This article contains major spoilers for God of War (2018).
“I must return home and dig up a past I swore would remain buried.” If 2018’s God of War was your first trip into the series, then this was just a pretty cool line in a game that was already filled with a lot of pretty cool lines. But if you were a fan of Kratos’ Greek adventures on previous Sony consoles and handhelds, you probably understood the tragic weight of those words. What occurs over the next five minutes represents an emotional and mechanical turning point in what a lot of folks, myself included, hold up to be one of the absolute best games of the generation.
Kratos’ son Atreus is suffering from a sickness that can only be cured by venturing deep into the frozen wasteland of Helheim. So the titular God of War realizes that his trusty Leviathan Axe, a frosty weapon that had been at the heart of the game’s deep, fantastic combat system for the previous 10+ hours, would be useless. In order to save Atreus, we’ll have to travel back home, face the literal ghosts of Kratos’ past, and embrace the rage he has so desperately tried to quell.
The latest God of War is presented entirely without a single visible cut, much like last year’s film, 1917. This technique is used to incredibly impressive effect as we accompany Kratos along every second of his journey. Retracing his steps back to where the game began many hours prior adds a sense of gravity and contemplation to everything we’ve accomplished so far.
As Kratos steps into the boat and sets off down the river towards his home, a literal and metaphorical storm envelops us. The bitter howl of the wind, the savage crack of thunder, and the panicked cries of fleeing wildlife fill our ears. Bear McCreary’s score simultaneously puts us in the mindset of a parent grieving for their ailing child as well as a man who’s on a reluctant and painful collision course with his past.
The camera tracks in a circle around Kratos, who’s clearly alone in the boat. But then the cinematic blocking expertly reveals Athena, the ghost of his past, sitting opposite him — a silent totem of what’s to come. Once the boat reaches shore, we see ominous red light has supplanted the natural beauty of the cabin Kratos and Atreus used to call home, the same color of the rage that Kratos has been suppressing.
This moment again plays incredibly well, but also incredibly differently depending on your history with the God of War series. If you’re new, this is just solid storytelling. If you’re not, the foreshadowing has been there the entire time. Kratos often rubs his wrists as he recalls his past life, the lingering phantom pain a constant reminder of who he is, what he’s done, and what he will always be. When he pulls out the parcel from beneath the floorboards and we see it wrapped in that familiar red fabric, we know what’s about to happen.
It’s here we see the Blades of Chaos — the physical manifestation of destruction that Ares forged as a reminder of Kratos’ servitude to the gods — for the first time in this game. As Kratos wraps the chains around his arms, the ghost of Athena reappears in the doorway, watching what’s about to unfold. She begins to lecture him, much like she used to do from her perch high atop Mount Olympus. “There’s nowhere you can hide, Spartan. Put as much distance between you and truth as you want. It changes nothing. Pretend to be everything you are not. Teacher. Husband. Father. But there is one unavoidable truth you will never escape: You cannot change. You will always be… a monster.”
Up until this point, one of the core themes of the game has been Kratos coming to terms with the disease known as rage, trying his damndest to repress those past urges and, above all else, hoping he didn’t pass the sickness on to his child. Athena knows this and is able to use her words to slice at him in a way only those who’ve seen you at your lowest can. And it’s this foundation that makes Kratos’ response so powerful.
“I know. But I am your monster no longer.”
Back when God of War was first revealed at Sony’s E3 2016 Press Conference, the incredible demo was also met with some understandable questions, many stemming from the absence of the series’ iconic weapons, the Blades of Chaos. Not only did they provide the backbone of arguably the deepest and most satisfying combat mechanics of any non-Japanese-developed action game in history, but the Chains also acted as the backbone of the story’s conflict and Kratos’ character as a whole. We obviously ended up falling in love with the fluidity and complexity of the Leviathan Axe, but there was always a jagged little hole in our hearts for the Blades of Chaos.
The fact that Sony was able to keep this reveal close to the vest up through launch made the moment all the more powerful. I can distinctly recall hitting this beat and thinking to myself how they were going to pull this off on a mechanical level. We’d gotten so used to the new over-the-shoulder camera, slower and more methodical pace of combat, and specific nuances with the axe. So despite understanding what was about to happen, I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around how.
After Kratos delivers that incredible response to Athena, he walks straight through her, the manifestation of his past dissipating in the air like a wisp of smoke. It’s here that the player is finally reunited with the weapons of the original trilogy — and in an instant, the flow of the game that we’ve become accustomed to fundamentally changes. The already-deep combat system instantly doubles in intricacy, complete with an additional skill tree, runic attacks, equipment, and stats to keep track of, as well as an entirely new suite of attacks. Over 10 hours into the adventure, and the combat verbs available to you at any given moment suddenly multiply. And using the Blades immediately becomes just as satisfying as mastering the Leviathan Axe, while also providing the resonance of nostalgia.
The thing about this moment that really stands out to me is how it succeeds at being an elemental turning point in God of War on so many levels. It’s a true moment of growth for Kratos, an emotional juncture in his relationship with his son, and a fitting culmination of his tragic arc across the previous games. Simultaneously, it opens up an entirely new realm of possibilities in how the player can express themselves through the game’s magnificent combat. It changes the way we see the world, as well as how we interact with it. In short, it’s a perfect marriage of emotion and mechanics that can only exist in video games.