One Game at a Time: God of War (2018) - Updated August 25
Putting Octopath Traveler on the shelf for a bit as the repetition is getting to me. I wanted to dive into God of War before the flood of fall releases. I'm hoping to blitz through it this week while my girlfriend is out of town, then turn my attention to my backlog (AC: Origins, Horizon, Evil Within 2) before Spider-Man hits on Sept. 7.
We'll see how that goes.
But, for now: God of War. This game doesn't need much of an introduction: videos of game director Cory Barlog weeping at the review scores (Which is actually a great metaphor for the game's main theme, but I'll get to that) popped up once it was clear this was going to be one of the PS4's biggest games of the year and one of the better games of 2018 in general. I've always had a passing appreciation of the franchise. Although I bought a PS3 late in the cycle, I never dove too far into the series other than playing it at friends' houses. The series main hook of "Major asshole kills everyone" shouldn't work as well as it does, but the consistently high-quality gameplay and incredible spectacle elevated its heavy metal album cover premise.
It got me thinking about the Sony/Microsoft argument. Sony's exclusives are of a vastly superior quality to Microsoft's, judging by review scores, though they tend to be 3rd person character action games, like Horizon, Uncharted, and now God of War. While both companies have tried to 'mature' their franchises recently: Halo 4 and 5 attempted to inject a pathos and emotional heart into Master Chief and I guess Gears of War is trying to be a family story? But both of these efforts fell flat. It's very similar to the Marvel/DC cinematic schism: Sony's putting a lot of money and care into giving creators a lot of freedom to take their time, make the games they want, and take risks in their storytelling. Microsoft seems to just be throwing buzzwords like "gritty" and "emotional" at stuff and seeing what sticks.
So God of War hits and it immediately reminds me of Horizon, in its ancient folklore feel, its wintery deciduous locale, and its strong lead character. I was really surprised that this isn't a reboot: you're playing the same Kratos, the Spartan warrior turned God of War, who impaled Zeus and killed all the Olympian gods. He's got the same ashen skin, the scar through his eye, the hideous pucked gash where Zeus impaled him at the beginning of the second game. I'm not up on my lore, so I don't know if GOW3 ended with Kratos going into exile, but in exile he is: your default armor is all "...of the exile" or "exile's ..." there is even an early wink at his forearms, which have been covered in bandages and whose info panel in the inventory reads "...hide a dark secret."
For the size of Kratos and how close in the camera is, similar to Resident Evil 4's claustrophobic OTS angle, I was surprised how fluid Krato's movement is. I expected him to handle a bit heavier but he's quite nimble. He's not as loose as Kiryu/Majima from Yakuza 0 but he's not as deliberate as Senua, from Hellblade. Hellblade is another game that I keep thinking of while playing God of War. There are similar themes of guilt and redemption, and the dark fantasy twisting of Norse mythology is close as well, though God of War is a lot more of a video game than Hellblade: you collect health gems and upgrade your armour and weapons and unlock new skills.
The combat is fantastic and gets steadily more complicated as you go, unlocking new abilities for you and your son, Atreus. All the options can be overwhelming in busy fights, but the game strikes a great balance between being an unstoppable killing machine and running into brick walls of stronger enemies.
Atreus is not just a useful tool in combat. He is maybe the best character representation of a game's theme I've ever seen. He takes the role of Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite and builds on it. He's a kid: at times annoying, inquisitive, charming, funny, and moody. He's also got to spend all his time with Kratos, probably the saltiest motherfucker in video games, and their dynamic is incredibly well written and performed.
I have no idea how far in the story I am, but I've almost filled out the skill tree and I've hit an obviously major milestone in the story. However, there is still a ton to do and see, so I'm expecting another curveball to be thrown at me. The game has already introduced an entirely new combat mechanic during an incredibly effective emotional moment which proved I was maybe a bigger fan of this series than I thought I was.
Update: The End and New Game +
No surprise, but God of War stays as strong through its final few hours as it is in its first. This is one of the very few games that I have bothered to chase down all the collectibles and minor quests. (The only game I've ever 100%ed is South Park: The Stick of Truth.) While I didn't actually 100% God of War, because killing all of those ravens isn't worth my time and I'm not interested in grinding through the Rogue-like realm of Nifelheim, I came very close.
The story wraps up very nicely and the final twist is great mostly because it was staring you in the face the whole time. I won't spoil anything but I will lay it out for you as clearly as the game does from the get-go: the antagonist is Baldur, who is a God, and Kratos has a bit of habit of killing Gods, and if you know anything about Norse mythology you know what happens when someone kills Baldur. There is some play with time right at the end that is handled really nicely.
This new GoW does the same "all the Gods are assholes" dance as the previous ones, but the storytelling has matured so much. While the game stops short of introducing the two major players of Norse mythology, Odin and Thor, despite giving Mimir a ton of dialogue building them up as murderous, ambitious psychos, this is clearly the set-up for a new series. The ending-ending, triggered after you walk all the way back to your humble house and go to sleep, sets up the next installment perfectly.
So last week they introduced a New Game Plus mode, which is usually not my bag as I actually like being under-powered at the beginning and getting stronger as I go, and I got my fill of the fully powered combat system by closing all the Rifts, completing the Muspelheim trials, and beating all the Valkyries before the ending. New Game Plus does add some new items to find and craft for both Kratos and Atreus, but I played the prologue and was satisfied. Blitzing the game in a week was plenty and, though I expect I'll play it again someday, that won't be for a while.
I actually wish I had held off on the Valkyries until the story was over because the final boss of the main story is a cakewalk compared to the Valkyrie Queen, who is one of the toughest bosses I've ever fought in a game like this. I had serious flashbacks to fighting Alma in Ninja Gaiden, my very first "hard game."
Anyway, yeah, God of War is spectacular and well worth a purchase if you have a PS4. With Red Dead Redemption 2 looming on the horizon it's a bit early to call this a definite Game of the Year, but Rockstar is going to have to step up their storytelling big time if they hope to grab me the way this journey did and, based on their previous efforts, I'm not optimistic. Sitting here at the end of August and looking ahead, I can't see anything topping God of War's story before the end of the year, not just in terms of the quality of the writing and acting, but in how the storytelling synergizes with the gameplay, the world building, and the exploration. I've written a lot about 40+ hour video games having pacing problems and God of War comes closest to addressing or even negating them. That may be a side effect of me playing it exclusively for ten days, but even the fact that I was happy to do so speaks volumes.