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God of War review: an incredible reimagining of a PlayStation icon

This isn’t the Kratos you remember

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The new God of War game does something I thought was impossible: it made me care about Kratos.

Over the original God of War trilogy and a multitude of spinoffs, the series’ lead character was little more than a caricature. He was rage embodied. There was a story tying together his violent ventures throughout Greek mythology, of course — a quest for revenge, naturally — but I can’t say I remember much of it. Every beat felt the same: the gods had done something to anger Kratos, and he set out to kill them. Rinse and repeat, then rinse again in copious amounts of blood.

As such, I approached the new game — a soft reboot that shifts the series to Norse mythology — with more than a little trepidation. This new story stars a quieter, gentler Kratos. He lives a simple life in the woods, where he hunts for food and scrounges for supplies. He has a son. He’s… a person. Someone with actual thoughts and feelings. The game is billed as something of a redemption story for the burly Spartan warrior: following a lifetime of death and rage, here he is trying to make the world, at least in some ways, a better place. But after a decade of seeing Kratos as little more than a cloud of spinning blades, I was unconvinced this approach could work. With a body count that is impossible to calculate, does Kratos even deserve redemption?

Shockingly, his latest adventure makes a pretty strong case that he does.

God of War opens on a somber note that sets the tone for the game. Kratos and his son, Atreus, are out in the woods, chopping down a tree to be used for a funeral pyre for their dead wife and mother. The quest that’s central to the game follows: her last request was for her ashes to be spread at the highest peak in all the realms. And thus the two set off to climb the highest mountain and fulfill her dying wish. Naturally, they’re pulled into something much bigger — Kratos can’t seem to stay away from the gods, whichever realm he’s in — but no matter what happens, and the trouble that arises, the two remain steadfast in their determination to bring the ashes to their final resting place.

The relationship between Kratos and Atreus is the crux of the game. It isn’t just a part of the story, it’s woven into virtually every aspect of God of War. The two are almost never apart. There’s even a button on the Dual Shock controller dedicated specifically to Atreus. You can hit it to make him fire arrows in battle or to translate runes on an ancient statue. The two complement each other. While Kratos can often brute-force his way toward a solution, smashing his way through obstacles with his new magical axe, Atreus is smarter and more nimble. Solving puzzles, of which there are a lot in God of War, often relies on exploiting both of their abilities.

The story is tightly interwoven with the gameplay

The pair also grow together. Initially, Kratos doesn’t seem all that far removed from the one-dimensional warrior from past games. He’s short-tempered and struggles to keep his cool. When his son misses a shot while hunting a deer, you can see the impatience building up in Kratos. He looks ready to lash out at any given moment, and he speaks mostly in cold platitudes. After the deer incident, he tells Atreus “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” Later, when his son troubled by the idea of taking someone’s life, Kratos tells him to “Close your heart to it.” He’s not exactly warm and cuddly. You can see warmth within him, though, even if it’s slight. There are times when Kratos starts to comfort his child only to pull away at the last second. He’s trying, he just has no idea what he’s doing.

But that changes as the story progresses, and the shift feels natural and real. There are genuinely warm and touching moments when Kratos worries about Atreus, or tries to impart some kind of wisdom, in his quest to make sure Atreus becomes a better person than himself. “Be better” turns into “you still have much to learn” and eventually Kratos says things that could almost count as compliments. There are even — and this may shock God of War veterans — actual moments of humor. It turns out Kratos’ grim and cold exterior makes a great foil for some of the more charming characters.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the game is how this story, and the relationship between father and son, are so tightly interwoven with the gameplay. Everything feels like it’s there for a reason. As Atreus gains confidence and continues to learn from watching his father, he naturally becomes more proficient in battle. The boy talks quite a bit, not only providing historical details on the mystical world around you, but also giving hints at what you need to do next. Meanwhile, you can easily find your next objective thanks to a magical compass gifted to you by a witch, and Kratos’ axe and gear keep getting better over the course of the game thanks to a pair of squabbling blacksmith brothers, who continuously try to one-up each other’s craftsmanship. With the exception of a few video game tropes like exploding barrels and enemies with glowing weak points, virtually every part of the experience feels directly connected to the narrative and characters.

The game itself, meanwhile, feels much more robust and varied than in the past. Older God of War games fit squarely into the hack-and-slash genre. The core action involved slicing up huge swaths of foes and racking up massive combos, with the occasional puzzle and boss fight to mix things up. These elements still exist in the new game, but with a much better balance. You probably spend about as much time hacking into bad guys as you do figuring out surprisingly complex and clever puzzles, using magic and observation to awaken ancient machines. The combat, meanwhile, feels more intense, thanks to a more cinematic camera that stays close to the action, and flexible controls befitting a proper action game.

And while the game isn’t set in an open world by any stretch, it’s still fairly large and offers up opportunities for exploration, whether it’s seeking out hidden treasure or taking on some side quests.There are moments of calm and quiet, where you can soak in the world or listen to Kratos tell a story of past adventures. The new God of War offers the satisfyingly kinetic combat and the absurd sense of enemy scale that made the series so beloved, but it fuses it to a much more complete game.

It almost makes you wonder why this is a ‘God of War’ game at all

With all of these changes, it almost makes you wonder why this is a God of War game at all. Kratos is nearly unrecognizable, with an actual personality and an impressively bushy beard, and he’s been transported to a new world, one that’s much more vibrant and alive than it first seems. But even here the game feels particularly well thought-out. I don’t want to spoil anything — the reveals are some of the best parts of the game — but the connections between the new God of War and its predecessors feel both necessary and genuine. This had to be a God of War game; without Kratos, it just wouldn’t be the same. And long-time series fans shouldn’t worry that he’s lost his trademark rage: he opens up treasure chests by punching straight through them.

God of War is the kind of lush, expensive single-player experience that has become increasingly rare in a world where online, service-heavy titles have come to dominate blockbuster games. It feels singular in its purpose, and it pulls it off magnificently. There are some minor nitpicks — the narrative’s heavy use of magical MacGuffins, a needlessly complex loot system, and an over-reliance on particularly gruesome kills — but they do little to detract from the overall experience. On their own, the various elements that make up God of War don’t sound especially unique or interesting. But it’s the way they work together — how the story informs the action and vice versa — that makes it memorable. God of War takes a one-dimensional series and turns it into something with depth and emotion.

This isn’t the Kratos you remember — and that’s what makes it work so well.

God of War is coming to the PlayStation 4 on April 20th. This review originally ran on April 12th.