Video game characters rarely reject their natures. Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t get tired of running really fast. Agent 47 doesn’t lose his appetite for assassination. Pac-Man doesn’t decide he’s had his fill, and Tetris blocks don’t defy gravity.
In video games, character development is dangerous. Designers refer to the alchemy of making a game that people will want to play as “finding the fun.” Fun is fickle and elusive, so when it turns up, developers and publishers hesitate to do anything that might drive it away. If a game is fun enough to attract an audience and justify a sequel—or better yet, sequels—the pressure not to mess with success sometimes outweighs the incentive to innovate. A video game franchise is like a fast-food franchise: Dependability is a bigger part of the appeal than new menu items. Thus, the graphics get better, the environments expand, and the load times shrink, but there’s less alteration to the core mechanics, move sets, and gameplay loops, which reflect and dictate the playable protagonists’ traits. Sonic is fun because Sonic is fast. If Sonic is slow, it’s not Sonic—not the Sonic everyone wants, anyway. Hence the headline of a review of the recently released Sonic Frontiers: “Delightful When It’s Fast, Disappointing When You Slow Down.”
And so it’s somewhat notable that 20 years after the first God of War entered development, Kratos, the franchise’s titular character—and the star of its latest and longest installment, God of War Ragnarök—has lost his stomach for fighting. Having a high tolerance for war, if not actively wanting to wage it, sounds like a nonnegotiable part of the “god of war” lifestyle, but the Kratos of Ragnarök is pivoting to pacifism (or trying to, at least). He’s exacted enough vengeance on offending deities, slaughtered enough innocents, and slaked enough bloodlust. He’s too old for that shit. He’s not just a demigod who’s caused, and suffered, too much trauma; he’s also a single dad trying to raise a teenage son. That’s enough conflict for any man, mortal or otherwise.
Much like a slow Sonic, a more mellow Kratos would seem to pose an existential threat to finding the fun. Sony’s flagship series, now gracing its fourth PlayStation console, is celebrated for (and used to celebrate) its violence. Yet the 2018 reboot God of War, in which Kratos first exhibited some qualms about killing, was by far the bestselling game in the series, and—in the narrative arena—the most critically acclaimed. The reimagined God of War was still bloody, but it was significantly less bloodthirsty than its predecessors. Its total tonal shift was one of many elements that constituted drastic departures from previous God of War games, including its Norse setting, its signature weapon (the Leviathan Axe), and its nonlinear level structure. The game grafted God of War’s muscular combat onto a more expansive, sophisticated frame. It also grafted a more emotionally mature and caring character onto Kratos’s muscular frame. Somehow, the hosts didn’t reject the transplants. The surgery worked wonders, producing one of the PlayStation 4’s most memorable games.
The evolution of Kratos continues in Ragnarök. This time, the changes are more modest, befitting the fact that the game was developed and released simultaneously for the PS4 and PS5. Ragnarök is a sequel, not a fresh start: It features most of the same characters, some of the same settings (albeit with new looks), and a similar mixture of combat, collectible-hunting, puzzle-solving, and occasional quick time events. On the newer console, at least, it’s prettier than its already picturesque predecessor, and its scale is suitably epic. Kratos’s Norse saga, which Ragnarök concludes, was compressed into two games from a planned trilogy, and as a result, Ragnarök is a very big game by God of War standards. The cutscenes alone seem to last as long as, say, Chains of Olympus, though as in the God of War reboot, the lines between action and cutscenes aren’t stark.
The stakes are high here: Fimbulwinter has set in, which means that Ragnarök is near. Kratos and his son, Atreus, are attempting to prevent the apocalypse while fending off threats from Freya, Thor, and Odin (played perfectly by, and almost distractingly resembling, Richard Schiff), all of whom had sons whom Kratos killed in God of War. That makes this a tough time for Kratos to develop an acute case of conscience. The world has never needed Kratos to kill more than now.
And don’t worry; he does. He’s just not as happy about it as fans of God of War will be. Kratos registers his objections to war on what I would charitably describe as a “regular basis.” The collected quotes of Kratos on the subject of war include, but are not limited to:
- “War is not the only way.”
- “War does not measure the strength of a man.”
- “We do not seek war.”
- “There is nothing wrong with opposing war.”
- “I will not march my son to war.”
- “I have seen enough war to know the cost.”
- “I will not wish for war.”
Those are just the variations I remembered to jot down. As one companion of Kratos remarks, midway through the adventure, “I am reaching my limit for enlightened platitudes from you today. Can you please just shut up and kill things?” Another character quips, “He still slays gods, but now he’s sad about it.”
Ragnarök’s self-awareness is one of its strengths—I never tire of its NPCs quizzically questioning Kratos’s looting and incessant searching for chests—and its writers were wise to acknowledge the tension between Kratos’s newfound reluctance to kill and the game’s (and most gamers’) unreserved embrace of carnage. Last month, Ragnarök’s combat designer gave an interview in which he noted that the new game’s fighting is more fun than God of War’s in part because its player-triggered execution animations are much more brutal than before, hearkening back to those of the original trilogy. To be clear, I’m fine with—even enthusiastic about—Kratos eviscerating or decapitating everyone in reach; it’s just sometimes tough to square the guy who’s ripping jaws off faces with the one who’s endlessly expressing second thoughts about spree killing and professing to be an ex–war god. It’s commendable, and touching, that Kratos and Atreus frequently resolve to “be better,” but talk to me when your “Days Since Last Body Bisected” counter climbs above zero.
The difference, in theory, between the young and old Kratos’s killing is that the latter reserves his violence for more legitimate targets and murders in defense of his son rather than in rage. He wants to spare his victims, but they’re trying to kill him and Atreus, and thus they leave him no choice. If you forget, for a moment, the way the game glorifies its gore, there are affecting elements to Kratos’s tale. “Do not tell me to kill again,” he says in one scene, adding, “I will be no one’s monster. Never again.” When one foe he kills—after first offering him mercy—calls him a monster with his dying breath, you have to feel for the guy. (Kratos, that is; his adversary is even more monstrous.) Kratos is so scarred, in every sense, from the horrors he’s committed and had done to him that he’s conditioned to solve his problems with blades. When he inevitably backslides after trying to turn over a less violent leaf, it’s legitimately tragic. “We are not our failures,” one character tells Kratos, but as the saying goes, we are what we repeatedly do.
Though the two spines of the story—averting Ragnarök and healing the rift between Kratos and Atreus—are intertwined, the latter resonated more for me, as it did in God of War. In 2018, I wrote about playing God of War shortly after my dad died. Based on previous God of War games, I’d expected (and welcomed) a numbing, mindless distraction. Instead, I got a sensitive father-son story that hit uncomfortably—and cathartically—close to home. Four years later, I’m a father myself. Whereas before I viewed Kratos through Atreus’s eyes, now my perspective has flipped. My daughter isn’t old enough for us to clash over our respective strategies for defeating Odin, and I’ve never had to break the habit of addressing her as “Girl” in an ominous baritone. But Kratos’s fears as a father—the more mundane ones, more so than the ones involving Ragnarök and deicide—are familiar and relatable.
Atreus is older, stronger, and more capable than he was in God of War; his voice (like actor Sunny Suljic’s) has deepened, which threw a wrench (or axe) into production but suits the story and character. Like any parent and teen, Kratos and Atreus chafe against boundaries set in childhood that grow increasingly untenable as adulthood approaches. Because they care, but also because they don’t communicate clearly, they’re hiding things from each other—sometimes the same thing. Each is wrestling with a prophecy that he hasn’t shared with the other, and Atreus is exploring his identity as Loki, which he learned about toward the end of God of War.
Atreus, who on top of his vocal change is encountering other common effects of puberty—transforming into animals, accidentally extracting souls; we all remember being that age—craves independence and feels infantilized by his dad’s dismissals and strictness. Kratos, meanwhile, is worried for his son’s safety and reluctant to let go. He also fears that he’s set a bad example, what with his grunting and slaying and scolding, and that Atreus will follow in his footsteps. The burden of intergenerational trauma looms large in this world: The disconnect between Kratos and Atreus is mirrored in the relationships of many of the game’s other gods and goddesses (among them Odin and Thor, Sif and Thrúd, and Angrboda and Gryla). Kratos and Atreus are trying to snap the cycle.
When it comes to laying waste to one’s enemies, at least, Kratos is an incredible role model. Ragnarök’s combat is incredible also, slight ludonarrative dissonance aside. In the annals of God of War, there have never been as many (and as varied) ways of massacring mythological beings as there are in Ragnarök. More than 25 hours in, I was still upgrading gear and discovering or reminding myself of methods to mete out damage. The Leviathan Axe is back, joined as always by the Blades of Chaos. This time, though, there’s a spear to go with them, which almost immediately became my go-to tool of destruction. Then there’s the shield, which can be used to lower opponents’ defenses as well as to repel their attacks, making blocking an unusually active and rewarding component of combat.
Ragnarök is clever about giving players reasons to utilize all of their offensive options. Some enemies are invulnerable to certain weapons, and some situations (and environmental puzzles) lend themselves to one weapon or another. As soon as I got attached to one weapon, I felt the pull of another. (No wonder Kratos finds fighting so hard to give up.) Throw in AI companions who accompany the player and pitch in on command, and each fight has the potential to become a finely choreographed ballet of blood. That’s true even when Kratos is off-screen: Atreus is now playable in some sequences, and his bow-centric attack makes a refreshing contrast to Kratos’s closer-range brute force. It’s a testament to how reliably the designers found the fun that playing as Atreus doesn’t feel like marking time until Kratos comes back. The only thing Ragnarök doesn’t allow for is furtiveness. “I had a thought,” one of Kratos’s companions suggests. “What if we took a stealthy approach to our next battle?” Kratos responds much as I would: “No.”
“Wow, the rush,” one character says to Atreus after they dispense with some enemies. “Does it ever go away?” Atreus answers, “No, it doesn’t.” Kratos would have chastised his son had he heard his response, but Atreus is right: The adrenaline induced by God of War hasn’t gone away, which—without underselling the new game’s mostly strong writing, compelling performances, and captivating environments—is the primary reason the series is still great. After eight previous games (five of which were developed for consoles), Kratos may no longer like killing, but you will.
We could find more flaws, if we wanted to. There’s a fair amount of hand-holding, in that extremely Sony, Horizon-esque way: Every climbing location is clearly labeled, and characters quickly dispense hints or solutions to puzzles if the player is slow to solve them. Although there are no loading screens, the beginning of the game, especially, is packed with obstacles that not-at-all-discreetly gate the player’s progress through the landscape. (I’ve never encountered so many crevices to squeeze through or rocks to lift.) And the “previously on” primer (which more games should include!) barely scratches the surface of what someone who hasn’t played earlier God of War titles would need to know to follow this one, though that’s what YouTube is for.
But these and any other reservations about Ragnarök are minor nitpicks about a fine follow-up to a deserved classic. “It is difficult to seek forgiveness when you feel unworthy,” Kratos muses, but Ragnarök has only a few faults to forgive. Thanks to a wave of delays of big games—and its own delay from its original 2021 window—Ragnarök more or less has the holiday season to itself, and will likely make bank. Which reminds me of a scene where Kratos and Atreus wonder whether they’re the baddies. “What do you think, Atreus?” Kratos asks. “Is there a right side in this war?” Atreus isn’t sure. “Then perhaps you shouldn’t pick one,” his father says. Not picking God of War Ragnarök, and missing the Spartan’s hacking, slashing, and self-therapizing would be worse than sitting out the struggle.
Much of Ragnarök’s story hinges on the struggle to defy the past and prophecy and exert one’s will. Can Kratos change? Are our endings written? Is it better not to know what’s in store? “We make our own choices,” Kratos insists. “Nothing forces us.” Yet the player forces Kratos to follow their commands, and the game designers force the player’s hands in order to advance. Maybe the destiny driving Kratos isn’t decreed by the Fates or the Norns, but by Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, and by the audience’s interest and dollars. Kratos must keep killing, because even if the butchery has lost its charm for him, it hasn’t for the many millions of players who’ll purchase this game, and the next, and the next. “All journeys come to an end,” Kratos says. But when the gaming is this good, it’s hard not to hope that his torment will continue.