Before we get into this, because I know the title and review score are enough to get many people angry with me, let me explain exactly where I came at this review from.
I intended to examine God of War for how it plays, yes, but a large part of me also was constantly weighing the story against the previous games in the series. I am not the biggest fan of the God of War games, though I did enjoy playing the first, and managed to get myself through the second and third installments. I dislike the games mostly because of their adherence to toxic hypermasculine ideals, their incredibly long rap sheet of throwing women in refrigerators (and treating them like props at best when not killing them to give Kratos motivation), and the tone-deaf storytelling that relies far too much on grand scale and dramatic proclamations to prop up what is essentially a soap-opera plot.
Going into this latest game in the series, I did have high hopes. All the early reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and fans have reacted with much the same since to the point where Game Director Cory Barlog has shed visible tears over it. And there are admirable qualities to the game – make no mistake. However, I’m considering God of War as part of a series – because it is. Despite the name change, this is not a reboot. This game continues the story from God of War III. This means all of that history I mentioned hating still applies. And much of that history helps to tear down what this game does well, which is a damn shame.
Now, since I’ve mentioned that the game does some things well, let’s get into those first. The combat system in the game is both dizzyingly customizable and exceptionally reactive. Plus, throwing the Leviathan Axe is satisfying as hell and I kept running through boss fights trying to get off as many throw-stuns as I could, just for the fun of it.
Having Kratos use a new weapon is also kind of neat because it is pretty fresh for the series. That Santa Monica Studios dropped the combo-busting chain blades for the new game is indicative of their decision to make the fourth God of War different than the first three games. And it works. The RPG-esque customization for gear and abilities as well as the capability to craft new gear also adds a new twist to the game. Suddenly you’ve got gear to upkeep, which is also new territory for God of War.
The visuals are absolutely stunning, with incredibly detailed environments. The enemies you face (both humanoid and not) are also exceptionally well designed, and the humanoid ones are far more realistically done than previous games in the series. The only one who looks strange is Kratos, because outside of a mountain man beard, Santa Monica didn’t really touch his design at all. Meanwhile, the nonhuman enemies do have a touch of realism to them in the way they’ve been designed that truly makes them feel part of the world around them. That the game is also programmed to run as nearly one unbroken camera shot is also impressive. Now, it’s not like the whole 25-35 runtime of the game was done with live actors, but even in gaming getting a sequence to run as an unbroken shot is pretty difficult to do.
And the father-son dynamic of Kratos and Atreus is charming as all hell — until you look below the surface. Because, at the end of the day, Kratos is a bad father. His parenting tactics include shouting, belittling his son, ignoring his son’s emotions, and throwing him into dangerous situations with only a token thought to Atreus’s safety.
It’s that seedy, unpleasant underbelly that really epitomizes all of my issues with God of War. The game hinges on the strength of your emotional attachment to Kratos and Atreus’s relationship, but from every hint in the game – they don’t have much of one at all. Kratos seems, from Atreus’s entries in the Bestiary, to be a distant figure in his son’s life. Something of legend and little else. And Kratos himself, being an unmoving block of Spartan stoicism, can only express emotion for his son when Atreus’s life is in danger. Kratos spends the whole game calling Atreus “boy” rather than a name, with a few “son”s thrown in. And when Atreus takes his first human life relatively early in the game, Kratos is pretty damn useless for a guy who has spent decades killing other people.
Kratos himself epitomizes the biggest weaknesses the game has. His design is outdated and cartoonish, even with attempts to modernize it. His character is the same pile of hypermasculine bullshit it’s always been, advising his son to simply ignore the guilt he feels at killing another living person. He’s uncompromising, excessively violent, emotionless to a fault, and a proper caricature of a masculine ideals. Even with this new “melancholic” take on the character, he still resorts to anger and violence to solve his problems. As always. Same old Kratos. He hasn’t changed at all, and his wooden facial animations certainly don’t help.
At one point, Kratos mumbles to his dead wife “I don’t know how to do this without you” and it was the most unbelievable thing I’d seen or heard in the game so far that it took me right out of the moment. Because I don’t believe it. He immediately set off on a course of action right after delivering that line. And then, basically, just kept going.
And, let’s be fair, the man is gaming’s biggest Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, rather). He can do no wrong. Despite being a mass-murdering meathead, Kratos somehow still gets women falling all over him, fights gods despite being continuously de-powered for the sake of dramatic plots, and has weaseled himself into two different polytheistic pantheons. He might as well be a fanfiction original character. Add in his almost laughably basic “tragic backstory” and, well. He’s a disappointing protagonist whose biggest motivating forces are the desire for revenge and regret over his dead wives.
Which brings us to Atreus’s mother. Aside from end-game spoilers, we don’t know a whole lot about Atreus’s mother for most of the game. She starts off dead, and she stays that way. Much like Kratos’s first wife and his daughter, she exists to give Kratos a purpose and a motivation. The women in God of War always get dealt a disturbingly rough hand. More often than not, they die at Kratos’s hands. And this time around, things are no different.
And while the setting and characters are pulled from Norse mythology this time around, instead of Greek, the story still follows the Greek tragic pattern that the sins of the father are passed onto the son. That’s been a common thread in God of War, and this installment continues it, to a ridiculous degree. Basically, Kratos has been written in as a stand-in for a major Norse god in a few key ways, but that’s all I’m going to say on that score — I don’t want this review to be just a bunch of spoilers.
The thing is – all of these factors could work – if they were handled properly. The problem is that, while Santa Monica Studios has learned from the earlier God of War games, and even from games outside their studio, they took home many of the wrong lessons. Like Assassin’s Creed: Origins, a new coat of shiny gameplay mechanics and an overhauled combat system aren’t quite enough to detract from some incredibly problematic roots.
And God of War doesn’t even try to combat those roots. If anything, it doubles down on the problems.
Unlike The Witcher III, which took a similarly hypermasculine murder-fond hero and gave him a child to look after, God of War still tries to be about Kratos. The absolutely brilliant thing about The Witcher III is that the ending of the game, the story, and the fate of the world are not in the player’s hands as Geralt. You’ve got to trust in your past actions to see if the child you raised makes the right decision or the wrong one. It puts players in the perfect position to experience a slice of childhood.
The Witcher III is not about Geralt of Rivia, it’s about Ciri. God of War should have been about Atreus; however, every bit of the game – from the story to the camera work to the gameplay – is about Kratos. We know Kratos. We know his faults, we know his motivations, we know his history, and we can guess at his future easily enough based on that. Atreus was a chance for a clean slate, for the torch to be passed on, and Santa Monica Studios missed it.
Atreus has emotions, has hardships, has faced loss, and is trying to overcome it and connect with his emotionally distant, overly demanding father. If God of War gave me the story from Atreus’s point of view, or even just made him more than one game-long escort mission with a slight bit of helpful gameplay tactics on the side – I would have been out there with everyone else, waving that 10/10 flag. I’d have also been far more positive about this game if we got a Kratos who was capable of learning from his mistakes and maybe, maybe interacting with anyone in a significant way. I’d have positively wept with joy if Atreus’s mom got to play a role other than “woman in the fridge” for either of the two male leads, but I know that ship sailed the second the words “God of War” were painted on it.
I see exactly what so many other people do in this game, and I enjoy the updated combat, gorgeous visuals, and customization features as much as the next person (I loved playing this game from a technical and mechanical standpoint) — but the promise this game held just makes the disappointing factors sting even harder and there were far, far too many disappointments.
So instead I’m looking at a game that could have been fantastic; but made the same mistakes over again and is just reminding me of how goddamn depressing it is that we’ll accept lazy misogynistic writing in 2018 if it’s packaged with enough shiny new features and updated visuals.
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