You must have heard by now. Word on the grapevine is that God of War is swapping out a loin cloth for hide trousers, sandals for boots and the Blades of Chaos for axes, and heading north to desecrate the world of Norse mythology. This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, on 13 April 2016.
It sounds like a great idea, and potentially the perfect way to revive a franchise that's been, errr, in the Styx for the last six years. The Norse gods have always conjured up images of wholesome, hammer-wielding hardiness that makes their Olympian equivalents look a bit prim by comparison. Start trouble at a party on Olympus — with its sunshine and olives, and Apollo plucking away at a harp in the corner — and you're likely to be met with looks of uncomfortable bewilderment, before being dragged away and chained to a rock to have birds pluck at your flesh for all eternity (the passive-aggressive bastards).
Do the same in the Beer Halls of Valhalla — with their roaring fires, great wolf-dogs fighting over bloody slabs of meat and boozy singing — and you can expect to get pummelled to the ground by a barrage of great godly fists, before your body is expediently thrown to the aforementioned wolf-dogs.
With their leader, Odin, also doubling as a god of war, those Asgardians seem genuinely up for a good scrap, and what better way to give it to them than through a God of War title? It could be the most inspired twist we've seen in a video game franchise for years, but for it to come off there is one major condition that must be met:
You must no longer play as Kratos.
This may seem like a dangerous move. Kratos has established himself as a leading icon of the PlayStation brand over the years, and for the best part of a decade millions of us embraced the deity-defying, iconoclastic havoc in God of War's brutal take on mythological Greece. Over that time, Kratos has ascended from obscurity to tattoo-worthiness, with gamers willing to engrave him on their bodies as an eternal symbol of defiance, rage and just general bad-arsery (with mixed results).
But with Zeus toppled, Hades annihilated and Aphrodite pleasured in God of War III, it felt like Kratos's life work was all but done by the time Ascension came out — and was shrugged off by gamers and critics alike — in 2013.
The waning popularity of God of War: Ascension and the remastered God of War III for PS4 suggest that the series has lost that vicious momentum that propelled it to Olympian heights in 2010. Ascension was always doomed to pale next to the operatic climax of its predecessor, shifting 2.3 million units to III's 4.8 million. Perhaps more telling, however, are the low sales of God of War III for PS4, which has moved a meagre 0.56 million copies. This is not only far fewer than fellow exclusive remastered titles, Uncharted and The Last of Us, but less even than less prestigious, non-exclusive remasters on PS4, Metro and Tomb Raider. For what is ostensibly a core PlayStation franchise, something is definitely amiss.
God of War III was more than just a natural ending to the Kratos mythos. It was an extravagant display that, in terms of sheer majestic imagery, was video games' answer to Paradise Lost or The Silmarillion. Ascension could not compete with the spectacle of ascending Olympus aback a Titan while fending off Poseidon, the God of the Sea; toppling the mighty Cronos after escaping from between his fingertips; or defeating Zeus himself to bring about the end of the Olympian world.
Then there's the sense that Kratos as a character had reached his conclusion at the end of III. Through the previous two games, I found Kratos's energy captivating, snarling and gritting my teeth as I tore out a cyclops' eyeball, or disembowelled a centaur. I admired his blinkered drive for revenge, interlaced with guilt over the death of his family; he was one of the most raw and tragic video game heroes I'd ever played.
But at some point in God of War III — possibly after killing poor Hephaestus as he tried to protect his daughter, or bearing down on Hermes whose leg I'd just torn off, or maybe after being forced to kill one too many innocent civilians who stood in my way — I lost touch with Kratos. Was I still enjoying this? What was the purpose purpose of me doing all this again?
Excesses of blood and gore are integral to the series, but in the series' last two outings, it felt like Kratos's motivation for carnage was becoming more and more tenuous. Perhaps this was the point all along. We're meant to start feeling uncomfortable with Kratos's actions, and be aware of the dissonance emerging between ourselves and the character. But this emotional not-so-merry-go-round provided by Kratos's character isn't one that's sustainable across multiple games, because by the end of God of War III, he had become outright villainous. Part of the trilogy's journey was us growing apart from Kratos, feeling little sympathy, and maybe even some relief, when his murderous missions reaches its bloody climax.
At the end of God of War III, the world is a submerged wasteland of endless storms and cyclones. After the end credits, we follow a blood trail from where Kratos turned the Blade of Olympus on himself to a cliff edge, where it's implied he throws himself into the sea. While it's open to interpretation, I think it fittingly symbolises that there is nothing left for the series in mythical Greece, that we must leave it behind, and Kratos must stay behind with it; he is endemic to that universe, and he needs to be destroyed with it.
The disappointing God of War: Ascension's relatively weak story was drowned out in grotesque imagery that felt like a desperate attempt to unsettle the player, typified by insects popping out of a woman's breast and burrowing their way into a giant's eye, or Kratos stabbing a wailing elephant-creature in the head until its wobbling brain was revealed. Ascension lacked the psychological element of what made its predecessor so brilliantly disturbing; God of War III already broke our ties with Kratos, leaving the violence in Ascension feeling void of impact, and a little obnoxious.
Now, the series stands at a crossroads. All the signs are pointing to God of War 4 (God of War Thor?), perhaps heading to the great stone fortresses and icy wastes of Asgard and Valhalla. Within that realm, the series can take one of two routes. The first is the absurd, postmodern approach of throwing Kratos into Norse Mythology, setting a dubious precedent of him becoming a kind of interdimensional deity-killer; a few games set in Valhalla maybe, then he can move onto Ancient Egypt, Ancient Persia… there's no shortage of options.
Sure, the devs would obviously come up with some kind of narrative justification for Kratos to turn his wrath upon the Norse Gods (revenge for them intervening when he tries to slaughter the populace of Iceland, or something?), but it'd inevitably be twaddle. 'Kratos vs the Norse Gods' could well be gaming's equivalent of Freddy vs Jason or Alien vs Predator or, indeed, Batman vs Superman.
Alternatively, the series can hold onto the essence of Kratos — the ruthless drive for revenge, the grit, the violence, the characteristic red tattoo across his body — and channel it into a new character indigenous to the Norse mythological setting. The official concept art teases a beardy, meaty Kratos lookalike wielding an axe, though the crucial question is whether we're in fact looking at Kratos or his Nordic spiritual successor. A Krathar or a Krathor, if you will.
A new anti-hero can easily be everything we loved in Kratos (he wasn't a terribly complex guy, after all), but crucially not be Kratos himself, and therefore free from from all the baggage that the Spartan brings with him. Of course, God of War 4 will be a dark and brutal tale of revenge, and of course you'll get to cave Thor's skull in with his own hammer and so on, but a new anti-hero offers the chance to reinfuse some soul into the series. The carnage will have new motivations and new (probably questionable) justifications, grounded in a setting that's perfect for the spirit of the series.
Kratos is a video game legend, a true God of gaming. But, true to any bloodsport, every legend needs to know when to retire lest they make a fool of themselves or tarnish their legacy. Gaming's most unapologetic anti-hero has reached that point, and it's time to hand down those red tats and that insatiable thirst for revenge to a spiritual successor.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.