God of War Ragnarök - Boy Oh Boy! (Review)
God of War Ragnarök Released: November 9, 2022 Developer: Santa Monica Studio Publisher: Sony Systems: PS5
Has there been a more creatively successful tonal shift in the medium than God of War? From a series of brutally edgy games that thought nudity equaled maturity to 2018’s critically acclaimed fresh take - a more thoughtful, genuinely mature direction that traded mindless violence for mindful violence. One of the few times in videogame history that a transformation in style and structure was not just tolerated, but loved by its fans.
God of War Ragnarök had a tough job in following up such refreshment - after all, its 2018 predecessor was a beautiful surprise. A portrayal of a changed man who’d brought his violent rage to heel and was learning to embrace fatherhood, a story that managed to be touching and personal while still featuring absurd battles against roaring monsters and Norse Gods. Plus, it was just fun to toss around a big ol’ axe that could fly right back into your hand.
This change of pace was novel but it was no novelty. God of War Ragnarök has decidedly demonstrated how the series’ writing and gameplay can be just as enthralling a second time around with a sequel equal to God of War 2018 - all while beefing itself up in the content department. Oh, and when I say content, I mean real content, not just bandit camps and radio towers.
Its campaign takes roughly ten thousand years to complete and it’s fair to say the story features an ensemble cast this time around. You’ll still spend much of your time with Kratos but a significant number of chapters feature his son Atreus in playable form. The inclusion of many companion characters with their own distinct stories massively expands the narrative beyond a single viewpoint and does an excellent job of building the world around them. As someone who grew up fascinated by Norse mythology (thanks to an illustrated childrens’ book I wish I remembered the name of), seeing Santa Monica Studio’s take on its litany of deities and creatures is particularly enjoyable.
The former God of War Kratos is trying to avert what he once embodied, attempting to protect his son without robbing him of agency. Atreus - now older and more headstrong - tries to understand his role in the world and his prophesied involvement in a final battle that’ll shake the core of the Nine Realms. Ragnarök’s narrative explores the concept of free will versus destiny, the limits of pacifism in the face of an unrepentant aggressor, and big budget gaming’s favorite theme - cycles of revenge. Hooboy, do “AAA” studios love that shit! There’s also significant character development for such characters as Freya, the dwarves Sindri and Brok, and a bevy of newly introduced Asgardians including the villainous Odin.
It’s a damn long story even without the wealth of side content, and while there are some pacing issues, I was gripped for much of it. Practically every character is fascinating in their own way. I greatly enjoyed Freya’s arc, driven by vengence but longing to let go of the past. Odin’s portrayal as a duplicitous yet charming conman is fantastic, as is the dour charisma of Thor and optimistic naivety of Thrúd. It’s all backed up by a set of amazing vocal performances - there’s some seriously great acting on show.
Throughout its many, many, many hours of content, Ragnarök provides a truly memorable journey through the nine realms with tons of side quests offering their own well written adventures. Like the last game, linear sections are punctuated by more freeform environments in which Kratos and pals sail or ride across vast waters, deserts, and snowfields, each sporting a their own explorable locations with plenty of rewards squirreled away.
Ragnarök continues a blend of intense combat sequences and environmental puzzles seen in the last outing, and there’s a high standard maintained on both sides of this coin.
While slicing and battering my way through, I couldn’t help but think of Devil May Cry. It might seem like an odd comparison, but there’s a very familiar sense of acrobatic action. The major difference is that it’s the weapons performing acrobatic feats rather than the playable character - as if DMC’s Dante was a boomerang axe being hurled about by the world’s beardiest brooder. Once Kratos gets hold of his whiplike Chaos Blades and explosive cloning spear alongside the aforementioned magnetic axe, combat has an exquisite flow with combos that juggle, drag, and blow enemies away while you switch between dramatically different weaponry on the fly. It’s a beautiful sight to behold when you really get into it.
The puzzle side of things get rather clever too. Bouncing the axe from reflective surfaces to hit otherwise inaccessible targets, chaining elemental effects across surfaces by placing and detonating a series of magical sigils, Ragnarok can get moderately intricate at times while keeping a consistent logic that ensures nothing is too obscure to be solved with enough observation.
Now, I mentioned pacing issues, and they do crop up from time to time. Long puzzle sections can be followed by long cutscenes followed by long slice-of-life gameplay where you ride a yak around. In an already long game, the longness of the longness can feel quite loooong indeed.
A few surprising difficulty spikes threaten to disrupt the game’s direction too. Combat can go from feeling manageable to overwhelming on a battle to battle basis, where fights suddenly move at a rapid pace and you’re swarmed on all sides by enemies whose powerful attacks can barely be interrupted. In these moments, one feels unable to do half of Kratos’ cool combos and attacks because there’s so much flying at him and he’s far easier to stagger than the monsters are. In all fairness, most of these spikes are part of optional material and no fight feels truly impossible. The biggest challenge isn’t so much the enemies themselves as the ambush factor they represent - it’s easy to get walloped by a bunch of tough assholes because you felt totally unprepared for their vicious arrival.
I’ve brought up the sheer mountain of content several times, and that’s because it’s truly remarkable. It’s not always a good thing though - sometimes it’s positively draining. Before the game even started to wrap up, I found myself exhausted by the puzzles, having long since gotten to grips with their mechanics and no longer wishing to be slowed down as I attempted to head toward a crescendo. Even at the end, Kratos’ companions kept bugging me to explore and do side activities. There’s a constant feeling that you’re missing out on something by not exploring every nook and cranny, especially with the game nagging you to do so. Wading my way through it all, I felt at once compelled to find every secret, and to rush headlong toward the end credits so I could finally be free of that compulsion.
The fact there is so much to do is impressive as hell, and it’s all terrific content - very little of Ragnarök could be accused of padding or offering dreary busywork. The most chorelike it gets is probably in the returning chest puzzles where you have to find and activate hidden switches. There’s definitely a lot of them and they’re hardly exciting.
Not one of my criticisms take away from the overall experience. The sum of all Ragnarök’s parts is truly delicious. Even as tired as I was by the end, I still felt myself struggling to bid farewell to the world and its characters. God of War’s universe is brutal, merciless, and often tragic, but it’s also possessed of so much charm and underrated humor, its cast of Gods and warriors packed with genuinely likable characters including Kratos himself. His evolution from two-dimension revenge machine to retired war God attempting to do right by his kid and avoid a war that could drag him back to his old ways is just… really fucking good. It just is.
Atreus as a character is honestly still a bit of a boner though. His whining stupidity is narratively understandable from the point that he’s still a child in a confusing situation, but anybody who found him irritating in the last game likely won’t be won over here. This annoyance is balanced by the fact that, as a playable character, he’s shockingly fun and provides a refreshing change of pace between Kratos' stints. His bow-based gameplay emphasizes range even more than Kratos’ thrown weaponry, and his increased tendency to stun targets creates a nice loop of firing arrows and closing the distance to perform takedown maneuvers. His ability to summon various spectral animals - as well as transform into a wolf himself - makes him easier to play than Kratos, but no less fun for it.
However, it does have the interesting side effect of making Kratos feel comparatively less powerful due to the sheer efficiency of Atreus.
Visually, this is a first-party game published for the PlayStation 5. Of course a ton of money has been spent on the graphics to create something good looking. The top tier console graphics aren’t really surprising, and they’d mean nothing without a strong artistic style utilizing them. In this department, Ragnarök is as accomplished as the first game - characters are expressive, combat effects are downright delectable, and there’s plenty of scenery porn rich in vibrant colors. One thing I absolutely love is the diversity of background fauna - from turtles with palm trees on their backs to fiery lizards to cute little fungus people, the Nine Realms are dotted with background creatures that feature no more interactivity than perhaps being squishable, but contribute a tangible sense of life in Ragnarök’s environments.
Also there are pumpkins all over the place and they can be gratuitously chunked by Kratos in the dozens. This detail might only be relevant to me, but it’s a damn important detail.
God of War Ragnarök is truly excellent. Quality seeps out of the thing, with so much effort put into even its less consequential elements. Richly detailed, terrifically written, all with a massively entertaining blend of combat and puzzles. The overwhelming amount of content can most certainly grow tiring at points and there are moments of disruptive meandering. Nevertheless, for a game to offer so much and retain such a high caliber is worthy of applause.
Let's cut to the important chase, though - the little mushroom guys hanging out in the environment are just plain cute, and that's the entire point of this review.