2018’s God of War is one of the most exciting, yet most question-raising, elements of the upcoming PlayStation slate. Series hero Kratos appears drastically changed, and now inhabits a new land, far from his original home, but regardless he’s the same man. He was once driven by grief and rage at the loss of his family, but now he has a son in tow. That son will be with him along every step of his journey, but the game contains no escort or protection elements. But at the same time, raising that child into a warrior will be a fundamental part of the game, just as Kratos tries to make amends for his violent past.
As of today though, I have a lot more clarity. Because today I got to work through a sizable God of War demo with director Cory Barlog on commentary duty, explaining and exploring the game’s changes, additions, and reimaginings - narratively, gameplay-wise, and in terms of overall philosophy - in a lot of detail. I found out many things, and got a clearer look at yet more, and as a result, I’m now a good deal more excited about God of War than I was before. And I was already all-in.
Let’s work through my findings, shall we?
Kratos’ son doesn’t need baby-sitting. In fact he’s going to look after his dad
Don’t worry. Barlog hates escort missions too. He unambiguously stated a dislike of video game baby-sitting during my demo, and made it very clear that Atreus, Kratos’ son, will never be a burden. You’ll never have to actively go out of your way to look after him, and beyond that, you’ll often find him taking an active role in combat, providing you more options, on the fly, entirely of his own accord.
An example I witnessed today saw Kratos struggling to get an ‘in’ on an enemy who was blocking all his attacks. The big guy launched flurry after flurry of axe blows, to precisely no avail. But then things change. Atreus, aware of his dad’s - and therefore the player’s - situation leaps up and climbs onto the monster’s shoulders, distracting it and wrenching it from its defensive stance. A few axe strikes later, and the foe is staggering. But Atreus isn’t all automated. While the killing blow ultimately comes from son rather than father, it’s absolutely the player’s kill, Atreus’ leaping bow shot entirely the result of a manual controller instruction. And damnably cool it looks too. It’s time to stop thinking in terms of ‘I'm playing Kratos, and also, there’s a son’. In the new God of War, you’re really playing the both of them.
Combat is still fast and bloody, the focus has just shifted slightly
Don’t worry about the sedate, weighty pace of the slaying seen in the E3 2016 demo. This is not Dark Souls: Odin Edition. Kratos can still slice, dice, hack and wreck with the best of them. His personal reach might no longer match that of his old Blades of Chaos days (though there’s good reason for his switch to an axe), but in the demo I saw today he was clearly as fast, ferocious, fearsome and flowing as he was back in Greece. His attacks have more direct, heavy impact nowadays, but his crowd-control efficiency remains supreme. Fear not. When you want to spill blood, it will be spilled. And when you need to deal with threats from further afield, hey, you’ve got a son with a bow.
There’s a definite Zelda element, philosophically at least
You won’t see it explicitly - there are no ability-locked dungeons that we know of, and Kratos will almost definitely not be playing an Ocarina any time soon - but in terms of the ideas underpinning God of War’s world, Barlog is absolutely thinking old-school. He describes the new God of War as being in the spirit of a classic, fantasy adventure game. Specifically, he describes the joy of spotting a crack in a wall, dropping a bomb to blow it open, and discovering the magic of a brand new area, hidden in plain sight the whole time.
That’s how God of War is approaching exploration. It certainly isn’t an open-world game by any means, but it does contain many hidden sights off the beaten track. Find the means to discover them, and you’ll be treated to all kinds of new delights, none of them vital to your journey, but all of them enriching it in some way, be that by additional narrative context, or simply revealing a cool new part of the world.
Kratos’ origins will not be forgotten
Greek urns appear in today’s God of War demo. Clearly, Kratos is not the only Mediterranean export to Scandinavia. Referencing this, Barlog tells me that in God of War’s narrative, all mythology exists simultaneously, distinct from, but respectful of, all the rest. Don’t expect the original God of War trilogy to be entirely forgotten. There will certainly be a character or two in the new game who knows of Kratos’ origins.
Though if all of mythology is canon, this does raise some interesting questions for the future. Kratos in ancient China for 2032?
Kratos and Atreus are going to learn from each other
The partnership doesn’t end on the battlefield. These two are going to be a unit through every aspect of their journey. That bit at the end of the Sony press conference demo, when Kratos asks Atreus what the World Serpent is saying? He does that because he doesn’t yet speak the language of the land effectively enough to communicate with the (seemingly) benevolent monster. Kratos might be training his son to fight and survive, but as the brains and the heart of the operation - far more in touch with the world around him both intellectually and emotionally - Atreus will, geographically and existentially, be his father’s guide.
It’s a much more nuanced world than before, and Kratos is no superhero
Another point about that serpent. Consider how that scene would have played out in any previous God of War game. We have a gigantic, canonically known, mythological monster, appearing as a big reveal at the end of an area. We have a normal-sized Kratos, eyeballing it, face-to-face. Ordinarily there’d be only one way this would go down. Blades, brawling, and bleeding. But here, we have a conversation. We have an uneasy alliance. We have ambiguity, and nuance, and a Kratos being drawn into a world - and its monsters, and its people at large - in a capacity beyond ‘seek and destroy’. This is a very different journey for both Gods of War, series and protagonist, and it’s going to take much more than berserker rage to navigate it. Reliance on old skills and traits will only go so far. This path is going to demand growth, whether Kratos is entirely ready for it or not.
QTEs are over. Control is now yours
Barlog admits, as QTEs are discussed, that he was tired of God of War’s trademark, cinematic combat trick by the end of the second game. Thus, they’re not coming in anything like the same capacity, in the new one. That’s not to say that there won’t be huge, stand-out takedown moments. It’s just that from now on, they’ll be under the player’s control, triggered by the same actions and agency as everything else in the game. There’s a grab button. There’s a ‘hit with axe’ button. Players know how to use such things, so Barlog is going to trust them to know how to combine them at the right time for the right, destructive purpose. Much as God of War’s exploration won’t hint or dictate with collectible checklists or leading waypoints, its violence is going to let the player carve their own path.
As Barlog surmises, while lambasting himself for once being a control-freak director, adamant on commanding the player’s path, ‘if you want to really get through to someone, sometimes you’ve got to let them go’.