by Jed Pressgrove
The latest God of War tries to sell an oxymoron, a sensitive beat ’em up. Paulmichael Contrera, a writer for enthusiast publication PlayStation LifeStyle, inadvertently exposes the con job: “This new narrative tone has heart, and serves to make Kratos much more relatable in his new role as protector, while remaining as brutal as past installments.” The story of killer dad Kratos watching over killer brat Atreus might seem to turn away from the murderous tone of previous God of War games, but its selective morality ultimately sentimentalizes the man-shaping glory of violence.
Many years after destroying the Greek pantheon, Kratos mourns the loss of his wife Faye, whose last request is for Kratos and son Atreus to throw her ashes off the highest peak they can find. The problem? Atreus is quite young and green. And so begins the saga of Kratos teaching the boy how to survive and kill — how to become a tough guy — through a plot that recalls the convoluted artifact logic and secret paths of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.
Director/writer Cory Barlog gets the action (i.e., the real reason most people are playing this) off to a rocky start when fellow god Baldur, who is supposedly unkillable, attacks Kratos before the familial journey begins. Baldur’s ambush leads to an overlong cutscene-ridden fight that is foolishly recycled for the game’s climax. It’s like a UFC match with too many rounds against a blabbering baboon who can’t get knocked or choked out. Baldur’s condescending exclamations of “This fight is pointless!” and “This again?” robs players of the lines they should be saying as they play. The monotony of battling Baldur multiple times, all as part of Barlog’s showy one-camera-take experiment, registers as desperate suspense at best: anyone with common sense can predict the eventual death of Baldur at Kratos’ renowned god-killing hands.
Outside of the miserable engagements with Baldur, God of War tends to be a good hack-and-slasher. Kratos has a new axe that can be used as a melee weapon or boomerang projectile (in an ingenious bit of design, the axe can be thrown with one button and will only come flying back with a different button). The bald and bearded hero can also perform combos barehanded and unlock special moves with a shield. While Atreus’ movement is controlled by AI, you can determine when he shoots arrows and summons animal spirits. All of these options (and more) give the player an impressive amount of strategic possibilities, and the game has plenty of weapon and armor customization for those who wish to bolster their strengths and hide their weaknesses.
Between fights, you listen to Kratos berate Atreus with a variety of overbearing maxims (voice actor Christopher Judge delivers Kratos’ words like a Keith David impersonator). Lines like “Do not be sorry. Be better” and “He [a corpse holding an item] can no longer use it. We can” will be treasured as pearls of wisdom by wannabe alpha males. Although Atreus sometimes pokes fun at Kratos’ everlasting cold demeanor, the game wants you to lap up its machismo. To heal, you don’t drink potions; you stomp them. There are special gore kills, a la Doom 2016. And in a pivotal conflict, you don’t listen to the cries of a woman who helped you. You ignore her concerns and fight on.
Perhaps none of these elements would seem out of place if Barlog didn’t intend for players to interpret God of War as some sort of empathetic fable. Kratos is depicted as a man who feels guilt about his violent history and who doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. But the scenarios often amount to oversimplified moralizing.
For example, in a realm at war, Atreus implies that perhaps he and his father should do something about dark elves murdering light elves. Kratos, however, says they should stay out of it, as they are only seeing the end of a war and have no idea what the light elves might have done to inspire such violence. You wind up killing all the dark elves anyway, and after doing so, the light elves take back control of the realm, to the naive delight of Atreus. Kratos doesn’t say another substantial word about what happened, and later on, Atreus says he doesn’t regret killing the elves, as they were “dragging us into their little problems.” What is initially presented as morally ambiguous turns into a throwaway concern.
Kratos at one point criticizes Atreus for killing an already weakened god, but the script doesn’t delve into the spiritual implications of Atreus’ sin. Instead, the story focuses more on how the execution results in an inconvenience related to travel. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes with the final scene featuring Baldur. Here, the game attempts to borrow the ethical dilemma faced by Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, despite the fact that no one in God of War is in any immediate danger of being murdered by Baldur. This failed illustration of tough decision-making is a lot like Barlog’s mega long camera shot: flashy but devoid of depth.