When Sony’s Santa Monica studio first burst onto the scene with God Of War, game director Cory Barlog had a score to settle.
For much of the early 2000s, interactive entertainment was defined by ground-breaking releases from the East, leaving Western developers desperately taking notes and scrambling to play catch up.
So when Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya publicly proclaimed that Western developers couldn’t make a good action game – it was all the motivation Cory needed to put a team together and get Western game dev back on the map.
Fuelled by equal parts spite and a burning desire to create something great, Cory and his team at Santa Monica pitched Sony a uniquely Western type of action game.
Thanks to its creators’ unique take on ancient Greek mythology and its unrelenting brutality, God Of War quickly cemented itself as an action classic. With its success injecting new life into the then dying PS2, this Santa Monica studio not only created an exciting new franchise, but more importantly – delivered the ultimate digital middle finger to Kamiya.
Yet, despite God Of War‘s success, as the PS2 got left behind games slowly started to change. Gamer’s tastes shifted with them. With action games and the once unstoppable Japanese developers now finding their popularity waning, Sony ’s once shiny action series slowly began to suffer from the same decline in popularity.
Fast forward to the present day and we’re just weeks away from the first God Of War game to grace consoles in five years. But the question is, can Santa Monica make this aging action franchise feel fresh again?
West Is West
Interestingly, for this rapidly approaching reboot, it seems as though Santa Monica studio has opted to shake off its admiration for the East and instead write a love letter to Western narrative driven experiences.
Doing away with the zoomed out camera and frenetic combo-chaining of old, Kratos’ latest adventure instead offers players a far more intense and personal experience. Here, the camera has been moved claustrophobically close to gaming’s most famous anti-hero, with a new over-the-shoulder view putting you literally and figuratively closer to Kratos then ever before.
For a series that sees you controlling an unstoppable deity, the new change of perspective has the strange effect of making the whole experience feel surprisingly grounded. Thankfully though, Kratos’ latest has the story to match its new visual intensity.
A New Perspective
Set after the events of God Of War 3, Kratos has gone into hiding in an attempt to escape his violent past.
Abandoning the Ancient Greek mythos that has been the basis of our antihero’s adventures so far, our demo begins in an ice-coated Norse locale, where a surprisingly grey-bearded and wrinkled Kratos is wandering the woods with his young son, Atreus.
While Kratos’ love of his murdered wife was the most human element about him in previous outings, seeing the God of War struggle with parenting adds a whole new layer of depth to the grumbling brute. After decades spent unleashing unspeakable violence, unsurprisingly, Kratos isn’t the most emotionally available of dads.
As the pair hunt together and gather wood, the beautifully rendered visuals reveal glimpses of something you never thought you’d see in Kratos – love. While he’s clearly struggling to show it — circumstances we won’t spoil eventually lead Atreus and Kratos out on a dangerous journey together — Atreus regularly makes fun of his father’s lack of emotional range.
Yet despite him not being able to articulate his love, Kratos clearly does care. He’s not just looking out for himself now.
It’s surprisingly heartfelt and emotional stuff, with this cinematic adventure feeling far more reminiscent of the father-daughter relationship in The Last Of Us, rather than the Devil May Cry challenger the franchise started as.
This Ain’t Your Daddy’s God Of War
Wisely, the team has also revamped combat in order to make each battle feel just as raw and challenging as the wider situation Kratos finds himself in. With age taking its toll on the once unstoppable Greek god, the new camera sees the series swap fast-paced and fluid combat for suitably clunky and intense skirmishes.
Playing like a mix of Dark Souls and Monster Hunter, this time around Kratos no longer feels like an invincible god – but someone who has something to lose.
Instead of being rushed by dozens of enemies at once, the new God Of War sees you facing fewer (but far more challenging) foes. Here, rolling out of reach of enemies and picking monsters off one at a time is the key to victory.
Armed with a trusty throwing axe and a shield, Kratos can keep angry demons at arm’s length using a mix of ranged and melee combat. Yet, the most interesting new addition to combat comes in the form of Atreus himself.
A Competent Companion
While companion characters in games can often be more of a hindrance than a help, Santa Monica has managed to craft a surprisingly adept AI assistant. Being a 10-year-old kid, he’s obviously no Kratos. So instead he keeps his distance, using his bow to distract his targets. In a nice touch, players can actually aim Atreus’ shots while controlling Kratos.
A squeeze of L2 and a tap of X sends an arrow hurtling towards your intended target, buying enough precious time to lure away an advancing foe and let Kratos deal with one less angry hulking behemoth.
Thankfully though, Atreus is pretty capable himself. So if things get too hairy for you to control two characters at once, Kratos Jr usually has your back anyway.
As fans of the franchise would expect, there are also your fair share of puzzles to solve here too. While most revolve around throwing Kratos’ axe at gate-controlling gears, a later section presented some more satisfying-to-solve head scratchers.
How’s ‘God Of War’ Shaping Up?
It’s been five years since the last God Of War, and in that short time, how games play and what we expect from them has changed pretty drastically. The young creators that once delighted in providing players with frenetic thrills now want to tell more meaningful stories, and the huge sales of games like The Last Of Us suggests that gamers are all too happy to indulge them.
But with the God Of War franchise slowly losing its audience over the years, we were worried that this could be a franchise that remained stuck in the past. Thankfully, that doesn’t look to be the case at all.
For the first time after playing a God Of War game, when we put down that controller we came away feeling emotionally invested in its story. Despite God Of War being the last franchise you’d associate with meaningful storytelling, its creators have grown up – and based on what we’ve seen so far, God Of War has too.
While some players may lament the loss of the fast-paced fluidity offered by the combat of old, the combination of emotionally charged narrative and nerve-wracking combat had us itching to dive back in. It may be exploring uncharted territory for the franchise, but Kratos’ latest adventure is shaping up to be one journey you won’t want to miss out on.