God of War IV is the latest example of a welcome trend in the modern game industry, where an established gameplay model is used as a vehicle to tell a moving, emotional story. It works for Spec Ops: The Line (third person shooter), Horizon Zero Dawn (open world action/adventure), and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (hack’n’slash action) and it certainly works here.
Written by D. Matthew Beyer // Media courtesy of Godofwar.playstation.com
If you expected a review of God of War PS4 when you clicked the thumbnail, ha! You’ve been bamboozled! What follows is not, in the traditional sense, a review. I believe you should play this new God of War, as Sony Santa Monica have crafted a thoroughly excellent experience completely worth your time and money, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Any number of other outlets can and have.
I’m about to delve pretty deep into the themes of God of War IV, so consider yourselves warned. We’re sailing to the edge of game today, mateys, and there might be some spoilers ahead. I’ll do my best to avoid major plot points, but I do quote a couple of lines of dialogue (one of which was in the trailers).
With that out of the way, I want to talk about why playing God of War IV was one of the most emotional gaming experience I’ve ever had.
God of War IV is the latest example of a welcome trend in the modern game industry, where an established gameplay model is used as a vehicle to tell a moving story. It works for Spec Ops: The Line (third person shooter), Horizon Zero Dawn (open world action/adventure), and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (hack’n’slash action) and it certainly works here. Unlike the previous games in the franchise, the driving heart of God of War IV is human. The other games in the series tended to rely on grisly spectacle to engage the player, rewarding skill and investment of time with increasingly gory and gratuitous fights. I know I can’t speak for everyone, but I played through the original God of War trilogy mostly to see how far Santa Monica could expand their scale. And I still remember those games fondly- they were thrilling, visceral rampages, a cathartic indulgence into the old ultra violence.
This isn’t the case with God of War IV. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here, God of War is still as brutal as it’s ever been, possibly more so because of the one-two punch of modern graphics and emotional grounding, but brutality is now an means rather than an end. God of War IV immerses the player in Kratos’s experiences of fatherhood, through which the game deconstructs many aspects of the masculine power fantasy the previous games in the franchise upheld. You are brought into the world in a moment of crisis- Kratos wants to fulfill his wife’s final wish, which means undertaking a long and arduous journey alongside his son, Atreus, who barely qualifies as a boy, much less a man. At the start of the game, Atreus is no warrior- he can’t hunt well and his uses in combat are few. But Kratos is also no father- he lacks the ability to connect with his son emotionally, has very little patience for his son’s interests, and views him as equal parts liability and responsibility.
So Atreus has to teach Kratos how to be a better father, while Kratos tries to teach Atreus how to be a good man, a task which is complicated considering how big a bastard Kratos knows himself to be.
Because of this focus on masculine nurturing, God of War somehow manages to be one of the most socially relevant games I’ve played in a very long time, a statement that would’ve splattered my brains across the wall Jackson Pollock style in 2010. One of the first moments where I started to understand the game’s themes was when Atreus apologizes to Kratos for failing at a task. Kratos chides by the boy by insisting he not “be sorry,” but instead “be better.” It’s a statement that resonates with this present age of accountability. It’s not enough for men to be sorry for their actions, especially since these apologies tend to sound hollow. We have to be better.
It seems like hypocritical advice coming from Kratos, who over the course of the original trilogy went from a man who stared into the abyss into the thing in the abyss that was staring back, but his position makes it all the more effective. Kratos— just like the player— knows that his actions are fundamentally irredeemable. His hope of redemption comes in the form of raising his son to be better than he was, a herculean endeavor considering how little aptitude he has for nurturing the boy.
The theme of fatherhood carries throughout the entirety of the game, climaxing around two thirds of the way through the story, in an emotional moment where Kratos takes his son’s face in his hands and insists that “[Atreus] must be better than [Kratos]” was. He also makes his son repeat the statement, transforming it into a promise on his son’s part. And Kratos doesn’t mean that Atreus should be a better warrior or a better god than he was, as that’s simply impossible. Kratos is still the God of War, violence personified, more monster truck than man. And while Atreus grows to be a capable fighter in his own right, he has a different set of skills. He’s a linguist, a communicator and empathizer who wants nothing more than to help people. And Kratos knows all of this in the moment. He accepts who he is and was and who Atreus is and can be, and he makes his son promise to be the better man.
Atreus represents for Kratos an end to the cycle of revenge, a cycle which continues to play out all around them. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say that for all his failings, Kratos is by far and away the best parent presented in game. Perhaps not the best period, as his wife seems to have been the more capable as far as connecting with Atreus is concerned, but the player encounters no serious competition for Kratos’s father of the year title during their adventure through the nine realms.
In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, the voice actors do a tremendous job of selling this highly emotional story, especially Christopher Judge as Kratos. While Terrence C. Carson did a marvelous job in the old games of bringing Kratos to life, his voice brimming with fury and hate, Judge’s more nuanced take on the character really helps sell this new God of War, which is quieter and more contemplative. Judge deserves mad props for his ability to convey the humanity of the God of War. Sunny Suljic, the voice actor for Atreus, gives an equally adept performance, especially for such a young actor.
I applaud Cory Barlog (whose last name my inner nerd always wants to spell “Balrog”) and his team for daring to try something different with this new God of War. The previous games are exercises in destruction, letting the player revel in how good it feels to be an unstoppable force. This new game dares to build relationships, to invest in characters, to anchor the violence in heart instead of hate. And I think heart is something we all could use more of.
Play this new God of War and don’t be surprised when it moves you. Because it will.
God of War is available now on PS4.