Rare is the game that's confident: uncompromising in its identity, unyielding in its cohesion and sense of self. Rarer still is the game that stays genuine and true while being so informed by its contemporaries.
In God of War, a new beginning for Kratos on PlayStation 4, one needn't look closely for reverence. Open-world conventions like side quests, fast-travel points, and crafting materials give Kratos and his son, Atreus, plenty of diversions to pursue. The fixed view of the series' past is traded for a tight, intimate over-the-shoulder camera conducive to the duo's emotional journey. As their powers expand, the journey winds back-and-forth, layering upon itself in Metroidvania fashion. Streamlined RPG systems give us stats to monitor, skill trees to climb, and upgrades to pursue without needless complexity.
Yet on the other side of inspiration, God of War emerges as a masterful adventure far greater than the sum of its parts. It is breathlessly epic, reaching across legends and cosmologies to populate a believable, coherent world. It is deeply affecting, never losing sight of the father and son even as gods tower and the land quakes. It is self-aware, willing to interrogate Kratos the character's legacy even as it asks what a parent should pass on. It is constantly thrilling, with skill-based combat that borrows raw, visceral emotion from the story's writing.
“A Masterful Adventure”
At the center are Kratos and Atreus. The two set out, from simple beginnings, to scatter the ashes of Atreus' mother from the highest peak in the realm. From this grounded place, their dynamic is given time and space to grow. A gravity develops in the emotional chasm between father and son. I'm in stunned silence at just a fleeting glance, feeling Kratos' pride or Atreus' disappointment even as the world crashes down around them. In terse scoldings, in the hesitation between half-answers, and in deafening silences, I feel Kratos reckoning with the rage of his past and how to teach a son about survival. In false bravado, sarcastic retorts, and brusque brush-offs, I see Atreus feigning battle-hardened distance while silently pleading to be told the right thing at the right time.
As the pair learn the machinations at play in their unforgiving world, the story expands dramatically and reaches the blockbuster, world-shaking heights of its predecessors but never loses its heart. The dynamic between father and son is at the center of this universe. With thoughtful, realistic writing and nuanced performances, it becomes a universe all its own, where themes of parenthood—how much of ourselves should be passed on, how to protect without suffocating or spurring resentment—can be explored in an unlikely subject.
Kratos matures tremendously as a character, couching his rage in “discipline” or as “a tool only used on the deserving” while seeming to not entirely believe or trust his own words. God of War is wholly committed to this portrayal. It is willing to cast Kratos in negative or regrettable light alongside his positive strides as a mentor. A heartfelt, fatherly dialogue might be interrupted by a rage-fueled showdown that feels hypocritical, but also inevitable, necessary… maybe even redeemable, where Atreus' life is concerned. These tensions visibly and audibly burden Kratos. How can you teach your child to “be better” while shielding them from the very thing they must be better than? Is it right to shield them? Is it even possible?
Matching Kratos' own restraint, combat is grounded and focused. The fixed camera of past games dealt in the wide angles needed for multi-target attacks, crowd control, and full awareness. This outing's over-the-shoulder camera, on the other hand, significantly limits your view and creates challenge in fresh, realistic ways.
No longer able to track all enemies simultaneously, I am forced to use combos and special moves with clear purpose. Throwing Kratos' Leviathan Axe at a distant enemy to freeze them allows me to focus on close dangers without the threat of fireballs from offscreen. A concussive blast from my shield puts an ogre in a stunned “finisher” state; from that state, I know I can get free hits by climbing atop the ogre and steering it into the crowd. To create separation from the enemy frontliners, I sprint to the foes furthest back while commanding Atreus to summon spectral wolves that keep those frontliners occupied.
Runic Attacks—powerful special moves with dedicated cooldowns—play into these strategic options. Throughout the game, I tapped into radial knockbacks to create breathing room, single-target barrages to bear down on bosses, and straight-line ranged attacks to interrupt a crowd after funneling them into close quarters.
“Combat is Grounded and Focused”
A fluid combo system allows execution of these moves from just a few button or trigger presses. For the most part, combos unfurl by alternating presses and holds of R1 and R2. The order and timing matters greatly. Rapidly tapping R1 will execute a basic light attack combo, but with certain skills unlocked, pausing a half-second after a swing might cause Kratos to switch stances, opening several alternative follow-ups or combo strings. As I tapped into this cadence over time, instinct and muscle memory for the right combos and Runic Attacks gradually took shape. I made split-second decisions for survival, not bombast, and played a spatial game with dozens of unique foes and their unique attack patterns.
Enemy designs and encounter types give almost every skill a clear moment to shine, and God of War’s signature ferocity is present throughout. Kratos executes brutally efficient finishers and channels his rage into attacks that collide with screen-shaking impact. Vivid noises of crunching, smashing, and metal-on-metal add tangible heft to every axe swing and shield bash. The raw, resonant emotion in his fighting style is more keenly felt for this exceptional sound design, but also for masterful camera work and the narrative throughline of a father's struggle. Playing as Kratos, I myself feel how Atreus must see him: terrifying, yet awe-inspiring.
Story and gameplay are further married by Atreus' role in combat. Neither a burden to be babysat nor an overbearing necessity, Atreus is as helpful as the teacher allows. Merely tapping Square will command him to fire an arrow at the most central foe in view. With rapid fire, I can distract key enemies or interweave the arrows with Kratos' combos for massive stun damage. His special attack and equipment can be customized for ancillary benefits, complementing Kratos' offensive Runic Attacks with defensive crowd control or giving him a chance to turn up Healthstones in the middle of a fight.
As my understanding of Atreus and his combat capabilities grew with time, it mirrored the fraught but evolving relationship between father and son. As Kratos grants Atreus more praise and responsibility, I incorporate Atreus with ever more critical roles. With each hard-fought victory over legitimately challenging encounters, Atreus feels like he's grown, if only because I understand him better and have given him another chance to shine.
“Tense, Frantic Encounters”
All of these tactical options, used in split-second decisions across tense, frantic encounters, coalesce into combat that's challenging to pick up and extremely difficult to master. Even with progressively better equipment and stats, it can't be brute-forced. Dodge and block timings, managing space, and a sixth sense for foes and attacks you can't see are just as important as the skill points you bring to the table.
God of War is uncompromising and leans heavily on player skill, but it's consistently fair and immensely rewarding, with only a few exceptions. Some side quest encounters, which tend to take place in less carefully designed arenas, spawn enemies behind Kratos in a way that feels duplicitous: designed to get some cheap shots in before most players would reasonably notice them. Occasionally, multiple enemies will attack in such a way that avoiding damage is impossible, or Kratos will get stun-locked between attacking foes whose bodies prevent rolling away while the camera spazzes on close objects. While arguably avoidable from the top, in these moments, it can feel like the battle system is failing you, stumbling over itself in pursuit of intimate realism.
God of War's singular focus on Kratos and Atreus bleeds from story and gameplay into its open-world design. The fat of genre conventions has been trimmed, leaving only the meatiest side quests. These mini-adventures are worth completing for dialogue and character development alone; I sought out every one to see what the context and impetus would bring out in Kratos and Atreus. Their banter—at times playful, terse, apprehensive, or detached—speaks volumes about their treatment of the world and others. Every side quest is a genuine chance to deepen or crystallize our understanding of the duo.
Despite boasting far fewer diversions than its checklist-heavy peers, God of War's open world demands a thorough charting over 30 to 40 hours. That time feels enriching, as even outside the main quest, the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus creates space for each battle to feel like a development in their story. Narrative adds fuel to combat's fire, while combat begets narrative with teachable moments or reactionary dialogue. And even at their most numerous, side quests never overwhelm the journal nor meaningfully distract from the critical path. They are explicitly acknowledged as opportunities for Kratos and Atreus to gather knowledge, resources, and equipment for their true mission, which rarely leaves center stage. The rest is peripheral; loot and material benefits are second to expanded comprehension of the main characters.
In a place where rewards like XP and loot are incidental to characters and writing, it's easy to overlook missteps in open-world progression. The reward economy is suspect at times. A couple of quests with unique gameplay and rewards appear mid-adventure, tempting a diversion from the main story. With no indication of suggested level, it takes a visit and a swift beatdown to learn the content's not meant to be tackled for another dozen-plus hours. That's fine in itself, but some rewards are swiftly outpaced by other, far easier upgrades, or don't stack up favorably next to the gear required to earn them. Elsewhere, crafting recipes can show up well before the associated materials make their first appearance or with non-typical ingredients that require a different kind of play. These confusions resolve with time, but it can feel disorienting to be shown completable items with no direction or sign-posting. “Just keep playing” is simple, but a bit rudderless when it comes to character planning or open-world basics, like fast travel, that work differently here.
Progression quirks aside, God of War presents an incredibly coherent open world. It positively adores Norse mythology and lends painstaking attention to the internal consistency of these legends within God of War's unique universe. The result is a fantastical landscape that manages to feel lived in: weathered and indelibly altered by cosmic forces and fated battles between gods.
Midgard's forests, caverns, temples, and ruins are realized in excruciating detail—pockmarked by damage, peppered with cultural detritus—and boast level design to match. Clever mini-puzzles and exploratory brain teasers reward inquisitive players with money, gear, or health upgrades. These treasure chests can be hidden in plain sight, requiring a later visit with expanded abilities, but many can be uncovered at first blush with curiosity and careful attention to a level's layout and the relationship between spaces. While rarely difficult (I sussed out every solution to the ones I naturally noticed), puzzles reveal a hidden complexity to God of War's environments. Levels criss-cross atop themselves, unfurling at the player's behest, which makes navigation itself feel fun and satisfying.
God of War Review: Final Thoughts
Beneath it all, God of War is visually astounding. Dazzling particle effects and lighting adorn Midgard with mystical energy and tangible atmosphere. Monster designs are made memorable and frightening by lifelike detail and animation. On PS4, these details make God of War a truly impressive work of visual art. On PS4 Pro with HDR enabled, it becomes an eye-searing technical showcase—by my eye, gaming's best implementation of the technology yet. And once again, special honor must be given to Kratos and Atreus. Facial animation works performative wonders; their eyes and expressions convey emotion in subtle degrees. Glances and pained looks betray unspoken feeling, heightening the dramatic tension.
We return to a father and son. Even while incorporating camera techniques, RPG conventions, and open-world tropes of the last half-decade of gaming, God of War strikes with singular vision. Kratos and Atreus are the beating heart of this journey, which asks what's left to pass on after we've made peace with ourselves. In doing so, it reconciles with a gaming legend and successfully writes his next chapter: a challenging, emotionally affecting adventure that stands among PlayStation's best.
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