Kratos rests his palm on the trunk of a tall birch tree, its bark marked with a bright golden handprint. He stands in quiet, melancholy contemplation. No longer a virile young warrior overflowing with destructive fire, fine crow’s feet mark his face, his strength now staid. His enemies are long defeated and the surrounding forest lies cold and still, but the weight of his bloody past has settled on his shoulders. He lifts the Leviathan axe and hacks into the trunk, a mighty weapon made mundane.
This is a new God of War, and though I barely scratched the surface in the hour and a half I spent with him, what I experienced was promising.
“Kratos really had to go into isolation, he had to kind of find a new purpose for getting up everyday and moving on to tomorrow,” Aaron Kauffman, Senior Community Manager and Marketing Producer at Santa Monica Studio, tells me.
This is a deeper, more thoughtful examination of the God of War. While previous games in the series revelled in gratuitous violence and glorious spectacle for spectacle’s sake, every act in God of War appears deliberate and considered. Both Kratos and the game itself are stepping back and considering what violence means, the purpose it serves, and its aftermath.
“In past God of War games Kratos was really this one-dimensional character who was always blaming the gods for his issues and felt that he had an incurable disease [of rage],” says Kauffman. “I think now he is realising, ‘This is something I have to live with everyday, I have to deal with it, I can't just forget about it.’”
Kauffman likens the time spent on previous God of War games as Santa Monica Studio’s “college years, where anything goes”. Now they have matured, and gone on to have children themselves. “The studio has grown up. Games have matured, and without getting into comparison, there's a lot of games in the action/adventure space that are creating characters who are more relatable, storylines that are far more interesting than just a god on a path of vengeance.”
Kauffman tells me the studio has attempted to target everyone - classic God of War fans who want the core mechanics of combat and to feel like a badarse, “lapsed” fans who want to see growth and evolution of the characters and mechanics, and newcomers to the franchise who are looking for incredible worlds and storylines.
It’s a tricky balance, and some old-school fans may be put off by the transformation of their B-grade action hero into an emotionally-complex man. But largely, this game has wider appeal than previous instalments, its mature new direction closer to what one expects from the triple A titles of today.
“I think this is the first God of War game that is more accessible than any other previous. Even though the gameplay is far more ambitious, the storyline and the characters are much, much more plausible and connective than any before.”
I take great pleasure in throwing the Leviathan axe, which freezes whatever target it lodges in until I recall it to Kratos' hand. It also cuts a swathe through anyone in its path on the return trip, illustrated in the new enemy health bars. Puzzle-solving favours axe-throwing rather than using people as props, as it had in previous instalments.
Despite all the changes - the deeper characters, the more emotional story, even the closer camera and slower combat - there is still something unmistakably “God of War” about this game. The slightly over-the-top character designs, the fluid movement and chaining together of melee attacks, the brutal finishing moves. Though it doesn’t look like the God of War we remember, at times the combat still feels familiar.
God of War’s distinct flow of battle is particularly evident when I activate rage mode, clicking the two thumb sticks when the orange rage bar has filled to temporarily infuse my punches with the power and fury of the Kratos of old. But even that is more considered than in previous games. “Rage mode is our symbolic reference to Kratos dealing with his anger and rage and using his abilities to channel that,” says Kauffman.
“Kratos is still dealing with the disease of rage. He's still not a happy person, he's still an angry person, but he's much more channelled, he's much more focused.”
An unspecified number of years has passed since Kratos killed Zeus in God of War 3. Kauffman won't go into exactly how many, but it has been long enough for Kratos to have landed on the shores of Scandinavia, become well-acquainted enough with Faye to build a home with her, and to father a young boy, now aged around 10. He is as settled down as it is possible for him to be.
But it isn’t all domestic bliss. Kratos has purposely been a distant father to Atreus, leaving the childrearing to Faye, Atreus’ mother. “He was just constantly focused on, ‘How do I deal with this disease that I have?’” says Kauffman. “‘I’m not ready to be a father, I’m going to leave that to the mother.’” Kratos fears hurting his family, or worse, repeating the tragedy of his past family, who he killed in blind fury and bloodlust.
So instead of spending time with his son, Kauffman tells me Kratos spent it in the forest, challenging himself to control his rage and refrain from killing creatures as they attacked him. This time will be explored further in a comic series, issue one being released with the launch of the game, but it is clear that though Kratos now lives a relatively peaceful life, he continues to battle his own temper.
We don’t yet know how Atreus’ mother died. It may have been an illness (possibly passed to Atreus, who alludes to having been sick in the past). But we do know it wasn’t sudden, as Faye made preparations and left instructions. Kratos and Atreus’ journey is in obedience to those instructions - a trek to the mountain to spread her ashes.
It’s a personal, sombre mission, particularly in contrast to the roaring rampage of blood and boobs that were the previous God of War games. Rather than a Kratos seeking revenge, it is a Kratos seeking peace - a closure of a different kind. He is venturing out in pursuit of someone else’s goals, instead of his own.
Further, Faye’s death has forced Kratos to be present, to take on the responsibility of raising his son despite not feeling ready.
At the start of God of War, Kratos approaches parenting as a role he must perform, rather than a relationship.
According to Kauffman, Kratos doesn’t know how to build a connection with Atreus. “He’s not used to loving. It's been a long time since he had a wife and a daughter and even the mother of Atreus.” While Kauffman won’t go too deeply into the nature of the relationship between Atreus’ parents, saying it will be further explored in the game, he notes that it is Atreus that finds the vulnerability and humanity in Kratos, breaking down his barriers and making him open up.
“Atreus is his reason, and it's made all those years of isolation kind of worthwhile to figure out what the next generation of his life is gonna look like.”
Even so, Kratos knows little about his son as a person. He asks Atreus if Faye taught him how to hunt, and appears surprised to discover Atreus can read runes.
Kratos also offers Atreus little in the way of affection. The closest he gets to comforting his son is in advising him to close his heart to the pain of others - something the believes Atreus must do if he wants to survive. Kratos’ interactions with his son are stern, and his lessons harsh, but he is preparing Atreus to survive.
“There is a moment in the game when Atreus has killed a human for the first time. Previously he's only killed a deer, animals, and Kratos gets down on his knees and puts his hand on his face and basically says, ‘Good job, you know, we have a dangerous road ahead.’ And I think that comes from within the heart of Kratos and it means that there is a good parent within him,” says Kauffman.
“He's learning how to be a father every day, good and bad.”
Up until the events of the game, Atreus’ world is his mother, his father, and the wooded area surrounding their modest home. He has no friends save his mother, and this journey with his father is the first time that he has ventured beyond the protective stave ringing their forest.
“I think that's an interesting facet of the story that Atreus was raised in a very isolated environment. Imagine if your son or daughter grew up in captivity almost. And that weighs on him. That's why the world looks so incredible to him, as soon as he goes beyond. That's why he is very kinda childish in the beginning - he's not used to socialising and used to dealing with danger.”
Atreus also knows nothing of his father’s past, and is so sheltered that he is even unaware of his own godhood. “Atreus doesn't know that he is a god himself. In the game we know all that, in the game that moment will happen [where he finds out]. It's an incredible exchange between the two of them when it happens. Things change a lot from there on.”
Even though he has been sheltered and protected, Atreus proves useful in battle. I can hit square to make him fire arrows, distracting Kratos’ enemies and giving me time to reposition. After combat, Kratos gives Atreus instruction, telling him to be better. But, at least in the early parts of the game, Atreus remains largely on the periphery of combat.
Kauffman tells me that while Kratos wants Atreus to be a godlike warrior, he also want him to be twice the man Kratos is. Kratos fears the fury and “disease of godhood” in his bloodline, and doesn’t want Atreus to be swept up in it as he was. So he tries to shelter Atreus, holding him back from becoming a warrior for just a bit longer. However, I’m told that Atreus will grow along the journey, and indeed become a warrior by the end.
And what does Atreus want? “Atreus just wants his dad to say, ‘Good job.’”
Atreus kneels over the corpse of a deer, coming to terms with his first kill. Behind him, Kratos reaches out unnoticed, about to place a comforting hand on his son’s shoulder. He hesitates for a moment, then withdraws.
This is a Kratos who is less sure of himself. One who is no longer blinded by rage, one forcing himself to stand still and consider his actions and his impact upon those around him.
“None of us as human beings can forget our past in order to move forward,” says Kauffman. “We have to deal with the tragedies and sacrifices, all the different moments that come into our life, and Kratos is dealing with that.”
Kratos is now solely responsible for the kind of man his son will become. And that is the most terrifying challenge he has ever faced.
God of War will be released April 20 on PlayStation 4.