Let’s get one thing straight: Kratos is NOT a good father. But he tries, and he grows.
Playing through this game was surprisingly difficult for me. It was heart-wrenching to see Kratos repeatedly disappoint, scare, and hurt Atreus, both physically and, primarily, mentally, as I could recognize so much of it from my own childhood. Atreus is a lot stronger than I was, though. Despite being psychologically abused by his father, he still stuck to his beliefs and kept believing in - and interacting with - Kratos. In me, similar behavior resulted in a deep fear of displeasing my father, which made incredibly afraid of deviating from his instructions, and to always be hyper-aware of his current mood.
The story makes it clear that Kratos has definitely not been a particular present parent. There are multiple times where Atreus mentions how rarely Kratos has been home, or how Kratos never talks to him and such. Through this, we can see that Atreus has a few expectations on his father, likely based on how his mother treated him. He expects him to be a teacher, he expects him to communicate, and he expects him to be kind. In return, he provides admiration, and tries to be a good student by listening and asking for feedback.
So how does Kratos behave?
He is ill-tempered, inexpressive and highly unempathic. He attempts to teach Atreus some things, but strongly punishes him for getting it wrong. He dehumanizes his son by refusing to call him by his name.
In some sense, a lot of his behavior makes a sort of thematic sense. Anger has always been one of Kratos’s primary traits, and it is the only way through which he is shown to display love.
There is, however, no doubt that he loves his son above all else. Whenever Atreus is in serious danger, such as when he is captured, Kratos immediately enters a near-permanent rage state until he has saved his son. The part where you carry Atreus to Freya in particular proves that beyond any doubt. He is willing to set aside everything he believes in for even the smallest chance of saving his son, and that includes asking the help of those he believes to be monsters.
His anxiousness and desperation during this section resulted in what was among the most powerful scenes I have ever witnessed in gaming. The look in his eyes when he realizes that his own actions hurt his son is something I will never forget.
That said, the game isn’t just about the relationship between the two, but also about their individual growth.
It was phenomenal to watch Kratos go from rejecting his godhood to taking ownership of it, and turning something he was once ashamed of into something he could take pride in. He learned that he can make a difference by choosing to be the change he wanted to see in the world, instead of feeling guilty for the actions of his peers.
As the game progresses, Kratos learns more and more about what Atreus needs from him, and becomes more open about his own thoughts and processes. He has an easier time dealing with certain aspects of his son than others, such the rebellious teenage phase, but really struggles with how to act when Atreus feels disappointed in him.
The thing that is really impressed me about the game was how candid it was about how broken and limited Kratos feels. It doesn’t attempt to glorify his behavior, but rather frames it with either melancholy or neutrality. It is a clear commentary and critique about traditional masculinity, and the damage it can do.
In this, we must all be better.