Expected in Valhalla: A review of God of War (2018)

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Kratos, the Greek anti-hero’s seventh overall adventure is either one of the worst or best father-son bonding experiences ever. It’s all a matter of perspective. For original God of War purists, God of War 4 or 2018 seems like too much of a shift in gameplay priorities and a collection of game tropes that other titles have already done. Indeed, the new GOW has elements of fellow Sony title The Last of Us, as well as aspects of Dark Souls, Uncharted and other RPG style games. The original six games in the series were hack n’ slash streamlined journeys through the Greek mythology, where from an excellently positioned fixed camera perspective, Kratos would slice and dice his way through thousands of enemies, opening chests and solving puzzles along the way to some vengeful end. It worked wonders for most of the games, making Kratos truly one of the PlayStation Gods.

Times change and so has the Spartan legend. He’s ventured into the Norse realms, has a son named Atreus and his new quest is more open ended than ever. What’s important to remember is that enough of the gameplay identity of the series is alive and well and has been combined with some of modern game’s tenets wisely to make a new experience that is quite familiar but not tiring. Who better than a God to be a jack of all trades and master of all?

Kratos hates who he is. Not just for the terrible things he did back in his Greek years, but for who he is naturally: a God. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, he has spent his classic line up of games tearing down the Greek Pantheon out of rage and revenge for ills against him and he did not find the satisfaction he so desperately needed. Regret was his reward. So now in a new yet very ancient world in the North, he finds love again in a Norse woman named Faye and they have a son, the aforementioned Atreus. One day Faye dies and Kratos and son give her a funeral and set out on a quest to the highest mountaintop in all the realms, to spread her ashes, her last wish.

It’s a touching way to cap off a new era for the series, and Kratos never truly becomes once more the violently angry and constipated figure he once was. He knows better to rein it in, make it a special gameplay related weapon, in the form of “Spartan Rage”. He wants to teach his son to be a great warrior and survivor, like him. He is Spartan after all. But he doesn’t want his son to be him in any other way, including the fact that his son is also a God too.

As the father and son travel not just across Earth (Midgard) but other realms in the Norse mythology in the course of their journey, they come to terms with flaws that both have and often stubbornly refuse to face until there is no choice. Many of the obstacles that prevent them from reaching that highest summit are due to the hang-ups they both have. Kratos won’t come clean with his sordid history, and Atreus remains resentful of his dad spending most of his time away from him when his mother was alive.

One thing the two easily learn from one another are their skills in combat. God of War wastes little time in showing how brutal a game it can be for those who don’t learn the ropes quickly. Whether it be tough enemies with stronger levels than you littered throughout the semi-open world or some particularly frustrating albeit optional boss fights, God of War demands you pay attention and learn. Despite my earlier comparison, this is by no means a Dark Souls game, but it does take cues from the series in a good way, such as clear yet fast enemy tells and how and where you should strike.

Only in the optional Valkyrie fights can God of War become truly grueling, but thanks to some special locations in the game to grind for better armor and equipment as well as a tremendous amount of worthwhile side content to digest, even that is not so bad in retrospect.

The flip side is that by completing the Valkyries before the end game, it can make the rest of the game going forward a cake walk. But it’s an easy mode that does feel earned. In keeping some of the original series intact, the game’s weapons follow either a “light” or “heavy” attack prompt, which can be bolstered through combos from both unlocking “runic” abilities to enhance your weapons like the default Leviathan Axe or the archery talents of your son. All of these are upgradable to make your chances and your choices more visceral as you progress. Despite the great length of the game, the combat never becomes a chore,especially if you delve into the side content that also allows you to explore the twisted yet visually faithful representation of the Poetic Edda.

Outside of the main story, you’ll help out a duo of estranged Dwarven brothers who act as your vendors and blacksmiths. They give you access to new areas to find new crafting components or new gear altogether. You also help free chained dragons from captivity, aid drifting spirits with errands and also solve puzzles to find new lore and treasure. The loops of gameplay rarely get repetitive if only because you know it actually does add up in making Kratos and Atreus more capable of making the journey. It doesn’t hurt that Kratos’ sardonic attitude about side content in comparison to his son’s bright eyed intrigue in said content makes it almost seem like a meta wink towards those same gamers who may feel tired of that in-game concept. The best parts of the game in and off the beaten path reflect Kratos subdued tone and how it still fits the character trying to be better and accommodating to his son, within reason.

The overall narrative is solid and occasionally powerful, which works better for myself since I find Norse mythology more interesting than Greek mythology anyway. While I still prefer the surrogate father-daughter dynamic of Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us, Kratos’ dynamic with his son is less a copycat from a fellow Sony franchise and more a natural progression of who Kratos is.

When it comes to the treatment of the Norse figures in God of War (2018), some may be troubled by their less than flattering depiction. Marvel comics and film versions of the Norse mythology may not be exactly accurate to the real thing, but they do make us think of Odin, Thor and the rest in a positive light. Not so here, as Odin is a knowledge and power hungry paranoid megalomaniac who will do any awful thing to prevent his death in Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. He and his son Thor, both of which remain unseen but very much mentioned are cruel and murderous and people, especially mortals, worship them out of fear or are outright resistant to them. They’re are some good gods, much to Kratos’s skeptical disbelief, like Mimir, who becomes a traveling companion with the protagonist duo for spoilerific reasons. There’s also Freya, Njord and Tyr, the last of which his legacy becomes a critical plot aspect. It’s a tale of redemption, fighting against prophecy and challenging preconceptions. It all works best to make the possibilities of the future of the God of War series seem positively divine.

God of War is a near perfect example of a triple A, platform exclusive game done right, also in how to best do a soft reboot in the process. Despite the game’s themes of fate and prophecy, God of War’s horizons as as a series are gratefully uncertain and I would love to see how the recovering dick of an anti-hero like Kratos continues his father-hood. Not only is there more of the nine realms left to see, there are also signs of journeys into other mythical realms that the game teases, and that alone is worth further commitment to the life and times of the mightiest Spartan of all.

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