Review: God of War
In hindsight, the opening moments of God of War feel like a promise.
On the screen, a bearded man drops to his knees and presses his hand to the side of a tree. Beneath his calloused fingers, a handprint glows in golden filigree. We’re seconds into the story, and already we have burning questions. We know, somehow, that the answers - when they come - will leave us changed.
This is the promise. It was, in my estimation, a promise kept.
God of War is, without a doubt, one of the finest games I have ever played. From its unforgettable, emotional, and mysterious opening minutes, to its utterly jaw-dropping conclusion some 30 hours later, the tale of Atreus and his father, Kratos, proves in equal parts epic and intimate, with barely any missteps to speak of.
Between a story as multilayered and stuffed with secrets as a Chinese puzzle box, one of the most beautifully rendered game worlds I’ve ever seen, an unforgettable cast of complex and impeccably acted characters, and one of the greatest game scores ever put to screen (written by Bear McCreary, who gave us the music for Battlestar Galactica), God of War is a masterclass across the board - a high water mark in character-driven storytelling, lore oriented game design, and furiously whacking things with an axe.
“I’m sorry,” Atreus pleads with his father, early on in the game.
“Do not be sorry,” Kratos responds, in a voice as cold as a Norse winter. “Be better.”
But before we go any further, let’s take a step back. Much like God of War’s story, a review such as this one is defanged unless it’s set in the right context. God of War is hardly a new franchise. The first game released in 2005 to critical acclaim, giving birth to an anti-hero and subsequent franchise that proved as beloved as it was controversial. The Kratos of the old God of War games was, in a nutshell, toxic masculinity incarnate. He was a walking ash-colored rage machine, capable only of hyper-violent murder, casual threesomes, and creatively obliterating the world with his feet, fists, and the infamous Blades of Chaos.
Spoiler alert: Over the course of the original games, Kratos kills...well, pretty much everyone. He’s even tricked into killing his wife and daughter, and is cursed by having their ashes bonded to his skin, resulting in its famous pallorous hue, and his nickname “The Ghost of Sparta”. What follows is Kratos’ three-game quest for revenge, culminating in him murdering the hell out of the entire Greek pantheon, Zeus and Athena included.
If it sounds like Kratos wasn’t a very good guy, it’s because he wasn’t. (He once threw an innocent woman into a set of turning gears just to buy himself some time.) One of God of War’s greatest achievements, however, is how the story handles this. What director Cory Barlog and his team of writers accomplished with Kratos is nothing short of a miracle. They took one of the most two dimensional, arguably awful characters in video gaming history - a character, we should point out, who was historically identified as “everything wrong with video games” - and redeemed him. What’s more is that this transformation never feels phony, or hollow. It feels earned.
In a sentence: Kratos, the God of War, has gone from an example of what not to be as a man to an example of what to strive for. When I put in this disc, I was prepared to have a great time fighting Draugr. What I was utterly unprepared for, however, was how many lessons I would learn about the identity of manhood, the value of healthy masculinity, and the importance of fatherhood.
Yet this is exactly what happened over the course of this journey, which sees a young and impetuous Atreus struggle to know his father, and a bearded and worn down Kratos struggle to know his son. The premise of the story is simple and intimate: Faye, the mother/wife, is dead. Her dying wish is that her ashes be spread from the highest peak. God of War is, at the end of everything else, the story of that journey. Don’t be fooled, however. This game is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. To say anything more, however, would be blasphemy.
“It’s not what you think,” I always tell people, frustrated I can’t say more. “It’s not what you think.”
And it isn’t. It isn’t what they think. I know this, because one of the things I loved most about this game was the totality with which its creators acknowledged, toyed with, and then dismantled every single one of my expectations.
A young, world-weary kid and a grizzled father figure? Surely, this is The Last of Us with Vikings. An older, grizzled Kratos who has a hard time connecting to his family? Surely, they will bond over the course of the game, and there will be one moment when their love for one another is laid bare. Norse gods? Surely, Thor and Kratos are going to punch it out. A story built around a father and a son? Surely, one of them is going to die - and I’m gonna cry.
I will neither confirm nor deny those predictions. All I will say is: it’s not what you think.
Great art can be judged by how it leaves you. Sad, happy, exhilarated or pensive, the best stories leave you changed. When Kratos and Atreus finally left me, they left me a better person.
This is why I say God of War is not a game - it is a gift. To its creators at Sony Santa Monica Studio, I am deeply grateful. A masterpiece of the highest order.
Sights & Sounds: 2+
General Effect: 2+
A masterpiece of the highest order. 10+/10
You Might Like God of War if you Liked:
Bioshock (Irrational Games)
The Last of Us (Naughty Dog)
The Mass Effect Trilogy (Bioware)
The Dragon Age Franchise (Bioware)
Tomb Raider (Square Enix)
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
The Lord of the rings by JRR TOLKIEN
All images are screenshots taken by Ries during his play through. No copyright infringement is intended.
-A & R, Intercoastals