Having murdered his way through the entire pantheon of Greek gods, you probably wouldn’t peg Kratos to be the star of a video game about fatherhood.
Yet here we are and, ok, it’s a game about fatherhood interspersed with punching trolls to death and chopping mythical beasts in half with a massive axe, but there’s the sense that Sony Santa Monica have loftier ideals for gaming’s angriest man.
By the end of the God of War 3, Kratos’ schtick had become rather tiresome; a thuggish vessel of rage with little else of note. His task to wipe out the gods in an act of vengeance fulfilled, you were left to wonder where the character could go.
And despite the game simply being called God of War rather than God of War 4 and the significant shift to Norse mythology, this is not a reboot. This is the same Kratos and God of War is a continuation of his story. For the moment, the developers are remaining tight-lipped on how Kratos has switched planes. But here he is, sporting a natty beard and taking on the job of single Dad to a young boy in the harsh climes of the Norse mountains.
God of War's director Cory Barlog recently had a son of his own, shifting the lens through which he sees his life and work. The result is a considerably more grown-up video game. It appears the boy’s mother has recently passed and it is up to Kratos to teach his youngling how to hunt. To provide for himself and his family. “I’m hungry,” growls Kratos. “Feed us.” And the two set out in the snow to track a deer.
It is a lot calmer and intimate than you would expect from a God of War game. The camera hugs the ground and peers up at Kratos’ granite torso, while the boy gambols ahead. The levels themselves have been opened up, and Sony Santa Monica speak of allowing the environments to ‘breath more’, but the same can be said of the pacing. Kratos explores the edges of the forest, collecting scattered resources stashed at the level’s boundaries.
Kratos follows his son until they come across a deer and the boy lets loose an arrow which misses wildly. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” bellows Kratos, pushing at the edges of his temper before composing himself. It seems our Kratos has either been on the world’s most effective anger management course, or has mellowed in his old age. In a definitive and welcome admission of the character’s previous faults, Kratos’ struggle with his rage is a considerable theme of God of War. He must control it for the sake of his son but harness it when under threat.
Hence the ‘rage meter’. While battling beasties, the rage meter builds and when full can be channelled into a powerful attack. A familiar sight in God of War. However, the core of the combat looks considerably different. Kratos has shelved the whipping chained blades of Athena in favour of an axe seemingly imbued with ice magic. Weapons can pack different elemental powers, while enemies often have their own elements and swapping up your arsenal to counter each will be key.
There is also a mechanical change, with the primary attack buttons now mapped to the triggers. Kratos’ axe, meanwhile, has a short, medium and long attack. He can get up close and personal, mashing smaller enemies against rocks and splitting them in two, or throw the axe as a ranged attack and wait for it to return to him much like Thor’s hammer. The main tenets of God of War combat seem to apply –aggression and crowd control- but it is crunchier and heavier, trading balletic swirling blades for meaty axe walloping.
Kratos Junior, who currently remains nameless, also participates in combat. Left to his own devices he will prowl the peripheries of a battle, firing arrows autonomously. But he can also be commanded to target enemies with electric-imbued arrows, among other things, by using the daftly-named ‘son button’. Throughout the adventure, the son will evolve, collecting experience through combat and narrative beats. Such as the first time he kills a deer. Which is the act that closes out our demo.
The idea of this paternal relationship is a fascinating one. And a bold move for a series usually disposed to little more than furious violence.