God of War is the seventh game in the series, and the fourth main entry, but you can think of it as a soft reboot. Dropping the number from the title isn't the only change, and you'll find a lot that's different about our "hero", Kratos, as well as the setting, and also, the core of the game - how you fight.
As we discussed in our God of War review, combat is different in this latest instalment in the series. For the most part, you’ll be slaying all manner of Norse-inspired demons with an axe, rather than Kratos' signature blades. The Leviathan Axe, as the game calls it, is a very different weapon for series protagonist Kratos. Previously, you could clear a room full of enemies by blindingly swinging your blades. And while you can do the same here, you’re likely to end up dead sooner than you think. Instead, God of War has you focussing on the finer points of battle thanks to the multipurpose uses of the Leviathan Axe.
At its core, God of War’s axe has two functions in combat. You can throw it at a foe or go up close for a brutal cleaving. Both options have heavy and light varieties with the former doing more damage than the latter albeit taking longer to activate, leaving you open to an enemy attack. Targeting and throwing the Leviathan Axe works somewhat similarly to shooting in third-person games like Gears of War. The long-range use of the axe is meant to slow down your opponents, whittling down their health as you close in for the kill, and game makes certain its not abused with a host of checks and balances. Abusing the use of an axe throw against packs of draugr leads to you being overrun even if you move. And trying to land a hit on fast moving enemies like revenants — teleporting shaman-like witches - isn't a feasible strategy either, forcing you to try other options.
The same applies to close quarters combat too, due to magic. You see, the Leviathan Axe lets you freeze enemies and obstacles, which is useful for solving puzzles. At the same time, it’s fairly useless against ice-based elemental enemies like frost ogres or reavers. In these situations, the game forces you mix things up with your fists quite literally. Yes, using your bare knuckles is a valid choice, and one that you’ll need to consider when your axe inevitably fails. With a rather equitable distribution of various enemy types, you're going to have to keep switching things up.
There’s no one size fits all solution to defeating those in your way. God of War eases you into understanding this early on as you square off against reavers, to whom your axe does little damage and it keeps repeating this in small doses as you keep playing. You eventually reach a point where you’re up against colossal foes of varying elemental types, switching between weapons every few seconds in order to keep pushing forward. It becomes almost instinctive a couple of hours into the game, and works well enough that you’re likely to forget that Spartan Rage — a power up that lets you maul through your opposition by pressing L3 and R3 — is also at your disposal.
There are other games that have a similar approach, such as DmC: Devil May Cry and Castlevania: Lord of the Shadows, but there are two factors make God of War’s style similar to Dark Souls more than anything else. For one, whether you’re using the Leviathan Axe or Kratos’ fists both feel great. The sense of heft involved and the impact sounds made give combat a visceral, satisfying, almost crunchy feeling when you get it right.
Secondly, the pace of play isn’t as fast as other action games. You’re playing as an old god who seems past his prime but can still pack a punch when pushed. It gives a more deliberate, almost thoughtful pacing where every hit, block, and parry feels magnified, and combining successful strikes keeps pushing you forward. There’s very little friction between your enjoyment of the combat as Quick Time Events — moments when you’d have to press a series of buttons in rapid succession — are absent for most part. A staple of past God of War games, these QTEs have given way to a simple button press that lets you unleash gory execution moves when your enemies are stunned, similar to another Souls-like game, Bloodborne.
All of this is layered with an elaborate upgrade path for weapons and armour that modifies the damage you do and what skills you have at your disposal. From choosing what kind of gauntlets and bracers Kratos uses, to runes that amplify frost magic or talismans, there’s a lot of room for trying out what each piece of gear does. Over the course of the game, there are frequent and useful loot drops from encounters with varying degrees of rarity ranging from common to epic. This loop of fighting and equipping loot is also akin to the addictive nature of the Dark Souls series too.
God of War wouldn’t be the first game to borrow elements from the successful Dark Souls formula. We’ve seen it with the likes of Assassin’s Creed Origins too. Here, it is improved upon because it feels weighty and satisfying without being clunky or sluggish. You never find yourself in an awkward situation, stuck in the game’s geometry or losing due to unresponsive controls. Any mistakes here are well and truly on you and deaths never feel cheap, with the aforementioned Spartan Rage being an ability you can use to even out the odds when the going may seem too tough. Or at the very least, rely on directly commanding Atreus to distract enemies with the arrows at his disposal, to buy yourself some time to heal up.
One might think that the five years spent on God of War were devoted to making it look great and run well on the PS4 and PS4 Pro (though the noise on that console is still an issue) and that wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s not just a good looking game. God of War’s refined combat is a sign that there was time well spent making this a game we want to experience all over again.
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