A solid foundation for a new series of adventures.
I love love love the God of War franchise. I think each game in the series brings something to the table and I have enjoyed playing through each of them multiple times. The PS4 release of God of War acts as a welcome refresh for the series, helping redefine and reimagine what this franchise can be. Not all of it works, but at its core it is still very much a God of War game and very much a continuation of the story of Kratos.
The story here is surprising small in scale and very intimate, with the total number of important named characters with speaking roles being countable on two hands. It is very much focused on serving as an introduction to the new universe and protagonists, Kratos and his son Atreus. The game spends a lot of time setting up, with Atreus acting as a storyteller to inform the player of the Norse myths. It is well done and actually made me want to know more about these myths, which led to me picking up Neil Gaiman's book on Norse mythology. Sony Santa Monica set the ground work for the next few sequels in this game and the stuff they tease is exciting, but it makes the main story they present here feel a little flat, especially if you are expecting the spectacle of the old games. When the credits started to roll I was left thinking to myself "wait, is that really it?" The call backs to the old games are relatively few and far between, but when it leans on them they hit hard and ended up being the most impactful moments in the game to me. I would be curious to know how these callbacks and references come across to those with no history with the franchise.
In addition to cutscenes and dialogue, the story is also told through the collectables and the environment. Whenever you pick up a collectable or fight a new enemy, Atreus will make a note of it in his journal. The journal does a lot to develop him, with Atreus writting everything from stories his mom told him about the monsters to his opinion on whatever story he just heard. The environments are also very detailed, with the architecture telling its own story and making each place you visit feel distinct. Little touches, like corpses on the floor or writing on the wall, make it feel like a world that has been around for a while and has seen all manner of interesting adventures. Side quests, a first for the series, also help flesh out the world and tell other smaller stories about the inhabitants and the events that have happened in this world. These optional quests are typically fairly brief and great for finishing in one sitting when you don't have much time to spare.
God of War is open world-ish. There are only a few areas where you are allowed to stray off the beaten path and go on other linear missions and side quests. It is still a very small world but that size allows the little slice of the world you see feel dense and fully realized.
The gameplay itself feels very different from the old games. For one, combat has been moved to the trigger buttons. Gone are the days of pressing square, triangle, and circle to make different combos. The jump button is gone altogether. Combat is significantly slower than the old games early on, with a lot of it consisting of Kratos swinging his axe a few times then either dodging or putting up his shield. It picks up later as you progress through the game and unlock more abilities until eventually Kratos is running across the map attacking and dodging with all the speed he had back in Greece. Atreus acts as your projectile and magic user which you can use with the face buttons, which is an interesting way of allowing you to control both Kratos and his son at the same time. Atreus cannot actually be killed so you don't need to keep an eye on him which is incredibly handy. It is a deviation from what was done in the past but it all feels good and it still feels undeniably like God of War. The Leviathan Axe ends up feeling just as well realized as the Blades of Chaos did in the original trilogy and being able to throw the axe and call it back at will never gets old.
New to the series is the ability to craft and upgrade armor. It is a nice addition but I wish it wasn't tied to stats. That said, thanks to the terribly unbalanced difficulty, the stats end up feeling fairly useless. The regular upgrades your weapon gets are more than enough to let you keep pace with the game's enemies.
I played through this game twice. Once on the hardest difficulty, "Give Me God of War," and once on hard, "Give Me a Challenge." Neither one felt quite right, and it ended up souring the experience for me a bit. Given my experience with the franchise, I figured I would be fine with the hardest difficulty. It was very hard, and ended up revealing a few of the games flaws. One is that basic abilities that are needed to fight back are locked away behind the skill tree at the start of the game. Not being able to reflect projectiles back to enemies makes the game way more frustrating than it should be for the first few hours, especially when everything kills you in one hit. I made my way through the game but when I finally beat the story and started tackling the post game worlds and still was getting killed in one hit, I decided I was going to need to lower the difficulty to enjoy any of it (selecting the hardest difficulty doesn't allow you to lower it later). Playing through the game on "hard" ended up feeling too easy though, and I ended up blowing through everything, cutting through bosses and enemies like papier-mâché (literally, bosses would go down in less than 15 seconds). The game is sorely missing a difficulty in-between "you kill everything immediately" and "everything kills you immediately."
There will probably be a few things left for you to clean up when you finish the campaign, whether they be side quests, collectables, or one of the many optional bosses. There are also some areas specifically dedicated to combat that are replayable to your hearts content. If there is one gripe I have about the post game stuff it is that traversal, in particular climbing, is incredibly boring and tedious, especially when you have been through the area before and are just trying to get from point A to point B. There is a fast travel system as well but it also has some crazy load times. This sucks and puts a bit of a damper on the whole thing.
Ultimately, God of War lays a solid foundation for the future of the franchise. The changes to the combat feel great and I am chomping at the bit to get to explore more of Midgard and the other realms. Unfortunately, the main story in this game ends up feeling like a really long prologue and the difficulty imbalance hold back an otherwise really well done game.