A Reboot, I Guess
From a game design perspective, God of War (2018) knocks it out of the park. The beautifully ornate set-pieces, challenging yet rewarding gameplay, clear progression system, and intriguing dungeon/temple design make it one of the most engrossing experiences of the modern console generation. Yet while the elements that make up its story are touching, the way the emotional story beats hit the player largely contradicts the actual gameplay of the experience, making the whole game feel worse than the sum of its parts. Most pieces of the experience — including the plot and characters — are done well individually (though there are certainly problem areas, especially around the characterization of Freya). Yet the title as a whole lacks cohesion, as the very actions you take in the game seem to go against how it wants you to feel about the themes presented by its characters.
The latest from developer SIE Santa Monica Studio ambitiously attempts to subvert traditional notions of power fantasies and the toxic masculinity that often defines them. While it has understandably been praised and rewarded for trying to move the series in a new direction, it misses the mark, as the core concept of the gameplay mirrors that of the game’s predecessors. It tells the story of Kratos bringing his son, Atreus, on a quest to spread the ashes of his deceased wife Faye (Atreus’ mother), which is surely a more noble endeavor than going on a deranged rampage to literally kill other gods, as was the case in the original God of War titles. What follows is an odyssey of growth, both in terms of Kratos’ character arc and his relationship with his son, which begins as cold and distant and ends as somewhat warmer and closer. For a series steeped in cartoony tough-guy stereotypes, this game tries to show us a more humanizing side of Kratos — one that focuses on how he wishes to better himself for the good of his son.
Still, 2018’s God of War tells the player with its words, quite literally, that “things are different now,” but most of what the player actually does now is the same as it was before; you climb mountains, solve easy puzzles, and brutally destroy every enemy in your path. Despite this, the game wants you to be moved by what happens in between such theatrical splatfests: the occasional tender moments between Kratos and Atreus, Kratos’ development from emotionally absent father to proud dad, and the Ghost of Sparta’s struggles with guilt and shame about the actions of his past life.
While these moments are touching when experienced in a vacuum, God of War overall fails to fully grasp and deal with the complicated motifs it raises. Kratos frequently mentions how much he wants to protect his son from the dangers of the world (as well as his own sordid past), yet nearly every action the player can (and must) take to progress through the story is marked by the same brutality and force that defined earlier entries in the franchise. The bloody finishing move animations are back, along with a deadly new axe, a companion (Atreus) to fire arrows and hassle opponents, and dozens of new powers and abilities meant to make killing more fun, flashy, and efficient. The player still mashes buttons to make Kratos lift impossibly large objects, most puzzles still involve the thrusting or hurling of a powerful weapon, and even actions as simple as opening a treasure chest appear laborious, as Kratos either shoves the lid off angrily or literally punches through it to get what he wants. SIE Santa Monica tried to transform Kratos from a bloodthirsty, god-killing badass into a complicated and sympathetic character, but nothing about the actual gameplay mechanics indicates he’s changed at all.
“Similar” Isn’t “Bad”
All that said, God of War succeeds in more areas than it fails. The battles are a blast to play, and the ability to chuck your Leviathan axe at opponents and call it back to your hand with the press of a button feels sublime. Though the story’s implementation is spotty, the relationship between Kratos and Atreus as well as the overall purpose of their journey gives each enemy encounter and puzzle some added weight, and many of the conversations between Kratos and Atreus (as well as Atreus and the head of Norse deity Mimir) bring additional color to an already vibrant and fascinating overworld. As much as I felt like the game wasn’t explicitly saying anything especially deep, I felt compelled to see the main story through to the end, and was mostly satisfied with how my experience ended (though I didn’t bother with really any of the side content, as it all just seemed like combat encounters without the gravity of the main plot).
Still, as much as I commend any studio trying to move forward in a new direction with a franchise, it doesn’t make sense to me to re-imagine a character or IP without fully committing to a larger set of new ideas. Sure, the over-the-shoulder mechanics, RPG elements, and new mythological background differentiate the latest God of War from its predecessors, but you can’t just stick a new story (and new child) in there and expect everything to feel different. What you actually do in God of War is largely an updated version of a previously solidified idea, even if the purpose of each action feels new. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with updating and re-releasing a more polished and modern version of an old game, as long as you’re honest about what the game actually is.
I’ve written before about how I appreciate how games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 and Devil May Cry 5 tell the absurd, campy stories that mix nicely with over-the-top action. At the same time, I’m glad God of War moved away from the flashy but cringeworthy badassery of older titles in the franchise in favor of a more humanizing and relatable tale (though, admittedly, I can’t really relate to Kratos or Atreus, as I’m not a parent and have always had a very warm and loving relationship with my own father). Another bloodthirsty voyage of revenge would have felt stale, and having someone for Kratos to talk to (even if the boy does most of the talking) makes basic traversal a more engaging affair.
God of War is a fun and enthralling experience, but it still feels like a missed opportunity, as even just a couple of moments in-game for Kratos to walk away from a fight or show some genuine emotion besides anger and sadness could have made most story beats land as powerfully as a swing of the god’s axe. The game, however, does not afford Kratos many chances to demonstrate through gameplay that he’s truly a new man, and therefore I’m hard-pressed to view God of War as a truly new game.