Kratos was confusing to me. When the first God of War came out, teenage me had very clear opinions on what kind of hero or main character I liked. They were always good moral heroes with an edge of sassiness and badassery. The Rick O’Connells, Lara Crofts, and Nathan Drakes.
But then came along Kratos. He wasn’t even an anti-hero. He was a villain. He became darker with each game, leaving a path of destruction behind him in the search for vengeance. In fact, the only reason I felt for him was that his antagonists made him sympathetic. Through 3 glorious games, I revelled as he took down God after God, becoming unstoppable.
When the reboot came around, I was expecting more of the same. I wondered how they would build on his journey of vengeance and make him more powerful. I booted up the game with excitement and quickly met Baldur. The character was so much scrawnier than Kratos, slurring his words and shooting his mouth. Like Kratos, I found him annoying and expected an easy fight. A way to feel like the God of War in my tutorial. That wasn’t what I got. That’s when I realized just how different this game was going to be.
Baldur comes off as a drunk, arrogant upstart. But as that initial fight showed us, there is a lot more to him! (Caution: spoilers ahead)
Twisting mythology to create interesting characters
With God of War, Santa Monica Studios has always found fun ways of ingeniously twisting mythology — enough to be familiar to history buffs while still being surprising.
Like in the recorded poems, in-game Baldur (Baldr) was once the much-loved God of light. Historical writings describe him as fair of face and mind and as the wisest of the Æsir. In the game, Freya says the same, that her son (Baldur) was a happy boy. Then they had a dream of his impending death. A pointless death that would be the trigger for Ragnarok. In mythology, they both work to find a way to prevent it. But in-game, Freya casts a spell to make her son invulnerable and keep him safe from death.
That invulnerability came at a high cost. Baldur loses his ability to feel anything. The Vikings truly enjoyed the physical aspects of life. Food, drink, physical pleasure, battle; these aspects of life were so important that they were a key reward for warriors in Valhalla, their Heaven. Something to indulge in every day till Ragnarok, the war that ends everything. So when Baldur loses the ability to feel anything physically, it deprives him of the joy in life. Losing the ability to feel touch, temperature, and pain makes him lose his sanity.
He begs his mother to lift the curse, to allow him to feel again because without being able to actually live, to feel physical sensation, it isn’t a life worth living. She denies him, this was the first betrayal he faced.
Freya was forced to leave her home, Vanaheim, and forced into an unhappy marriage as part of a peace treaty. Her life is miserable and her only real happiness was Baldur. So, when she learned of the prophecy of his death she is overcome with the fear of losing him. Thus, she refuses to lift the spell, convinced he would thank her in the end, since he could be free from pain and could cheat death. She refused to see his pain, refused to acknowledge his choice. It stopped being about protecting him and became about protecting herself.
Losing the thread of humanity
Over the centuries Baldur gets more desperate to feel something. His good nature disappears, replaced with cruel, erratic behaviour. His only goal becomes to feel something. He is cruel to others with the hope that he can illicit a reaction strong enough to break the curse. He puts his body through incredible amounts of ‘pain’ to see if he can find a breaking point. A point where he will either feel something, anything, again or better yet, finally die rather than live a numb life.
A lot of what the characters face and see is only ever hinted at in the game. So, it is unclear if Baldur has also lost the ability to feel emotion. The writers could have done a better job with that. However, it is very clear that being unable to feel physical sensations has made him miserable. When we meet him, he is very aggressive with Kratos, hoping to bait him into a fight. He initially believes that he found Faye, Kratos’s frost giant partner, and hoped that a fight with a frost giant would help. When he informs Odin about Kratos and Atreus, he is sent to retrieve or kill them. The game heavily implies that the Allfather will help Baldur with his curse if he is successful.
The actual danger
In my opinion, this is what makes him so dangerous as Kratos’s opponent. That he simply doesn’t care about Kratos and Atreus. He doesn’t hate them, or fear them, but he does need them to die to fix himself. His goal always takes precedence. So there is no possibility of him changing his mind, no possibility of slowing him down or distracting him. Baldur needs them to die. He needs any opportunity to be able to feel again. If they cannot kill him or help him, they need to get out of the way so that the person with the highest possibility of doing so, will.
He tries to be efficient. He tries to taunt Kratos into making a mistake and gets frustrated when Kratos won’t cooperate by dying. He needs to move on and would very much appreciate it if the world cooperated. Along the way, we see other parts of him. In Helhiem, we see his grief. His anger and self-hatred for not being able to kill Freya. His numbed emotions and depression blinded him to the fact that he did not kill her because he once loved her. This anger at his perceived cowardice eats at him, making his hate for her grow.
However, more heartbreakingly, we see small glimpses of the man he used to be. A diplomatic, kind-hearted man. Despite his dislike for his brother Thor, he works with his nephews. When seeking information about Kratos, he offers to negotiate with Odin, to find a way to lift Mimir’s punishment. Even as he battles Kratos, he tells Atreus to look away so that the boy doesn’t have to see his father injured. He gets frustrated whenever Atreus steps into a fight. Baldur seems to want to take him to Odin instead of hurting him, only using attacks to capture Atreus or as a last resort to get him out of the way. No matter how much Atreus attacks, he doesn’t retaliate.
And then, when pushing off Atreus, he cuts himself on the Mistletoe arrow and suddenly he can feel again.
The end of the line
It made that last fight a tragedy. I no longer wanted to fight him even as he came after Kratos. It was clearly driven by his excitement and happiness to feel life again. In all its pain and sharp edges. He enjoys each strike and cut. It wasn’t masochistic, but simply that he could finally feel something again. He got what he was craving. He taunts and pushes and attacks, to get more. He needs every blow. He even enjoys losing.
The fact that he didn’t care about Kratos and Atreus was perhaps clearest here. Because he wasn’t interested in retaliating when he knew he lost. He was more interested in dealing with the woman who took away his choice and had caused him centuries of suffering. In fact, he was shocked when Kratos steps back in to keep him from punishing Freya, as he had already dismissed them from his mind.
He was so obsessed with being able to feel again that when Kratos snaps his neck, instead of getting angry, he rejoices in just being able to feel the snow. Baldur had given up on life.
Kratos chose to kill him to end the cycle of revenge. He recognized himself in Baldur, of a time when he had forgotten how to live. Kratos had once killed a parent for vengeance and he knew that matricide would be the first step in an unending downward spiral. He knew the only way to stop Baldur from seeking revenge would be to kill him. He chose to protect Freya, an ally.
In doing so, he fulfilled the prophecy. That Baldur would die a pointless death and kick-start Ragnarok, making an enemy of Freya in the bargain.
There was no joy or gratification to be found in defeating Baldur. He was simply a broken man who wanted to live again. Odin made him a villain by pitting him against Kratos. Freya did the same by inadvertently taking his humanity. Nothing else. Baldur was a victim, who could have done amazing things. His life was an incredible tragedy.