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Kratos grabs Atreus by the arm in God of War (2018) SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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God of War’s spectacular opening sets the stage for an emotional journey

Not your ordinary midlife crisis

Since his debut in 2005, Kratos, the antihero of the God of War series, has been perhaps the Angriest Man in Video Games. He murdered his way through the entire pantheon of Greek gods, but it did not bring him peace. He tried to take his own life, but, well, it’s very hard to kill a demigod.

In 2018’s God of War, Kratos has resurfaced many years later, in a new setting with its own mythology: the Norse gods in Scandinavia, more than 1,500 miles north of Mount Olympus. He’s older and wiser, and though he may not necessarily be calmer, he’s trying to learn how. The driving force behind this quest for peace is his son, Atreus, as much as it is Kratos’ own desire to remake himself.

God of War creative director Cory Barlog returned to developer Sony Santa Monica in 2013 to make this game, after departing the studio in 2007. He has spoken before about the personal circumstances that influenced this reimagining of Kratos and the franchise: Barlog is older and now a father himself; he’s a different person now than he was when he was working on the first three God of War games — and more importantly, he’s a different kind of game maker.

This becomes apparent very early in God of War, the first two and a half hours of which I played last week. The game manages to feel like a bold new direction for God of War while retaining the essence of the series. Like Kratos himself, Sony Santa Monica is turning over a new leaf.

[Ed. note: This article does not contain story spoilers for God of War.]

God of War - Kratos and Atreus prepare to fight an enemy in the woods SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Adventure time

I must admit that I wasn’t being entirely truthful just now.

Time and I have a funny relationship when it comes to video games: A game that might take a typical person, say, 10 hours to finish might take me twice as long. It’s not because I’m bad at games (although I did die a few times during the God of War demo). It’s because I’m the kind of player who will explore every nook and cranny of a game world if given the opportunity.

Members of the media each had a two-and-a-half-hour window to play through the demo. But it took me more than three hours to get through it. (Typically, there’s a time crunch at press events like these; you get as far as you can in the time allotted, and that’s it. I was glad that for once, nothing or nobody was pressuring me to rush through the demo.)

My compulsiveness wouldn’t ordinarily factor into playing a game like this; the previous God of War titles were aggressively linear, for the most part. The new God of War is much more open, though Barlog has stressed that he had no intention of making an open-world game.

In some of the previous entries in the franchise, you’d revisit places when equipped with new abilities, which would allow Kratos to access previously unreachable areas. That appears to be the case in this game; I encountered zones that I clearly did not yet have the tools to unlock. But more to the point, it felt like the game world was designed to encourage exploration — to acknowledge people who take their time, which I saw as mirroring the narrative of an older, less impulsive Kratos.

God of War - Kratos looks ahead toward Atreus in a snowy forest
Kratos and his son, Atreus, explore the forest around their home.
SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Barlog confirmed my impression, saying that he wanted exploration to be a defining facet of God of War. But he added that it wasn’t easy to get people on board. Something like 10-20 members of Sony Santa Monica have been with the studio since the very first game, and “a good portion” of the team has worked on at least one God of War title, according to Barlog. That meant he had to push past a lot of institutional design inertia.

“It is a battle when you work with a team that is familiar with doing linear [games], where everybody sees everything,” said Barlog. “So to try to convince people to say, ‘We’re going to make this entire level; some people may not even find it,’ and to get people comfortable with that idea, is very difficult. It took many years for everybody to fully understand, ‘OK, there’s a value to this.’”

The openness of the new God of War goes beyond the design of the earlier games, in which you might take a brief detour to discover a hidden chest with a Gorgon Eye or something. At one point during the demo, I found my way to a lower level of a large area that seemed to have multiple points of entry and exit. I ran into a type of enemy that I’d previously seen, except that the health bar above this guy was purple. I was dead within two hits. All of that is to say that you may be able to walk into areas for which you’re underleveled — the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in purely linear games.

My ax and my shield — and my son

Prior to getting my hands on God of War, I had heard a lot about the more open layout of its world. It was the game’s combat that surprised me almost more than anything else.

Kratos begins God of War equipped with a weapon called the Leviathan Axe, which looks like any old wooden-handled Viking battle ax, except for its built-in power to freeze anything it touches — a property that comes in handy during puzzles as well as combat. He also has a shield strapped to his left arm, although it only expands to its proper size when he’s actively using it. And his starting armor set includes Worn Wrappings of Exile, “leather forearm wraps” that “conceal a dark secret,” which is one of a few elements in the opening of God of War that suggest that Kratos hasn’t quite been able to leave his bloody past behind.

God of War - Kratos fighting enemies in a courtyard SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Kratos will presumably acquire other weapons over the course of God of War. Considering his arsenal in the previous titles — and Barlog’s earlier statement that this game will take 25-35 hours to complete — I’d be surprised if he stuck with the ax and shield for the duration. Either way, I can say already that the combat in God of War feels like it has more possibilities than before, even at the start.

Since Kratos can hurl his ax at enemies and magically call it back to his hand at any time, I spent a good deal of time in unarmed melee combat. The array of enemies in the game forces you to mix things up. Later in the demo, I came across a Revenant, a demonic witch spirit that can teleport; it was too fast for Kratos’ ax, but not for his fists. I also had a lot of fun freezing enemies with the ax’s frost magic, then shattering them with a punch.

It didn’t take long for me to get the hang of all this, even though the controls are very different from the way things used to work: Light and heavy attacks are on R1 and R2, respectively, and after you throw the ax by aiming with L2 and hitting either attack button, you call it back by pressing triangle. Blocking is still on L1, but you can’t just hold the button down anymore and block attacks from all directions; Kratos’ shield can’t magically prevent him from getting hit from behind. By default, you hit X to dodge and circle to interact with things, although I swapped these commands in the settings.

Of course, there’s one major piece of the combat in God of War that I haven’t mentioned yet: Kratos’ son, Atreus. The boy carries a bow and a quiver of arrows, as well as a small dagger. Square is the Atreus button — if you want him to fire arrows at a particular target, you aim at it yourself and then hit square. He also helps you without your direct input by acting as a spotter. With the over-the-shoulder camera in God of War, it’s impossible to see attacks coming from behind, so Atreus will periodically shout out enemy locations to alert you of imminent danger. (There are also on-screen indicators pointing toward incoming attacks, and there’s now a quick turn button, allowing you to press down on the D-pad to whirl around by 180 degrees.)

Just as warriors forge bonds on the battlefield, so too did I feel a connection building between Kratos and Atreus. The early part of the game spends a lot of time on scenes of Kratos trying to impart one lesson or another to his son; it’s clear that he wants to protect Atreus, but also that he wants his boy to be able to fend for himself in this dangerous, unforgiving world. (Barlog told me that although Atreus can’t die in combat, certain enemies will target him; they can knock him down, forcing you to run over and revive him.)

The combination of hand-to-hand fighting, ax, shield and Atreus gives Kratos a lot of combat options from the get-go in God of War. And that’s before you upgrade his skills, weapons or armor — or those of Atreus. Yes, there are separate skill trees for all these elements; in general, you spend a currency called Hacksilver on upgrading weapons and armor, and XP on unlocking new combos and abilities. Things seem to get complicated pretty quickly, with each piece of gear conferring various stat boosts. Plus, crafting sometimes requires unique resources found in the world.

God of War - Kratos trying on an armor upgrade at Brok’s Shop
You can buy upgrades and craft items at Dwarven Shops throughout the world.
SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

No one could ever accuse the God of War series of not being visceral, but the camera setup in the new God of War is another design decision that feels in line with this game’s more personal story. The camera now sits right behind Kratos, and the player can look wherever they want. While the previous games were all about epic action on a titanic (sorry) scale, this one focuses on Kratos building a relationship with his son. Each person is the other’s only family; they must learn how to work together as they confront the world.

Father and son

I didn’t expect God of War’s ax-based combat to feel as much as it does like, well, God of War. But I was truly unprepared for just how invested I would become in the story of Kratos and Atreus within the game’s first three hours.

Barlog told me that he tried to “take every single second of this game to develop their characters,” and it shows. It turns out that much of God of War’s nine-minute reveal at E3 2016 survived as part of the game’s opening, including two standout sequences: one in which Kratos starts berating Atreus for firing an arrow prematurely and then controls his rage, and another in which he thinks about comforting the boy after a traumatic lesson but ultimately decides against it.

“He is a very imperfect dad in the beginning of the game,” said Barlog. “He is a dad who’s never had a dad before. He’s a dad, like all of us, who’s faking his way through.”

God of War - Atreus aims a bow and arrow at a wild boar SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Barlog pointed out that neither Greek mythology nor Kratos’ own upbringing gave him worthwhile frames of reference for fatherhood. He was raised in the Spartan agoge, the city-state’s legendarily brutal military training program. And then he found out that his father was Zeus, the Olympian god who murdered his own father, the Titan Cronos, because Cronos intended to eat Zeus. (Long story.)

“A thing that I wanted Kratos to have — a thing that I imagine when thinking about who Kratos is — is, he wants his son to not fear him. He doesn’t want his son to believe that he is going to try to kill him,” said Barlog. “Because that’s the life he led, and he wants that — very desperately wants that — to not be the future.”

All of this is conveyed brilliantly in God of War through cutscenes, through dialogue during exploration and even through combat. After the aforementioned arrow incident, Kratos tells Atreus that the boy is not ready for battle. Atreus eventually does participate in combat, but during a later fight, he sits on the sidelines and leaves Kratos on his own. Kratos then reprimands Atreus for his inaction, telling his son that if he doesn’t pull his weight in battle, they’ll just go back home. (It’s essentially a much harsher version of “I will turn this car around!”)

Minor animations help to tell the story, too. My favorite detail illustrating that Kratos is still as mad as Hel is the way that he opens wooden chests: He slams his fist down through the top, and grabs what’s inside. Health boosts no longer reside inside chests; instead, they’re glowing green baubles on the ground, and Kratos gathers them by stomping on them. (He values Hacksilver enough to bend down and pick it up by hand.) When they’re climbing up chains or scaling cliffs, they don’t move separately — Atreus hops on his father’s back and holds on to his chest.

It’s wonderful to watch the two of them work as a combat team, as Atreus fires arrows and his father yells out, “Nice shot!” It’s just as emotional to see them in an argument. Kratos is a stern, stoic parent who won’t take any guff from his son, and Atreus — who seems to be on the cusp of his teenage years — isn’t shy about expressing displeasure with his father. My favorite such exchange was a point when Kratos told Atreus to keep his mouth shut, after which I spent some time exploring the area. I must have taken too long, because Atreus, his voice dripping with a surly teen’s sarcasm, soon muttered, “The path home is this way, duh.”

God of War - Atreus and the witch in a forest of red trees SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

It seems fair to argue that the success or failure of God of War will ride largely on whether Sony Santa Monica can pull off the story that Barlog is trying to tell, which feels like an odd thing to say about a God of War game. That’s not to dismiss story as immaterial to the series until now; this tale certainly builds on what we know of Kratos’ life. Yet the narrative elements here feel more grounded, relatable and mature — and therefore, more ambitious.

“To me, this game is an answer specifically to that: that if all you do is focus on what other people have done to wrong you — or all the horrible things you’ve done — instead of dealing with them, instead of moving forward, processing and moving forward, you are doomed,” said Barlog, after noting that Kratos is literally cursed by his interactions with the Greek gods. “You are, in sort of the Sisyphus nature, doomed to just keep pushing that damn rock up the hill. And I think he needs to break out of that cycle.”

At the same time, I found it equally impressive that Kratos’ story is reflected in the design of God of War. Barlog and his team of veteran developers, many of whom now have children, are clearly interested in telling different kinds of stories. And they have a different outlook on making games in general.

“I think the coolest part of this game is that not only does the game itself change, the mechanics themselves change, but the story is about that evolution, that change,” said Barlog. “Like, every aspect of this is putting a light on this concept of, ‘How do we move forward? How do our lives change, and what are the things around us that change when they do?’”

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