Traditionally, God of War’s barbarous antihero, Kratos, has long been synonymous with severed heads and limbs and all sorts of other delirious horrors visited upon his enemies. This, however, isn’t the picture of Kratos that 2018’s God of War is drawn to. The Kratos this game is fixated on is the one from God of War III’s final hollow and haunting moments, where the victorious character has spilled every drop of deified blood in the Greek pantheon. His nihilism was profound, silent, and complete, and this latest title in the God of War series is interested in him as the One True God of Nothing.
In the game’s masterful and restrained opening sequence, we’re meant to piece together Kratos’s life in the interim since putting an end to almighty Zeus. Kratos left Greece and went to Scandinavia. He married a woman named Faye, with whom he has a son, named Atreus. His Scott Ian goatee has grown into a full, graying beard. His skin—still a sickly white from the grafted remains of his last attempt at a family—is now a deep topography of wrinkles and scars. His new weapon of choice is a magical axe, used mostly to chop wood and slay game. At the start of the story, Faye has died, leaving Kratos and Atreus with one seemingly benign task: to cremate her body, take her ashes to the highest mountain, and scatter them from the peak. As Kratos spent much of his days hunting for food for his family, the journey is the first time he needs to provide for his child in more than the material sense.
The journey to the mountain is riddled with undead, magical dangers that must be swiftly and brutally addressed. For much of its campaign, however, God of War doesn’t so much suggest its ready-to-rumble predecessors as it does a more forgiving Dark Souls, in both its pacing and pensive tone. Attacks, magic, blocks, and dodges are more deliberate affairs, and Kratos pays deeply for missing his mark or charging into a fray too recklessly. Enemies remain as quick and bloodthirsty as ever, which can result in some cheap, unblockable hits if the player doesn’t exercise cunning, patience, and situational awareness—none of which have been God of War staples prior to this entry but are incredibly gratifying and well implemented now. The series’s trademark finishing moves are more grounded and straightforward than before but harder to execute thanks to a new Stamina system.
God of War doesn’t so much suggest its ready-to-rumble predecessors as it does a more forgiving Dark Souls.
The big difference is the once-bloodthirsty Kratos is taciturn. He’s resolute to give his son all that he needs for his survival but rarely what he wants, especially since what Atreus wants, more than anything, is to know and possibly become his father. Series veterans know what Kratos isn’t telling Atreus when the boy asks why his father so deeply hates the idea of worshipping gods, or how he can be so inured to encountering the world’s wonders. Players know what memories dredge up in Kratos’s mind as he contemplates who and what he and Atreus encounter on their journey. The game’s tension comes in acknowledging how shattering it would be to lay that terrible knowledge of one’s father on a child, as well as realizing that it’s inevitable and—as the enemies get both bigger and more brutal—necessary.
As God of War’s scope blossoms out—from a linear trek up a mountain, to a sprawling Norse odyssey across the expanse of the nine realms—so does Kratos and Atreus’s relationship, as do the stakes of what they both stand to lose when Atreus finally knows who and what his father is. More than just a tale of a son learning that his father was both a god and a murderer, God of War indicts the soul-crushing effects of a certain concept of manhood, of a type of innate privilege that comes so easily that it barely registers as power worth tempering or respecting. It’s the power that players, as Kratos, have indulged in for almost 15 years—and it’s the power that made Kratos.
Upon our meeting Atreus—a curious boy trying his best to not let his grief for his mother and his apprehension about his father destroy his world—it’s impossible to not immediately understand the boundaries that the humbled and mourning Kratos has sought to place between his bloodshed and his child. God of War reassesses what constitutes strength in this hostile universe of gods and monsters, and it’s fascinating to see the game posit, with subtlety and a confidence of plotting, that Kratos doesn’t have it.
The ability to survive in the world of God of War lies in Kratos’s axe, his shield, in Atreus’s magical bow, and the nuances of combat the boy learns. Power, however, is a different, possibly more crucial property in this game, and it lies elsewhere. Power in this new God of War resides in a child learning a language so as to learn his history. Power exists in a gruff dwarf reconciling from afar with his germophobe brother. Power lies in the faith between a father and son to take care of each other if the gods will not. Deep in the game, Kratos, after making one of the hardest decisions in the game, tells his son that he will break the cycle and that “we must become better.” In crafting a thoughtful fable about a man contending with surpassing his sins to keep them from his child, the new God of War has already transcended its bloody roots.