Spoilers ahead for PlayStation 4’s God of War.
Before I played the new God of War game, I expected it to be largely the same as past iterations. You would play as Kratos, the biggest jerk in the universe, and proceed to tear apart mythological creatures with rage and glee. The only differences this time was that you were in Norse mythology instead of Greek, and you also had a son, so hopefully there wouldn’t be too much babysitting and making sure the little brat didn’t get carried off by bad guys.
As anyone who has played the latest God of War can tell you, Santa Monica Studio and director Cory Barlog completely demolished expectations, and demolished them for the better.
The new God of War is shockingly somber, driven more by character interactions than ripping limbs off of creatures. It’s a father-son story from start to finish, with Kratos trying to hide his past deeds and past life from his son, Atreus. Atreus, sheltered and sickly in his younger days, has no idea about his dad’s true nature. He thinks they’re just going on a quest to scatter his mother’s ashes at the top of the tallest mountain. And despite all the side-treks and obstacles, that remains the overarching plot for the game: carry out the last wishes of your late wife.
Fans of previous God of War games will immediately notice how different the new installment is from past ones. Previous God of War iterations were, for lack of a better word, immature. The gameplay was stylish and fluid, but from a plot perspective, your goal was to pretty much kill mythological creatures and Greek gods. It was a game designed to scratch your lizard brain in the best way possible, and there’s a place for that kind of entertainment.
And if left to the fans like myself, we probably would have made the wrong decision with what to do for the new installment. It’s not that fans aren’t creative per say, but rather that as a collective, fans are inclined to want more of the same, and creators become inclined to acquiesce to that desire. Thus, creators simply follow quantity (more monsters to kill in even more gruesome ways!) rather than quality, which forces a creator to reevaluate what works and risk alienating those who crave the familiar.
It is a great credit to Barlog and his team that they risked the tone of the series for something far more serious and ultimately far more rewarding. God of War is still recognizably a God of War game. The creature kills are as brutal as ever (Kratos seems to pinpoint monsters’ jaws the way MacGruber focuses on throats), but the real work and effort was clearly put into character and storytelling.
When I say “character and storytelling” I mean that it’s good for anything, not just against other games where character and storytelling are so perfunctory that anything outside of the most basic tropes and archetypes receives acclaim. God of War genuinely offers one of the best father-son stories I’ve ever seen because there’s so much tension between the two characters. You have Kratos, who wants to protect his son by hiding the truth from him, and then you have Atreus, who feels like his father is always keeping him at a distance. And then when Kratos finally reveals Atreus’ godhood, it does not go well! God of War is the first time I’ve played a game where I wanted to reach the next story point because one of the characters was being a jerk. And Atreus’ behavior makes total sense given his age and comprehension, but you still want to be like, “Calm down, BOY.” I doubt any studio would ever pay for AAA-parenting simulator, so God of War is about as close as we’re going to get.
This is probably not the game fans would have made if left to their own devices. That’s not to say a game in the vein of earlier God of War entries would have been bad. Switching the setting from Greek mythology to Norse mythology is an ingenious move, and bringing in a new character not only gives Kratos someone to bounce off of (and you get another supporting character when you come across Mimir), but also gameplay depth when using Atreus’ arrows. But the fan desire for familiar can be crippling, and that’s why it’s better to trust creators even if the creation isn’t perfect.
Fans are important in the growth and reach of an artwork, but they can be stunting if they’re the driving force. Thankfully, Santa Monica Studio and Barlog trusted their instincts and came away with the best God of War game thus far.