Sony Santa Monica opened its doors to the press last week, giving attendees a chance to spend a considerable chunk of time with the upcoming God of War. For about three hours, I was glued to the TV, as I got to experience Kratos’ new story from its opening moments. Over the course of that time, I played through sections that resonated with me as a God of War fan, and was also pleasantly disoriented by its new direction. Read on for five of my most surprising and rewarding takeaways from the game.
Warning: I’ll avoid diving too deeply into spoiler territory, but I will describe a few events from the first few hours that particularly spoiler-sensitive types may want to avoid.
The story is a slow, powerful burn
The God of War series is known for many things, including huge bosses, gruesome massacres of grunt enemies, and insanity stacked atop insanity. Most of the time, those elements are introduced within seconds of pressing the start button. That’s not the case with this entry. I did get to see Kratos kill something with with his new Leviathan Axe, but it was a tree. And that came only after a contemplative moment where Kratos paused to put his hand atop a mysterious glowing handprint that marked its bark.
We haven’t heard many details about Kratos’ wife before, and the game’s opening hours isn’t exactly oversharing. Still, I was able to learn a bit more about this woman, who is named Faye. She’s dead by the time we join Kratos and his son, Atreus, but it doesn’t appear that she was murdered or faced a violent end. She had personally marked trees in the forest for her funeral pyre, which leads me to believe that she saw her own death coming. With her passing comes an emboldened enemy, the undead Draugr. As Atreus writes in his journal, these are warriors who are too stubborn to put down their weapons, even in death. The valley that Kratos’ family lived in was protected by a magical circle of trees, but when Kratos felled them – at Faye’s request – an opening in the barrier was created.
All of this is revealed naturally and deliberately through dialog between Kratos and Atreus as they prepare Faye’s body for the funeral rite, hunt together, and explore the surrounding forest. God of War isn’t afraid of taking its time to reveal where it’s going, which was definitely a change of pacing. We learn that Faye was teaching the boy how to hunt, but it’s clear the focus was more on tracking animals than slaying them. Atreus also makes a passing reference to his mother not wanting Kratos and the boy to go hunting together. I’m not ready to put money on it quite yet, but people may have been jumping the gun with their assumptions that Kratos had settled down with a mortal. Faye is awfully close to the word “fae,” the catchall word for elves, dwarves, and giants in Norse mythology.
There’s a beautiful world to explore, and reasons to do so
Sony Santa Monica wasn’t attempting to create an open-world experience with God of War, but the team has made an effort to reward players who take the time to explore. The paths that Kratos and Atreus took during my demo were ultimately linear, though there were opportunities to move off the critical path. For example, in the early moments of the game Kratos and Atreus are tracking a deer. Rather than stick to following its muddy hoofprints, I veered off to explore an alternate pathway. It led to a treasure chest, filled with crafting materials.
You can certainly blaze through the critical path, but you run the risk of making things more difficult later on. Over the course of my demo my methodical slow-poke style paid off, as I collected three hidden apples and extended Kratos’ life bar by a considerable amount. Sometimes these alternate routes are obvious, and other times you have to really scour the landscape to figure out how to access hidden paths. Kratos can’t jump at will in this entry; his leaps are situational moves across gaps, similar to those that you see in the 3D Zelda games.
There’s a fair amount of puzzle-solving
It’s been a while since I played through the earlier God of War games, but the latest game had more puzzles that I remember. Don’t worry, however. I didn’t push a single crate, pull any levers, or stand on any switches. Those things could pop up later, to be certain, but they were mercifully absent from the game’s opening hours. Instead, Kratos’ axe gets to show its versatility.
The Leviathan Axe is a magical weapon that freezes (most) enemies, and it can return to Kratos’ hand at will. (If that reminds you of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, that’s probably not a coincidence. Both were forged by Brok, a blacksmith in the Norse mythology that props up the game.) At any rate, the Leviathan Axe’s frosty qualities can be put to good use in puzzles. An early puzzle is set around a pair of gates connected by a chain. Pulling the chain opens the inner gate as the outer gate closes. The secret is to fully open the inner gate and then freeze it in place by aiming the axe and chucking it at a target. From there, it’s safe to run through, retrieve the axe, and pass through the outer gate.
One of the later puzzles had a deadly riff on that concept, with a spiked ceiling that could be raised by hitting large wooden paddles with the axe. Once again, I had to hit a target with the axe to lock the ceiling safely into place, but then had to take on a wave of enemies unarmed. Or, I could summon it back and do more damage while keeping an eye on the ceiling and ensuring it didn’t drop too low. These might not break anyone’s brain, but I saw these a welcome change of pace from the rotating columns of yesteryear.
Oh yeah, the fighting is good
Sorry! With all this talk about story and exploration and puzzles, I forgot about that whole fighting thing. Don’t worry! It’s still a big part of God of War, and it’s made the transition to a tighter third-person camera quite nicely. I understand purists may look at the new presentation and think, “I’m out.” It’s definitely different, but I was taken aback by how much it still feels like a God of War game, even though it’s such a visual and mechanical departure from past games.
The axe has a nice weighty feel around it when you’re using it as a melee weapon, but that’s just part of what it can do. Yeah, yeah, I already talked about the puzzles. In addition to hitting targets, you can also aim it an enemies (surprise!). If it lodges into smaller enemies, it’ll freeze them in place, giving Kratos an opportunity to move on to another target or finish that one off. It’s an effective way to control the crowds of enemies. My favorite part is how you can chuck the axe at an enemy and recall it, and if any other enemies are in the way of its return flight, they’ll take damage, too.
I wasn’t able to dive too deeply into the skill tree during my time with the game, but I did get a technique called the executioner’s cleave. It’s a charge attack for Kratos’ heavy attack that does an absurd amount of damage, with one caveat: You can’t walk around with it charged, so you need to time it just right, or you’ll end up hitting empty space.
Atreus is fun to have around. Really
We’ve all been burned before by A.I. companions. When they’re not getting stuck on geometry they’re lagging behind, getting killed, or not listening. Atreus is different in that Sony Santa Monica has made a real effort to make sure Kratos’ son isn’t annoying. Well, he’s kind of annoying sometimes, but from a deliberate narrative standpoint, and not because he refuses to jump across a gap.
If you don’t want to worry about him, he runs well on autopilot. As you fight enemies, he’ll pepper them with arrows, causing damage and drawing aggro from you. (Don’t worry, he can’t die.) You can also manually command him to target specific enemies. He has his own upgrade path, as well as gear that you can craft for him – if you choose to do so. It’s really up to you.
Personally, I liked having him around. He was helpful in combat, and he never got between me and a target – which is huge. He also calls out when enemies are coming from behind, which helped on occasions when I wasn’t paying close attention to the onscreen indicators. Kratos isn’t nearly as into Atreus as I was, however. He’s a grumpy dude who has little patience for a child’s impulsive and irresponsible ways. I suspect that they’ll get closer during their journey, however.
God of War is coming to PlayStation 4 on April 20. For more on the game, including a variety of video interviews with the game’s creators, be sure to check out our hub below.