I was skeptical. I expected this new, serious, grown-up God of War to mistake misery for maturity—to think a Kratos that’s sullen instead of angry, that’s struggling to connect with his only living son rather than seeking vengeance for his dead family, would somehow make up for the adolescent angst that has defined all these games so far. I expected it to show one asshole’s journey into being a slightly different kind of asshole. There’s definitely a lot of that to this game—early on it seems like Kratos is worried that his son won’t grow up into a merciless, rage-filled genocide machine if he shows him even the slightest bit of tenderness—but it isn’t entirely a po-faced paean to surly dads and their sad mama’s boy sons. There’s at least a bit more soul here than the name on the box would ever lead you to believe.
Here’s the gist: after slaughtering the entire Greek pantheon, Kratos beats it far north, settling in a cabin deep in Norse territory with his new wife. Eventually they’re joined by a son, Atreus; ashamed of his bloodthirsty past, Kratos decides to never let his son know about his life in Greece, or that he’s a god, and in effect turns into a stern, emotionless dad that feels like an absent father even when the whole family is literally living in a one-room shack. Eventually Kratos’s wife dies off-camera (seriously, never marry this man, all women of videogame antiquity), and he and the son he doesn’t really know have to take her ashes to the highest peak in videogameland, per her final request. Before they can leave Kratos has a major dust-up with a mysterious stranger who can’t feel any pain and is covered in rune tattoos, and who’s played by Jeremy Davies (of Lost and this ad) at his Jeremy Daviest. Who is this unknown assailant and what does he want? Could this be a harbinger of a whole new family of gods that Kratos will have to slay, one by one, but this time begrudgingly instead of lustily? Could it be anything else?
Kratos and Atreus’s journey to that mountain drives the plot, but it’s almost incidental to the game’s true narrative goal, which is tracking the ebbs and flows of their relationship. The mother is a McGuffin. As Kratos and Atreus battle their way through the nine realms, slicing through draugrs and dragons and dark elves, they start to forge the bonds that Kratos’s standoffishness had always prevented in the past. That relationship has its ups and downs—there’s one extended sequence where you’ll wish Kratos would forcefully teach Atreus some manners every time the boy opens his mouth—and it faces an uphill battle as impossible as Sisyphus’s in making us care about the massively unlikable Kratos we know from the older games in the series. The entire existence of Atreus is clearly calculated as a way to humanize this cartoon sociopath, and although it does work to an extent, it takes a very long time to reach that point.
It’s a believable relationship between an emotionally stunted dad and a timid, fearful son, even if it seems to condense a few years of personal development into the tight confines of a game. Although the broad arc might be rushed—Atreus’s burgeoning confidence turns into insolence and then into maturity in the span of one or two quests—the main story itself still feels bloated, with too many asides and detours along the way. It indulges in a very videogame way of stalling, with Kratos and Atreus on the cusp of reaching their goal only to find out they have to go to some other location first, with that repeated two or three times in a row at the end of the game. It feels like padding. Exploration is one of the things the game does exceptionally well, but it’s best when left as an option, as something you can pursue after finishing the story or when you don’t feel like heading off on the next main mission. God of War and the growth of its central relationship would be stronger if that story was a good bit shorter.
The aloof, constantly disapproving father will probably resonate with the core audience of adult male gamers, but to others it will feel staid and familiar. It might be relatively unexplored turf for big budget videogames, but it’s standard fare for pretty much every other medium. There are TV commercials that accomplish in 30 seconds what God of War stretches out to a couple dozen hours. If you’re tired of men working out their father issues through their art and entertainment, God of War will probably ring hollow for you.
The one possible upside of that length is that it basically forces you to explore the sprawling confines of the nine realms. Roaming this world is a highlight because it strips the game down to its strengths—combat, discovery, and level design that often coils around itself like the Midgard serpent. You can’t visit all of those realms, and two aren’t available until after you finish the story, but between the often-changing central hub and the various subplots hidden in its nooks and crannies, there’s a lot to explore and discover here. Like with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s hard to not stay engaged as you journey into mystery, unsure of what you might find as you guide your small boat into a newly uncovered fjord. And with a number of different items and attributes that can be upgraded, and copious loot to hoard, there’s more than enough in-game justification to scour every realm. If you get obsessed with collectibles in games, God of War might be dangerous for you.
The game’s greatest accomplishment, even more so than that sense of discovery, is its combat. Kratos starts with a new weapon, a massive axe that he can hurl at enemies and reclaim at a whim, with it hurtling through the air back into his hand like Mjolnir returning to Thor. The basic concept will be familiar to anybody who played the earlier games—Kratos has a light and heavy strike with his axe, with various special “runic attacks” that can be found in chests or bought from shops and that let him perform a variety of powerful moves with cooldown meters. Kratos can also fight with his shield or barehanded, and varying up the strikes between axe, fists and shield, with assists from Atreus’s bow, will keep enemies off guard and open them up for graphic Fatality-style executions. Later on Kratos will acquire a second weapon in addition to the axe, and for the last third of the game you’ll have to juggle between all those options on the fly to maximize your destructive potential.
As I just mentioned, Atreus assists Kratos in battle throughout the game. He’s a crack shot with his arrow, which does minor damage at first but gradually becomes an invaluable tool to both wear enemies down and momentarily stun them so Kratos can lay in some blows. As the player you can tell Atreus where to fire or when to unleash his powerful summoned attacks, but the computer will also control him when you’re not. He can’t die, although he can be momentarily stunned, and while that might lessen the realism of this game about angry superpowered gods murdering each other, it prevents it from turning into a game-length escort mission. From a combat perspective, Atreus is massively useful, and one of the best parts of God of War.
More than most action games, combat in God of War has the pacing of a rhythm game. You have to tap various buttons in the right sequence to strike and block at the right times, unleashing your extra-powerful attacks when needed. When you’re surrounded by enemies and dancing over the various attack buttons, calling in arrows from Atreus while blocking at the exact right moment to stun your enemy, you might find yourself entering a kind of trance where you’re locked so tightly into the rhythms of that combat that everything else momentarily fades away. From the pulse of that violence, to the feeling of that axe chopping through a monster as it flies back to you after a perfectly aimed strike, to the sweeping range of the weapon that’s unlocked later, the combat in God of War is about as satisfying as action games get.
If you’re taking notes, you might notice this breaks down into a dichotomy often seen with videogames. The “game” part works, in that the moments that require parsing a number of different potential actions within seconds create a sensation in my brain that can only be described as “fun.” The narrative—another crucial component, one that was clearly a major focus for the people that made this game, and the dominant aspect in the game’s marketing—doesn’t work nearly as well. If this was almost any other medium, it wouldn’t be a story worth celebrating to any degree. (Especially with a notable little twist at the end, which ties Kratos and Atreus closer to the characters of Norse mythology while greatly distancing itself from the actual stories as they were passed down.)
The story’s biggest problem is that it attempts something that can’t really be done. It tries to rehabilitate that which cannot be rehabilitated. This Kratos is the same Kratos who was pure animal lust for a half-dozen games, driven solely to kill or sleep with every living creature he came across. This is the same Kratos who seemingly rescued a woman in God of War III (a half-naked sex slave, of course) only to use her to prop open a massive stone wheel that promptly crushed her into a bloody pulp. (For killing her like that the game gave you a PSN trophy with ridiculous sexual innuendo for a name.) This character and this series will always be associated with the embarrassing, nu-metal anger that used to define it. The Kratos of God of War is rightfully ashamed of his past, and although the game tries to redeem him in both his eyes and the eyes of the player, that past is as inescapable for us as it is Kratos. There will clearly be more God of War in the future, and the best thing for that future would be to focus more and more on Atreus. Kratos can’t make up for what he’s done—for what we, as players, have had to make him do—but in his son both he and God of War can find their ultimate redemption.
God of War was developed by Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony. It is available for PlayStation 4
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.