Since its announcement in 2016, Sony has been very careful about how it presents the new God of War. It's a reimagining of the franchise, that much we know. We also know that Kratos is a father, and he's far less angry than he once was, or so it would seem.
After spending a few hours with Kratos on his new adventure, I can tell you that fatherhood isn't his forte, and he's just as angry as ever, haunted by his past misdeeds; it's simply something he's more willing to accept about himself.
With just over a month until God of War is released, Sony Santa Monica invited us to play the game for the very first time, and let me get right to the point: Fans of the franchise will love the more measured, thoughtful approach.
Even the Grinch has a heart
Since his debut on the PlayStation 2, Kratos has been rage personified, a brute who killed anyone and anything. After becoming an instrument of war, players controlled Kratos as he took down gods, titans, and everything in between—all without the slightest bit of remorse.
The formula was attractive at first, and no game had more spectacle than God of War. But several years (and eight games later), and the one-dimensional approach became tired. To the point where the very appeal of Kratos became his most insufferable quality.
The newest God of War will show a more vulnerable side of Kratos, who finds himself in a new land confronting a past that continues to weigh heavily on his shoulders. Turns out, having Kratos finally look inward was exactly what the franchise needed.
"For characters to grow, they need to legitimately grow," said Cory Barlog, God of War's director. "You don't want to keep hammering on the same notes."
When the game first begins, it's clear Kratos is a mere shell of the man he once was, in a period of transition confronting unfamiliar feelings. He's broken, battered, and a little bit somber, finally coming to terms with his fate as a cursed god. But he isn't alone on his journey of retribution.
Joining Kratos is his son Atreus, who beautifully represents the humanity his father lost. But he isn't just there to remind Kratos that there's more to life than being angry; the character is a necessary part of his father's path forward, providing a positive influence on their journey.
What's so compelling is how Kratos and Atreus interact with each other. Kratos is brutal and cold, while Atreus is curious and eager, offering an optimistic perspective to Kratos' bleak outlook. In one of the few trailers of the game, their dynamic is perfectly captured in one exchange:
"To be effective in combat, a warrior must not feel for his enemy," Kratos says. "Close your heart to their desperation. Close your heart to their suffering."
"But not everyone is bad," Atreus responds. "Mother always said to be open to those who can help."
Help isn't a word that's in Kratos' vocabulary, but it's something he'll have to learn on to accept during his journey (details of which we will not divulge as to keep the experience fresh for the game's launch).
God of War has never been about building relationships, so it will be interesting to see how Kratos and Atreus bond, and whether Kratos gives Atreus the approval he's so desperately seeking. It's an enormous task considering how reprehensible Kratos has become. But even in the early game, there are signs he is on the path to change.
Kratos wasn't the only thing that felt tired in the God of War franchise, so Sony Santa Monica set out to freshen up the combat style, too. Since its debut, the franchise's hack and slash approach had players focus solely on stringing together endless combos. While that philosophy still remains, the combat is now built around a deep RPG-like system that encourages players to upgrade Kratos' skillset, weapons, armor, and more.
Early in the game, when Kratos encounters weaker enemies, button mashing will get the job done, but it'll only work for so long. Enemies soon become much harder—and more frequent—to take down, requiring a more strategic approach during encounters. Mistime your attack or parry, and you'll find yourself hitting the restart button.
The new RPG elements aren't unlike what you'd find in a game like Shadow of Mordor. There's an entire upgrade system that makes Kratos a stronger warrior—and you can upgrade Atreus, too. Upgrading Kratos' skills will give him the ability to deliver more devastating and varied attacks, which in turn keeps the gameplay fresh and provides a more brutal, visceral experience.
Atreus can be controlled during battles, too. With the press of a button, Kratos can instruct him when to use his bow. Hitting enemies with arrows will distract them for a brief moment, giving Kratos the opportunity to strike. It works surprisingly well during more difficult boss battles.
The more creative you become with Kratos' skills, the more enjoyable the experience is. You can use Kratos' axe to hack and slash enemies. But you can also use it to stun, freeze, and throw, recalling it back like Thor does Mjolnir. In conjunction with Kratos' shield, the combat can be incredibly rewarding.
By giving players the ability to build Kratos to be the warrior they want, rather than the game occasionally introducing a new weapon or two, it broadens the scope of God of War in a way the franchise has never seen. Players will get their own unique experience—and it'll surely make for some terrific gameplay videos as players master the new mechanics.
Coming from the previous God of War games, it was a little tough to grasp the new combat and upgrade system. But it becomes incredibly intuitive—and fun—as the adventure progresses.
The only real concern I have is whether or not the grind to upgrade Kratos will feel more annoying than rewarding as players search for Hacksilver—a material necessary to upgrade gear—throughout the world. It felt fresh and exciting over the few hours I played, but Krato's new adventure is expected to be 20+ hours, so there's certainly potential for the game's RPG elements to get in the way.
The new approach works
By completely reimagining the franchise, Sony Santa Monica is taking a big risk—but one that is very necessary. The video game market has evolved quite a bit since God of War was released on the PlayStation 2, so it only makes sense for Kratos to evolve, too.
Although I only played for a few hours, the father-son dynamic was incredibly effective, and there were plenty of memorable moments. Kratos is still very clearly a tortured soul, but now there's a balance to that rage. All the meanwhile, he's working on dealing with his past while giving his son guidance.
The new approach perfectly suits the more introspective Kratos, and the RPG elements add a fitting narrative parallel. Players are literally growing Kratos' skillset as he grows as an individual.
God of War will be released on April 20.