Despite a move to another realm filled with a new pantheon of gods, a behind-the-shoulder camera view, a dope ax and the addition of a son, God of War in 2018 is pretty much the God of War you know and love. Even its reliance on the pastiche of other game mechanics being stitched together to form its gameplay is given a modern reboot with a RPG-ish upgrade elements. Who knew that Kratos would need armor and a skill tree coupled with a father/son journey to become relevant again?
All that aside, God of War really relies on the ability for you to sympathize with Kratos and Atreus as they go on an epic journey to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother Faye. The father/son foundation ties in to other narrative elements of the various paternal/child bonds and the dichotomy found throughout the games run-time. Few pantheons can really exploit this fucked up familial milieu better than the Norse mythology, and though there is a fear of it feeling “played out” these days, does a fairly decent job of providing color and an interesting new setting for Kratos to stomp around in and maim it’s denizens in.
The over-the-shoulder, “never cutting away from Kratos” camera is the apex of what director Cory Barlog’s vision for this new God of War and this is the main point of contention I have with the game. The entirety of God of War feels as though it is made up of compromises and concessions to Barlog’s vision for the game in regards to this camera system, regardless of how much it affected game play or not. The combat being chief among them.
In what feels like a modern heist of the Arkham series, the over-the-shoulder camera fits in nicely with the new look vibes of God of War, and isn’t much of a problem as you explore the environments, solves puzzles and the like. That is until you begin to realize that you kind of have to look everywhere as there are things hidden in the ceiling or just out of view of the camera, as it seems the default is persistently pointed downwards, presumably to emulate Kratos’ eye line. Several times early on in the game, I’d miss puzzle elements or hanging items because the camera failed to give me an operative view of the environment.
Unlike the Arkham series, the camera stays fixed up Kratos’ ass and it becomes nigh impossible to get a good read on the area when you’re in combat. It what feels like a concession, little guide arrows pop up behind Kratos and change color depending on closeness and imminence of attack. Further, Atreus (and later on disembodied head Mimir) will call out enemy positions. This is more annoying than helpful, as often, Kratos is swarmed in combatants and being told you have enemies coming up on your right flank as you’re in the midst of a crowd controlling combo serves no real purpose in that moment and you take needless damage.
And look, I don’t mind that the enemies you fight don’t follow Kung Fu movie rules and wait their turn for you to beat they ass, I just wanted the camera to pull back from Kratos a bit, so I could position him better. The camera being so close to the action allows for that classic visceral combat that God of War is known for and it adds that intimacy that makes some of the better kills stand out, but with the sparse bench of enemy types in this game, it wanes rather quickly and it’d be nice to just have the camera pull back.
The camera is also a hindrance in the boss fight with a giant dragon about halfway through the game. The camera tilts upward to offer a better vantage in the battle, but then you can’t see when items like health fall the ground. Even the Resident Evil 4 style beacons shooting up off them doesn’t really help in navigating their relation to Kratos and I found myself just massing the “O” button stomping around in the vain hopes of getting some much-needed health.
The camera issues persist even in the light “open-world” exploration elements, where I had to really work the right stick to navigate the hub world or find pertinent caves and streams that would take me to the next area. I haven’t had this much issue with a video games camera in nigh on a decade, so it’s nice to see that come back around in the 2018.
While the story of God of War focuses on Kratos and Atreus as they strengthen their tenuous familial bond throughout the journey, fathers and mothers and their various progeny seems to make up the bulk of the surrounding narrative as well. With the primary antagonist Baldur being the son of Freya and the late game revelation of their strained relationship. The other set of antagonists, Magni and Modi, are the shitheaded sons of Thor that seem to be doing the bidding of Baldur. All the way to Odin, the “all father” being a more understated role in all of this, but still having his presence loom large over the game proper.
With all of the family drama teeming in the narrative, sadly the vast majority of it happens in the deep margins of the story, or in the case of Freya and Baldur, the last few moments of the game. It loses its effect in the face of what is supposed to be the main draw of the father and son journey. Nevertheless, this means that you have to really be on board with dad Kratos and want him to become a good father to Atreus, even though he is carrying the supposed heavy burden of his past, which is the meta-narrative if you’ve been a longtime fan of the God of War series.
Moreover, while yes this is a soft reboot of the franchise, seemingly giving Kratos a new pantheon of gods to kick in, it’s basically God of War 4, trappings and all. It does little to reestablish the franchise in a meaningful way, preferring to continue the copying of elements from others games and cramming them all in one God of War flavored place. Adding light role-playing elements, leveling up Kratos, picking up various colors of loot and padding out the story with side quests could be considered new and fresh if you have never played anything but God of War, which is silly. Therefore, it stands to reason that the hook of the Kratos/Atreus story is where the game is going to hang its hat.
What if you don’t cotton to it though? Outside of a couple of choice “set piece” scenes, the story of God of War is one you’ve seen time and again, though this time with a character many players are familiar with his particular baggage. This meta layer is nodded to several times and does make the narrative more worthwhile if you are a fan of the series.
While great care was taken to make Atreus a character you relate with and become fond of, I found several times in the story some level of dissonance pop up with his characterization. This being a video game, it’s bound to happen as characters that are designed to be helpful can’t shut down completely as that would rob you of the precious gameplay benefits. But it was a bit jarring in the back half of the game when he becomes an asshole for a couple of hours, then gets set straight by Kratos and is then back to his cheery helpful self again as if that bit of character growth didn’t stick or something?
This is where the other point of contention arises in the games pacing issues in the last third of the game.
It’s as if the games developers really wanted to nail down the father/son narrative as a foundational element in the beginning, even if it made the late game story bits turn out a bit shallow. Maybe the back end of the game is where I should’ve focused on the side quest sojourn instead of in the early to middle. Especially seeing that Kratos doesn’t unlock his entire skill set, and the ability to fast travel anywhere, until the last third of the game.
Considering that I pretty much wrapped up the majority of side quests, I made a beeline from the end of act two to the end of the game. This is the point where the story’s pacing issues really bore fruit, as Atreus goes through his petulant phase, there’s two set piece level brawl boss fights with Baldur, a return to a couple of previously visited areas and then the endgame. None of it has nearly the impact that it should have, and it feels largely underdeveloped, as if the developers just ran out of time to really flesh it out. Which is odd considering that God of War isn’t a short game by any stretch of the imagination.
This under baked notion also pops up in the other realms Kratos and Atreus visit throughout the game. With two of the five realms being overblown combat arenas and Jotunheim just being a linear path to the top of a mountain set piece for end of the game narrative business. While the main thrust of the campaign takes place in Midgard, and it is indeed chock full of places to explore and things to do, it would’ve been nice if all the realms visited in the game had more going on in them aside from looking very pretty.
If you find the notion of Kratos “redeeming’ himself by bonding with his son, coming to grips with how much of an asshole he was in the past and trying to guide Atreus down a better path kind of vanilla and uninteresting, then God of War kind of leaves you hanging, as Balrog’s vision has no room for anything but slavish adoration for the narrative arc of the Kratos and Atreus adventure. In this the game retains its place in the God of War series as being full of set piece boss fights, visceral combat and being a showpiece for the PlayStation 4 console.