I thoroughly enjoyed God of War. The Norse revival of the long running Greek action franchise is a worthy companion for The Last of Us on Sony’s rapidly expanding dad shelf, a game with exciting combat, absorbing level design, and a fantastic story about the relationship between an imperfect father and his imperfect son. It also feels like a bit of a letdown, although that’s not really the game’s fault. The early reviews told me God of War was supposed to be perfect, and – without spoiling anything – God of War is most certainly not.
The same is true of most games, so that’s not in any way a problem. It doesn’t make God of War any less entertaining or worthy of your time. If anything, the critical exuberance feels like the manifestation of a games culture that willfully distorts reality to avoid inconvenient conversations, turning a great title into a disappointing one because it can’t possibly live up to the outsized expectations. That’s not fair to fans or individual developers. God of War is excellent. The reaction to God of War demonstrates how low we’ve set the bar for perfection, and suggests that we still need to develop the vocabulary we use to talk about video games.
That’s why I find myself inclined to be more critical than usual. Though it does a lot well, God of War falls short in a number of noteworthy ways. For instance, the combat isn’t quite as refined as the praise would suggest. The experience is often chaos, with all the thrills and frustrations of a needlessly steep learning curve. Key features simply aren’t mentioned until three or four encounters after they would have been useful, making the first hour a trial by fire as the game runs you through a series of increasingly difficult fights without giving you the tools you need to survive them (each tutorial drops shortly after you’ve figured it out for yourself). Then you upgrade your axe, buy some armor, and snag some items, and the game gets a little easier as you muddle through.
That trend continues throughout God of War. The game becomes more forgiving, but success or failure often has less to do with your gameplay skill than it does with the quality of your gear. The result feels a lot like an RPG, which is anomalous for a franchise that places such a strong emphasis on dynamic combat. Have you upgraded your armor recently? If so, this encounter will be a snap. If not, you could be here for a while, because standard grunts are strong enough to deliver one-hit KOs if you make a single mistake.
In a way, that makes the game gratifying. When the stakes are so high, you need to be damn good to give yourself a chance. At the same time, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of every member of a horde, and there’s always an element of luck when the enemies hit that hard and there are that many of them onscreen at one time. Dodging often fails to take you out of harm’s way, so no amount of talent can ever make up for an under-leveled character. There’s too much variability and vulnerability, both of which feels like departures from earlier games.
Thankfully, the story is enough to hold your interest for those first few hours. At the start of the game, Kratos has been living in a hut somewhere in the woods of Scandinavia. His wife has just died, so Kratos is making funeral arrangements with the help of their son, Atreus. They plan to scatter her ashes from the top of the highest mountain, but things go awry when a number of Norse deities take an interest in the former Greek God. It turns out that Kratos as been living off the grid. Now that he’s back on it, some very powerful figures want to know his secrets.
What’s interesting is that the audience is equally in the dark. We don’t know what Odin wants from Kratos, and the game hands out just enough breadcrumbs to keep you curious. There are also a lot of unanswered questions. Who is this strange man covered in tattoos? What happened to Jotunheim? How much stuff is hidden beneath the Lake of Nine? The questions build an incredible sense of anticipation as you wait for the mystery to unfold.
However, the most intriguing questions surround the relationship between Kratos and Atreus, who accompanies his father on their quest. There’s a lot of Norse mythology, but for the most part the reveals are Easter Eggs and exposition. The evolution of the father-son dynamic is the game’s true emotional spine. We know what kind of man Kratos was when he lived in Greece. He butchered the Pantheon, and he’s hiding that history from his son. Parenthood has given him more control of his anger, but Kratos is not father of the year material.
Atreus doesn’t know that, and the discrepancy creates tension. Kratos wants to set a good example, and like many children, Atreus wants to believe that his father is a good person who can do no wrong. What will he do when he learns the truth? That human question is much more powerful than Norse trivia, and gives the game a long fuse as we wait for the reveal of something the audience already knows.
Sadly, the payoff isn’t quite as good as the setup, largely because Kratos never rises above his trope. He’s the stern parent, a strict authority figure you don’t want to disappoint. He doesn’t argue or harbor disagreement. He expects obedience, and those expectations are usually met because Kratos exudes the kind strength and resolve that break the wills of lesser men.
That includes Atreus, though in his case that’s a function of youth and lineage (kids are supposed to defer to parents). Even so, it tips the balance of power. Atreus is too green to call out bad behavior, but Kratos is still Kratos. He’s cold, cruel, and indifferent to the lives of those around him, the kind of hypocrite who scolds other people for telling the same lie he’s been telling to his own son.
That’s what makes the tone so off putting. Despite his obvious shortcomings, a tangible sense of ‘father knows best’ permeates God of War. Kratos and Atreus are on an epic quest in which they will fight literal gods. Kratos has unique expertise in that specific field, while Atreus’s youthful naivety is a liability in such life-and-death scenarios.
In other words, Kratos is the hero, which is limiting because he still doesn’t have a lot of emotional depth. Though not as outwardly toxic as he was in early incarnations, Kratos is now the exemplar of a stoic masculinity that believes emotions should be suppressed rather than acknowledged. He refuses to validate Atreus’s emotions, asking his son to sweep his grief and confusion under the rug without offering any explanation or making any effort to contextualize their experiences. His parenting philosophy is ‘Do this, and don’t ask why,’ a stance that allows psychological trauma to fester because it goes unaddressed. Kratos wants his son’s problems to go away, just as he’s hoping his own past will disappear as long as he never talks about it.
Of course, sticking one’s head in the sand is seldom an effective technique, and in fairness, God of War is well aware that that stoicism is not healthy. Kratos’s unwillingness to grapple with his legacy has severe consequences over the course of the game. But everyone is a little too eager to let him off the hook. When Kratos is finally forced to confess his crimes, a mere statement of fact – a description of things that happened – is seemingly enough to restore his heroic status. He is forgiven for doing the bare minimum, the smallest possible amount of emotional labor, and then permitted to continue his mythological rampage. Aside from a few unpleasant conversations (and his own lingering guilt), there are no consequences for his violence.
None of that makes God of War a bad game. In fact, I’m nitpicking. God of War often shows instead of tells with its biggest emotional beats. There’s a lot of nuance in the margins, with supporting characters and side quests that illuminate the relationship between Kratos and Atreus from different angles and add a lot of texture and complexity.
But the leniency feels a bit like what we’ve done with God of War itself, which is to say that we’ve given it a pass for doing the least we should expect from ambitious works of art. The original presented violence as entertainment, encouraging players to wallow in gore without considering the subtext. The update is a marked improvement insofar as it acknowledges that violence is problematic, but it’s a mild critique. With God of War, identifying the problem is enough to absolve us of the responsibility to explore it further.
We should expect more from games that come so highly recommended. The issues with God of War are sitting in plain sight, but a lot of the early reviews overlooked them in their rush to shower the game with perfect scores. It’s not the first time a flawed game has received such fawning treatment (the reviews for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword were embarrassing). Blockbusters like God of War are held to a lower standard, and that does a disservice to everyone involved. Is this really the pinnacle of gaming? As fans, is this all we want from our interactive entertainment?
Sony Santa Monica made a game that struck a chord with gamers and revived a franchise that seemed dead after the lackluster God of War: Ascension. For that, the studio deserves recognition. It’s an impressive accomplishment. The new game lays plenty of track for future installments, and I am absolutely looking forward to the sequel.
I’d just like the next game to be better than this one, in the same way that I want all future games to be better than the ones we currently have. In order to do that, we need to be honest about the things that can be improved. We have to be willing to dig beneath the surface, to interrogate a game with an otherwise terrific foundation. In God of War, the story holds your interest during its initial struggles with combat. The combat keeps your attention as the story falters near the conclusion. The game could have been more consistent overall and it could have done more to deconstruct the vengeful masculinity that launched the franchise.
Pointing that out doesn’t detract from the generally high quality of the game. The most engaging works of art are seldom perfect. They don’t become so when we ignore the flaws.