With God of War: Ragnarok looming, it feels like the right time to revisit Sony Santa Monica’s 2018 reboot ahead of the conclusion to the series’ Norse saga. The game has been readily available on PlayStation 4 for years, though the PC version is the latest in Sony’s push to bring its first-party games to the platform. It feels significant, as the company has, up to this point, seemed mostly risk-averse when putting its heaviest hitters on PC. So God of War making its way beyond the boundaries of a PlayStation box and to the personal computer feels like the floodgates opening up for Sony’s most precious darlings to follow suit. Playing the PC version gave a chance to chew on what the reboot accomplishes in its distinct tonal and gameplay shift, and what Ragnarok still has left to address when it comes to PlayStation 4 and 5 (ironically, not PC as of this writing) later this year.
For those of you looking for a standard port report, God of War is technically sublime on PC. I only had a few instances on Ultra settings where the game chugged, and it wasn’t in any of the combat sections where things were most busy. It was, surprisingly, during sections where there wasn’t much action at all. Even shifting around settings didn’t help as I walked through uneventful areas with only the slightest of additional particle effects, but still had notable frame drops. At that point, it was just a matter of walking through them, knowing they were an anomaly. Because otherwise, God of War ran as smooth as butter.
With my technical worries gone, I was free to focus on other things. There’s the weighty, dynamic combat that’s still a welcome revamp of the series’ hack-and-slash roots, which includes small pleasures like how good it feels to throw Kratos’ axe and recall it from somewhere off in the distance. However, what I think about when I play God of War four years after it launched is all the ways it both succeeded and failed as a larger commentary on the series; how it previously framed violence, and portrays its angry protagonist as a person who can be better than he was before.
Spoilers for God of War, a four-year-old video game, to follow:
God of War is considered one of the quintessential “dad games” alongside The Last of Us and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Broadly, it’s easy to boil the game down to “Kratos has son thus has to learn to relate to someone,” but that’s the kind of reductive meme-ification I try to avoid. So let’s dig a little deeper.
Kratos is an awful, even abusive father to Atreus at the beginning of God of War. You learn through their dialogue that much of Atreus’ childhood and compassion came from his mother Faye (we’ll get to her, don’t worry), and after her passing, the two have been left alone in their home in the Midgardian home and forced to interact more closely and personally than they were when Faye acted as a mediator. Faye’s dying wish was that her son and husband would scatter her ashes at the highest peak in the nine realms, driving the two to take a journey that requires teamwork, despite being at odds with each other.
The two care about each other in their own ways, but Kratos is clearly afraid to show it and Atreus is walking on eggshells around him for much of the game. Moments where a hand on Atreus’ shoulder would have comforted him in his time of need, Kratos pulls away just inches away from his son and ushers them on. Kratos has only ever related to people through violence — it’s the only language he really knows how to speak, so protecting those he cares about is how he expresses love. So much of his interactions with Atreus are in a short, annoyed tone that is frankly hard to watch. Atreus is often excited about the sights and sounds of Midgard, but Kratos can’t be bothered to give him a passing acknowledgment. Every moment his son spends enthralled by new people, places, and things is a moment he’s not on guard. Kratos is the titular God of War, and suddenly he’s been left with a child who has learned cultures and legends from his mother, but the only thing Kratos sees of himself in his son is his anger.
Therein lies the larger conflict of Kratos’ relationship with Atreus. He sees too much of himself in his son, in that he’s prone to sudden outbursts of violence — much like he was in every game prior. God of War is often held up as a game about fatherhood, which it is, but to me, it’s always worked better as a commentary on the series, its fetishization of violence, and a condemnation of everyone involved.
Kratos goes to great lengths to hide his past from Atreus. Whether it be in larger revelations, like hiding the iconic Blades of Chaos where his son would never see them, fearful that using them would make him the same bloodthirsty monster we knew him as in his previous games. Or it can come in smaller, quieter moments. There’s a scene where he finds a pot that depicts him as the god killer of Sparta, which he breaks before his son can see him for what he was.
That was all for nothing, however, as the two reach Helheim, where Kratos is shown a vision of when he killed Zeus, and when it’s revealed that Atreus saw the whole thing, the game shifts into a first-person perspective. Remember how Naughty Dog tried to frame The Last of Us Part II as a player-facing commentary on violence in its marketing, then released a game that was so authoritatively detached from the player that it didn’t fit? In a handful of moments, God of War does what Naughty Dog claimed it was trying to do, and it did it explicitly. Shame is at the heart of God of War, and its most hopeful expression, in the end, is that just because things have been this way before doesn’t mean they have to be. And just because the developers, the players, and Kratos have all reveled in this violence before, doesn’t mean they have to now. Violence is still part of God of War, but it’s by necessity, not for the cartoonish enjoyment of the spectacle.
That belief in both Kratos to be better and for Atreus to be different, even if they both stumble to get there, is what made God of War a strong foundation for a second game. Now that the two have found common ground and transparency, I’m hopeful Ragnarok won’t require me to watch Kratos and Atreus hate each other for several hours before they feel like a father and son rather than two people who resent each other. I don’t find God of War relatable as a story about a father and son (and that anyone does is really tragic in its own way), but I do think it’s ultimately something altogether more optimistic and introspective than its predecessors.
The trouble is, God of War is so hyper-fixated on its commentary about violence and how that factors into Kratos’ role as a father, that there are other themes it never really touches. Mothers are hardly given the same care as the father/son relationship between Kratos and Atreus. Faye acts as a driving force in God of War, but she has to die to do it. We learn about her through the stories of her husband and son, and she sounds like a warrior and scholar more capable than either of them. But that’s all she gets to be, a story to be told by those who knew her. Meanwhile, the witch Freya has a complicated relationship with her own son Baldur. They are the worst-case scenario for how a parent and child who never see eye-to-eye can have tragic ends, and those ends will play into Freya’s role in Ragnarok. But where Kratos is able to learn and grow from being a parent, Freya is entrapped by it, to the point where I wonder if the character who contained such multitudes at the beginning of God of War will still feel as compelling in the next game. I hope she does, but where Kratos and Atreus end God of War with a realm of possibilities, Freya’s future seems like a concave funnel into a vengeful role that mirrors who Kratos used to be.
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While motherhood is a big question for God of War’s future, it seems like Ragnarok may have an opportunity to interrogate the series’ views on romantic/sexual relationships like the reboot addressed violence. Angrboda, who, in Norse Mythology, is the wife of Loki, is set to debut in Ragnarok. And since we learn at the end of God of War that Atreus was called Loki by Jötnar, it seems like Kratos is going to have to, at some point, talk to his son about the birds and the bees. Just like the violence that came before, God of War could use some introspection on its sex mini-games. Because all-in-all, the reboot is a sexless game. But omitting something isn’t the same as confronting it. It’s just a matter of if Sony Santa Monica will.
Playing the PC version of God of War was a wonderful way to reflect on a game that, despite some thematic omissions, I still have a soft spot for all these years later. If you’re worried about the technical side, I don’t have any reservations about recommending the port, and it’s still a pretty stellar action game. When it aspires towards introspection, it’s willing to look inward in a way most AAA games won’t, and I hope it’s willing to dig a little deeper when Ragnarok launches later this year.