If anything, the God of War series has always been about complex familial relationships. After all, Greek mythology is dominated by stories of fathers killing their sons, children betraying their parents and endless war punctuated by short spells of peace. But after following Kratos as he knocked off the gods of Mount Olympus one by one, the new God of War jumps forward, years after Kratos gave up his Blades of Chaos and settled down to start a family.
Though he is able to escape his old life, he cannot escape tragedy. God of War opens with Kratos cremating his wife, who passed away unexpectedly, as his son Atreus watches on. Her last wishes were for the two to spread her ashes from the tallest peak, and thus the long and winding journey through a new world begins.
If you have ever played God of War before, you are initially going to be out of your element when you start playing this sequel/reboot. It looks and feels entirely different from previous entries, with substantial changes around every corner. The combat has changed drastically, the tone isn’t quite as oppressively dark, the story takes center stage and even the perspective has shifted to bring the player closer to the action as battles and conversations unfold.
God of War is much more deliberate than its predecessors (though often just as chaotic). Having hung up his blades, Kratos instead uses a weapon called the Leviathan Axe to dispatch his foes. Where Kratos was often darting around rooms filled with monsters in his past life, swinging the Blades of Chaos around and striking everything in sight, the aging god actually has to consider each individual opponent in the new God of War.
There is something undeniably satisfying about the combat system, which is easy to learn and hard to master. Even after finishing the campaign and a decent chunk of the side content (of which there is a ton), I’m still learning how to dodge, parry, and use all of the combo moves I learned along the way effectively in battle.
Despite being a god, Kratos had his butt whipped on multiple occasions during my playthrough, as some encounters require you to be nearly perfect with your timing. I don’t have many complaints about God of War, but one thing I will say is that the game doesn’t do a great job of letting you know whether or not you’ve improved Kratos to a point where he’s ready to take on whatever lies ahead, especially when it comes to the side missions.
Speaking of side missions, the way that God of War presents its world so gradually might be its greatest achievement. What appears to be a relatively linear action game at first blush turns into a surprisingly open-ended adventure with new realms to explore, interesting characters in need of help, a giant map to traverse and countless secrets hidden around every corner. Even having spent over a dozen hours completing the campaign, there are still plenty of boxes on my quest log that I have yet to check (and even more I have yet to discover).
While God of War has always had RPG elements, the PS4 game gives the player countless opportunities to improve Kratos by finding or crafting new gear and upgrading it with materials discovered throughout the world. Strength, luck, defense, vitality — these attributes will all rise and fall as you upgrade weapons or socket new runes into your armor. The game does an admirable job of easing you into what turns out to be a rather involved system, and within a few hours, I was opening every chest I saw and picking up every item I found to give Kratos an edge.
God of War also features one of the most competent AI companions in recent memory. Atreus will be by your side every step of the way, shooting both enemies and environmental objects with his bow and arrow (which becomes a key tool for solving puzzles as the game goes on). Atreus will help out on his own, but you can also make him fire an arrow at any time by pressing square. Providing he isn’t incapacitated, he will immediately shoot at whatever enemy you’re facing, causing the enemy to stagger, taking off a few slivers of health and providing a distraction.
But it’s the shift in tone and the focus on story that makes God of War not only the most riveting entry in the series’ storied history, but one of the most complete and worthwhile experiences available on the PS4. Kratos has lived a life of violence and debauchery, killing those who deserved to be killed as well as those who didn’t. He’s seen everyone he ever loved or cared about perish, often by his own hand. He knows he can never truly start over.
And yet, he has a son to raise. Though he may not know quite how to show it, he cares deeply for Atreus and will do everything in his power to keep the young boy safe. Watching Kratos, who has been a one-note character for much of his existence, grow and evolve over the course of the game, both as a parent and a “person” (even though, yes, he is still a god), is genuinely stirring. Somehow, the studio has turned Kratos into a sympathetic character without erasing his past. The story stands up on its own, but those who have kept up with the series will really feel its impact.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of God of War, which is why I’m so surprised to walk away from the latest entry saying that this is one of the most essential PS4 exclusives yet. It’s right there with Horizon Zero Dawn and Persona 5, and even though it borrows from games like Uncharted, Darksiders and The Legend of Zelda, Santa Monica Studio has built something singularly unique and surprising in an age when it’s nearly impossible to surprise anyone.