God Of War (PC) review: a fantastic action adventure epic with beauty, bleakness and heart
In the eight year gap between 2010’s more conventional sexy gore fest God Of War 3 and this new and improved action-dadventure God Of War, the angry Ancient Greek warboy Kratos handed in his god-killing badge and gun to live in Norse mythology’s woods with his wife Faye and their son Atreus. When Faye dies, Kratos & Son go on a journey to scatter her ashes from the top of a mountain. This becomes a micro rumination on familial relationships, a macro world-saving epic of legendary proportions, and a hack and slash fest that’ll have you grinning from ear to ear. On balance, then, I am Team Fridge Faye.
I played this God Of War on its previously exclusive release on PlayStation in 2018, and it lived in my memory as a 70 hour poetic battle between gods and monsters. Revisiting it again on PC, it turns out that it’s actually only about 20 hours long, but it looms so large as an experience that turning it off at the end feels like stumbling into daylight, having spent many weeks in a firelit, sweaty hunting lodge in a Norwegian pine forest, slamming mead and singing songs about warriors tearing goats in two. There are a lot of big warriors in God Of War. There are a lot of very big things in it in general: statues, dragons, big angry rocks. And a big man, because the titular Kratos, as a yardstick to measure size, is already incongruously big, just so many sacks of salted beef held together by leather armour.
The whole time you are beset by giant wolves, fiery beasts, and, yes, boss fights with gods. Atreus, though he be small (especially in comparison to, for example, giant world-circling snakes; his dad) does not turn God Of War into a 20-hour escort mission. Indeed, he operates as a sort of attack drone during combat. You can order him to fire arrows at the press of a button, but otherwise he’ll hover around, attacking whichever enemy you’re not focused on, or choking them out with his bow when he’s feeling bold. This frees you up, as Kratos, to lay waste to the place with a magic axe.
The Leviathan Axe is your weapon of choice for the majority of the game (there are other options later), and it’s best wielded with a controller (though the M+K defaults are serviceable if you’re a purist). The Leviathan has ice powers, and you can throw it and call it back to you like a boomerang. Combining heavy and light swings with a pretty dynamic blocking and dodging system, as well as special runic magic attacks, makes combat fast and fun despite Kratos’s weighty style. Though he has an invincible rage mode you can use once he’s built up enough anger, I mostly tried to build up an enemy’s stun bar for an insta-kill attack where you might, for example, stamp on their head like a ripe cantaloupe. When you chain all your abilities, well, it’s a proper delight. I stunned a draugr tank enemy with an ice run AOE attack, picked him up and charged him into an elf, then impaled the elf with his own trident. Lovely stuff.
You always have to pay attention, though. If you take your eye off the ball then you can easily go down to one of the draugr or other undead that make up the majority of your enemies. These come in different elemental flavous (earth, fire, ice, plague) and are often backed up by bigger lads like Soul Eaters or trolls – mini-bosses the first time you encounter them, but thrown in as extra challenges as you get better and stronger.
Levelling is a more manual affair compared to other action-adventure RPGs. For example, earning XP to unlock new moves and abilities in combat is just one of the building blocks you’re given to create the strongest possible Kratos. You also have to think about your armour, your weapons, the levels of both, and the buffs applied from socketing runes on your gear. You can also unlock combat abilities for young Atreus, so you’re kind of building the father/son team you want as they go on their journey.
His relationship with Atreus, his struggle to know what being a good dad might mean, and to express love in a way his son understands, is the heart of the game.
This aforementioned journey is, no word of a lie, epic. Your starting realm is Midgard, aka realm of the normies. It’s the largest area, and one you’ll return to and spend the most time in. It’s a cold place, the iron-grey waters of the lake around Tyr’s temple changing as the great loops of a giant snake move. The water level drops, and new, strange shores emerge. You tramp through mud and snow, and sometimes over bright green moss. You can easily pad the 20 or so hours of the story to well over 30 if you explore all the optional nooks and crannies of Midgard, and some of these are the best bits of the game. Exploring the halls of long-dead mountain Kings, or haunted mines full of giant crystals. You use the axe in small platforming puzzles here as well, freezing gears on doors in place or smashing wooden boards to clear a path for Atreus, so he can then throw down a chain for you to climb.
Other realms are slightly smaller in scope in terms of exploration, but their sense of vision is anything but. Alfheim, the realm of the elves, is one of blossom and Lord Of The Ringsian architecture set against a balmy sunset. Muspelheim is an optional time-trial challenge in a kind of volcanic colosseum. Niflheim is a poisonous maze. In the course of this game, you fight through the frozen depths of hell, travel deep inside the earth, and climb the mountain-sized corpse of a giant. And what’s so impressive is that, through all of this, God Of War manages to centre the relationship between Kratos and Atreus in everything.
Kratos’s backstory makes him almost the original sad murder dad of games, and while his previous adventures were sort of peak Degeneration X in their tone, in this God Of War it foregrounds him being a father. His relationship with Atreus, his struggle to know what being a good dad might mean, and to express love in a way his son understands, is the heart of the game. The unreal setting for it disappears behind the amazing performances of Christopher Judge and Sunny Suljic, just being a man and a boy who don’t understand each other, but want to. Atreus will comment on events, expressing admiration for a particularly good shot, or defeating an enemy. As the game goes on, he will ask for advice or disagree with Kratos more openly, seek approval, or gently make fun of his ol’ dad. And in turn, Kratos gives approval, begins to respect Atreus’s unique skills, and smiles. They meet each other somewhere in the middle, balancing pragmatism and empathy.
You see their relationship everywhere in the game. In the architecture of ruined temples, in the side quests you’re given, in every single supporting character who seems to be paired up with a family member somehow, a mirror of Kratos & Son. It affects how you fight, how you explore, how you interact with other characters. God Of War feels like a game crafted from the ground up by a team of many people all pulling towards the same thing: to make you feel emotions about these two boys. But also, to really enjoy it.