It’s very rare to see a game completely redefine the core experience of its series, but every once in a while it’s done. There’s a short list of games like Resident Evil 4, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Persona 3, and now God of War. Kratos’ new adventure is unlike anything that’s come before, and the new God of War wears its inspirations on its sleeve. This is a cinematic game with a much larger emphasis on story, characters, and RPG systems. In short, it’s nothing like the arcade-y God of War games of the past, and that’s perfectly fine.
The new God of War features an older Kratos, one who’s begun to regret his actions in the past and is trying to reconcile things. On top of that he has a son to take care of now, meaning he can’t just run off and be an infernal rage monster whenever he wants. In past games, combat was absolutely the focus, with story taking a backseat, really only there to fit a series of increasingly ridiculous boss battles and set pieces. However, this leads to the main problem that began to plague the God of War series, violence and repetition.
Even by God of War III, let alone Ascension, Kratos had begun to wear out his welcome. The first God of War was rife with story and some interesting character development for Kratos, showing a broken man who had nothing left but revenge against Ares. By the time we get to III, however, it seems like Kratos is just killing because he can. The violence had become gratuitous, with Kratos gouging out Poseidon’s eyes or ripping off Helios’ head.
Not to mention the fact that killing these gods, in turn, killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent humans. Somewhere along the way, Kratos became completely unlikable, even hatable, and the series’ violence had hit an intense high point. The arcade-like nature of the gameplay was something that fit with this, however, as it allowed you to disengage with the themes and implications of Kratos’ actions, instead moving from battle to battle and using your skills to separate your enemies from their limbs.
This isn’t something that would fly in the ecosystem of modern Sony exclusive though. With recent exclusives like The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Bloodborne, there’s a greater emphasis than ever on storytelling, and giving context and purpose to all that violence. God of War has taken some cues from these games, as well as the likes of Dark Souls, putting a big emphasis on the relationship between Kratos and his son Atreus. A deeper narrative leads to the deepening of other aspects, like a more deliberate combat system and deeper customization options with RPG mechanics. At the same time God of War clearly draws inspirations from other big Sony IP’s, like the relationship between Kratos and Atreus drawing bits from the Last of Us, puzzle-solving similar to Uncharted at times, and a condensed world with multiple shortcuts similar to Bloodborne.
An arcade style would break up the tone that the new God of War is going for. Most combat encounters in the game are pitched as something attacking Kratos and Atreus with them defending themselves, instead of like past games with Kratos setting out to do violence from the get-go. There’s a rhythm to the new God of War and it’s one continuous camera shot has a lot to do with that; everything feels like it’s one flowing story. God of War needed to redefine itself, and this is how it does it, by putting a much larger emphasis on characters and narrative. Everything in the game loops into getting to know Kratos and Atreus, whether it’s discovering pieces of lore with collectables or the way the two interact while fighting.
Kratos had overstayed his welcome by God of War: Ascension, but this new Kratos is a changed beast. Showing regret and a willingness to change allows players to engage with the character like never before, and it’s a parallel to how the series itself needed to change. God of War falls right in line with Sony’ continuing philosophy of crafting big story-driven single-player experiences. It’s something that the company’s first-party studios have honed over the years, and God of War is the next step on that path.
It’s not just fine that God of War isn’t arcade-y, it couldn’t be. The new game creates a new identity for the series to carry forward, something that Sony Santa Monica can expand upon down the road. New fans to the series have a perfect starting point without having to play any other God of War games, while old fans still get that essential God of War experience in a new package. All these design changes are the best thing Santa Monica could have done for the series, and it’s put Kratos back on the map as one of Sony’s most formidable mascots.