There’s a scene in God of War where Kratos decapitates someone to free them from a magical cage within the mangled roots of a tree. The original games would have relished in the act, pulling the camera close for each grisly axe swing, zooming in as the tendons snap back like stretched elastic bands. In God of War 2018, the camera pans away instead, and the act itself takes just one clean cut.
The pantheon-punching God of War series has always been as subtle as a demigod’s boot to the face, but this sequel has more class, more confidence than ever. It allows things to go unseen or unsaid.
In one early cutscene, Kratos’s wrist bandages untangle. He stares down at the dangling cloth as his hand instinctively tries to catch some invisible hilt, grasping at nothing. There’s no flashback to explain what he is thinking - everything you need to know is right there in his face: he has left the Ghost of Sparta, and the Blades of Chaos, behind.
We join Kratos in the frozen, craggy land of Norse mythology, a place ruled over by deities Odin and Thor. He did not come here to carve up the gods, however. No. He came here to start a new life - a new life as a man.
The adventure begins with the funeral of Kratos’s wife, shortly before he and his son, Atreus, take a journey to the tallest peak in all the realms to scatter her ashes. Rather than kicking off with a massive boss fight - though you punch someone through a mountain within an hour - God of War 2018 begins with a slow walk.
This is a story about the sins of the father - a central theme wrapped around the experience like a flaming chain and mirrored in the characters you meet. God of War has always been thematically consistent, but rage is not the sole driving force here.
Kratos is still a sullen slaphead whose brain is probably made of a bicep (he punches certain chests - treasure chests, not pectorals - open for Christ’s sake). He is also still a brutally efficient murderer who moisturises his ashen skin with the blood of his foes. Kratos is just more world-weary, mindful of the consequences of his Greek revenge spree, and now he has something to lose.
"The pantheon-punching God of War series has always been as subtle as a demigod’s boot to the face, but this sequel has more class, more confidence than ever."
Just as there’s a steadfast commitment to its themes, God of War is unmoving in its style. It is filmed in a single shot, the camera dancing in and out of the action with no visible loading between areas. There is a trade-off - it means that you can never see what is happening off-screen - but it all comes together to make the journey feel more personal. You have to admire Sony Santa Monica’s devotion to such a novel artistic choice.
During cutscenes that seamlessly transition between exploration and combat, the camera dollies out or becomes a drone that hovers around the action, swooping in and following the carnage. When you are in control, the camera hugs Kratos’s back, allowing you to look around freely - unlike in the older games where fixed camera angles amped up the drama of your grandiose surroundings, often reducing Kratos to a spec against the environment. If anything, the fact you have to angle the camera up to take in some of the game’s huge creatures and ornate contraptions makes everything seem grander still.
Kicking a dragon in the face is just best experienced up-close, you know? As for the violence itself, combat is comfortably familiar despite the change of perspective. You have a light and heavy attack - though now they are on R1 and R2 - and you can mix them together to create combos, or pause between attacks to switch stances and perform different strikes, once unlocked. Stagger an enemy and you can perform a grisly and satisfying execution with R3. For incoming attacks, you can dodge, guard, or - with the right timing - parry. Fill up your rage meter and you go into a fury and pound your enemies to a pulp while recovering health with successful strikes.
The main difference is your toolkit. Your primary weapon (others come later) is an ice axe capable of freezing enemies or mechanisms in place. Squeeze L2 and it functions like a gun in a third-person shooter, allowing you to fling it at speed and bury it into an enemy’s face or a part of the environment - this is useful in both combat and puzzles.
When the axe is out of your hands, you fight with your fists, feet, and a shield. Tap triangle at any time and the axe whizzes through the air like Thor’s hammer, hitting any enemies it passes through on its return to your hand where it lands with a lovely clunk. Yes, it is as cool as it sounds. No, it never gets old.
"Sitting alongside the snappy and at times genuinely funny dialogue are the ridiculous, bombastic set-pieces you expect from a God of War game. "
Atreus also helps out in combat, grabbing enemies by the neck and holding them in place, loosing volleys of arrows at your command, or summoning spectral animals to trample on your foes. Combat isn’t as deep as some action games, but there’s a real heft to every attack as Kratos spins like a hurricane that just swept through a knife shop, and new abilities unlock at a rapid rate.
As well as pulling his weight in battles, Atreus acts as a cipher for the player’s curiosity. He has spent his entire life squirrelled away in a shack in the woods, and now he’s seeing the land of Norse mythology with fresh eyes, just as you are. As you row between islands or explore on foot, the father and son pair chat (well, Kratos grunts) about your goals. Atreus is happy to go off and explore, while Kratos is concerned only with your quest and making sure Atreus doesn’t develop his father’s temper and go all dad-stabby.
Other than one clumsy bit of character development in the final third, the writing is excellent. Atreus is in awe of his father, a burly baldy who can flip an entire temple upside down with his hands, while Kratos himself treats Atreus as a student, rather than a son. Their relationship matures over the 20-odd hours the main story takes to complete, and both are different people by the time the credits roll. The same goes for the supporting cast, who are trying to reconcile their own family bonds.
Sitting alongside the snappy and at times genuinely funny dialogue are the ridiculous, bombastic set-pieces you expect from a God of War game. I won’t spoil them, but there are moments here that rival God of War 3’s opening scene, only now they have something to contrast against - the moments of downtime make these wonderfully choreographed action sequences and environmental oddities really stand out.
God of War comes with all the trappings of a video game released in 2018, letting you loose into a small open-world, filling it with sidequests, and layering it in light RPG elements, but it’s such a beautiful, awe-inspiring landscape that even simply exploring is enjoyable. Sony Santa Monica makes great use of the space, too, opening up new areas with dropping water levels, or allowing you to discover looping shortcuts, so there always feels like there is something new to discover when you want a distraction from your main quest.
Partway through the game, you get access to a teleporting machine that allows you to access other realms, opening up the world even more. My only real criticism is how that contraption promises more than it delivers. A handful of the realms are locked throughout - presumably put aside for DLC - while two of them are essentially fighting arenas, distractions where you can battle to grab legendary loot.
Only two of the other realms contain a ‘proper’ new landscape to explore. Still, it’s a credit to the quality of what is there that I didn’t want to leave its world after the credits rolled and instantly headed back into the world to punch werewolves again.
God of War has grown up. It is violent, but it’s not excessive. It is angry, but there is something to contrast it against. There is a flash of nipple, but it’s Kratos’s. Kratos is older, and he feels remorse for his past, but it feels like Sony Santa Monica also wants to atone. If that was God of War’s goal, the studio deserves a standing ovation. This isn’t only the best God of War game, it’s one of the best games of the current generation.