I’m a well-known not-fan of the God of War series of video games. In all fairness, I’ve only played the first game. But I feel that when you quit a game halfway through because you’re not getting anything from it, it’s fair to just skip the sequels. However, after some light prodding by my brothers, I recently began playing the most recent game in the series, Dad of Boy.
While it bothers me once in a while that it feels very generic because it’s a Triple-A game and it does all the things that every Triple-A game must (Skill trees! Colour-coded loot! Armor crafting! Endless checklists! Murder milestones!), I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying it. It has so many elements that I like that the original God of War either didn’t fully deliver on, or was missing completely. I don’t know if any of the games in between would satisfy me in the same way, but I don’t really see myself going back for them anyway.
Number one on the list is that I dig the draw on Norse mythology. I don’t really know enough about Norse lore to know how well it’s represented, but I like that it is very fully represented, as opposed to just having a few name drops here and there. It’s not a common setting in video games, and I think that goes a really long way to making this one feel very fresh. Not that I had any issues with the series’ previous focus on Greek mythology – that was only major draw that the series ever really had for me.
Secondly, the combat in Dad of Boy is straight-up excellent. It’s pretty well on-par with the general third-person action we’ve come to expect from games like Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. The huge difference here is that it’s not designed for experts – there aren’t millions of combos to learn, and you’re never, ever graded on your ability. There are still plenty of combat options, and tons of different special moves that you can mix and match as you like. It’s fluid, fast, and surprisingly hard. I’m playing on normal difficulty and have died many dozens of times.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the pacing. As far as I’m aware, all previous games in the God of War series are straight-up action games that funnel you through hallways to get you from one mass murder to the next. Dad of Boy, on the other hand, is secretly a metroidvania. The first couple hours are straightforward, but then you hit the Lake of Nine and suddenly you can go anywhere that you can reach or have the right tools to access. So in between all the adrenaline-pumping battles are many quiet moments or travel, allowing you to take in the scenery and breathe for a bit. Since it’s a metroidvania and your progress is self-directed, those quiet moments can go on for quite a while if you see fit. Sometimes I even forget that I’m playing a game where the main character’s solution to every problem is to break or murder it. It also helps that you’re joined on your quest by characters who aren’t nearly as bloodthirsty as Kratos, and their appreciation for the world, history, and helping people instead of murdering them makes the experience much more palatable to me.
Another major feature that really chills the game out is that a lot of your travelling is done via canoe. Once you hit that 2-hour mark or whatever it is, the Lake of Nine becomes the hub of the world, and everywhere you want to go is either on the lake, or down a river that branches off from it. I am a huge fan of this method of travel, as it reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but on a much smaller scale so that the boating excursions don’t ever become a drag. There are even a bunch of optional islands that you can row to and explore for fun and profit! As an added bonus, canoe trips are generally made more interesting by being the parts of the adventure where your characters will chatter and tell stories amongst themselves. It’s an excellent way to slide in extra world and character development without resorting to an expansive series of text files (which this game does have as well, because Triple-A).
One of the most fascinating things to me, however, is that Dad of Boy shares a progression structure with the most unlikely game – Metroid II: Return of Samus. Most games of the metroidvania flavour will technically give you full access to the game’s map from the start, and anything stopping you will be based on what abilities you have, not plot triggers. But Metroid II eschewed that by dividing the planet SR388 into chunks that would unlock sequentially as you defeated metroids, which (somehow) triggered a drop in the levels of deadly acid that stopped you from venturing deeper. You’d still have to return to previous areas to uncover secrets with new abilities, but it was a slightly more guided adventure than one expects from a Metroid game. Dad of Boy does almost the exact same thing, with the water level in the Lake of Nine being very high at the start, and then dropping in stages as you move the plot forward, thus granting you access to areas that were previously submerged. I’m a big fan of this. It’s super exciting to stumble upon a huge island that had once only been a conspicuous rock sticking out of the water. And also something about gradually unlocking the world as you go so that it never feels overwhelming…
Anyhow, all of this is to say that I think God of War (2018) is a really well-made video game. Excellent pacing, strong action scenes, and a heck of a lot of heart for a game about a burly fight-man who refuses to acknowledge any emotions outside of anger and rage. The moments where he comes so close to letting down his guard and showing compassion for his son are heartbreaking in the best way. It might actually be that I like this game so much because it’s letting Kratos be a person instead of a walking murder machine. I don’t know, maybe I do need to go back and play some of the other Gods of War. God of Wars? What I do know is that I will be thoroughly disappointed if, by the end, Kratos doesn’t finally give Atreus a hug.