God Of War
PlayStation’s big brute shows his softer side in an adventure that’s equal parts epic and emotional
Anger is easy. Give a Greek god two massive blades, a tragic backstory and a thirst for revenge, and the rest almost takes care of itself. The Kratos of the early 2000s would rip heads from bodies and roast people alive without a second thought. Fastforward to 2018’s God Of War, and we find ourselves in control of a Kratos struggling to keep his brutal instincts in check for the sake of his young son. Anger is easy – exercising some restraint, it turns out, is a lot harder.
And that, creative director Cory Barlog says, was the point. “Everything about this game was the hard way,” he tells us. “We were kind of hitting the same note over and over again. We thought we’d nailed a formula, and we perhaps became a little fearful of moving beyond that.” It was time for God Of War to grow up. And, while much has changed in the latest iteration, there’s a ring of familiarity to everything we play.
Atreus, for instance, is undoubtedly his father’s son. Kratos’ boy is a creature of instinct, a brief deer-hunting excursion an illuminating insight into the pair’s nascent relationship. When Atreus fires an eager arrow at an animal and scares it off, Kratos barks angrily at him – but softens visibly after Atreus’ apology, and replies, “Do not be sorry. Be better.” It’s curious to watch the Ghost Of Sparta relearn how to interact on a human level, and the hunt leads to some intimate scenes in which you, as Kratos, help steady your son’s bow, and later his hand as he delivers the killing blow to the beast.
This early tableau sets up the central theme of God Of War: you are training Atreus to become a man. He even has his own skill tree, willingly charging into battle beside Kratos to serve as both backup fire and, occasionally, monster bait. Hitting Square has him fire arrows into the enemy your reticule is on, dealing modest damage and, more importantly, drawing attention away from Kratos. In a fight against a fire troll, we attempt to use Atreus to aim for its weak points – two glowing spots on its arm and leg – but he’s rarely positioned at the right angle to strike exactly where we’d like.
Initially, it’s irritating, but it’s less a precision attack than a tactical boon. But as we learn to become more aware of Atreus’ movements around the battlefield, there’s potential for more particular positioning to become a niche layer of strategy – especially when we unlock a skill that lets Atreus stun enemies close by. But, in the family tradition, Atreus’ hot-headedness can lead to trouble. He’ll sometimes be scooped up by marauders, meaning you’ll have to interfere. It’s occasional enough not to be disruptive, and lends a new kind of tension to fights beyond simply fearing for your own safety.
Be assured, however – God Of War is no Nordic picnic, thanks to a variety of enemies such as teleporting Revenants, long-range fireball-casters and ice-resistant foes. Kratos’ chain blades are gone, replaced by the frostimbued Leviathan Axe that he can wield, aim, throw and recall. Once you find your rhythm, scraps with multiple enemy types are dynamic. We lob the axe at an enemy firing projectiles, move to melee the frost-resistant guy flanking – then dodge sideways and press Triangle to recall the axe back through Projectile Guy, finishing him off and tearing through a fresh line of grunts in the process. Hurling it into an enemy to freeze them in place and then punch them into shards; upgrading it so catching it with perfect timing means our next throw explodes on contact to deal AOE damage – in any situation, the axe feels fantastic. And doesn’t Santa Monica Studio just know it. It’s used in every environmental puzzle we come across, freezing gates in place, hitting out-of-reach runes to break magical seals on chests and aligning the rings of a giant puzzle.
The methods may have changed, then, but the results feel familiar: combo-led combat, inventive environmental puzzles and, yes, some good old-fashioned head-stomping. It’s the game’s first boss fight against The Stranger that really stands out. Normally, series openings pit Kratos against gigantic beings, hammering home the sense of scale. The Stranger is a weedy, kooky bloke who knocks on Kratos’ front door and politely requests fisticuffs. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that he possesses superhuman strength, leading to a largely automated, but visually spectacular, showdown.
It’s scale shown not via an overhead camera, but in a more thematic sense: through “the circumventing of expectations,” Barlog says. “God Of War has always had that sense of the James Bond, or Indiana Jones, opener,” he says. “We got caught up in the idea of constantly topping ourselves – so much so that we lost a bit of the ‘why’, and the context, because we were just like, ‘Bigger! Bigger!’ So I said, ‘We’re throwing all of that out.’” In this moment – made vulnerable by his desperation to protect his son, and brute strength often ineffectual versus this elusive being – the muscle-bound god we’re controlling feels very small indeed.
In another sense, Kratos feels bigger than ever. He now has several sides to him, his previously one-dimensional rage cast in new lights: a result of grief for a lost loved one, worry for his son, frustration at the difficult responsibility of raising a child – and a fear that Atreus might grow up to make the same mistakes he did. Just a couple of hours in, God
Of War deals with some timely issues: what it is to be a good father, to set an example, and to be a man. A father of a young son himself, it’s no coincidence that Barlog’s game touches upon these themes. “It made me think, what is the concept of masculinity?” he says. “How do you share with your child what it is to be strong and vulnerable, and emotional availability being an important part of the human experience?”
In the age of angry young men, God Of War’s evolution is not just a statement of creative intent, but also a philosophical one. Barlog felt duty-bound to progress the series in a way that would be meaningful to the young modern audience sat in front of it. “As a father, I felt very responsible,” he says. “As a creative, I also feel like we are mirrors of the world around us. We are, in a way, role models, the way that parents are role models. We model behaviour, and we’re saying, ‘This is what I want my best self to be’, and that’s what I reflect back to my son.”
It makes sense that God Of War has been treated with such respect and care, remaining recognisably epic while also gracefully stepping into a new, more mature era of storytelling in games. The series is, after all, Barlog’s baby, and he wants it to represent the changes in his own outlook on the world. “The work that I do, I want that to model that,” he continues. “Kratos says, ‘Don’t be sorry, be better’ – I think we are tackling this theme of, what does it mean to be better? It doesn’t always mean that you succeed. It means that you aspire – that struggle, that willingness to not give up, means you don’t have to win every time. It means you just have to be conscious.”
God Of War deals with what it is to be a good father, to set an example, and to be a man