The God of War reboot is a bizarre experience. Sony took the edgiest franchise this side of Mortal Kombat and decided to question its morality. The necessity of this was questionable; the finale for the original trilogy hadn’t even been out a decade. Culture is constantly changing, certainly, but many of us already read the first three games as a nightmarish descent into the mind of an enraged madman. Few of us needed to see Kratos with a son to realize his toxic influence.
Not only did the presentation change, but everything from the combat to the level design was completely overhauled. Gone are Kratos’s chained blades, replaced by an axe. The camera is scooted in close like every other modern Sony action-adventure game. An average playthrough will take about as long as the original trilogy combined, as it has moved from a straightforward action series to a semi-open world epic. In fact, this game feels singlehandedly designed to upset fans of the older games.
Somehow, all of this worked. The further you progress, the more and more you realize how natural all these changes are in the creation of a modern God of War. Sony could have easily made this a new property, but so much of the experience is shaped by the juxtaposition between old and new; to know the violence in Kratos’s heart and see him hold back to be a better role model defines this game.
God of War is all about a sense of scale; from the sprawling Lake of Nine which acts as a central hub area to the mountains you must climb to the other realms, this game feels overwhelmingly big. Few games have ever looked this good, but most of these locations go beyond pretty visuals to include clever puzzles which must be navigated. While the previous games already had Kratos facing off against the gods, this wonderful level design even better encapsulates the feeling of him against the world.
It takes some time to adjust to the combat. Lifting controls typically used in third-person shooters was an odd choice for a melee-based action game, but Kratos will be throwing his ax enough to make it necessary. This game was clearly built around the scheme, and what starts as frustration at losing track of enemies as they flank you soon becomes accepted as part of the challenge. Most traditional action games give you a free-flowing camera to keep your eye on everything at once – God of War’s limited camera brings you closer to Kratos’s level, meaning you must work to give yourself a better position.
The bond between Kratos and Atreus is up there with the likes of Ellie/Joel and Lee/Clementine. Kratos’s seething and strict demeanor is perfectly juxtaposed against Atreus’s jovial and curious personality; both of these characters will get on your nerves by design. Kratos plays an over-the-top straight man in this bizarre world, and it’s good to have one character in a position to ask him to lighten up a little; anyone else would get an ax through their skull.
As video games are starting to be taken more and more seriously as an art form, it seems logical that the major studios would shy away from or even turn apologetic for their questionable pasts. The original God of War was egregious even in its own time. The original games still have their place and are great in their own ways, but the 2018 reboot stripped away the juvenile edginess and built upon what really makes the series work – this is an action-packed journey into the land of ancient gods.