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Kratos makes an epic comeback as The Nine Realms’ greatest dad

Some of the best films of all time are those whose different strengths all work in concert to create a unified, engrossing whole. The Shining, The Social Network, and Jaws are all excellent examples of films made up of strong individual parts complementing each other to form a fantastic work of art. That is absolutely true of God Of War.

its musical score elevates story moments, which flow seamlessly into fantastic action gameplay, which facilitates exploration and puzzles that reward you with a deeper understanding of its characters and its expansive and beautiful world. God of War is a masterful composition of exceptional interlocking parts, deliberate in its design and its foreshadowing, which pays off in unexpected ways in both the gameplay and story.

Set in a new, Norse mythology-inspired world and starring a familiar but thoughtfully reimagined character, God of War’s fish-out-of-Greek-water tale is a nonstop whirlwind of emotions. It’s all framed by one continuous camera shot that never cuts away or takes the focus off of the heart of it all: Kratos’ relationship with his young son, Atreus. But the story also encompasses an indelible supporting cast, a gorgeous world consistently rewarding to explore, and immensely satisfying combat.

God of War works from minute one thanks to the simplicity of its plot. Kratos and Atreus – who start as, at best, acquaintances – begin their journey having just gone through the loss of Kratos’ wife, whom Atreus bonded with much more than his father. The two set out to the tallest point in all the realms to carry out her final wishes.

The setup is Journey-like in its visual nature – I saw the peak in the distance and knew I’d get there eventually – but as similar stories have taught me, the path is never a straight or easy one. A number of obstacles, both natural and god-made, extend the adventure to around 25 hours’ worth of terrifying threats, beginning with the first major encounter in the opening hours.

Atreus’ impact cannot be understated – he’s both an asset to the story and in battle. That’s a huge relief because, historically, games that force you to stick with a sidekick of sorts for the entire experience have been hit or miss. Some, like The Last of Us, use that relationship to smart effect, with twists to the gameplay introduced late in the story. Others make those sidekicks a constant hassle – an extra life bar governed by a sometimes-suicidal AI to consistently worry about in the midst of battle. Atreus is more like the former.

What’s so smart about this central relationship, though, is how brilliantly God of War mirrors it onto gameplay from the start. Though the two were estranged, Atreus is still Kratos’ son, and so he listens to your directions and behaves as an almost invulnerable extension of your own abilities in combat. Equipped with a bow and a bottomless quiver of arrows, Atreus will automatically plink away at enemies or jump on them to stun them, and he’ll take a more powerful shot at whatever you’re looking at when directed with a tap of the square button, creating a rhythm as you time taps to match his recharge rate and employ his attacks effectively. His skill tree can also be upgraded to follow up on Kratos’ more powerful attacks. Yet God of War plays with the assumption that Atreus is always at your beck and call, and the weight of the changes in their relationship are cleverly woven into your battles. And there are battles aplenty. Though Kratos only kills for survival now, he still does so with a flair for brutality. The stun-kill animations can be especially gory and literally bone-crunching affairs. (Though, because there’s only one per enemy type, they become somewhat repetitive to watch.) While God of War is altogether more emotionally complex and layered, its excellent combat undoubtedly carries forward the blood-soaked traditions of the series. Kratos’ signature weapon this time out is the Leviathan Axe, which is one of the best weapons I’ve used in any recent game. It begins with a simple light and heavy attack but can be upgraded and given new abilities throughout your journey. It’s a lot of fun to chop and slice through hordes of foes with, but I’ve rarely enjoyed a weapon more than when the axe is flying through the air.

Its best trick is that, when thrown, the Leviathan acts just like Thor’s hammer, Mjlonir, as depicted in the Marvel movies. The axe will whip back into your hand with the tap of the triangle button, cutting any foes in its path, both coming and going. It’s also imbued with a frost power that can freeze individual targets while it’s lodged in them, letting you disable one while you beat on his friends with Kratos’ almost-as-lethal fists.

The feel of throwing and recalling the Leviathan Axe is So. Damn. Satisfying. The first time I learned I could do this, I sliced an enemy through the head and then proceeded to spend a good 10 minutes just chucking the axe and recalling it in the forest, noting and appreciating the slight difference in the time it takes to return from greater distances. The loud, reverberating thwang noise it makes, paired with a precise rumble in the controller, makes the return slam into Kratos’ outstretched hand feel good even hundreds or thousands of throws later. I expected great action from God Of War, and it delivers that handily. But I didn’t expect it to be a thrilling journey in which every aspect of it complements the others to form what is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s a game in which Kratos, a previously one-note character, becomes a complex father, warrior, and monster, embattled both on the field and within his own heart about how to treat his son; one in which the world opens up and shifts, offering rewards in both gameplay and knowledge of its lore that I treasured with each accomplishment. The obvious care that went into crafting its world, characters, and gameplay delivers by far the most stirring and memorable game in the series Ign

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