The upcoming God of War is getting quite the modern treatment. Gone are the days of arcadey murder-death-killing marked by chaining together obscene amounts of combo attacks against obscene amounts of enemies, topped off with bombastic deicide. Now the deicide may yet be there but the game has grown up significantly, at least at first glance. And it’s precisely at first glance that we see how the franchise has matured by taking its cues from story and gameplay role models like The Last of Us and Dark Souls.
God of War: Learning from The Last of Us and Dark Souls
The emotional connection of Kratos and his son Atreus gives the game a father-son feel that is similar to the father-daughter feel of The Last of Us. The game has clearly evolved from laughable gore and action to having more of an emotional element and The Last of Us showed us how a dual main character team can create a tether. Having a defenseless, passive partner makes the danger much more immediate. They’re not the bullet or axe sponges you are and their vulnerability keeps you from going in guns blazing, which creates drama both in gameplay and story intensity. It’s one of those rare examples where a mechanic actually enhances the story telling of the game, and elevates the process of gameplay and controls design to an art.
There is also that Playstation vibe to consider, that The Last of Us was essential in establishing. God of War features a similar patina and filter to The Last of Us. Sony is streamlining the brand to have a feel. The arcadey GoW just won’t stick anymore. Gaming is more mature and Sony is leading the way with that as the industry moves even closer in standards and subjects to the film industry. It’s not just God of War. Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted: Lost Legacy and Days Gone are other PS4 exclusives that feature that same “always autumn” setting, with its heavy dose of golden, warm earth tones and realistic landscapes. This is a mood setter, that gives these environments a more serious tone that arrives with the fall season.
This fits because God of War always had a deeper story to tell. Lost in the grunts and Mortal Kombat executions was the consumate Greek tragedy. A tale of betrayal, doomed fate, but ultimately hope. For many this was the biggest critique of the first round of games in the franchise: it was simply too male-aggrohead in action which cheapened its initial premise of loss, which was solid. By the end of the series, it was really hard to empathize with Kratos at all, as he had summarily decapitated and fucked his way through his revenge which left any resolution hollow. Kratos’ solution to every problem that came his way was some element of the male power fantasy paradigm which called into question just how much tenderness a one dimensional individual like that could have for a wife and child.
Now we see some truly honest and evocative moments between Kratos and Atreus where the journey of the game finds Kratos instructing his kin on how to survive in a harsh world. Although his parables are still tinged in the brutal red of violent indifference, the delivery is gentler. He’s certainly no Mr. Rogers to Atreus and dips into gruffness and outright scolding but his love for his son is evident in his restraint and simple willingness to be a tutor. It also raises so many story and lore related questions as to equally raise the anticipation to play the game and figure out how everything pieces together. This is the essence of the Kratos tale which I alluded to earlier that never was given the light of day during the ostentatious posturing of the original games. This isn’t a dig at the earlier games; simply those of us who grew up playing those first games on PS2 have done just that: grown up. There is more of an appetite for complex, mature storytelling. Indulgent violent catharsis served us once (and still has its place; see DOOM) but as it applies to reboots, changing tone in this fashion makes a lot of sense for an increasingly diverse gaming audience, of which The Last of Us and Uncharted were among the first to tap into.
The combat feel is also getting quite the makeover and is moving away from the button mashing, early Devil May Cry inspired gaming into something much more methodical, and we can thank Dark Souls for reintroducing us to thoughtful combat. Gone are the days of just spamming your attacks to keep an insane combo string going, while the counter in the corner continues to rise and offer violent hyperbole like “Vicious!”, “Savage!”, “Relentless!” and “Gory!”. Instead we see where the Souls series has made its mark on the gaming world. Gratuitous no more, the combat is much more patient and strategic. We see this change best evidence in the move away from Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos which was a controversial choice. In exchange for the lightning fast and highly ranging chains is now an axe, which although capable of dishing out gruesome death quickly, is inherently more intimate and moveset based.
Furthermore, the camera is now pulled back over Kratos’ shoulder in a third person perspective that centers the action in front of you, increasing the immediacy and tension of the combat, in a way very similar to Dark Souls. The sense of scale is less about pulled out camera shots and more about the grit and viscera that the Souls series has helped standardize for modern tastes. Adding to this are dashes and rolls, which the franchise has had before but now seem more about spacing and gaining a geographical advantage which is another third person feature made convention in part by From Software’s efforts.
We see this shift in the direction of defense as well in some of the other gear Kratos will be using, especially the shield. In prior games, anything that was seemingly defensive pieces of equipment were still relegated to the function of offensive purposes, such as reflecting damage back out. Now, early gameplay has shown a collapsible shield that can parry a blow with a well timed trigger. Sound familiar? It can also protect from different attacks and we can anticipate much more gear that follows this new tweak.
God of War is growing up and that’s a wonderful thing. Similar to how Kratos is now mentoring Atreus, God of War is being mentored by modern day heavy hitters like The Last of Us and Dark Souls and both journeys feature parallels. While Atreus is learning how to survive in a new, unforgiving world, God of War is learning how to thrive in a modern, demanding and competitive gaming climate that has seen other classic franchises like Mass Effect falter when reliance is placed on convention and name recognition. Consumer tastes are a current that must be navigated and who better to serve as Charon for Kratos’ new adventures than developers like Naughty Dog and From Software who certainly know the way and back.
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