In The Godfather III, Michael Corleone lamented, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in!” But while that’s also the situation that Kratos finds himself in at the beginning of the new God Of War (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Collector’s Edition), the game’s seamless mix of updated and classic mechanics into an epic and effortless third-person action extravaganza won’t have you making any similar complaints.
Set years after the events of 2010’s God Of War III, the eighth God Of War finds old man Kratos living in a remote cabin with his son, Atreus, both of whom are mourning the loss of the kid’s mother. But after being attacked by a mysterious stranger, Kratos and the kid head to the mountain on a previously planned trip to spread mom’s ashes.
In other words, it’s like if the last third of Logan took place in Middle-earth.
In many ways, this God Of War plays the same as previous versions. You’re stick smacking and whacking enemies, destroying them with brutal finishing moves when they’re stunned or weak, while also dodging and blocking to avoid being hit yourself. There’s also a fair bit of exploring, including the usual rock climbing, with plenty of treasure chests, random supplies, and situational puzzles. And it’s all presented in a grand tale full of huge, cinematic moments.
What makes this God Of War different, though, is what you use to do all that smacking and whacking, who you do it with, and the perspective from which it’s done. Instead of his Blades Of Chaos, Kratos begins this quest armed with his Leviathan Axe, which can not only be used for fast or strong melee attacks, but can also be thrown into people’s skulls and chests.
This is no ordinary axe, though. While yes, it can be used to chop down trees, it will also return to Kratos’ hand after he throws it — well, when he commands it to, that is — and can even freeze certain enemies in place, giving him an opportunity to hit them with his fists, feet, or shield.
In addition, the Leviathan Axe can also be used to move switches from afar, or to freeze gears or other simple machines in place. In one early part of the game, for instance, Kratos uses it to suspend a pulley system, thus holding up a large gate so he can get to the next area. These situational problems become increasingly clever and complicated as God Of Warprogresses, with a late in the game one involving thermodynamics being especially crafty.
Further aiding Kratos in the epic quest that is God Of War is his aforementioned son, Atreus. Though unlike most games where you have to babysit someone, the kid isn’t an idiot who wanders off or stupidly gets himself killed (I’m looking at you, dumb dog from Far Cry 5). Instead, he’s actually rather handy, and will not only stay out trouble, usually, but upon your command, he can use his bow and arrow to strike your adversaries, killing some and distracting others so you can take them out. And as the game progresses, and Atreus’ skills and arsenal improve, he becomes a valuable weapon in your quest for survival.
Along with Kratos’ axe and sidekick of a son, the other big change to the series’ tenets is the perspective. While this is still a third-person game, it has a player-controlled camera, as opposed to a fixed one like in every other God Of War game. Further, the camera is lower and closer than before, more in line with such games as The Division, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and, oddly, the Gears Of War games.
The setting of God Of War also gives this a different feel. While it’s still a largely linear affair, the levels are decidedly more open, often with multiple pathways and side passages. There’s also a large and explorable lake, where there’s a ton of side quest to complete, treasure to find, and challenges to undertake. It’s kind of like what Naughty Dog did with that one valley in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, though the lake is larger and has more for you to do.
Not all of the changes to God Of War are additions, however. The game also nixes some of the previous installment’s more annoying aspects, such as the silly need to jam on a button repeatedly whenever you want to open a door or lift a gate. It also excises most of the frustrating and counterintuitive button matching bits previously required to take down larger enemies.
The thing is, while this God Of War does mix new and old mechanics with other old ones that now feel new because they’ve been updated and upgraded, it’s the seamless way they’ve all integrated that makes this work so well. The combat is still fluid, as well as front and center; your enemies are formidable; and the exploration and problem solving is often clever and challenging, physically and mentally. Except now you’re not fighting with the camera, flummoxed by a counterintuitive puzzle, or stuck wondering where you’re supposed to go next.
In fact, the only aspect of God Of War that feels truly different is how it leans more towards ranged combat. Because the battlefields are a more open, and the perspective is a bit lower, you can see your enemies coming from further away. As a result, you may be more inclined to throw your axe than to run over and smack someone; doubly so when Atreus get some rather effective arrows and you can have him thin out the herd while you’re still charging. Which means that, depending on how you play, this can feel even more like the aforementioned third-person shooters, especially Gears Of War.
As much fun as God Of War may be, and it’s a lot, it does have a couple minor issues. For starters, you can’t change the button configuration (well, unless you go into the PlayStation 4’s system settings). Which is a problem if you’ve played a lot of hack & slash games, and thus naturally hit the face buttons to attack, as opposed to the right trigger and bumper that this employs. And while it is something you’ll get used to after a while, I still found myself reverting back to what I expected even deep into the game.
Kratos also has a bad habit of using health pick-ups when he doesn’t need to. Sort of. In God Of War, Kratos replenishes his health by stepping on green gems, some of which he finds just lying around, others when they fall out of the pockets of enemies he’s just killed. But said enemies also drop other power-ups, as well as bits of treasure and crafting resources. The problem being that Kratos will smash a health gem even if he’s at full health. Which, admittedly, is your own damn fault — you’re the one who told him to smash it when he didn’t need to — but that’s small comfort when you’re in the middle of a battle and accidentally smash a green gem, only to need it more a minute later.
It’s also rather odd that he’d do this given how quick Kratos is to snap at Atreus when the kid does something wrong. Which brings up another minor annoyance about God Of War. While Kratos has always been a prick, he’s even more of one here when being brusque with his son. His young son. Y’know, the one who just lost his mommy. And while yes, Kratos is in mourning as well, and there are times when Kratos should be stern with the kid, there are others when Kratos’ curt mentoring makes him less like Yoda and more like the bullying father from The Great Santini.
God Of War also has a problem so common that I basically just cut and paste this paragraph into every relevant review I’ve written for the last five years: some of the type is too small. If you sit at a reasonable distance from your television — y’know, like your mama told you to — you’ll have trouble reading the menus and some of the button prompts, especially the ones that pop up during combat.
Even with these complaints, however, God Of War is still a fantastic third-person action game, one that’s varied, clever, exhilarating, and even oddly touching at times. It’s easily the best game in this series since 2008’s Chains Of Olympus, one of the best games of the year, and though it’s really long — maybe even as long as two Godgames combined — it’s so effortlessly fun that it’ll easily pull you back in for a second, and maybe even a third or fourth, trip to the mountain.