The God of War games always start with a close up of Kratos’ angry face. Part tradition, part promise for the upcoming hours - his fury and rage filling the screen, only needing a tap of X to unleash it and begin a spectacular, show stopping fight. The God of War PS4 debut sticks with this general idea but it’s immediately clear something’s different. The anger is gone, and instead the face is sad. Whatever battles there are here bubble under the surface this time. There’s some as yet unexplained internal conflict impossible to miss: grief, denial, reluctant acceptance and more appear to flit across a face that's usually portrayed as only having the one setting: furious.
Kratos’ face alone goes through a journey in those opening seconds that ends with him chopping down a tree. And, somehow, that’s when the Spartan we remember comes back - every axe blow powered by an almost elemental fury; severing the massive trunk in a handful of blows. It’s not quite the monster-riding, army-slaying opening we’ve seen in the past, but there’s a power to seeing such a traditionally one-dimensional character fighting internal demons instead of actual ones. And a brave move for a game that usually has you fighting the biggest thing it can render within minutes of hitting start.
Where will God of War be set in the future?
As for what comes next, I’ll only stick to broad strokes from here on in. Much of the impact of what I played (the first three hours) came from the expectation and uncertainty of such a different take on both the game and character. I don’t want to take the surprises away from anyone so I’ll skip around some key plot points. What I will tell you is that when we catch up with Kratos he’s living in the forests of Midgard, alone with his son Atreus. Then, for reasons I’ll leave unexplained, the pair have to leave and the fighting starts. Along with the blood, screaming, and prying open of skulls with bare finger tips. It’s basically like Black Friday only with better tattoos.
So, some things never change at least, but the new combat is worlds away from Kratos’ old sweeping chained blades and wide camera angles. This swaps in more focused axe blows, shield blocks or parrys, and a tight over the shoulder camera. Where before you were slamming out area of effect attacks on crowds and then using the space created to target one lucky soul for a more personal pounding, it’s now more about spacial awareness and tactical prioritisation.
The new combat is worlds away from Kratos’ old sweeping chained blades and wide camera angles
Your main attacks are a light and heavy axe blow, the latter bouncing enemies into the air for juggling. It’s a much more one-on-one system, using evasive dodges to find space and avoid taking hits (using on-screen indicators that signify enemy proximity and incoming attacks). As you might hope, it’s a meaty system that works well against groups - hacking draugr painfully to pieces as you sidestep or deflect their own volleys. You can also throw the axe, adding a ranged element and leaving Kratos to make use of his fists before calling it back exactly like Thor’s hammer. I’ll put this in all caps, just to be clear: IT NEVER GETS OLD.
In the opening hours of the game this all creates a pleasingly violent vocabulary, as you slice, pound and smash your way through the bad guys. There are call backs to more familiar mechanics as well, like being able to perform special moves on stunned enemies where you rip them apart gorily with your bare hands. Spartan Rage also returns, letting Kratos open up a berserk mode for a few seconds of devastating carnage.
One thing I didn’t get much time to feel out was how all this works with more varied groups. As you progress there are fireball hurling draugr, armoured heavies, and teleporting, magic-using Revenants. I only had a short time to try those fights and only unlocked one new attack - a radial, enemy scattering blast - so it’s hard to say how Kratos’ abilities will scale up to that challenge. Range is definitely something that needs to be fleshed out, for example. There were plenty of times when I was knee deep in draugr but being fireballed from a distant ledge, lacking any better comeback than throwing the axe. Similarly, fighting larger enemies like the troll feels a bit button spammy due to the way the closer camera deals with scale - you’re basically hacking at knees and watching the life bar for feedback.
It’s something a more extended play will tell us more about and the upgrade options look huge - far too deep to explore fully in the three hours I had. There are moves, powers and more to level up and unlock across Kratos, as well as his axe, shield and armour. You can also craft new armour, there’s magic, and you have a similar amount of depth to Atreus too. At the start, Kratos’ son’s efforts amount to little more than distractions as he uses his bow to draw attention and give Kratos a window to attack with a tap of square. It’s an interesting system, akin to a controllable take on Ellie’s brick throwing in The Last Of Us. However, Atreus can also be powered up to unlock more powerful attacks, or things like the ability to jump on enemies in a choke hold. Given his demi-God heritage he’s likely to become a powerful weapon in a fight, meaning you’re going to be forming a relationship with him through gameplay in parallel to Kratos through the narrative.
When you’re not covered in monster blood, there are also some encouraging puzzle elements in the opening hours. These are built around throwing Kratos’ axe, which freezes anything it hits. There are seals and pulleys to find and smash, or cogs to lock in place that hold doors open in order to progress. Kratos and Atreus can take different routes occasionally as well, with the boy dropping chains for pops to climb up. These challenges break up the tempo nicely in some fun and satisfying ways. For example, at one point you have to use the axe to lock a collapsing, spike-covered, ceiling in place while you’re under it. You then fight with your fists, making space to call the axe back, and re-throw it at different spots to progress before getting squished.
It’s hard to like a character that once dragged a topless girl around a level, only to kill her in a gear mechanism to open a door
It’s an exciting looking return for a character and game that’s both instantly familiar and completely different at the same time. Kratos had to change. The old game’s cruel streak got a pass from its cartoony feel in the past. But, looking back, it’s hard now to forgive, or even like, a character that abusively dragged a heavy-breasted topless girl around a level, only to kill her in a gear mechanism to open a door (2010’s God of War 3). This reboot isn’t denying or avoiding any of that ever happened (or any of the other countless dickish things Kratos has done over the years). Instead it’s giving us a Kratos that looks back as poorly on that past as we might, with a responsibility as much to his son as the audience to do the right thing now. It’s a tonal direction change so severe as to leave smoking skid marks behind it, but an essential one to bring the Ghost of Sparta back in a palatable way.
The sense of fantasy and bloody combat is still there but now framed with an almost Guillermo del Toro flavour to its nordic mythology. It’s full of magic saturated forests and monster filled potential, while keeping its violent edge so sharp you’ll wince at some of the places that axe ends up. The game looks beautiful too, with an amazingly rich depth and detail to characters and locations. One scribbled margin note from my playthrough just says ‘this feels luxurious’. In a climate where AAA games seem to be failing, or falling from favour, Sony has made something that's indulgently high budget. If the building momentum of what I’ve played so far continues its course then it’s money well spent.