special mention needs to go to Christopher Judge for his work as Kratos. While it’s never easy stepping into an already iconic and distinct role, he balances the deep booming anger of the war god with the refined and soothing paternal wisdom of the now father. The nuance and subtlety of the performance is commendable.
While many of the previous games have taken control of the camera in huge over the top sequences to give the player a movie like experience, it is on a complete other level in God of War 4. Cinematography is the best way to describe it, with Cory Barlog fitting into his role as a director. The camera swoops outward into epic scenes that highlight the grandeur of boss battles and these larger than life sequences, while sweeping inward to highlight soft and emotional narrative moments. The direction is not only great by video game standards, but by directorial standards. The cinematography is reminiscent of film epics like The Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones, encapsulating the large scope, but also reminiscent of intense dramas, able to focus inward on the soft nuance of performances.
If Cory Barlog’s directing is the boat that drives forward the narrative and gameplay tone, then the music is the wind in the sails. God of War has always had great music, with the choral overture of the original trilogy becoming one of the most famous video game scores. However, God of War 4 goes even further beyond. With a new theme, which maintains bass choral chants to honour the previous games, the glorious epic tone is directly created through the orchestra’s deep booming drum beats and swelling brass section. However, there are also softer more emotional songs that use Scandinavian female vocals, woodwinds and strings, similar to some of Skyrim or The Witcher’s music, to pull the player into the emotional heart of the game. These songs are effective at drawing on the emotional beats of the game, with one track in particular deserving praise for including the melody from God of War 3’s Pandora’s Song to keep the theme of Kratos’ hidden paternal depth in the new game.
While God of War stories are often much better than what’s expected from a hack and slash action game, there is a clear new emphasis on the narrative. Where other God of War wanted to deliver huge set pieces and fun action, God of War 4 is a story driven game. In an era where dumb fun is selling more and more over deep narratives, it is refreshing.
The basic premise of the game is that players are Kratos, who must travel with his son Atreus to spread their wife and mother’s ashes off the highest peak in the land. It is a simple idea that allows for the depth to stem from the Journey over the destination. Following a common trope of Epics, clearly drawing influence from Odysseus’ journey home in the Odyssey and Aeneas’ journey to Rome in the Aeneid, the journey allows for constant development and growth. Along the way players will meet a variety of character, stumble across side stories and learn more about the new Norse world. The constant complications and mysteries move the narrative along, but with one simple goal firmly established at the beginning, it allows for these to feel organic and incidental instead of random and forced. SSM never overdo it, keeping the story closely tied to this journey, making God of War 4 a nice little self contained tale.
Kratos and Atreus
As a result of the journey, the game is essentially a story about Kratos and Atreus. The growth and development of the two as individual characters, as a team and their relationship is the driving point of the narrative. Kratos as the distant and stoic father is an interesting way to depict the character, as it is in-line with the Kratos of Greece but also offers a new insight into this significantly different Norse Kratos. Atreus as a naive young boy is well written too. He has the kind innocence of a child but also the stubborn rashness of a kid. The way their characters progress is well done. Their arcs throughout the game are well written and follow a simple yet logical progression.
However, much of the praise is in the context of God of War games. It tells a better story than any God of War game would need, but compared to other narrative driven games it has some flaws. The obvious influence from NaughtyDog’s The Last of Us highlights these flaws. The relationship between Joel and Ellie evolves through the chapters, growing organically in front of the players. One of the reason why this works so well is because the player is introduced to Ellie at the same time as Joel, so they learn more about her and slowly grow to care for Ellie alongside Joel.
With Kratos and Atreus, there is history with the father son relationship that can’t be replicated to the players. There’s little explanation why Kratos is so cold and distant to Atreus. It would’ve been nice to know how Kratos went from the vengeance fuelled God of War, to a husband and father that, despite starting another family, struggles to have a family. The saying “show don’t tell” is used to remind writers to explain the human response people would have to a situation and certain emotion instead of outright saying what the emotion is. There are many moments where the game outright tells the player details and motivations, where it would’ve been better to explain and show them.
With God of War 4, Sony Santa Monica has been able to completely reinvent the series. What was a hack and slash action series is now a story driven epic. However, where SSM truly deserve praise is in how much or the original trilogy they were able to keep. Everything that was loved about the original trilogy is done in the new game, while everything new to this God of War is unique, fun and emotional. The new direction in the game allows remnants of the old to shine through and affirm themselves as the fundamental cornerstones of the series. God of War was never about the Greek mythology, vengeance fuelled protagonist or hack and slash gameplay. It was about epic moments, beautiful worlds and kicking ass as Kratos. God of War 4 gives players all this and more, doing so much right that it’s nearly impossible to find its flaws. While not a perfect game, God of War 4 is a perfect God of War game.