By Nick Romano
April 12, 2018 at 03:01 AM EDT
Sony Interactive Entertainment

A new God of War requires a new weapon.

The Norse gods will host feasts and the faerie folk will sing songs in the name of the Leviathan, a dwarf-made axe in Kratos’ arsenal. It’s his own version of Thor’s hammer: a rune-imbued relic that can be hurled at enemies with the frosty force of the icy tundra, complete with a handy return-to-sender feature and a satisfying crunch upon impact.

It’s nothing like the Spartan blades, which is the point.

Since the start of the Kratos story, the berserker warrior has used his signature weapon to replace Ares as the god of war, slaughter the Furies, and grapple with the Fates before wiping out the pantheon of ancient Greek deities entirely. But Kratos isn’t the same when we find him again in what feels like a fresh reboot for a franchise that became a little too repetitive over the years.

Leaving his name, his country, his religion, his very identity behind, Kratos found a new home in the land of Vikings — but the warrior known as the Ghost of Sparta is now haunted by his past. We find him chopping down a tree for firewood with the Leviathan, his wife’s signature weapon. The wood is now for her funeral, and Kratos finds himself left alone to care for their son, Atreus, a still innocent child untouched by the cost of taking lives. It’s not a calling he wants to embrace because doing so could mean revealing his true nature to the boy, but it’s one he must address if he hopes to fulfill his love’s dying wish: to spread her ashes from the highest peak in the nine realms.

God of War is still as brutal as you remember, but this new story has a lot more heart. Kratos and Atreus are a pair forced together by familial circumstance. The boy chooses to wield his mother’s knife and bow as his weapons, a constant reminder that he values her kindness and empathy over his father’s cold and distant demeanor. Both must make an effort to be there for one another — Atreus must learn to become a man from his father, and Kratos must learn to become a father to his son, especially with the arrival of a mysterious stranger.

A slender, bearded man covered in tattoos kickstarts this cosmic road trip when he comes knocking on Kratos’ door. He claims he’s been sent by Odin, king of the Norse gods, to obtain something. The fight with Poseidon in God of War III still ranks among my all-time favorite boss battles of all time, but what ensues here is unlike any other. This stranger is clearly a god as both beings wrestle with each other in a match that quite literally cracks open the earth. Home is no longer a safe option for Kratos and Atreus now, so they must embark on a journey that features fantastical missions across the realms of this mythological world. Yet, the story remains rooted in character.

Unlike previous iterations, Kratos’ drive here is far more pure. He’s not out to kill any gods (though that may happen along the way). He wants to do right by his family. It’s an intimate story made more so by the new player perspective. Instead of traversing a land of mythical gods and beasts from a third-party view, the camera sticks close to the back of Kratos. It makes you feel more a part of this world instead of watching it from afar. Much of the functionality remains the same with various weapons and abilities that will allow you to maneuver past obstacles down the road. Atreus will begin to fight enemies by himself the higher his level, but you’ll also be able to direct his arrows by targeting your opponents.

One of the bigger differences is a more immersive visual option in the settings menu that completely does away with health meters, navigational compasses, and enemy indicators so that you can focus solely on the lush visuals and layered narrative. (From the settings menu, navigate to HUD to toggle through Immersive mode.)

There’s a reason, too, not much about the actual story has been divulged before the game’s release. You are meant to discover this world as Kratos does. It’s a world that knows no borders, for if you manage to complete all the missions and side stories, an element will arise to expand it further. For example, the World Serpent, a gargantuan reptile of legend, snakes its way around a lake, each shift dipping the water level to reveal more opportunities for exploration. This also makes it easy to stumble upon enemies way above your pay grade and you will die — no amount of ducking and rolling will save you.

God of War, however, still can’t quite escape some of the pitfalls of its past. The franchise hasn’t exactly done right by its representation of women, for one. It’s still haunted by that playable scene when Kratos must have sex with a bare-breasted Aphrodite to move to the next level. There’s nothing like that in the new God of War. However, “the woman of the woods” (another character identity kept under wraps to maintain the surprise) isn’t as fully realized as a character as Kratos or Atreus. Compared to the subtler nuances and honesty of the father-son cutscenes, her introduction also comes across as an over-acted throwaway who comes in with convenient magical fixes.

Then there’s the side mission involving the Valkyries. These women are known to be fierce, winged warriors who ferry souls to the afterlife in Valhalla. (The Thor of Marvel’s Ragnarok is a big fan.) But here they are incorporated into the game as such: if you stumble upon them in an underground prison, you’ll have to fight and kill them to free their souls. Their spirits will then rise and thank you for violently slaughtering their “corrupted” forms and will reward you for doing so. It doesn’t exactly promote female empowerment. Not everything has to, but it’s particularly noticeable when you take one of the only widely recognizable symbols of feminine power from Norse myth and present it this way.

I will fully admit that I’m not as well read in this area as I am with ancient Greek or Egyptian dogma. Maybe it’s a symptom of how those two cultures always seem to be the go-tos in entertainment. That said, some of this weaving in of the larger mythology felt tiresome, especially toward the end of the game. After playing and exploring for two weeks, are we finally going to complete the mission? Nope! You have to get this obscure item you’ve probably never heard of and aren’t exactly sure why it makes sense. Okay, so then the conclusion will come after that. Psych! Second verse, same as the first.

God of War saves itself with a captivating story about a father and son who, despite how grand their adventure, despite their awe-inspiring settings, their story feels real.

And, yes, it’s still fun as hell to Spartan rage out on some baddies. A-