TORONTO — The upcoming "God of War" game opens with the protagonist Kratos, slayer of gods and ultimate fighting machine, in the decidedly pedestrian act of cutting down a tree.
The act of swinging his axe threatens to overtake him and send him into a warrior's rage, but the moment passes and he continues his mundane task.
It's a small moment, but a telling one. The creators of the "God of War" franchise have grown up, and so too has Kratos.
When the original "God of War" debuted on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, it was a delightful display of carnage and destruction, with the narrative chiefly there to serve as context for the action. Six titles later, and with most of the Greek pantheon slain in Kratos's quest for vengeance, it was time to move on.
While the upcoming "God of War" is not a franchise reboot — the storylines from previous titles remain canon — Kratos is the only constant. The setting has shifted from Greece to Scandinavia, Kratos is a father and he has forsaken his signature lethal bladed chains as his weapon of choice in favour of a more setting-appropriate axe.
"When we started the first one we were in our 20s, it was our college years. In this one we're in our late 30s, early 40s. So we as people had grown, and we wanted to take that concept and apply it to Kratos," Derek Daniels, design director at Sony Interactive Entertainment's Santa Monica studio, said in a recent interview. "How could we make him more likable? How could we humanize him? The one note of screaming into the sky for six games straight — how can we move past that?"
Daniels said it was important to call the most recent game simply "God of War" because it is a new jumping off point for the franchise. One of the first goals was to move Kratos out of his comfort zone and into a new setting with its own mythology.
Egypt was considered at one point, but Daniels said the development team settled on a Norse setting because of its sharp contrast with Greece.
"I think we killed everyone we could possibly kill (in the Greek pantheon)," Daniels said. "The stories we wanted to tell in Greece, we kind of told those stories. But we weren't done telling the story of Kratos.
"The thing that stood out about the Norse mythology was the contrast to Greek. Greek is very opulent, very warm very gold-and-greenish, safe so to speak. And Norse is very cold and bitter, very harsh and snowy. So the idea of the setting being something that Kratos had to overcome was very exciting for us."
The game introduces Kratos's son Atreus, who presents a challenge of another kind for the Spartan legend. Once completely beholden to his personal goals, no matter how bloody, Kratos is now forced to temper his wrath and become a suitable single parent for Atreus.
"We used to joke that our kids are better at being kids than we are at being parents," Daniels said. "It's kind of a constant struggle. So that was something we wanted to work on with Kratos. One of the decisions we made early on is that the game would start with the mother being dead and Kratos being forced to take responsibility for the kid.
"Kratos is almost forced into being the father and the mother for Atreus at that point."
Daniels calls "God of War" the "action game evolved," saying the design team wanted to make the kind of game they could enjoy as parents with hope that the series' fan base has grown along with them. Daniels said developing the game for a technical powerhouse like the PlayStation 4 allows them to make narrative choices they couldn't do before.
He points to a scene where Kratos hesitantly tries to reach out to Atreus in comfort, but can't quite make the gesture and takes back his hand.
"If we tried that on the PS2 it would have looked like a pixilated mess," Daniels said.
Atreus serves as more than a plot device, however. A fledgling warrior in his own right, he uses his bow to help his father fend of the dangerous denizens of Midgard.
"We've all played games where the companion character is annoying or cumbersome, so we wanted to make Atreus part of the combat loop," Daniels said.
While much has changed in the new "God of War" — the camera now follows Kratos around to keep the player close to the action and his leviathan axe, which he can hurl at opponents and have it return to him, changes the flow of combat from previous games — Dainels said one of the team's primary goals was to keep all that has made the series successful intact in this title.
The game looks beautiful on a PS4 Pro and the controls are still remarkably tight. It's still "God of War," just grown up a little.
"God of War" will be released April 20 for the PlayStation 4.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press