There haven’t been any Greek gods for Kratos to kill for quite some time. This long-lived series saw him cleave his way angrily through the entire pantheon of Greek mythology, but there was always the little notion that his journey wasn’t quite over. Certainly, there weren’t any more stories to be told in that part of the world, but perhaps Kratos would take affront with some other gods? While an adventure amongst the snowy wilderness and amidst Norse gods isn’t a huge leap, what was unexpected for the reveal of the unnumbered and un-subtitled God of War was Kratos being a dad.
There’s a lot more maturity to Kratos I feel, though perhaps it’s simply world weariness and a big bushy beard. By the end of God of War 3, he was basically just angry for the sake of being angry and I don’t know that anything was driving him onward at that point except for an overwhelming hatred, resentment and feeling of injustice. How he managed to settle down and find a new partner and wife is anyone’s guess – it’s this that serves as one of the main mysteries for the game’s opening – but the Kratos we meet here is a much more mature and restrained character.
What’s unusual is the relationship between Kratos and his son Atreus. As you start the game, it’s almost as if this is the first time the two have met. Atreus’ ability (or lack thereof) while hunting has only come from what he was taught by his mother, and it’s strange that Kratos wouldn’t know this unless he was absent. There’s a detachment here that is as apparent as it is unusual, and yet it’s also clear that Kratos cares deeply about his son, he just doesn’t know how to show it. Within the first couple of hours, there’s several lingering moments where Kratos reaches out to comfort, only to pull his hand back.
It’s on the nose and clichéd, but it’s an effective way of showing that there are emotions behind the stern rebukes and strictness around teaching Atreus how to be a better hunter. This almost feels like a new relationship that is set to grow through the game.
While he might be immature, Atreus has a role to play in battle as the pair travel to the tallest mountain in sight, wielding his bow and arrow and chipping away at the enemies that rise up and ambush them. He serves primarily as a distraction and aide, while Kratos does the heavy lifting with his big, magical Leviathan Axe, but Atreus follows your instruction and lead on who to target and when to fire.
The axe is rather versatile, with Kratos able to gear up for light and heavy attacks or throw the axe to freeze enemies in place – some are immune to this though – or take them out from afar, before recalling it to his hand in a manner not too dissimilar to Thor’s hammer. However, it’s a combat system that has a lot of nuance as well. You can block or parry attacks, juggle enemies, throw the axe and then brawl with fists to stagger opponents and let you perform suitably brutal finishing moves, and it’s bound to evolve as you gain more weapons and abilities.
After six games across three hardware platforms, God of War fans are going to be pretty attached to the game controlled camera view points, but that all changes for this game. The camera now sticks quite rigidly and fairly close to Kratos’ right shoulder as you adventure and battle. It lends the game much more of an action adventure feel and brings you much closer to the world and the environment that Kratos is tramping through, but it’s almost claustrophobic at times.
In the midst of a fight, it’s almost jarring to no longer have an overview of the entire battle when enemies can be coming at you from all directions. You do have indicators on screen to show when you’re about to be hit or have an arrow fired at you, so you do still have time to react, but when there can still be half a dozen or more foes to fight at once, it’s quite a major shift. Thinking about it thematically, it actually works rather well; Kratos is now an older gentleman, he’s not really as spritely and nimble as he once was, and it shows in how he moves and how he fights.
One telling story moment has Kratos battling a huge troll that towers over him – the over the shoulder camera really adds a sense of scale to these fights – either whittling him down by hacking away at the troll’s ankles or throwing the axe to hit weak spots on the shoulders. It’s a tough fight, and come the end of the battle, Atreus races in to hack and stab away at the corpse with his mother’s old knife. Kratos is quick to admonish him, explaining that yes, he uses his anger when fighting, letting his temper flare up into the brutal smashing of the Spartan Rage, but he no longer lets his anger dictate his actions.
Much was made a few months ago of talk that the game would be an open world action RPG adventure, but that’s simply misleading. In truth, there’s a main path to journey along with the usual minor little secrets and offshoots to explore, often giving Atreus an opportunity to explain some Norse mythology and read a language that Kratos never bothered to learn, but while the game is largely linear there are more fully fleshed out optional areas to discover as well. Similarly, it’s easy to call earning skills, weapon and armour upgrades, and increasing toughness of enemies RPG-like, but they’re minor overtones at best. This is very much the kind of linear story that you’d expect from God of War, but with a new slant on the action.
What was surprising, however, was the final moments of the demo, as Kratos and Atreus come face to face with a witch and are invited into a world that’s full of vibrant colours. It’s a notable shift from the snowy climes of Scandinavia, and offered an enticing glimpse of how Santa Monica Studio are looking to explore the breadth and depth of Norse mythology.
I’ll readily admit that I struggled with God of War games after a while. Kratos was too one note, his angry demolition of Greek mythology starting to lose all meaning to me by the time I was halfway through God of War 3. However this year’s God of War symbolically marks a new beginning for the character and the series, adding more layers and nuance to the character, forcing him into a new scenario and giving him responsibilities of care for his son. This isn’t the God of War of old, but that’s almost certainly a good thing.