Clearing the Backlog: God of War

I remember trying to play the original God of War a couple of years ago and enjoying it until I realized just how many quick time events there were, something I truly hate. I think including them is lazy game design and just causes more frustration for the player. Some of us can’t press buttons that fast. This ultimately turned me away from God of War as a whole and I never looked back. I knew the series was beloved and I genuinely enjoyed the combat, but I just could not get past the damned quick time events.

Enter God of War 2018, a game I never expected to like, let alone love. When it was first announced at E3, I was blown away by the live orchestra and the trailer, but ultimately felt that, because it’s another God of War game, I just wouldn’t have liked it. As more and more trailers and gameplay footage trickled out, however, I started to realize how very wrong I was. Taking a chance and tempting fate, I decided to buy the Stone Mason’s Edition (I have an unhealthy tendency to buy collectors editions, something I definitely need to stop doing, for the sake of my wallet (and the dwindling shelf space of my house)).

Having little experience with the series in the past, I was going into the game blind. All I knew about the series’ plot was a couple of youtube summaries, which cannot compare to actually playing the games yourself (Can you imagine going into something like Kingdom Hearts 3 without having played the myriad spinoff titles? Youtube summaries cannot possibly prepare you for the confusing, infuriating web that is Kingdom Hearts’ plot). Thankfully, prior knowledge of the God of War canon is not necessary (though it will certainly enhance your experience).

The series has struggled to find relevance in the past decade. God War III was considered a letdown overall and God of War Ascension was, from what I’ve heard, abysmal (granted, though, I’ve never played it). After Ascension, Sony Santa Monica took some time off to figure out the series’ future, likely putting the series on the backburner. Cory Barlog, director of God of War II and God Of War III, had left Sony in 2010 but returned in 2013 to direct the new God of War game. He had made design decisions that at first seemed absolutely crazy, like the game featuring a single, continuous camera shot with absolutely no loading screens or cutscenes. On paper, it seemed really dicey, but in practice, it ended up working beautifully. It also likely forced the developers to get creative with the story and not rely on traditional story beats. For example, because the game features a single continuous camera shot, Kratos must be always present, in every scene. There can’t be cutaways to the antagonists. This means that the player learns things at the same time as the characters, something I’m a big fan of when it comes to narrative design. The game also uses the environment and the world to tell it’s story, rather than using dialog and exposition. That’s not to say there isn’t exposition (that’s almost unavoidable these days), but you don’t have to listen to a character explain every minute detail of every little thing.

God of War, despite being a soft-reboot for the series, is a continuation of the series’ story to date, though prior knowledge of the series is not necessary. It picks up some time after past games and only passing references to the characters and events of the past are made. Kratos has now married and had a son, and in typical God of War fashion, Kratos’ wife, Faye, has died (This guy just can’t catch a break, can he?) The game centers on Kratos and his son Atreus journeying to the highest peak in Jottunheim to spread Faye’s ashes. Obviously, things don’t quite go as planned. Baldur pays the two a visit and makes it known that their presence is not welcome. Atreus learns he is part god and becomes a cocky asshole. Freya, a witch, ex-wife of Odin, and mother of Baldur, aids the pair on their journey, before eventually swearing to rain down “every agony” upon them for killing her son. Basically, everything that can go wrong, went wrong.

Atreus is controlled by AI, and in a lot of games with AI sidekicks, there’s a whole heaping of trouble. In some games, the companions are lifeless husks that follow you around and offer nothing truly meaningful outside of an extra pair of hands in combat. In other games, they get stuck in walls or, for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, cannot follow you down the simplest of paths. Thankfully, none of those are present here. Atreus is a fully realized character who offers meaningful and insightful conversation, and who does not get stuck behind walls. Atreus helps out in combat too, and his help is actually, well, helpful. Using him to shoot light arrows at enemies helps to weaken them so I can finish them off. He also has some surprisingly devasting area of effect attacks.

The game features a lot of optional stuff to collect and explore, and in many cases, exploring the optional stuff has yielded stat boosts and rare armor. I came across a Valkyrie locked away in an underground prison. I had a near-end-game Kratos and still got my ass handed to me. The Valkyries are probably best tackled after the credits have rolled and you have the opportunity to fully level up Kratos and his armor. I should have explored Niflheim more, as I left a lot undiscovered there. Muspelheim, too, has a lot of optional stuff to do. Both realms are entirely optional, but choosing to visit and explore them thoroughly yields a lot of useful crafting materials for Brok and Sindri. Speaking of Brok and Sindri, I really loved them. They hate each other’s guts and clearly have some issues to work out, but are always willing to upgrade your armor and weapons. They also give you quests. Quests are nice.

I was also a huge fan of the RPG mechanics the game introduced. (I really like RPG mechanics in general. Don’t judge me). While they may not be as deep as a full-fledged RPG, they were a nice touch. I like being able to customize and craft the best armor for Kratos based on my own personal playstyle. I favored strength and health in my build; I wanted to be able to dish out a beating, but also be able to take one. I still died. A lot.

The casting is also superb. Christopher Judge as Kratos was perfect casting. I’ve been a fan of Judge since his time as Teal’c in Stargate SG1, and the role of Kratos is practically tailor-made for the guy. His chemistry with Atreus’ voice actor is also great. While Atreus is emotional and clearly wants his father’s affection, Kratos is largely emotionless (and strangely wise at the same time). These opposing characteristics play off each other surprisingly well. I actually felt like Atreus was my own son at times.

Overall, the new God of War was a fantastic game that I never expected to love. After my experience with the series, I was ready to write this game off. I’m so glad I didn’t. There’s a lot of places the series can go now; there have even been hints of Egypt in-canon. That’ll be fun. It’s more likely the series will remain in Norse mythology for the time being, but the option to visit Egypt (and other mythologies) is now on the table (to be fair, it was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in Helheim where the famous Eye of Horus symbol can be seen on a map that also includes a symbol from Sparta and various other lands.) Wherever the series goes next, I’m definitely on-board.

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