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God of War - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Kratos and Atreus support each other in combat
  • Axe-throwing works really well
  • Some challenging puzzles
  • Magni, Modi, and Baldr boss fights
  • A couple really good mini-bosses
  • Side content is purely optional
  • Mythology lessons fill idle time
  • Cleverly not-so-hidden second ending

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • No comfortable middle-ground difficulty
  • Repetitive bosses and puzzles
  • Frequent shifting of goal posts
  • Poor quicktime events
  • Side content and exploration feels unrewarding

Overall Impression :B
Constant goalpost shifting drags down an otherwise good game

God of War - cover

Developer:
Sony Santa Monica Studio

Publisher:
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
20 April, 2018

Genre:
Mythological hack and slash

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.playstation.com/en-us/games/god-of-war-ps4/

Vikings and norse mythology seems to have been a popular concept in games recently. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, for instance, is an excellent hack-n-slash adventure through Norse hell. I've also been playing the Wasteland-like RPG Expeditions: Vikings on Steam (which I'm hoping to review soon). I also have games like Mount & Blad: Viking Conquest and Total War: Thrones of Britannia on my short list of games I'd like to play. And there was also the Viking character in For Honor.

Now, Sony's PlayStation flagship God of War has jumped from Greek mythology to Norse mythology. Having killed all the Greek gods, Kratos has apparently settled down in the mythological Midgard with a wife and son, only for his wife to die and his son be attacked by the Norse god Baldr. This sends Kratos and Atreus on a father-son bonding adventure to spread Atreus' mother's ashes from the highest peak in all the realms, and to learn why the Aesir are suddenly keen on hunting them.

Norse mythology seems to be a popular subject in media lately.

A father-son murder team

Atreus has some of the same problems that The Last of Us has with Ellie. Atreus doesn't feel vulnerable enough to demand protection, and he's rarely relevant outside of combat, except for his running commentary about what you're doing. Because of this, the actual game rarely feels like it's about protecting or escorting Atreus. And even though the game is ostensibly about Kratos teaching Atreus how to fight and be a man, the player never has an opportunity to actually teach the kid or take on any parental responsibility for him. It's just about Kratos throwing axes at draugr, and Atreus occasionally shoots them or jumps on their heads to help you out. The puzzle sections rarely require using Atreus (other than occasionally shooting something with his bow or having him scamper through a small tunnel).

Atreus is basically just an extra ranged attack.

That being said, I think that God of War makes some strides in the right direction (compared to The Last of Us). The player (and Kratos) can command Atreus to attack a target with his bow, which is one of the easiest and most consistent ways to deal stun damage to enemies, which opens them up to an intant-kill attack from Kratos. It's also a strategy that is pretty much essential on the harder difficulties. This creates a much greater sense of playing in tandem with Atreus, as he and Kratos often work together to defeat foes.

Atreus and Kratos can also break each other out of being grappled or stunned. I've never gotten a "Game Over" as a result of Atreus being defeated, so I'm not sure if that's a possible fail state. Being grappled or stunned only seemed to ever temporarily take Atreus out of the fight and negate the ability to use his bow. Either way, this is an improvement over Ellie from The Last of Us, who (as far as I recall) operated entirely independently from Joel, was never at any risk, and could be completely ignored for most of the player's time actually playing the game.

Kratos and Atreus can break each other out of enemy grapples and support each other in combat.

The important take-away here is that, unlike with Ellie in the combat encounters of The Last of Us, I never forgot that Atreus was there when playing God of War.

God of War used to do quicktime events right

While I have often railed heavily against the use of Quicktime events in video games, I am a bit disappointed to see them stripped out of the franchise that popularized them. God of War was actually one of the few game franchises that actually utilized quicktime events well. Other games have used QTEs as trial-and-error insta-death traps, or as consequence-free mini-games that temporary halt progress.

God of War actually used to do quicktime events well, compared to other games.

[The original] God of War's quicktime events were predominantly relegated to finishers that were used against already-weakened enemies and bosses. The player had to earn the privilege of triggering the quicktime as a cinematic finish to a hard-fought battle, and usually had the agency to chose to activate it. Failure would result in Kratos being thrown from the enemy, possibly taking some damage, and the enemy would receive a second wind in combat. This provided a sensical consequence for failure, rather than just a cheap insta-death and retry.

The quicktime events that are present in the new God of War fall more into that first category of the unwelcome types of quicktime events. Most of them are just mindless button-mashing sequences in order to trigger or complete some scripted sequence, with no risk or consequence for failure. Others require the player to simply mash the attack button in order to damage a boss while Kratos is grappling or mounting said boss. Again, there's no risk or consequence for failure. Mash circle to push a boulder in order to progress the game. Mash R1 to punch the ogre in the face. These are the boring and unrewarding types of quicktime events that everyone complains about being in other games. It's sad to see them present in God of War. At least there's no cheap insta-death quicktime traps.

Now quicktime events are just consequence-free button-mashing affairs.

One example of where this new God of War could have used a quicktime event for a nice, cinematic scene, would be one instance in which a draugr jumps out from a chest to attack Kratos. The scene in-game plays out entirely in an in-engine cutscene, with no chance for interaction. Kratos just shrugs the draugr off and then the player fights it in a trivially-easy fight before being able to claim the chest's rewards. This would have been a great opportunity to require the player to press the block, parry, or attack button(s) in order to throw off the draugr. Failure to do so could have resulted in Kratos losing a chunk of health (but not dying), or being inflicted with frost or poison or something to handicap him during the fight. But no, other than being a little bit of an unexpected jump scare, it's an occurrence of absolutely no consequence.

Not even this draugr jumping out of a booby-trapped chest is a quicktime event

The lackluster use of button prompts is frustrating because there are some well-executed scripted, mini-game sequences. There's one bit where a fog rolls in, and Kratos has to spin around Atreus and use his shield to protect Atreus from charging enemies. It works both mechanically and thematically, and I wish God of War had more little bits like that scattered about in order to add to the feeling of actively protecting Atreus. I also like how, when shimmying on ledges, you actually have to look at your destination in order to jump there, instead of just pressing the stick in a direction and letting the game automatically move you to where you need to go.

One boss fight involves circling around Atreus and protecting him from enemies charging out of fog.

Challenge or no challenge?

I think my biggest issue with the game is its difficulty balancing. Put simply: I find the "normal" difficulty to be too easy, and the "hard" difficulty is too hard. There's no comfortable middle ground. I've been having this problem with a lot of games recently, where the normal difficulty seems to be for casual players, and the hard difficulty is for tournament-level frame-counters. I'm in between. I want a difficulty level in which my victories feel earned, but in which my progress is not constantly being stonewalled by "Game Over" screens. God of War provides neither.

On the "balanced" difficulty, most encounters can be easily resolved by simply throwing Kratos' axe repeatedly, or having Atreus shoot enemies to stun them, then use the R3 finisher to literally rip them in half. Enemies are fairly passive, don't swarm the player, have manageable health, and do relatively little damage. In fact, they're so slow that I have no trouble just one-hitting most enemies with a charged heavy attack from the axe.

The difficult, teleporting Revenants show up surprisingly early in the game.

Then I bump the difficulty up to "challenging", and I get butchered. The enemies are suddenly highly aggressive and swarm around Kratos. The threat indicators are almost constantly flashing red with incoming attacks from multiple off-screen angles. I'm constantly being staggered by off-screen projectiles, and then being smacked around by melee enemies while Kratos is stun-locked. All the extra health for the grunt enemies means that I can't defeat them in a timely enough manner to isolate the unblockable heavy enemies. I can generally handle swarms of grunt enemies, but anytime the teleporting revenants or heavies show up, I get promptly pulverized.

The camera further undercuts things by making it hard to see what's going on around you, and I whiffed a lot of attacks because I couldn't properly judge distance. The white and red threat indicators can often be hard to read, especially when they blend in with Kratos' white skin and red armor, or with the frequent snowy backgrounds. Enemies that teleport or weave around you are hard to track with the camera, and the position of the camera makes it hard to line yourself up with the health drops that litter the floor. Trying to pick up health often lead to cheap hits from enemies.

Axe-throwing is a satisfying mechanic that feels good and looks stylish.

Other than that, the combat mechanics feel weighty, deliberate, and purposeful, which rewards proper timing, strategy, and strictly punishes button-mashing. This is actually a significant departure from the original God of War games, which often came off as very button-mashy. Throwing the axe and summoning it back to you is a fun mechanic that grants a lot of versatility. Cleverly combining axe attacks, axe throws, bare-fist punches, Atreus' bow, and other special moves adds a lot of strategy. As long as you can keep all the enemies in front of Kratos, the game usually feels pretty good.

Put this in the optional content

The lack of a comfortable difficulty level, however, mitigates much of the strategy of the combat, and is further compounded by the game's length. For a single-player campaign, God of War is a long game. I generally try not to criticize a game for being "too hard" or "too easy", or for being "too long" or "too short", but in this case, the sheer volume of filler combat and the constant shifting of the goalposts just wore on my patience. On the "balanced" difficulty, the lack of challenge from all the grunt draugr that keep getting thrown at me caused the game to drag in the early levels. On a harder difficulty, the grunts were challenging, but I couldn't progress past the tougher enemies and mini-bosses. By the time the story started to kick in, the combat tunnels were already starting to feel like a chore, which proceed to go on for another ten or fifteen hours!

By the end of the game, even the characters are joking about the inevitability of the quest being derailed again. It's as if the whole design was a giant joke by the developers all along, and highlights how unnecessarily convoluted the quest was. Had this game moved along at a swifter pace in the middle, it would probably easily be in the "A" range for me, but I just can't ignore that large middle chunk in which I just wanted the game to be over soon.

[Show Major Spoilers] [Hide Major Spoilers]
The Blades of Chaos add more variety and deeper strategy to the second half of the game.

End of Major Spoilers

There's thankfully a mid-game shake-up to the combat mechanics that dramatically improves the fights by giving Kratos more useful options (especially with regard to crowd-control), more variety, and deeper strategy. The game picks up again after this point and maintains most of its momentum through to the finish and beyond. I really like the organic and cleverly not-so-hidden second ending, which allows -- but does not require! -- you to complete / grind through all the optional objectives and side quests. I just wish the game hadn't dragged its feet for so long getting there.

It wouldn't be so bad if so many of the fights didn't feel repetitive. For instance, you fight the same giant troll mini-boss throughout the game, which gets very old very fast. Same goes for the Ancient golems, which are each of a different element, but all are fought exactly the same. Many of the standard encounters also felt repetitive for me. There isn't much variety in enemies. A lot of them are just color-swaps, and very few of them have the distinctness of the enemies in the Greek-inspired games.

These same trolls and golems keep showing up as bosses.

The rune chest puzzles are also driven into the ground. Initially, they're fine, rewarding simple observation, and some are quite challenging and satisfying to solve. But by the second half of the game, they've started turning into obnoxious pixel-hunts and are more a test of your eyesight than of your puzzle-solving ability. When they started throwing in the pixel-hunting chisel puzzles, I was pretty much done with the puzzle mini-games and side quests.

There's certainly some stand-out single encounters, puzzles, and set pieces. The dragon boss fight is OK (if not a little anti-climactic), and I enjoyed throwing draugr off the bridge that lead to the mountain summit. The Magni and Modi fight is perhaps the best battle in the game, and one of the better recent boss fights of any game that I've played outside of a FromSoft title. At least it is, up until they start using seemingly unblockable and unavoidable ranged and area of effect attacks in the final phase. There's also some great duels against heavily-armored knights that require some alternative tactics. Even the opening boss fight against Baldr is pretty good. If they can put good, unique boss fights like these in the game, why do they keep wasting my time with these repetitive trolls and golems?!

Armored knight mini-bosses are some of the unique, stand-out encounters in the game.

From one mythology to another

Overall, I feel like God of War may be a bit too bloated for it's own good, and has lost a bit of its identity. Which is a shame because I remember the first two God of War games being expertly-paced and having brilliantly-realized worlds that felt like going on an epic adventure. Those original games excelled at providing a sense of spectacle, accompanied by some memorable music, locales, and set pieces. They were also excellently-paced and scaled with a variety of gameplay types (combat, puzzles, and platforming). I don't particularly miss the platforming (especially that terrible Hades level), but the platforming did help to break up the game more.

The developers of future open world games should take a good, long look at how God of War focuses its narrative. The fact that Kratos and Atreus are on a personal quest means that I didn't mind so much when Atreus recommends that we ignore our quest and go exploring for a bit. Which is something that I was happy to oblige up until I started consistently getting dead-ended by locked doors and chests that can only be opened by tools and abilities that the plot hadn't given to me yet. My desire to explore was also dashed by the lack of anything really interesting to discover.

There wasn't much in the way of lore or story to discover, instead, just equipment, buff gems, and attack runes that I rarely (if ever) used. It didn't help that all the exploration happens off of the main hub area (Lake of the Nine), and so there's virtually nothing to explore, and almost no side activities to accomplish when you're on the main path other than solving minor puzzles for tangential rewards. Maybe I've just been spoiled by FromSoft games with regard to game maps and exploratory design.

Virtually all the optional content comes off of one hub area.

The Norse mythology setting doesn't add all that much for the game. The major gods themselves (Odin and Thor) have virtually no presence in the game, despite being name-dropped often. The draugr just come off as typical zombies, the ogres and trolls feel almost cliche, and the game lacks the interesting and charismatic characters of the original God of War games. None of these enemies or bosses are quite as memorable as the cyclopses, minotaurs, harpies, the Hydra, or fighting an animated version of the Colossus of Rhodes. And while Mimir has some decent dialogue while his head is strapped to Kratos' ass, he just doesn't have the same "wow" factor as using the severed head of Medusa to turn enemies into stone, or using the severed head of Helios, the sun god, as a flashlight. Honestly, I think the most memorable and interesting character is probably the World Serpent.

I really hope there isn't anybody who takes the lore of God of War too seriously. If so, this Norse-inspired game is going to wreak havoc with the presumptions of the Greek-inspired games. These mythologies aren't really compatible, especially when considering their stories of world-creation and the general make-up of reality. It's difficult to reconcile a world in which both the Titans of Greek mythology and the World Serpent and World Tree of Norse mythology exist and fulfill the roles that their respective mythologies prescribe to them. But then again, despite the self-seriousness of the plot, the game itself isn't meant to be taken too seriously.

Don't think too hard about how God of War's mythology-inspired reality works.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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