For being ambivalent to violence at the beginning, Kratos still massacres stuff for the duration of God of War. It’s not as gratuitous now as it was in previous games. He doesn’t push innocent people into fire for his own benefit or shred the bodies of nude harpies anymore. There’s still plenty to maul though. Kratos rips open the jaw of a troll, splinters the chest of demons, and tears a knight apart. Some of this is more fantastical. There’s a brawl out of Batman v Superman, Kratos colliding with a nigh invincible villain, swinging entire trees and shattering mountains in a chaotic pro wresting match written to extremes.
This is a superhero story now. Kratos isn’t anti-hero; he’s the battered hero. Dour, negative, partially illiterate, and incompatible with the concept of feelings, God of War confronts masculinity, but then crumples when asked to do anything about it. God of War’s centerpiece, the father/son dynamic, erodes from a lack of definition and rushed closure. Complexity comes from the distance evident in the script. Atreus never connected with his father. Kratos repeatedly calls him, “boy,” to meme-worthy repetition. They don’t bond.
If God of War intends to state that a lack of shared emotion leads to a predilection to violence, then it lacks subtly in the rush to fight. Atreus, Kratos’ son, stabs and shoots stuff like any videogame hero does; Kratos does too, of course. By the end, Atreus witnessed so many concussive, brain-exploding actions, the idea that God of War is dealing with anything other than an addiction to splatter is laughable.
Also, God of War is safe and firmly in the corporate mold of Sony’s other franchises. God of War shifted from a dynamic, frenzied battle to something akin to Uncharted or Horizon. The gimmick? A cinema verite camera that never once cuts away, a fantastic technical trick, if distracting performer. Kratos appears to hold doors open for an unseen camera person. The villain stays to the story’s side until Kratos directly interacts or the script finds a convoluted measure to put him view. That’s no way to build a tale, and by the climax, a bit of post-fight commentary fills in the blanks of what said villain sought in the first place. He’s there because of God of War needed a violent end, nothing more.
God of War is built on framework, familiarity, and formality. Waving his battle axe, Kratos cuts through flesh and conveniently navigates things by throwing his weapon. He solves puzzles and finds treasure chests because players need a persistent sense of reward. God of War tries to write itself out of this corner; Atreus asks why Kratos is ignoring the major task at hand to help people he claims not to care for. Kratos grunts, “Because it helps us.” Sure.
At some 20 hours, it’s all too much, more so without the safety of editing. It’s exhaustive. There’s a metaphor in the overarching story. Kratos and Atreus, inches from their goal, reach repeated impasses, sent back to start over. Through setbacks, they stay together. Kratos learns to trust and work with others, realizing his time of battling solo passed some time ago. Were it not so long, maybe this intent seeps in. But instead, this feels like an overlong stretch, a means to keep Kratos killing because that’s all this character ever does. To consider God of War creatively brave for a change in camera is to limit the definition of creativity.
The best moment of God of War isn’t combative at all (more so a disappointment then that God of War slips into a comfortable, combative shell). Atreus grows ill. Kratos heads home, confronting his past, and accepting that his son will learn of his father’s past. Told in a blinding, red-tinted thunderstorm, the sequence is genuine and gut-wrenching. It’s a shame the rest of God of War is so focused on wrenching guts.