God of War (PS4) review: Missed Opportunities

God of War is a game with an identity crisis. It’s a very good game in a lot of ways, but its bold aspirations are constantly at odds with the expectations that come from being a triple-A game carrying the God of War brand. It’s a game that desperately wants to move past the series’ juvenile origins, but never quite gets there.

Adventure Time

At God of War‘s core is a very good, very polished action adventure game. You know the drill: you travel across a series of levels, fighting enemies and solving puzzles along the way, occasionally taking some detour in search of treasures and secrets. This is a classic formula that goes back at least as far The Legend of Zelda, and God of War brings together those years of learning and development to deliver something that’s a lot of fun.

The puzzles and exploration aspect are the particular standout here. God of War is, broadly speaking, a linear game, albeit one with a lot of opportunities to stray from the beaten path for a moment or two. Your progress is constantly blocked by environmental puzzles, from navigating cliff faces, to getting ancient machinery up and running again, to raising a series of magical bridges made of light. These puzzles grow increasingly complicated, and for me, they almost always hit that sweet spot of being satisfyingly challenging without getting frustrating.

As you work your way through the game, you gain new abilities that help you solve these puzzles and let you access areas you previously wouldn’t have been able to. An arrow charged with magical light, for instance, can activate the crystals that drive the aforementioned light bridges; an electrically-charged arrow can set off explosive sap and open new pathways in the process.

This sort of upgrade-based progression calls to mind the likes of Zelda and Metroid, and it makes exploring incredibly satisfying. There are plenty of collectibles to find and secrets to uncover, and even without the sort of labyrinthine, interconnected map typical of a Metroidvania—God of War is more of a central, linear path with a lot of offshoots and optional detours—revisiting old areas with a much bigger set of tools is as exciting as ever.

God of War‘s vision of the nine realms of Norse mythology are beautifully realised, brought to life with the sort of technical proficiency that only a first-party AAA game can afford. From the relative mundanity of Midgard to the dreamlike beauty of Alfheim, every scene is picturesque and meticulously crafted, right down to the tiniest detail.

Were this the extent of the game, God of War would be absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s not.

You couldn’t really have a game called “God of War” without a hefty dose of fighting, but God of War’s combat feels like an afterthought. It follows the typical character action game mold—light and heavy attacks, guard and parry abilities, and a light sprinkling of RPG systems—but it lacks focus. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a stylish action game like Bayonetta, a slow and methodical one like a FromSoftware game, or something more rhythmic like the Arkham games. The end result is a weird mishmash of all of the above, without being a particularly great representation of any of them. It’s competent, but not particularly interesting or enjoyable, and I found the frequent battles more of a nuisance than a meaningful part of the game.

Sad Dads, Refrigerated Women

But God of War’s much bigger problem is the way all of this is framed. It’s been heralded as a new direction for the franchise—a more mature, more thoughtful, more considered direction for a series that made its mark with awkward sex minigames and extreme violence. Underneath a thin veneer faux maturity, though, this God of War is the same as its always been. It still revels in violence, and it’s still a shallow, hyper-masculine power fantasy; only this time, it’s masquerading as something deeper.

Kratos, the burly, angry demigod, is now older and sadder (though just as burly). He’s sad because his latest wife Faye has died, and he’s burdened with the unenviable task of being a father to his son, Atreus. Over the course of a journey to the highest peak in the nine realms to scatter Faye’s ashes—per her final wish—he’ll learn to get in touch with his feelings and find that maybe being a dad isn’t so bad after all.

Sound familiar? It’s another riff on the “sad dad” trope that’s become so popular in big-budget games of late. This is another story about an emotionally-stunted manchild being forced to finally grow up due to some fairly standard life event, presented as though it’s some magical and insightful thing. God of War arguably does a better job than most thanks to some strong performances, but this is still a story that’s old and tired.

(Related: “How God of War’s Long Take Experiment Fails, and How Editing in Games Can Succeed” by J. Rosenfield is an excellent piece on how the game’s refusal to use cinematic cuts undermines its attempts at emotional storytelling)

God of War doubles down on the problematic tropes with the way it treats the women among its cast. Faye is never seen as anything other than a container of ashes; she’s killed before the game even starts, and exists solely to drive the the story of Kratos, Atreus, and their awkward relationship. To make things worse, everyone else in the game talks highly of her—she’s remembered as a fierce warrior, a loving mother, and an idealization of womanhood—but these are all things projected onto her by the rest of the male-dominated cast. God of War still never gives its leading lady a chance to exist as her own person.  It’s not “press X to sex”, but benevolent misogyny is still misogyny.

The only other woman in the game doesn’t fare any better. The Witch in the Woods, as she’s introduced, is something of a foil to Faye—she’s the scheming, conniving, hysterical spinster to Faye’s impossible vision womanly perfection. Her story is a tragic one on paper, but it never develops beyond one of sexiest stereotypes, and while she at least gets to appear on screen, she never gets to develop into a whole character.

(Related: Dia Lucina’s article for Waypoint about God of War’s treatment of motherhood is also well worth reading.)

Identity Crisis

God of War is very ambitious in its attempts to reflect on the untethered violence of the games that came before it. Kratos is a less angry man this time around, and through Atreus, the game repeatedly questions its own fascination with murder and war. The first time he’s forced to kill someone—in self-defence—Atreus goes into a state of shock and depression. As he learns more of his father’s past, Atreus grows increasingly vocal in his criticism of the gods’ cycle of violence.

As soon as a cutscene ends, though, God of War goes back to revelling uncritically in its violence. Brutal attacks and “cinematic” executions are cornerstone’s of the game’s combat system, and one of Kratos’ main special abilities sends him into an unbridled rage. Even the exploration side of the game doesn’t escape the aggression: not content to simply open chests, Kratos prefers to punch through the top of them, and a great many of the puzzles involve hitting and/or breaking stuff.

This is what I mean when I say that God of War is a game with an identity crisis. It wants to tell a particular type of story, but it can’t shake the expectations that come with a being big budget, first-party blockbuster. A game that prioritised introspection and discovery, and that kept combat to a minimum, would be a much better fit for what God of War is trying to do, but that’s just too much of a risk for a game with this sort of budget.

Likewise, there’s an expectation for a blockbuster game to meet some sort of arbitrary quota in terms of running time, which only leads to God of War feeling bloated and poorly paced. What should have been a brief, intimate story is stretched out to 20-odd hours through repeated distractions and aimless filler quests—you need to go to A, but there’s something in the way, so you need to go to B to get the thing to clear that first obstacle, but then something else gets in the way, so you need to go to C, and so on. This sort of structure works well for some games (especially those with more minimalist or ambient storytelling, like Metroid or Dark Souls), but in God of War, it only dilutes the attempt at a more personal story.

Old Gods

All that said, God of War is still worth playing through, just so long as you don’t expect anything more than blockbuster entertainment. Exploring the nine realms and solving the numerous puzzles within it is a lot of fun, and aside from all the sad dad antics, the story is full of exciting twists and turns. The game’s rendition of Norse mythology is a beautiful one, and words can’t do justice to its technical achievements.

I just couldn’t help but want more from God of War, with the way that people have been talking about it. This is a game that’s been built up as a maturing of the franchise, but it’s the same old God of War, really—it just has a newer, sadder coat of paint.

God of War is developed by Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed).

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.