Let me just say this at the top. Simply put, God of War is on a different level. The game -- now available in stores and online -- is an incredibly impressive and fully realized experience unmatched by anything I've played in recent memory. It's scary good. And it's only on PS4. Sorry, Xbox and Switch owners.
What it accomplishes is genuinely staggering. Its production value is off the charts. The set pieces, environments -- the scale of it all -- completely resets the bar when it comes to technical prowess in the console gaming discussion.
And it wasn't until a few hours in that I came to realize I was completely unprepared for the level of depth God of War would offer.
When I first saw the surprise announcement of a new God of War game back at E3 2016, I was most curious about what this meant for the series. How was this going to evolve the franchise? Where were they taking the lore? Why did Kratos look like he'd spent some time with a metal band? But the gameplay tease that followed made sense to me. Transforming the perspective to third-person felt like a reasonable direction to take the game. I remember thinking, "This is exactly what they needed to do for a reboot."
But my early understanding of this aesthetic shift was really just the tip of the iceberg. Even after an hour spent playing a demo last month, it still hadn't occurred to me just how many light years ahead developer Santa Monica Studio had pushed God of War.
Not only is God of War in fact a meaty open-world action-RPG, it also finds an equilibrium that showcases both Kratos' maturation as a character and the series' evolution as a whole. With the original games serving as a prologue, this new era's transformation is a jarring metamorphosis in game design, mechanics and character development.
Up until now, our antihero, Kratos, has been famously one-dimensional and mad as hell at pretty much anything and everything. This new "chapter" in his life rips him from his Greek mythological roots and transplants him into the frigid depths of Norse lore, stripping away his iconic chained Blades of Chaos.
Kratos is now presented as a much more vulnerable demigod (if you can believe it) at the start of God of War, weathered by his shattered past, time and his current familial dilemma. Most importantly, he's a relatively new dad.
His son is called Atreus, and their fragmented relationship feels like an Alice in Wonderland trip down the rabbit hole of Norse mythology. Kratos is forced to deal with the secrets of his past to prevent a dark future for himself and his boy.
Along the way, you're treated to an experience that draws inspiration from a smattering of different genres, be it the exploration that's encouraged throughout, the Metroid-esque style of teasing areas you just can't reach yet, and the puzzles and hidden sections that are slyly peppered throughout.
It all plays out in a brutal, larger-than-life adventure that attempts to outdo itself sequence after sequence. Its meticulously choreographed momentum is aided by its one-long-take methodology, in which the entire experience can be played through completely uninterrupted without any cinematic cuts. There aren't any loading screens unless you die. Sure, the game has to continue to load somehow -- especially with fast travel being an option -- but that's done by admirably seamless video transitions and other clever uses of misdirection.
God of War is mostly a new beast from the ground up. If you've played some or all of the games from the PS2 and PS3, you'll notice occasional hallmarks of the series -- like chests and enemy juggling -- but not a lot has stuck around for the ride. Instead, God of War stands as a departure in more ways than not, meaning no, you don't have to know much about Kratos' timeline before you start.
Of course, it's the series' brutal over-the-top action that once separated it from the pack, and sure, all that's in here 50 times over. But the core combat has changed, and it definitely takes some getting used to. In fact, after 25 or so hours, I still haven't entirely wrapped my head around it all.
New is Kratos' Leviathan Axe, a supremely satisfying weapon. It's got some real weight to it that permeates through the rumble of the controller. It can also be thrown and summoned back, which I can gleefully confirm never gets old.
The moment-to-moment action and encounters force you to respect every enemy you come across. Big boss battles feel more in line with those in Bloodborne (OK, maybe not that difficult) than what you would remember in past God of War games. It might be steep, but the learning curve is fair.
Atreus adds an interesting complication to the mix. He acts as your ranged weapon assistant, firing arrows that chip away at and stun enemies. He can also choke them out or set you up for an attack. Any worries of him interfering in the action should be dismissed because you quickly realize he's a valuable asset. He's also somewhat of an interpreter for Kratos as he can read the Runes chiseled throughout the world.
Kratos can block enemy attacks, but that same button is used to activate special maneuvers called Runics, of which you have light and heavy options. The problem is the reliance on using block caused me to fire off Runic attacks by accident. It's not the worst thing in the world, but an ill-timed Runic will force you to wait out its cool-down period. There's also a targeting system in place, but it has a tendency to handcuff.
Then there are the laundry list of combos and skills that can be unlocked using XP, one of the game's many currencies. Both Kratos and Atreus have skill trees, with Kratos doubling down on bare-handed and axe skills. It's overwhelming, and quite honestly, feels like you have too many moves at your disposal. Reliably pulling off some of the combos advertised in the menus takes serious discipline.
If you do reach a point where you're stringing together axe-throw combos, learning stance changes and timing, you're probably really good at fighting games too -- that's the vibe the combat in God of War occasionally gives off. Your skills will undoubtedly grow as you progress and the game can be a decent teacher if you commit and persist.
Thankfully, you don't really need to master any of it, because odds are you'll find your own play style that will gradually get powerful enough as long as you monitor the stats of your armor and upgrade your and Atreus' weapons regularly.
But the game's menu system never felt quite right to me. At the start of my play it was categorically daunting, but eventually I just got used to it. It's not as intuitive as I think it could have been, mostly due to its text-heavy presentation. I spent a lot of time going through different rarities of armor, comparing their stats, cross-referencing them with what I might be able to buy at shops and then making sure I wasn't neglecting any piece within my loadout.
The shops in the game are owned and operated by a pair of Dwarven brothers -- one's a lovable germaphobe and the other is just kind of a dick -- but their stories and presence really add a lot to the overall experience. In fact, there are some surprisingly funny moments in God of War, which is certainly a welcome palate cleanser, between all the, you know, gore and troll killing.
A few small stumbles in the quality-of-life department hardly chip away at what is such an overall satisfying package. This is an unexpectedly massive game. I didn't notice a time counter, but I definitely spent north of 25 hours completing God of War's main campaign, and that's barely scraping the surface of the other explorable areas and side objectives -- of which there are many. You can hunt down treasure, uncover secret areas, perform favors asked of you by the Dwarves, collect artifacts, complete time trials and do even more stuff that I haven't figured out yet.
With the main campaign in my rearview, it's easier to appreciate how much of a colossal logistical and technical nightmare this must have all been to assemble together, not to mention the fact that there's a genuinely compelling story threaded through this universe. Some of it's a wild goose chase, some of it's jaw-dropping and some of it is downright touching.
I knew this game wouldn't be tough to recommend, I'm just genuinely shocked by just how much there is to do in it. This was not the God of War I was expecting and perhaps that's the best part about it.
God of War now sits on a short list of elite PS4 company. It will forever be a challenge to talk about the platform's best without mentioning its name. Truly, this is the type of game that comes along maybe twice a console generation.
The latest from Santa Monica Studio resolidifies God of War as a franchise staple. If you have a PS4 it's an obvious no-brainer, if you have a PS4 Pro it'll shock you with how good it looks (seriously, it's breathtaking) and if you have a friend without Sony's console, let them borrow yours.
This review was first published April 12, 2018.