Kratos’ triumphant return to the Sony faithful may require a bit of extra faith
in the brand than in previous entries. It might sound odd, because we’re talking about a Spartan warrior-turned-god -- an enraged man who climbed Mount Olympus on the back of the Titan Gaia and killed Poseidon. A man who, in a bid to destroy the gods of Olympus, was pushed from Zeus’ domain, falling into the River Styx. A man who manages to kill Hades, re-climb his way back up Mount Olympus and sever the arm of Gaia. A man who not only murders Helios, the Titan Perses and Hermes -- seriously fucking with Greece, but also manages to kill Hercules.
A god of war who literally pummels Zeus to death with his bare hands.
So, you know, the bar for over-the-top storytelling is pretty high. And while all of the above, and everything that happened before God of War III, is outlandish, the suspension of disbelief has always been at a steady and stable cadence. This is videogames, after all, and the alternate history and creation of Kratos in the first place, leant itself perfectly to the God of War series.
I’ve been critical of Kratos being pulled from ancient Greece
and thrust into Norse mythology from the get-go. It just didn’t sit right with me, but after last year’s E3 I loosened up on that and decided I just had to roll with it. Santa Monica Studios, after all, is still at the helm and know Kratos -- and what makes Kratos awesome -- better than anyone, so the game is still surely going to be fun, regardless of the setting. But after having played roughly three hours of the game from its opening, I’ve come slightly full-circle, winding back up where I started with just not really being on board with this new setting, and Kratos’ place in it.
I fired up my hands-on with the second-hardest difficulty setting: Give Me a Challenge
, and was pleasantly surprised at how the combat handled with the new camera positioning behind Kratos (the game used to have a fixed, cinematic camera dictated by the developer -- not the player, for newcomers). His axe -- Leviathan -- is equally great in that it’s powerful, can be thrown and magically comes back to his hand with the push of a button, dealing damage upon its return also (plus it just looks cool).
Enemies at my difficulty setting were easy enough to manage, but were able to get a few cheap shots in here and there, leaving me dead a couple of times. These were also the basic Draugr undead Leviathan fodder, so from here it began to feel like there might be an issue with character and power balance given the actual god I’m playing as, but for now, I just pushed through and sucked it up.
Atreus, Kratos’ son, was the focus here anyway, and in the wake of a funeral pyre for his just-passed mother, Kratos and the boy go on a hunt. It’s kind of a neat narrative tool, because in contextually ‘teaching’ the boy a number of skills and having to hunt their mildly elusive prey, the devs pull us -- the player -- through a tutorial. But it also serves as a great way to introduce us to the new playspace, and throw some lore at us in the process. They’re fully aware they have a fish-out-of-water tale here, and because of our own alternate ancient Greek story conditioning, we’re as much Kratos this time around as ever, giving Santa Monica Studios a new audience, with familiar expectations. I can see why they went with what they did, but it’s a little all over the place, but I’ll expand on that in a minute.
Kratos has always had a progression system, which has usually been more combat-focused than anything but here the studio has decided to modernise that progression with an RPG-lite side. It’s actually really cool and features upgrades and customisation across weapons (Light and Heavy Runic Attack slots – Level, Type, Cooldown, etc), armour (Chest Armour, Wrist Armour, Waist Armour – Talisman Slot system), while Skills feature Ranged and Close Combat trees for your Leviathan axe, as well as a tree for Shield Combat and Rage Combat such as the “Spartan Rage” skill where holding down R1 delivers a fearful “haymaker” that knocks enemies down quickly.
Moreover, Kratos and Atreus, while having an obvious main goal, also encounter quest opportunities, which adds to the RPG-lite tilt I mentioned earlier. There’s a “Goals” sub-menu with Journey, Favours, Labours, Treasure Maps and Artefacts (all contained within a notepad – who knew Kratos could read and write). Artefacts come in numerical sets and are confined to regions also, adding to the completionism side of the game and I found that while areas are relatively linear and heavily gated, the studio has done a great job of hiding hidden areas and sub-sections for additional exploration. There’s also a Lore and Bestiary Codex and finally a space for Resources and Special Items (I kept gaining “Hacksilver” as a resource but didn’t learn how it’s utilised -- presumably it’s a crafting element).
Earning much of the game’s resources is also as easy as finding hidden chests which are punched
open -- Kratos has no time for hinges. Or by destroying varying parts of the environment. Adding to all of this is a pretty great environmental puzzle design lean, that serves as both main path progression impediments and in finding the hidden parts of the environment I mentioned before -- unlocking chains to climb, finding new ways through gated sections… climbing. It’s all there, and it’s all very engaging. Through all of this Kratos’ bond with his son Atreus is growing and we slowly learn more about where we are, why and just what it all means.
So far, so good, right?
Well, here’s the thing. After you essentially finish the tutorial which ends in a fight with a giant troll, the two return to their cabin. Kratos collects the ashes from the pyre and everything sort of seems normal. Now, remember I’d mentioned a bit earlier that some of the low-level enemies were seemingly ill-balanced against my actual character? It reared its head in full fashion at the opening sequence’s close, because we’re introduced to “The Stranger” -- a heavily-tattooed character who creepily stalks outside the cabin and wouldn’t be out of place on the set of the History series, Vikings.
He and Kratos exchange words, and the mystery around him -- and Kratos’ current situation -- only deepen as a result before everything escalates into an epic battle. And I mean epic. This thing is Dragon Ball Z levels of insane, and while it’s edge-of-your-seat and full of blood and gore, and a lot of the ultra violence, it reveals one major flaw: if Kratos is this strong, and this capable; destroying someone who we all know will be revealed to be a god (he also ‘magically’ heals himself mid-fight -- something you couldn’t do the entire intro fighting the Draugrs), then why is regular baddie fighting so challenging. Moreover, he punches through the side of a massive boulder, picks it up and drops it on The Stranger. But in regular non-boss battle play, he struggles to push through gated parts of the environment.
It’s stupidly nit-picky of me. Just enjoy the game, Farrelly. Well yeah, I was
up until my suspension of disbelief was thrown completely off by disproportionate design and narrative choices. This is a videogame -- it’s made-up, it’s entertainment, it’s just people being creative. I get that. But when you set up a basic commandment of player-adopted rules, and then sort of throw them out the window because epic
, it pulls from the experience. Just sayin’.
“That’s an interesting question. I think… Kratos has a multi-faceted, multi-level dimension of power that really depends on the situation that he’s in,” explains Santa Monica Studios’ Aaron Kauffman, a little awkwardly when I broach this with him. “You know, from a pure videogame design standpoint, that first boss battle -- we want you to feel like you can stand up with The Stranger. Like you can take that battle on no matter what the situation is. And you can even argue that in old God of War games there were some very over-the-top moments that felt right
for the moment, but then you’re battling enemies that are, like, basic fodder and [maybe] you’re, like, “well why can’t I just take a chain and pull a column down on them?”
“I think in videogames and movies, you have to remove yourself from realism…”
He’s right, of course. But it shouldn’t be too much to just ask for some consistency, is all I’m arguing.
With that said, the game is a lot of fun to play. It has story beats all over the place and looks set to try and bring in an emotional component to an otherwise violent, violent series which may wind up being very refreshing. The setting is still weird to me, and I’m clearly miffed about those inconsistencies mentioned above, but I’m already sucked in. Probably more so because I really want to know more about The Stranger. But the RPG additions, the new camera and level design shifts, and exploring a new space -- and mythology -- with the god of war is already too much to pass up.