The storm clouds have receded and daylight is breaking across the tallest peak in what I can only place as Somewhere in Scandinavia, Before Running Water. Everyone who lives there refers to it as Midgard. You, Kratos—ashy and aggrieved Spartan warlord, the Greek god of war—are listening to an ancient and well-nigh all-knowing being, Mimir, tell you how you should father your now-motherless child. You hear him out with a weary patience, the camera knowingly pans away, and finally—SCHUNK, SPLAT—you lop off his head with your giant ice axe. The thing is, you only sort of enjoy doing it.
This happens about a quarter of the way into God of War, both a sequel and a reboot of the franchise that debuted in March 2005. This is also, if you’ve played any of the other games, quite the change of pace—at roughly this same point in the playthrough of God of War III, which came out eight years ago now, you have been forced to do one of the most monstrous deeds that has ever been done in the name of expedient, linear progression. You use a giant crossbow to shoot Helios (Greek god and personification of the sun) out of the sky and then, with great relish, pull his screaming head from his body to use as your personal lantern. On top of that frozen peak in Midgard, though, where you’re functionally retrieving a map, you at least greet the act of beheading with something like compunction, and you’d rather not cut Mimir off at the neck right in front of your son.
It’s an understatement to say that the new God of War—shrewdly released on April 20, and every bit worth waiting nearly a decade for—is different from everything that came before it. That understatement is also entirely correct. How is it different? Whereas the six previous titles were meditatively hostile and loud, this latest installment is … also meditatively hostile, but defined as much by its quiet moments of restraint as anything else. I’ll assume you’re not satisfied with that answer, as you were probably looking for a more practical one. Well, here are five other crucial ways the franchise has leaped forward in its seventh outing:
God of War takes you out of Greece.
When last we saw Kratos on a major console, he’d just pounded his father Zeus into a fine, bloody mist with his bare hands. He then committed ritual suicide and hurled himself into the Aegean, which, in a complicated way that I don’t feel like explaining, restored hope to the world (which he broke by murdering the entire Greek pantheon out of spite). He’s landed, somehow, on the shores of northern Europe, with a lush neckbeard and aims to live out the rest of his days in penitent seclusion, granted the Norse gods who govern these lands let him. (They don’t.)
The first thing you do in God of War is chop down a tree for your wife’s funeral pyre, and the prime objective of the game is to take your son, Atreus, to scatter her ashes on the highest peak in all the realms, because that was her last wish. It’s a video game where the boss is grief, and waves of unpredictable emotion crash over it amid somewhat bloodless—for God of War, that is—circumstances. This is not to say that you don’t still brutally kill scores of enemies and a few gods in an exotic setting, which is what you’ve come to expect from this series.
To put some pressure on that “exotic”: Seagulls stop to preen themselves on battered stone idols covered with bright-green algae. Hornworts grow from the wall moldings of temples forgotten by time at the bottom of a lake, which, it must be said, absolutely glimmers in the noonday sun. Brittle rock faces crumble as you leap from foothold to foothold; you can feel the fresh-fallen snow crunch beneath your feet and the burning cold in your lungs as you climb up and up and up toward a cloudless blue sky. Every detail has been stressed over, and the result is a setting that lives and breathes and will probably die in due time, since that’s how anything involving Kratos tends to go.
God of War forces you to keep your guard up.
I remember using the Golden Fleece to toss a few arrows back at zombified archers across the odd gap I couldn’t jump, but I can’t recall blocking being all that important to old God of War games. In general, blocking in any game feels cumbersome, cowardly, and is usually doomed to be the option least taken when mashing the shit out of the “light” and “heavy” attack buttons will get the job done just fine.
You are just as powerful as ever, and though you’re older and tired and a bit reluctant, your stomach can still handle the gory mess of tearing undead foot soldiers (they’re called Draugar here) apart with your bare hands. The combat system is different: heavier, closer in over the shoulder, and lower to the ground, which gives a sense of impact and really drives home the scale of some of the mythical foes you manage to fell. It also exposes the limits of your godhood—you can feel the weight in every step you take, in every punch you throw, in every swing of your ax. You can dole out punishment and take a lot in kind, but you will not make it more than five minutes charging in and hacking away like you did in the games of old.
Some enemies have guards you can’t break down without a well-timed parry, and you won’t survive any of the big set-piece battles without eating some of the attacks thrown at you. It’s a good thing then, that a last-second counter—and the combos you can launch from it—are almost as satisfying as heaving your ax and cleaving a Draugr in twain. Almost.
God of War prefers that you take your time.
Breaks in action were more than just an intrusion in the previous games; they felt like a visceral and personal betrayal. There was a lot of running. So much running. Running to the next objective from the previous one, running to break open vases and chests for XP and various hidden prizes, running away from the memory of being tricked into slaughtering your family.
There is still a lot of running. But the developers wink at you about it. Early on in God of War something surprising happens: You accept help from someone instead of killing them. And as Brok—a foulmouthed blacksmith, and eventually a friend—ambles toward his workbench to make improvements on your armor and weapons, he notices that you’ve beat him there. “You rush around like that everywhere?” he asks.
God of War wants you to slow down a little—and rewards you for it. For instance, much of the time you don’t spend fighting is spent in a canoe. If you want, you can absolutely row that canoe as fast as possible to the next stage of your journey. But you can also take a more leisurely pace, listening to your son badger you with unanswerable questions or the severed head on your belt regale you with all the tragedies and dramas of the pagan period. On more than one occasion I found myself getting back in the boat just to hear the end of a particular story.
God of War is all cutscene.
Or is it all gameplay? I genuinely can’t tell. One of the cruel jokes of video games is that the digital rendering of a cutscene is often far superior to the gameplay that follows it. If you’re not familiar with that sensation, it’s like realizing you’d much rather see a movie advertised during the previews than the movie you came to the megaplex to see.
God of War, by contrast, is totally seamless. In fact, the difference between cutscenes and gameplay is so miniscule that I found my finger still pushing Kratos forward with the left directional stick whether or not I was actually in control. It’s a game in a single take.
God of War helps you find redemption.
When the remastered God of War trilogy came out on PS4 three years ago, Kotaku writer Yannick LeJacq wrote about how it was difficult to take the final installment’s positive messages seriously, “coming as they are after hours of Kratos brutalizing every Olympian God in turn.” He named gouging out Poseidon’s eyes and chopping off Hermes’s legs specifically, but there’s even more messed-up stuff you’ve done if you go back to the first game. Here’s a helpful video detailing 10 such trespasses, although I can say from personal experience that there are literally hundreds more.
The new God of War is largely about teaching your son to be better than you. Fatherhood is the path to redemption, and like every other path, Kratos walks it very seriously. He scolds Atreus for shooting wide of a target; he scolds Atreus for being careless with his hunting knife; he scolds Atreus for being too friendly with strangers. Early on you do a lot of scolding and refer to Atreus brusquely as “boy.” But it’s these terse moments that make the tender moments sing. A good example of this—that you’ve already seen a few times if you’ve followed this game since it was unveiled at E3 2016—comes in the first 30 minutes. Kratos reaches out to lay a comforting hand on Atreus’s shoulder before pulling back and offering him a knife instead.
A better example, though, happens later and is easier to miss. A few hours in, there’s only a small push gate between the two of you and a giant stone ancient. Atreus breathlessly tells you that the monolith is called a “Soul Eater” and that it’s exactly as dangerous and final as “Soul Eater” sounds. It’s not attacking, though. “Do we have to fight it?” he asks. “Yes,” Kratos says. “Why?” Atreus complains. “Because you are frightened of it,” Kratos answers back, somewhat amused with himself. Dad of the year.