There are many things that come naturally to Kratos, the barbaric demi-god that’s been the face of one of Sony’s most successful PlayStation franchises for more than a decade. He can wield the Blades of Chaos with expert deftness to slay hordes of assailants in a few swift swings. He’s scaled the seemingly impregnable Mount Olympus and left countless corpses in his wake. He’s subdued colossal monsters more than 10 times his size, like God of War III’s tentacled brute Poseidon and God of War Ascension’s snarling, fire-breathing Manticore.
But when we see Kratos for the first time in five years in the upcoming God of War, something seems off. The vengeance-driven rage that’s driven him until this point is gone — for now, at least. Yet it’s evident that he’s still very much coping with an internal struggle. This is apparent when Kratos’ young son Atreus fumbles his shot at a nearby deer while learning to hunt in the game’s opening chapter. Kratos grows angry, showing traces of that familiar Spartan temper — but his temper fades quickly.
It’s moments like these that set the tone for the newest God of War installment, which launches April 20 and focuses on Kratos’s struggle to learn what it means to be human. The first hour or so of gameplay exposes a lot about the relationship between Kratos and his son and how it will impact their journey together. What Kratos says to Atreus, how he says them, and the way he looks or doesn’t look at his son when they interact reveals much about their dynamic. To the player, it’s immediately clear that being a father is foreign to Kratos. He wants to protect his son from the terrors of the world, but he’s not certain how.
It’s a stark departure from the Kratos we’ve met in years past, who used his festering anger and resentment to seek revenge on Hades for tricking him into killing his family. In the new God of War, Kratos is getting a second chance at being a father. It’s a burden that visibly weighs on him as much as he may try to hide it.
“He just understands [that] he’s broken,” says God of War creative director Cory Barlog. “His kid is how he’ll figure out how to fix himself.”
Previously, God of War was a blood-soaked, Greek mythology-inspired tale of revenge. Now it’s about family and the human experience. The Kratos we meet in the new God of War game has undergone a transformation, but he still has a long way to go. “I wanted to start after he’s done some work,” says Barlog. “[He’s] spent a lot of his days out alone trying to manage the demons inside him and constantly failing.”
Yes, the next God of War game will have a different feel that may seem more story-driven than its predecessors. But longtime fans need not worry. The new game is rife with brutal battles and ferocious foes, which Kratos confronts with his new Leviathan axe instead of his typical Blades of Chaos. Kratos is now in a snow-covered world ruled by the Norse Gods that’s just as beautiful as it is dangerous and unfamiliar. The details are riveting and vivid: everything from deers’ wafting strands of hair to the way light bounces off of nearby puddles and the markings on Kratos’ skin appears genuine.
Although the story, approach, and setting are new, players find themselves in familiar territory fairly quickly. In this early chapter, Kratos must take down a hulking gargantuan troll attempting to pulverize him with a supersized wooden post. Defeating the creature involves learning its attack pattern and appropriately timing your dodges and strikes. Atreus can assist with this by flinging arrows at the beast, distracting it from Kratos and therefore providing an opportunity to attack or escape. Players will see Atreus’ abilities evolve as the game progresses, says Barlog, and there will be an option to upgrade his skills later on.
The controls are simple: Kratos has strong and weak attacks that you can string together to unleash slick, punishing combos. The former type is slower but more powerful as its name implies, while the latter is quick and ideal for moments in which you have a very short window to strike. The combat mechanics are buttery smooth just like in the previous games — I was able to obliterate groups of smaller minion enemies with just a few swings of Kratos’ hefty axe. Some adversaries are impervious to your weapon, so you’ll have to grow comfortable with using your fists to pummel them too. But you’ll be rewarded for doing so, as fighting with your fists and shooting arrows can fill up your stun meter, which lets you execute an ultra-savage finishing blow.
If the first hour of gameplay is any indication of the game as a whole, players can expect a diverse mix of battle styles. While the troll I encountered attacked slowly but powerfully and left easily exploitable openings, other enemies will try to disorient Kratos with sheer speed. God of War has always found interesting ways to play with the environment, and that’s no different in this new entrant. During one of the brawls I experienced, Kratos and his opponent pounded one another through trees, barricades, and anything else that may have stood in their path. It’s just as marvelous to watch these scenes unfold as it is to participate in them.
A goal with this game, says Barlog, was to surprise anyone with a preconceived perception about Kratos — and God of War in general. But the inspiration for Kratos’ metamorphosis came from a source more complex than any work of fiction: real life. “A lot of this,” says Barlog, “comes from [us] putting the camera on ourselves.”