Everything about the God of War franchise has grown up. The characters, the developers, and even the game itself.
Releasing Friday (April 20), God of War is a technical marvel, beautifully rendered and with crisp fighting mechanics. But it is the character of Kratos and his relationship with his son that makes this game exceptional. Like the best buddy movie, it has moments of violence, yes, but it is also tender, at times even sweet.
Although the PS4 exclusive doesn't have a number in the title, this is actually the eighth game in the franchise from Santa Monica Studio. And while Kratos is still the protagonist, he's not the same character at all.
In the first series of action games, he was angry and selfish. Most of the stories were about Kratos trying to exact revenge on the gods of the Greek pantheon for treating him like a plaything and using him to serve their own ends.
Despite all the bad things Kratos did in those games, though, good things came out of them. Humanity and society benefited from the results of his actions.
In this new game, Kratos sets out to do something good. You can imagine what might go wrong.
The setting his shifted north, to the lands of the Norse gods. Kratos hides his history, tries to live a quiet life. His second wife has died, leaving him with two things: a new weapon, an axe that can be recalled to his hand, and a young son, Atreus, on the verge of adulthood.
Atreus is a constant companion here. He's uneasy around his father because Kratos, confused and hurting, is quick to criticize. We don't know how much of Kratos's story Atreus knows, but it doesn't matter. To Atreus, as with any heroic parent, Kratos is simply the father to impress, to prove himself to, to love.
As a father myself, there is truth in the interactions between Kratos and Atreus, and I suspect that this is an aspect of the game that only parents can fully appreciate. "We see our worst qualities amplified in our children," game director Corey Barlog said in an interview with the Straight.
Barlog explained that becoming a father soon before work on God of War began informed his approach. "I wanted to make something that has a bit more heart, that means something more."
He was the lead animator on the first game, released in 2005, became the director for 2007's God of War II, and said the new game results, in part, from "looking back on our college years".
He wouldn't change anything about those earlier games, though. "The decisions you've made helped create who you are."
God of War is a mature game not because of gore and violence but because the mature theme of what it means to be a parent is central to the experience.
Christopher Judge is note-perfect as Kratos. His voice drips with frustration when Atreus does something foolish, becoming quickly gentle when he realizes his words cut too deep.
Atreus, played with charm by Sunny Suljic, is a complete character in the game. He represents the humanity that Kratos lost during his time in Greece, and he functions as a translator. When you get into a fight, Atreus is a fully functional combatant. He doesn't need to be protected, wielding a bow and knife to great effect, and he helps Kratos by calling out when enemies have flanked or when health is getting low.
Although the beginning of the game is linear, it quickly opens up and becomes a world to explore. Atreus and Kratos use a canoe to find coves and crannies that contain treasures and also stories that reinforce this new world that Kratos—and we—inhabit.
The pace of the game has slowed, too. Combat is just as fierce as ever, but the time between those battles seems to stretch. Which is good, because just as every parent is reluctant for their children to grow up, I never wanted this game to end.More