Well… get this. What if Kratos ? And what if that kid was a sickly, sensitive weakling? Wouldn’t that just be ?
This concept drives the new reboot for the PS4, and at the start it plays out a lot like the cringe-worthy, sitcom-level twist you’d expect from such a pitch. Kratos is now bearded, slightly more aged, and relocated to the cold and unfamiliar climes of Scandinavia. He’s paying his final respects to a wife we don’t get to see. Left behind with Kratos is a son, the small and frail Atreus, who is over-eager to accompany his dad on a quest to spread his mom’s ashes from “the highest peak in all the realms.” (That’s a welcome respite from the usual “save/destroy the world” impetus driving most action games, at least.)
After a slow and somewhat annoying start, though, Atreus proves to be just the shot in the arm this series needed for a new generation of consoles and players. The addition of a child to play off adds much-needed depth and development to the remorseless revenge machine featured in previous games.
At the beginning of the journey, Atreus alternates between extremely pensive and extremely enthused about his new role as his father’s warrior-helper. One moment he’s puffing out his chest and declaring that “if they try to rob us, I’ll kill them.” The next, he’s on the verge of tears over a recent kill, listening gravely as his father tells him he has to “close his heart to it” to be an effective warrior. When Atreus questions the value of war, Kratos chides him for “seeing with the eyes of a child.” When Atreus loses his knife, Atreus berates himself for being so careless in front of his obviously badass father.
Kratos’ early interactions with Atreus all amount to this kind of monosyllabic, condescending, tough-guy warrior-advice, which really grates after a while. The pair act less like father and son and more like a reluctant teacher with his uncooperative student. There are a few ham-handed early attempts to show that Kratos wants more from the relationship and is simply unable to open himself up to his ward. But for the most part, Kratos seems almost eager to focus on their mission rather than build a relationship with the son he barely knows (thanks to frequent “hunting trips” while Atreus was stuck sick in bed, as he bitterly recalls).
Atreus reacts by closing himself off, muttering under his breath about how Kratos “never cares about anything” and privately musing that maybe the wrong parent died. At the same time, though, Atreus is Kratos’ biggest fan, calling out praise like, “Boy, you’re really strong” and “All right!” when Kratos shows off his strength and agility (he also ends up describing things that just happened in the most annoying, expositional comic-book style; such dialogue goes a long way to wasting any sympathy the kid may have built in the player’s mind). In other words, he’s a hurt kid looking eagerly toward the only father figure available.
Kratos, meanwhile, shows little to no appreciation for Atreus’ ability to read important runes, decipher languages, or point toward the solution to puzzles with “helpful” advice about five seconds after you enter a room. He’s the egghead son that the jock father never wanted, and the God of War doesn’t know how to relate to him.
I get it. Immediately remaking Kratos as a sensitive, caring, modern father would utterly destroy his established character in a way that would be hard to recover from. But it’s still hard to watch Kratos utterly ignore his son’s desperate attempts to forge a connection out of their shared grief. Watching Kratos with a son is like watching an alien try to process human emotions, which makes some sense for a god who’s decided to walk the human realm.
That closed-off setup makes it all the more affecting as Kratos starts to very slowly open up to Atreus about his true power, his history, and his grief. In doing so, Kratos reveals a bit of the self-hatred for his very being that makes him close off all outward signs of emotion. There are even a few well-earned moments between the two that approach actual warmth, and a few other sequences show Kratos flashing very human frailty and emotion over his son’s safety and upbringing.
While all this is happening, Atreus begins to revel in a newfound confidence as he accumulates more skill and power in battle. The young boy starts acting like a petulant teenager with no appreciation for his legacy and responsibility, drawing some strong rebukes from a man who has literally killed gods.
The writing isn’t all that subtle. It can drag thanks to boring exposition about its lore, and it’s not helped by obvious allegories for us humans trying to raise self-confident and respectful children. But the slow emotional arc of the plot eventually had me caring about these characters and their relationship in a way I wasn’t expecting. A few comic-relief side characters occasionally show up to break up all the pathos, rounding out a story that ends up equal parts cheesy and genuinely affecting.