“God of War” Wrestles with Violence, Wins


Christian Bolles

A stone-faced Kratos crosses the peak of a mountain with his son, Atreus, in Santa Monica Studio’s PlayStation 4 masterpiece “God of War.”

“Don’t be sorry. Be better.”

This harsh lesson, uttered in actor Christopher Judge’s gravelly baritone, can be considered a thesis statement for the excellent God of War, Sony Santa Monica’s latest PlayStation 4 exclusive release and the fifth mainline entry in the controversial series. Some might have looked at Kratos, a Spartan demigod, and seen an irredeemable murderer with nowhere left to go but Hell, but director Cory Barlog had a vision of his own. A mainstay of the first two games — a time which he describes as his team’s “college years” — his return transformed an unsympathetic killer into a fully-realized hero worthy of the title. Believe it or not, the whole thing is a textured, wise meditation on the trials of parenthood — and it is much, much better than what came before, ranking among the best games of this generation.

The previous four titles followed the story of Kratos who, after slaying the god Ares, took up his mantle. Fueled by rage at being tricked into slaughtering his own family and hell-bent on exacting vengeance on the entire Greek pantheon, players left behind a trail of bodies that ended with Kratos’ own father, Zeus. While the iconically tattooed Spartan was once hailed as an endearing antihero at a time when those weren’t a dime-a-dozen, the series let its status as an ultraviolent hack and slash get to its head by the third installment, in which Kratos’ path of violence felt senseless, cruel, and indulgent rather than purposeful.

In God of War, so named to represent the series’ rebirth, we find Kratos far away from the lands of Greek myth, living in a humble cabin somewhere in the Norse wilderness. He’s a father once again — but the death of his wife, Faye, has left him alone with their son, Atreus. Years wandering the forest while trying to come to grips with his violent past have kept Kratos distant from his son, who has no idea of his father’s godhood, let alone his own. Despite the rift between them, the two must fulfill Faye’s dying wish: to scatter her ashes at the “highest peak in all the realms.” To do so, they embark on a truly epic journey spanning the human and dwarven realms of Midgard, the freezing icescapes of Helheim, the lush yet war-torn elven Alfheim, and more. All the while, they become acquainted with a whole new world of gods and monsters, among whom Kratos is entirely unwelcome. The dangers and wonders of their journey find an invaluable interpreter in the unfailingly curious Atreus, even as his own hidden identity battles within him. And as they continue, it seems that Faye’s wish may have been more purposeful than they initially imagined.

Though previous God of War games have relied on a steady stream of button-mashing action seen from a far-away camera perspective, this new entry makes every effort to be as personal as possible. The camera almost never drifts more than a few feet away from Kratos, an effect enhanced by the development team’s dedication to framing the entire game in a single, unbroken shot. There are no detectable loading times in its nearly 50-hour mountain-scaling, multi-realm sprawl — player-controlled segments transition seamlessly into cutscenes that, being rendered in real-time, look indistinguishable from the rest of the game. It’s a good thing, then, that the game looks just about perfect.

Five years of development have molded God of War into what may be the most gorgeous game ever made. Despite releasing exclusively on the PlayStation 4, a five-year-old console, its attention to detail is stunning, from the distinct individual pores on Kratos’ face to snow that realistically depresses around objects that come into contact with it in three dimensions. This makes the scale of the world and its inhabitants all the more impressive — take the city-sized corpse of the giant Thamur, sporting what must be some of the most detailed fingernails ever modeled.

Thanks to disarmingly good writing, God of War’s scale is used sparingly. Between the moments of grandeur — like fighting a dragon while ascending a mountain or riding a towering hammer into a glacier — the relationship between Kratos and Atreus creates an emotional core denser than the protagonist’s biceps. Players have no reason to expect anything this nuanced from a game whose name has a legacy of bellowing warriors and fountains of blood, but the majority of its running time is spent listening to the evolving banter between father and son. A rising trend of good-to-excellent voice performances in games reaches its apex here, with both leads acting the absolute hell out of their parts. Judge’s Kratos is gruff but surprisingly vulnerable, with the pain of his evil deeds weighing heavily on his every word, and Sunny Suljic — who did most of Atreus’ voicework at the age of 11 — deserves more recognition than the game industry is capable of giving him. Taking into account the dozens of hours of dialogue, it boggles the mind how committed both actors are to their roles, and with the magic of motion-capture, they’re physically embedded in the game’s DNA.

Of course, this is still a video game, and when the time comes for Kratos and Atreus to defend themselves, God of War finds an entirely different way to shine. Kratos spends much of the game equipped with an axe passed down from Faye. It’s a formidable and thrilling weapon, largely due to one key trick: it can be thrown at will, then swiftly recalled with the press of a button, just like Thor’s famed hammer. The mechanics of this work perfectly; toss it at a tree, and the blade will lodge in the trunk — press the triangle button, and the handle will tilt toward Kratos slightly before the axe dislodges and flies into his hand with a satisfying thwack. Similarly, it can be hurled at enemies, freezing them in place and allowing Kratos to take a few swings with his godly fists before summoning the axe and continuing to fight without a hitch. Weapons and armor can be improved with loot gained from chests scattered throughout the world, and while it would take too long to describe these new mechanics, suffice to say that they give the combat an overwhelming level of depth. Couple that with a suite of simple but satisfying puzzles, and God of War’s diversity of offerings starts to feel endless.

The controller’s square button is dedicated to Atreus, an invaluable asset whose abilities improve both as they’re upgraded and as his character changes over the course of the narrative. Press his button in battle, and he’ll volley arrows into the fight; hold it, and he’ll summon a flurry of spectral creatures. He is also useful outside of combat, as his literacy in the local language allows him to translate snippets of lore scattered throughout the world. These tidbits, as well as others for each new being the player encounters, are scrawled in his notebook, which can be accessed at any time and is written in adorable first-person.

Through each brutal fight, Atreus’ growth is the game’s greatest concern. As the boy begins to enjoy the thrill of battle more and more, Kratos must do everything he can to keep his son from becoming an echo of his past self in an unforgiving world that seems bent on turning him into a reckless warrior. Kratos’ disdain for all gods is thrown into relief too, as he grapples with the fact that his son is a god himself. Yet the melodramatic pretenses of these ideas are never used manipulatively or given undeserved significance, often tempered with a smart, keenly self-aware sense of humor. The well-worn trope of a distant father’s sudden, unexpected display of affection for his approval-starved child never surfaces here; instead, the moment when Kratos first puts his arm around Atreus feels completely natural, surprising neither them nor the player thanks to all the hard work both the writers and performers have put in over the course of the first couple dozen hours. By the game’s halfway point, it already reaches heights of character development and emotional resonance that few pieces of entertainment manage to even touch by their conclusion — in giving itself room to breathe, God of War excels.

To balance the stirring weight of the central narrative, the limited but perfectly-used cast of supporting characters are all simply wonderful to interact with. A witch of mysterious origins shows our heroes stirring kindness throughout their journey; a pair of dwarven blacksmiths provide sparse comic relief when players need to upgrade their equipment; and at the halfway point, the disembodied but very much alive head of the self-described “smartest man alive” will undoubtedly emerge as a fan favorite due to his dry wit and captivating tales of myth and legend. Eventually, God of War proves to be just as invested in motherhood as fatherhood, delivering some genuinely unpredictable twists that only enhance the narrative.

Perhaps the most remarkable of God of War’s achievements is its restraint. By centering a well-told, layered story of parentage and redemption and concerning itself with only a few minor Norse gods, it accomplishes what few franchises do in their entirety. That it’s just the first entry in a new series compounds its resounding success, making a sound argument that story-driven single-player experiences can still dominate the market when given the right team of developers and enough time.

When God of War’s glowing reviews first released, Barlog released a video of his reaction which he’d filmed to show his son. In the clip, tears run down his face as he professes his gratitude for the development team and whispers to himself with astonishment, “I didn’t f**k it up.” Playing the game, it’s easy to see the sweat behind those tears — love has been poured into its every aspect, and the members of Sony Santa Monica could not possibly be more deserving of the praise heaped on them by critics and audiences alike. God of War is a defining point in a new generation of games that think critically about their engagement with masculinity and violence. In doing so, the game itself becomes godlike.