For a moment the little boy kneeling by his father is too real.
It wasn’t the graphics – a product of decades of innovation and evolution, nor the processing power behind the PlayStation 4. It wasn’t just the gently growing story – told through snapshots of painterly images or even the artistic hand that shaped his young face and small hands.
For a moment those things came together, giving life to a little boy on the other side of what once seemed an impassable uncanny valley.
It was a moment found in the look in his eyes, the almost too subtle mingling of anger, sadness, shame that as a father I’ve seen in my own son’s eyes. I felt a spasm of regret, thinking of how I, like Kratos does now, accidentally pushed my son too hard, spoke too harshly, didn’t show pride when he most needed it.
It passed so quickly that a brief glimpse away from the TV, or even from his face, and a player won’t see it, but its impact was monumental in anchoring this story of fatherhood, humanity and growing up.
Before starting, a player has to decide how demanding the game should be.
God of War’s four difficulty settings includes one that it is so intense that it has a separate save and can’t be changed after the game is started in that mode. It allows players to play the most challenging mode without having to sacrifice to play through the game’s other difficulties, which includes one that is meant to essentially covey the story.
And that fourth, hardest setting isn’t simply an algorithmic increase in difficulty, God of War creative director Cory Barlog says. “We did a ton of stuff to make it a genuine challenge, not a cynical increase. Enemies are all changed up. We changed the attack patterns of things; it’s hugely different.”
The decision to include the easiest setting, which is called Story Mode, was meant to appeal to players who just want to enjoy the world and “not get beat up every two seconds,” Barlog says.
And once players finish the game, no matter what difficulty they’re playing, they can keep playing the game, continue to experience the world that they likely haven’t fully examined.
In playing the first two or so hours of the upcoming God of War, what sticks with me most isn’t the return to that evocative, physical combat, or the game’s stunning graphics. It wasn’t the fascinating reimagining of Norse mythology mixed with PlayStation’s own Kratos fueled remaking of Greek mythology. It was these small moments between hulking, hardened father and a son racked with hidden emotion as they start off on two journeys, one emotional, one physical: both seemingly impossible. It was also a reminder that the team behind God of War remain some of the best storytellers in the industry and that time has only sharpened their skills.
And mingled deftly through that storytelling are the key movements and moments of all great God of War games. Early on, we learn why Kratos and Atreus, father and young son, are on a journey in the wilds of some unnamed northern land populated, by mythological beasts and gods.
We find that while Kratos has lost his duel chain blades, he now has a mythical ax that he can call back to his hand in mid-flight, cutting through enemies both ways, or can call for its return after it sinks into an enemy’s chest. The ax can be made more powerful with runes that give it special abilities, like freezing enemies.
Kratos, now freed of his chains, is a much more brutal fighter, one who will just as easily pummel his enemies to the ground with fists, or rip them asunder as he would hack at them with an ax. He also has a shield that expands from a piece of armor on his left arm, which can be used to block or attack enemies.
The creatures Kratos comes upon in the game are just as interesting as they were when plucked from Greek, not Norse mythology. And often they require a tactical approach.
While Atreus isn’t simply a child to protect in the game, he’s also not a full-fledged warrior. Instead, he’s a deliberately awkward helper. He can, for instance, shoot arrows at your enemy to distract them from you. He can be sent on tasks to help solve puzzles, but sometimes gets distracted and needs cajoling to move along. He can become overwhelmed and in need of your immediate assistance as well.
But as you play, it’s obvious that his company doesn’t just help you through puzzles and fights, but also seems to be helping Kratos find within him the humanity he so long ago lost.
Played always from Kratos’ perspective, it can be hard at times to see the god’s internal struggles as he seeks to harden his son for a life of combat and death, but also wants to comfort him. Moments when Kratos’ hand hovers close to his son’s shoulder but never lands, or the times Kratos tells his son, clearly upset by the death around him to “close your heart to that,” are some of the most poignant I’ve felt in games.
“That’s just the start of the overall adventure,” says Barlog. “It’s 25 to 35 hours. It takes our play-testers six days to play through it. It’s a lot.
“Once you start playing the overall game you will see that this is the beginning section nudging you off on the start of the journey.”
Barlog tells me he calls the game simply God of War, losing any number of subtitle after the franchise name because he wants to this game to be an “onramp for everyone. You could play it without having to go back to any of the other God of War games. Your first experience could be this game. But it could also drive you to want to go back.”
The game opens on a set of deliberate mysteries, while some could spoil the story for players, the most obvious mystery won’t: You don’t know why Kratos has a son, why he’s living where he’s living or how most events following God of War III came to pass. Over time they will be explained, it seems, but they’re barely hinted at in my time with the title.
We know that his son is about 12 (voiced by an actor who was nine at the time) and that Atreus and his relationship with his father is the heart of the game.
“When I came back to the studio I knew I wanted to tell another story in the God of War universe,” Barlog says. “I started to see all of the people I worked, and we were all at a different phase of our lives.
“The consistent theme was that a lot of us have children and we’re seeing things very differently.”
In thinking about how to grow Kratos as a person, Barlog knew that he wasn’t the sort of character who had the self-awareness to say to himself that he needed to change, to become a better person. “He needs that face staring back at him, showing him the worst parts of himself. That is what Kratos needs to be on this path. He’s not going to change overnight.”
And that change over the passage of this new mammoth game, it seems, won’t come easily. Barlog says he is a believer in the core concept that people root for a hero not because the hero succeeds but because they fail over and over and over against, and then eventually have a victory.
In Kratos’ case, his struggle to become human will be as daunting as his travels through Norse mythology because the previous seven games show that so much of his humanity has been scraped away from him. Even as a child, born a Spartan, he was left little time to embrace his humanity. By the time he becomes the “ghost of Sparta,” Barlog says, there is no humanity left.
“On top of that, his father is Zeus, so you have this complete damaged shell and inside of that is this tiny, tiny piece of humanity,” Barlog says. “Atreus’ job is to pull that back up.”
In so doing, Kratos will have to learn that strength and vulnerability can co-exist and that they are what makes us human and allows people to connect with one another.
“Kratos was this monster. He was the unbridled. That’s all he was,” Barlog says. “Now how does he control that, how does he teach his son to not make the mistakes he made?”
Barlog says he found a lot of inspiration in books, like The Road, and in the works of developer Naughty Dog.
“The Last of Us is the gold standard,” he says. “Everything they do at Naughty Dog is.
They have the same sort of root desire that I have when I approach a game: To tell a simple story but place complex characters within that story.”