I knew I was about to experience something special with God of War within about five minutes of playing the game. The opening scene is quiet and filled with an almost palpable sense of sadness and loss. The Kratos I was presented with here was one I was not prepared for. Instead of the arrogant, rage-fuelled killing machine I knew, I saw a man beaten down by life and by profound loss. The game’s opening minutes display more emotional complexity and depth than the entire series has up until this point. SIE Santa Monica has completely reframed and redefined its iconic series and its titular protagonist with barely a word uttered.

It is important that you go into God of War knowing as little as possible. In a first for the series, story and character development are what engage the player, so actual story details will be kept to an absolute minimum in this review, and I strongly recommend anyone planning on playing the game avoid any discussion of story events until you’ve completed it.

For the first time in the series, I felt a connection to Kratos

Many years have passed since Kratos defeated Zeus in God of War III. What happened in those intervening years is unknown, but it has profoundly changed the man who once held the mantle of God of War. His heavily lined face is no longer defined by a visage of anger; instead there is a deep sadness behind his eyes. His resonant baritone voiced by newcomer Christopher Judge is almost reserved, devoid of the rage that for so long dominated his personality. For the first time in the series I felt a connection to Kratos, and that only grew the more I played.

God of War review
God of War review

Kratos is in mourning because the mother of his son Atreas is dead. She has left them alone to lay her to rest and fulfil her final wishes. Kratos has seemingly been absent for much of his son’s life, and is now faced with a child needing a parent Kratos has never been. To his credit, Kratos is willing to take on this responsibility, and desires to build a relationship with his son even if he cannot express it. He wants to be a father, but simply lacks the skills, experience, and even confidence to fully embrace what that means.

So instead, he channels his efforts into being a mentor, training Atreas to be a better hunter and warrior. Kratos is abrupt, and too harsh in his admonishments in the opening hours of the game, but he clearly cares for this son but does not know how to express it. There is a moving scene early on when he so obviously wants to comfort his heartbroken son over the loss of his mother, but hesitates and pulls away, leaving Atreas to grieve alone, unaware how close his father came to giving him the physical reassurance and affection he so desperately needed.

It is this relationship that drives the story. It evolves as both try to understand who they are to each other, and define just what their relationship is. Atreas resents his father, but also longs for his acceptance. Kratos wants to be there for his son, but cannot find a way to connect with him on anything but a superficial level. Through the course of an adventure that includes spiteful gods, giants, trolls, and the various realms of Norse mythology, maybe something can be forged through adversity. This is not a hero’s journey, nor is it one of redemption. Kratos knows he is no hero, and he knows he cannot ever fully redeem himself, but maybe he can be a father, and just maybe there is peace to be found in that.

Don’t worry if you think that this new God of War is just about emotional discovery, and touchy-feely stuff, because there’s also epic violence and grand scale monster slaying. Shit is about to get brutal. Moving away from the zoomed-out fixed camera presentation found in the earlier entries, God of War instead opts for an over-the-shoulder camera which not only brings the combat closer, but emphasises the brutality of Kratos’ attacks.

Kratos wants to be there for his son, but cannot find a way to connect with him

He’s lost his iconic twin blades, but is no less deadly with his new Leviathan Axe. Combat feels a lot more deliberate and less flashy, but it’s also more kinetic and far more satisfying as a result. Every hit has an impact to it that earlier games lacked, while the slower pace emphasises strength and skill over button mashing and frantic dodging.

The axe is a powerful magic infused weapon that can be thrown and magically recalled, and just because things have slowed down, that doesn’t mean that Kratos can no longer unleash massive combos and vicious varied attacks. This is still a God of War game after all, and Kratos is no less the near-unstoppable killing machine in his advancing years. Atreas is also a skilled warrior, and his abilities with a bow will need to be used if you hope to overcome many of the game’s direr threats. From helping to stagger an enemy, link a combo chain, or even leap on enemies to restrain or slow them down, Atreas is a vital element in the improved combat system.

There is a massive variety of opponents to face, and you will need to learn their affinities, strengths, weaknesses, and movements if you intend to defeat them. Just when you think you’ve got an enemy type pegged, a brand-new variant will be added requiring an all new strategy to combat. The emphasis here is on well-timed and targeted attacks, but also the right attack for each enemy type. There is a very high skill ceiling, and at higher difficulties you will be tested.

God of War review

Then there are the big bads, the big big bads, and the really big bads. If you’ve seen the trailer for the game, you’ve not doubt seen the giant pillar-wielding troll. That three-story behemoth is a speck comparted to some of the creatures you will face, so worry not, God of War faithful – there will be blood, and the torrent you unleash could drown a titan.

Victory is often hard won, but as you progress you will discover new and improved abilities for both Kratos and Atreas. Their gear can also be upgraded or replaced with better items, and enhanced with runes that imbue them with new abilities or enhancements. There is a staggering amount of customisation available – perhaps too much, at least at the start. I initially felt completely overwhelmed, and was easily more than a dozen hours in before I felt confident in my choices. Many of the item upgrades cost specific collectables, and once spent, these are gone for good or require a lot more exploration to replenish. I admire the level of freedom offered here, but would have preferred a little more guidance and better explanation of what impact each upgrade would have.

there are the big bads, the big big bads, and the really big bads
God of War review

While things start of in a linear fashion, you eventually reach the game’s hub area called the Lake of Nine. From here, you are free to explore as you wish, unlocking new areas to explore around the lakeside itself, as well as each of the realms from Norse mythology. As the name of the lake indicates, there are nine realms in total: Midgard where Kratos resides, Alfheim, Asgard, Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Nidavellir, Niflheim, Svartalfheim, and Vanaheim. Collecting wards while exploring will unlock some of these, while others are only made available as you progress though the story.

You only need to complete the main story missions to “beat” the game, but completing additional tasks, side missions, and treasure hunts will net you the best gear and some very entertaining interactions and unique events. I have seldom felt as rewarded for exploring a game as I was here. The sense of discovery remains fresh even 30-plus hours deep.

I adore this game, but it does have a few issues that I need to address. The main issue I have with the game is technical: As a PS4 Pro owner I was happy to hear there was a performance mode promising uncapped frame rates at the cost of resolution. What I was expecting was a steady 60, what I got was not even close. I lack the technology to measure framerate, but I am not sure I ever hit 60 except in a few narrative non-action scenes. I was tracking closer to 40 for most of the game, with a lot of fluctuations throughout, causing a distracting amount of stuttering.

God of War review
God of War review

The result was that after about a dozen hours I flicked on Resolution mode, drank in the gorgeous 4k visuals, and dealt with the lower performance. While not what I would have liked, it was a far more stable experience, with barely any noticeable drops below the targeted 30 fps. Thankfully Dad of War is a less frenetic entry in the series, so this had less impact than it would have if the game was as fast paced as previous games.

My other gripe is minor but needs to be mentioned: The new camera is great, but it comes at a cost – field of view. Situational awareness is important in a game like God of War, and the very narrow field of view severely reduces this. The onscreen threat indicators help, but I all too often found myself rolling onto an unseen piece of scenery, or in some cases, bumping into an enemy. When surrounded by multiple foes at different elevations, it can be frustrating to avoid incoming damage, and tough to target more distant enemies. It becomes less of an issue in the later part of the game, or when facing only a few opponents, but is never really absent. It’s not a game killer by any means, but does take a little of the gloss off an otherwise exceptional combat system. Even so, this is the most satisfying combat I have experienced outside of a Soulsbourne title; it surpasses every previous God of War title by a large margin.

While I could literally spend another 2000 worlds espousing the game’s visual virtues, my words can never do it justice. God of War simply is the most beautiful game on PS4, and this high standard is achieved across its sound, music, and voice acting. Simply put, you need to experience it for yourself to truly appreciate the artistry on display here.