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Described by creative director Cory Barlog as a reimagining of the franchise, a major gameplay change is that Kratos makes prominent use of a magical battle axe instead of his signature double-chained blades. God of War also uses an over-the-shoulder free camera, with the game in one shot, as opposed to the fixed cinematic camera of the previous entries. The game also includes role-playing video game elements, and Kratos' son Atreus provides assistance in combat. The majority of the original game's development team worked on God of War and designed it to be accessible and grounded. A separate short text-based game, A Call from the Wilds, was released in February 2018 through Facebook Messenger and follows Atreus on his first adventure. Three days before God of War's release, a smartphone companion app called Mímir's Vision was made available, providing additional information about the game's Norse setting.
During E3 2016, GameSpot mistakenly reported that Kratos' son's name was Charlie, which Barlog laughingly denied. As a nod to this, the giant turtle above Freya's house in the game was named Chaurli. In January 2017, after a fan downloaded the God of War overture and saw the track's details that said, "An introduction to Kratos and Atreus", Barlog confirmed on Twitter that Atreus was in fact the son's name. Barlog said Atreus was unaware that Kratos was a demigod and did not know about his past. They did not reveal details of Atreus' mother before the release because she was a critical part of the story. Barlog said that during gameplay, Atreus would be "like magic, an additional combat resource, and [the player is] training him and teaching him." The developers said Atreus would not be a burden during gameplay. The team experimented with several different approaches for Atreus to ensure he was an empowering presence. Barlog said he did not want the game to be an escort mission where the artificial intelligence caused a problem for the player. Their goal was for Atreus to enhance Kratos' capabilities without becoming a liability. This resulted in the developers having Atreus act freely unless the player uses a button to issue specific commands to him. Atreus was also designed to call out enemy locations during combat. Since the camera is closer to Kratos, some enemies might be difficult for the player to see. Jason McDonald said it took a lot of iterations with the enemies and Atreus to make it all work together.
Early in development, it was suggested that Atreus be cut, or his role significantly reduced because of the many developmental challenges and their costs. Barlog stated the game could have worked without Atreus, but it would have been completely different, likening it to the 2013 film All Is Lost. Barlog said that with just Kratos, it would have been "one character who talks to himself occasionally, but generally, it will be very silent and everyone will talk in old Norse, so that you won't understand anything anybody's saying." After hearing Barlog's case, Sony gave him the freedom to incorporate Atreus. Lead level designer Rob Davis also noted that Atreus allowed for "significant gameplay and storytelling opportunities that might not otherwise [have been] possible." After God of War was revealed at E3 2016, it drew comparisons to Naughty Dog's The Last of Us (2013), a game that also featured a father-child type story and gameplay. Barlog felt it was "fantastic" to be compared to that game and found it odd that some people considered the similarities a negative thing. Although he did not directly state they were influenced by The Last of Us in developing God of War, he did say, "I think we're all inspired by each other." He did, however, use The Last of Us as an example to show the development team how an in-game companion could work without the game becoming an escort mission.
When it was decided that God of War would be revealed at E3 2016, Sony wanted McCreary to perform his original score with a live orchestra at the press conference. McCreary opened the show with the new main theme before the unveiling of God of War and performed the gameplay demo's music live during the presentation. On January 13, 2017, a live recording from E3 2016 of God of War's overture was released for a limited time free of charge. Barlog released the overture as a thank you to fans for God of War's E3 2016 trailer reaching fifteen million views on YouTube.
The game was released worldwide on April 20, 2018, for the PlayStation 4. In addition to the standard base game, there were three special editions: the Stone Mason Edition, the Collector's Edition, and the Digital Deluxe Edition. The Stone Mason Edition was only available in the United States and Canada and came with several physical items, including: the base game in a SteelBook case, a 9-inch (230 mm) statue of Kratos and Atreus created by Gentle Giant, 2-inch (51 mm) carvings of the Huldra Brothers, a horse, and a troll, an exclusive lithograph, a cloth map, a stone mason's ring, and a keychain of Mímir's head that talks. There was a variety of downloadable content (DLC), including an exclusive shield skin, as well as an armor set and another shield skin for Kratos, a PlayStation 4 dynamic theme, a digital artbook, and God of War #0 by Dark Horse Comics. The Collector's Edition came with many of the same items, minus the ring, the keychain, the carvings of the horse and troll, and the exclusive shield skin. The Digital Deluxe Edition came with all the digital content, minus the exclusive shield skin. U.S. and Canadian customers also received a Kratos and Atreus pin for pre-ordering the Digital Deluxe Edition. Pre-orders at select retailers received three skins for Kratos' shield. Pre-orders from GameStop or EB Games also received the "Luck of Ages XP Talisman", granting increased XP gain, increased Hacksilver gain, and increased ability to trigger perks.
Post launch, Santa Monica supported the game with patch updates to address software bugs. As well, the developers added new features along with these free updates. A Photo Mode was released as part of update patch 1.20 on May 9, 2018. It allows players to take customized in-game screenshots. Players can adjust the field of view, depth of view, filters, borders, the visibility of characters, and the ability to change the facial expressions of Kratos and Atreus. A New Game Plus mode was released as part of update patch 1.30 on August 20, 2018. To access the mode, players must have completed the game at any difficulty level. The mode itself can be played at any difficulty, but enemies are at a higher level with new maneuvers. All obtained items carry over to New Game Plus, and there are new resources to further upgrade gear, which also have new rarity levels. The option to skip cutscenes was also added. In November 2020, the PlayStation 5 (PS5) launched and is backwards compatible with PlayStation 4 games; these games see a performance boost when playing on the PS5 thanks to the power of the newer console. To further enhance the playing experience of God of War on the PS5, Santa Monica released an enhancement update on February 2, 2021, allowing the game to be played at full 60fps with checkerboard 4K resolution.
God of War: A Call from the Wilds is a text-based game playable through Facebook Messenger. To help further promote God of War, Sony partnered with Facebook, Inc. to develop the play-by-web game, which released on February 1, 2018. Completing the game unlocks downloadable concept art. The short story follows Atreus on his first adventure in the Norse wilds. After archery training and learning runes with his mother, Atreus ventures into the wilderness after telepathically hearing the voice of a dying deer; he finds it covered in blood and stays with it during its final moments. A couple of draugrs appear and Atreus attempts to fight them but is injured. He is saved by his father, Kratos, who was out hunting. The two then battle a revenant before returning home.
In the game, Kratos sees one last image on the mural in Jötunheim. It seemingly shows Atreus holding Kratos' dead body, but in the novel, this mural is partially broken and does not show the corpse that Atreus is holding. Brok and Sindri also reveal why they made the Leviathan Axe for Faye. She had come to them as the last Guardian of Jötnar and needed a weapon to protect her people. The Huldra Brothers crafted the Leviathan Axe for her to be Mjölnir's equal. Mímir also mentioned that Faye, or rather Laufey the Just, thwarted many of the Æsir's plans, including freeing slaves, and Thor could never find her. Kratos' Guardian Shield is never mentioned, and Modi does not ambush them, resulting in Atreus falling ill. Atreus falls ill shortly after the first encounter when Kratos kills Magni.
In terms of flaws, Plessas said that "God of War is so good that its most egregious failing is not letting fans play more of it", as New Game Plus was not an option at the time of the review. Juba said that "God of War's momentum rarely falters, and when it does, the inconvenience is brief." One example he gave was the map, saying that although players have freedom to explore, it can be difficult to track Kratos' position. He also felt the fast-travel system was "weirdly cumbersome" and that it opens up too late in the game. Although he enjoyed these features, Faulkner noted some players may dislike that God of War has a lack of player agency, and players have to explore the majority of the game on foot or by boat since the fast-travel feature is unlocked late in the game. Brown felt that if anything in God of War was a letdown, it was the final fight against Baldur: "He's great from a narrative standpoint, unraveling in a manner that changes your perspective, but it's the fight itself that leaves you wanting. There are plenty of big boss battles and tests of skill throughout the course of the game, yet this fight doesn't reach the same heights, and feels like it was played a little safe." Hurley said his only criticism was that, "You can occasionally find yourself unsure if you're doing something wrong, or don't have the right equipment yet." 2b1af7f3a8