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A more nuanced Kratos makes the new ‘God of War’ a mighty success

(Sony Computer Entertainment)

God of War
Developed by: Sony Santa Monica Studio
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4

Video games have spawned countless mavens of death but of those many reapers few are as memorable as Kratos, the slayer of gods. Since 2005, the God of War series has chronicled Kratos’s journey from Spartan general to the scourge of Mount Olympus. Since its PlayStation 2 debut, the series has been known for its eye-smacking graphics, bloody set pieces and sizable campaigns. But after six major titles in seven years, culminating in the relatively soft sales of 2012’s “God of War: Ascension,” one could be forgiven for thinking that Kratos’s greatest dangers were overexposure and competition — the Bayonetta games challenged God of War’s claim to the throne of the hack-and-slash genre.

The original “God of War” features one heck of a good background story. On the verge of defeat, Kratos, a general of Sparta, watches as a barbarian horde threatens to overwhelm his men. Desperately, he calls upon Ares, the god of war in Greek mythology, to aide his army in exchange for complete servitude. Heeding his request, the god intervenes on behalf of the Spartans and grants Kratos peerless fighting abilities. Though Kratos is restless in the application of his talents, which he plies in the glory of his master, Ares tricks Kratos into slaughtering his own wife and child so as to unmoor him from all human sympathies. Adding to his misfortune, an oracle curses Kratos to be stained from head to toe in the ash of his family’s remains. The rest of the game relates Kratos’s quest for vengeance, which leads to the toppling of Ares and the usurpation of his role.

The qualities that made Kratos’s story so captivating saddled the series as it wore on. The novelty of killing a god, which served as the finale of the first game, degraded into routine by the time of “God of War 3” (2010). As video game critic Kat Bailey noted in an essay for USgamer, “God of War II and III rehash much of Kratos’ story arc, arriving at much the same conclusion as the original game, only in a less subtle fashion. In the process, Kratos becomes a cartoon, which Sony Santa Monica attempts to obscure by turning the gore up to eleven.”

Clearly the developers realized that Kratos needed to change to remain a bankable star. Thus, at the very start of the new “God of War,” we come across an older, heavily bearded Kratos standing before a large tree. Poignantly, the first action the game allows us to perform is to chop it down. Though a narrative reason is soon given for this act — Kratos needs the wood to build a pyre for his newly deceased wife — it’s hard not to read it as a nod to the fact that some of the pillars in the previous games have been given the ax.

On a mechanical level, the control scheme has been changed so that light and heavy weapon attacks are mapped to the controllers’ right triggers instead of its face buttons. Moreover, Kratos has the ability to jump only at specific points in the world. By way of compensating for this loss of mobility, he now has a shield that’s mapped to the top left controller. Anyone who has played a game in the Souls series will immediately sense its influence on the control layout (the game seems to pay homage to the From Software series by throwing an occasional giant-sword wielding, fully armored knight at you to fight.) The new game also drops the series’ heavy use of Quick Time Events, or timed on-screen button prompts, in an apparent concession to those of us who’ve grown weary of them.

Apart from such gameplay changes, the key new addition to the game is the introduction of Kratos’s young son, Atreus, the child from his second marriage, who forces Kratos to evolve beyond the psycho he has been in previous games. Of the many different quests available in the game, the central one involves father and son traveling to the highest peak in the realm to scatter the ashes of the woman who was once dear to them both in accordance with her final wishes.

Kratos is loath to take the boy with him on the journey, which he knows will be fraught with danger, but his hand is forced after he is visited by a Norse god. Up until that moment, Kratos lived in obscurity, hoping to bury his past by settling in a new land. It is only because he is wary of what the Norse god’s interest in him might portend for his son that he has Atreus accompany him.

The father-son relationship is handled shrewdly by the developers. The arc of their story seems designed to mirror the player’s relationship to Atreus. In both cases, the boy is on the hook to prove himself. From the outset, Kratos is cold to his son, who can only fire a few weak arrows at a time. It’s easy for the player not to use Atreus during the early part of the game but over time, as his combat skills increase, he become nearly indispensable. In a parallel fashion, his presence forces Kratos to reckon with the legacy of his monstrous past. This allows Kratos to become a compelling character again. When he tells his son that his mother was better than a god, there is no doubt that Kratos has come a long way.

Judged as a pure technical showpiece, as a demonstration of art design, or as a work of popular entertainment, the new “God of War” succeeds mightily.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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