From the moment it was announced it was clear that this new entry in Sony’s God of War franchise was going to be different. The announcement trailer showed us new combat, a new setting, and a different take on Kratos. The days of “give me vengeance or give me death” are behind him as he now has to take on the role of a single father while also being a leftover god from a pantheon he personally slew. Try explaining that to your kid while wearing the ash of the family you mistakenly killed to kick off the whole revenge massacre. I guess things can’t get any worse . . . right? Just a heads up, I will be talking about a few early story moments that could be seen as spoilerish (they take place in the first hour or two of the game) so be warned. I’ll remind you one last time before I get into anything that hasn’t been shown in trailers.
The game starts with a decidedly somber Kratos cutting down trees that will be used to burn the body of his wife and the mother of Atreus, his son. We learn that she has recently passed and that she and Atreus were very close while Kratos was often gone and did not spend much time with the son he unaffectionately refers to as “boy.” It appears, however, that his wife, Faye, had a considerable impact on our God of War. As much as he might try to hide it, Kratos has the look of a mourning man. It’s actually a bit of a shock considering this is the same man who pummeled his own father’s face into a bloody pulp. Kratos still bears the scar of where he was stabbed by Zeus’ Blade of Olympus, and later by his own hands.
Atreus makes multiple efforts to speak with his father, understanding that he is all the family he has left now, but Kratos is resistant, stubbornly so. After completing the ritual to set Faye ablaze, he says he needs to test the boy, to see if he is ready for their journey. Faye’s final request was to have her ashes placed on the highest point in the realm. Kratos is more than capable of making the journey, but Faye wanted Atreus to go as well and Kratos had little faith that he could survive in the world at large. Still, he makes the effort by going on a hunt.
It’s here that we are finally treated to the new combat. The behind the shoulder camera will be familiar to most who play third person action games and the new systems feel great. Combat is fluid and it’s easy enough to combo your heavy and light attacks or to juggle enemies in the air. A well-timed block can parry, causing a brief slo-mo effect that makes it easy to launch a retaliatory attack. It was easy to pick up and play, but there’s quite a bit of depth as you continue to play through the game. Upgrading gear unlocks new combos and abilities that can be more or less effective depending on the enemy.
Atreus even keeps a journal that has details about the different enemies you fight and offers tips on how you can better combat them. These entries will update as your foes present new and different attacks and strategies. Thankfully, the game is very clear in letting you know there is updated information. Beyond keeping a journal, Atreus can eventually assist in combat with his bow (once Kratos give his back to him). Simply aiming and pressing square will launch arrows that deal damage and fill a stun meter below an enemy health bar. That stun meter is important because filling it and pressing R3 will trigger some of the brutal finishers fans of the original series will love.
Kratos can fill the bar faster by attacking with punches, but the real fun comes from his new Leviathan Axe. Gone are the blades chained to his wrist (though he apparently takes great care to keep what I assume are the scars wrapped and hidden), replaced with new possibilities via the frost infused axe. Of course, you can melee and launch enemies like I mentioned before, but you can also throw it. A light throw will move quick and bounce off of enemies while a heavy throw will pierce them, sticking them to walls if nearby or freezing certain enemies making them easy to shatter. The axe can be equipped with runes that infuse it with special attacks and can be changed at any time assuming you have different ones to slot in. Different enemies will react differently to attacks so experimentation is important. If your axe attacks seem to be bouncing off a heavily armored enemy, start punching and spamming arrows to fill that stun meter.
The axe also has practical use in puzzles. At one point I had to spin a large gear to open a nearby gate, but as soon as I let go the door would slam shut. I noticed a smaller gear on the wall nearby that spun off as soon as I let go. I threw my axe at it, in turn freezing the mechanism in the open position and walked through the door. A simple tap of the triangle button recalls the axe from anywhere to your hand, something which can be especially cool in combat scenarios when you’re recalling it through enemies.
Getting back to our heroes, I’m happy to say that Atreus is not some needy NPC that we need to escort throughout the game. He provides much of the dialogue on their journey, asking questions and commenting on the world around them. He almost appears to be Kratos’ opposite as the two are often at odds about the “right” thing to do with Atreus being the trusting one wishing to lend a helping hand. Kratos…Kratos doesn’t want to get involved, at all, period. While they might always seem at odds it doesn’t mean Kratos doesn’t care about him. There are more than a few moments where the boy is threatened and the paternal instincts kick in.
Therein lies one of the game’s most exciting aspects. Having his son around often makes this former Ghost of Sparta feel more human. We see a moment when Atreus makes his first kill but is clearly shaken by the event. Kratos attempts to console the boy, reaching out his hand to place on his shoulder but thinks twice and decides to let it go. Regardless of whether or not he’s doing a “good job” as a father (he’s not) he’s trying. This isn’t just angry Kratos anymore. There is a depth that I find endearing, and I am desperate to see more. Somehow, someway, Santa Monica took one of gaming’s most one-note characters and gave him a soul.
This was especially apparent during the opening segment’s climax (SPOILER WARNING). After telling Atreus that he wasn’t ready and attempting to prove it to him, he is confronted by a stranger outside their home. Neither character knows who it is, but Kratos is immediately on the defensive when the voice says he knows who and what he is. He hides Atreus and takes this outside where a Connor McGregor looking Norse god (?) starts talking smack and eventually literally smacks him. Kratos, trying to convince the man to walk away, is forced to take action and punches the man several feet away. The stranger returns the favor by launching Kratos into the air and over his home. An incredible boss fight ensues where I repeatedly vocalized how awesome it was. It was a battle between gods that I was not expecting this early in the game and the fight did not disappoint in terms of gameplay or spectacle. At one point the ground beneath our feet cracked and nearby rock formations began to crumble.
At one point our stranger friend thinks threatening the hiding Atreus is a good idea and forced Kratos into spartan rage as he pummels the now helpless god. When it becomes clear that there is only one way to end the fight, Kratos brings the man to the ground and places him into a choke hold. After a few seconds of struggling, he snaps his neck and sends him plummeting into the newly formed ravine that resulted from their fight. We also see that Kratos, be it a result of age or lack of serious combat since his days in Greece is winded and beaten from the brawl. He attempts to regenerate as his counterpart did several times, but is unable to fully recover and seems to struggle to get as much as he does. He’s left to wonder how they found him and why now? Despite knowing Atreus isn’t ready, he has no choice now, they have to leave or more may come. (END SPOILERS)
With all of this in just the opening hours, it’s a clear sign that there is so much to be excited about in this soft reboot. God of War has always been a respected franchise but was one that, at times, appeared to be overstaying its welcome. The team at Santa Monica Studios has revitalized the franchise into something that feels modern and fresh. I’ve played several hours beyond this opening segment and can say with confidence that this is no fluke. I’d rather not make any rash judgments at this point, but God of War has the potential to be the game of this generation for PlayStation. It’s a credit to that team and to Sony as a whole, and I can’t wait to keep playing and see it through to the end.