Reviews

God of War Ragnarök – Review

GOWR - Key Art

God of War Ragnarök is the much-anticipated sequel to the triumphant reinvention that was 2018’s God of War. Coming from flagship Sony developer Santa Monica Studio, you likely already have some idea of the baseline level of quality to expect here. That said, it is no small task to release a follow-up to one of the best games of the 21st Century. It may occasionally stumble along the way, but just like the inevitability of prophecy itself, Ragnarök is undeniable.

Three harsh years of Fimbulwinter have passed since the conclusion of the prior game. Kratos and Atreus (and Mimir) have been hiding out in the woods, training for the battles they know are to come. Atreus is older; more capable and independent. Despite Kratos insisting he focus on preparing for Ragnarök, Atreus would rather try to understand how he will fit into the role of Loki. The tension between father and son this time around is more about Kratos trying to temper Atreus’ desire for self-reliance and freedom with the experience that comes with age.

GOWR - Thor

They are soon visited by none other than Thor (Ryan Hurst) and Odin (Richard Schiff), two larger-than-life characters realised wonderfully here both in terms of performance and design. This unsettlingly calm visit, like a scene out of Inglourious Basterds, shakes Kratos and Atreus into action, and their journey toward Ragnarök truly begins.

Once it gets up and running Ragnarök is a delight. Like sliding into a toasty bed on a cold day. The first two-thirds of the game is jam-packed full of surprises and treats. Whether it’s a new character to meet, a fantastical realm to explore (or revisit), or a fearsome enemy to face down, Ragnarök is almost always throwing something new at you.

There are so many unique scenarios that thrill with their colour, music, and animation – obviously, they would be spoiled by detailing them here but rest assured this game is bursting at the seams with… stuff to show you. A true adventure in every sense of the word.

GOWR - Lake

However, I think it’s worth mentioning purely as an exercise in managing expectations: there is also a significant amount of content that has been brought straight over from the first game. Enemies like draugrs, ogres, wulvers, hel-walkers, viken, nightmares, and others all function nearly identically here. They fight you in more or less the same way, they sound the same and they die with the same animations.

This is not at all a big deal. These familiar enemies are still fun to fight and satisfying to kill, but it does chip away a little at the feeling that this game has its own, entirely unique identity. If these are the sorts of corners that were cut in order to release a sequel of this scale in four years during a pandemic, then I’m happy they did it.

With that disclaimer out of the way… One of the (few) flaws the original game had was the way enemy encounters were recycled and seeing the same thing happen here, despite there of course being a decent amount of entirely new enemies, is a little disappointing. This carries over into the level design too, there were a few side quests or even particular stretches of the main story that took place in somewhat generic or familiar environments and sported little more than a series of repetitive enemy encounters. These sections lack that spark of wonder and purpose that the majority of this game has.

GOWR - Home

With that being said, the graphics and art design are simply astounding. Ragnarök may not be a next-gen leap over the original, having started development as a PS4 game, but playing something that looks this good in 60+ FPS with absurdly brief load times certainly feels next-gen enough to me. Facial animations in cutscenes have also seen an improvement, with more of the cast’s real-world performances shining through than ever before.

The design of new friends and foes, from the understated malice of Thor and Odin, to the delightful Angrboda, is inspired. One of the biggest strengths of this game is the sheer amount of characters it juggles at any one time, most of whom are immediately likable and/or intriguing. This is in no small part due to their fidelity and aesthetic.

The environments are just as impressive. From the Dwarvish lakeside mines of Svartalfheim to the lush and deadly jungles of Vanaheim, Ragnarök presents an utterly compelling, endlessly magical world of awe-inspiring beauty. The quality and commitment of the craftsmanship from the team at Santa Monica on display here is enough to make you emotional.

GOWR - Dogs

As always I feel it’s worth mentioning the accessibility options as they appear to be, to my untrained eye, comprehensive. When you first load up the game you’re given the opportunity to go through all of the various settings you can tweak and everything is very clear and detailed. Sony has been really putting in work on this front in the last few years and it’s great to see it continue.

The gameplay loop is largely similar to the first game. You venture out to the various realms of Norse mythology, from the elvish battlefields of Alfheim to the volcanic hellscape of Muspelheim, battling enemies, looting treasure chests, and collecting goodies. Upon returning to your dwarvish blacksmith friends Brok and Sindri, Kratos and co can use the aforementioned goodies to upgrade their weapons, armour, and abilities.

This style of gameplay was fun in 2018 and it remains fun now. However, they have made significant improvements to how the game feels that make this loop more enjoyable than ever. Firstly, everything feels faster and lighter. Kratos’ movement is more agile (I guess training through Fimbulwinter would do that) and the camera is far more responsive.

GOWR - Dock

Additionally, you can now use the Blades of Chaos as a grappling hook at certain key points in an environment. This new skill has been implemented in traversal throughout the game, and it feels great to use. You can also use them to move downwards in an environment, making backtracking a lot less time-consuming. There are still a few times when you have to climb agonisingly slowly down a cliff, but they were few and far between. A small but extremely appreciated change: when Kratos kicks down a chain to create a shortcut, he no longer automatically starts climbing down in one action.

Similar to how DOOM Eternal iterated upon its predecessor, the combat in Ragnarök has been made more intricate and frenetic while avoiding becoming bogged down in complexity. Kratos can now charge up the Leviathan Axe with frost by holding triangle, or the Blades of Chaos with flame by mashing triangle. This alters his regular attacks as well as dealing more elemental damage to enemies. Combat arenas now have various elements to interact with whether it’s a dead tree to slam into a draugr’s face, or a flaming boulder to send flying at a distant enemy with the Blades of Chaos.

As for skills, new to Ragnarök are tiers of labours for certain moves. So if you use a particular skill or move a particular number you will move up the tiers and eventually reach gold tier. When gold tier has been unlocked you can use mod tokens to enhance those abilities to do things like more damage, more stun, or negate incoming damage to Kratos while he’s using it. It’s pretty simple, but a neat way of allowing you to customise your go-to skillset.

I want to shout out composer Bear McReary’s score here. He’s had a rather prolific year, having just debuted his work in The Rings of Power TV show, yet shows no sign of spreading himself too thin. He’s brought his trusty Hurdy Gurdy to the nine realms, featuring it more than once in Ragnarök’s epic and varied soundtrack.

Monster

There are a couple of other detractors beyond the small issues I had with the story. Quite often when dealing with puzzles Kratos’ companion will offer hints way, way too early. In most cases, I’d enter a room, and before I’d even realised there was a puzzle Atreus would pipe up saying “we need to make that wheel turn somehow”. At best it feels like the game doesn’t think much of your intelligence, at worst it’s like someone blurting out the answer to a riddle before you’ve heard it in full.

Another rather disappointing element is Kratos’ armour sets. Even the late-game sets that require the rarest materials are underwhelming. Compared to God of War 2018 they don’t look as good and there are nowhere near as many of them. Worse than that is the fact that even though there are a relatively low number of sets, there are several that are just reskins of each other. It certainly feels like a significant step down from its predecessor in this regard.

Ragnarök is one of those sequels that has the very difficult task of having to answer as many of the questions raised by its predecessor as it can, and for the most part it does this well. That said, not everything culminates in a satisfying fashion and there are a number of narrative motifs that don’t necessarily earn their place in the story.

GOWR - Brok

Dealing with well-established characters from real-world mythology like Thor, Odin, and even the concept of Ragnarök itself, all require a dramatic broadening of narrative scope and a raising of stakes. Something is lost here when compared to the relatively self-contained and laser-focused struggle against Baldur in the first game. The thematics of Kratos grappling with fatherhood still lead to some genuinely emotional moments throughout the story, but again, this is no longer something new for the series.

There’s a lot of talk of prophecy and fate throughout Ragnarök, which is understandable given the revelations at the end of the first game. Both Kratos and Atreus are determined to defy fate and become masters of their own destiny, regardless of what they saw on the walls of that shrine in Jotunheim. Rather than serving as an interesting dynamic for our protagonists, it instead feels like the writers struggled with how to craft a compelling and surprising story out of a script that is so restrained by its own prophecy.

This problem, despite all the tears and laughter along the way, leads to a climax that feels somewhat safe. It’s not executed poorly by any means but it didn’t blow me away either. Thankfully the epilogue brings everything back to a place of contentment again, as well as excitement for what may come next. The Norse arc may be over, but Atreus’ journey is only just beginning.

Indeed, God of War Ragnarök has a lot in common with Atreus’ journey through adolescence. It’s grown in size in a relatively short amount of time and is a little awkward as a result. Skills that once came naturally are now a challenge or a chore. Perhaps most importantly: it’s trying lots of new things with a brave face, even if it isn’t quite ready to move out from under Kratos’ shadow just yet.

Rating: 9/10

God of War Ragnarök was reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by Sony.