God Of War Ragnarok Review: "Gore, Love, And Wonder"
Over four and a half years ago, God of War (2018) took an already popular gaming franchise that was in danger of becoming stale, and semi-rebooted it to the widespread acclaim of the entire industry - telling a human tale in a fascinating god-filled world of Norse Mythology, vehicled by exhilarating combat for players old and new. Rather than fix what isn't broken for the sake of a sequel, God of War Ragnarok only doubles down on what made the previous game so compelling, then expands on it for the other parts in play. For the most part, elaborated on further in this God of War Ragnarok review, those decisions have only improved on perfection.
Going Bigger, Hitting Harder
While there is a recap of the last God of War game from the main menu, it is only kept incredibly brief, serving as more of a reminder for lapsed players rather than new ones. Whilst you need to have played God of War (2018) to properly understand what's going on, such an investment is worth it since Ragnarok's story hits you hard from the get-go. Years following the last game's big reveal about Atreus, Kratos and his son's quest for answers - whilst being pitted against God of Thunder Thor towards prophecies around the apocalyptic Ragnarok - wastes no time in setting the tone, with blockbuster action and emotionally moving scenes in the prologue alone.
In contrast to the previous game's leaner yet personal story, God of War Ragnarok takes you on a sprawling adventure that feels larger in both narrative and gameplay without losing its quintessential intimacy. Across the nine realms, you'll be taken to both those never seen before and familiar but revamped, like the dwarven realm Svartalfheim and elf-inhabited Alfheim respectively.
Each realm is as gorgeous to look at as they are to explore. That is especially when appreciating the extra environmental details that shine even brighter in 4K resolution - from glistening snow and shimmering rivers to colourful insect wildlife clinging to cave walls. What's more, each map is a joy to traverse - all with the unique and various puzzles, treasures, enemies, and story-driven side quests they bring.
This bigger world brings in many more players to serve as pieces across the board of God of War Ragnarok's narrative, almost entirely to its betterment. Along with last-game characters like dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri, and friend-turned-foe Freya coming more out of the background, new additions like Norse God of War Tyr, Thor, and many more who are best kept as surprises enter the fray as well - each with their own levels of trauma, grief, guilt, and anxieties to overcome.
Despite Kratos and Atreus having to share the front stage, Ragnarok's extensive plot manages to balance it all. After all, this isn't the same father and son pair seen at the start of God of War (2018). Whilst Atreus has become more independent and adept at combat with age, Kratos has become more empathetic and open to letting others in.
A testament to the tremendous talent of the cast involved; like the returning Christopher Judge as Kratos and Sunny Suljic as Atreus, along with newcomers like Thor's Ryan Hurst; performances both in both voice and motion capture demonstrate between-actor chemistry that is amongst the best seen in gaming today.
Whether during the story's lighter, tender moments, or those of the heaviest in tension, interactions between various characters are mesmerising to watch, especially for those invested in watching them develop respectively. The legendary soundtrack of returning composer Bear McCreary, practically a character in its own right, utilises its tracks to elevate the key emotion of each scene to give it that much more weight - be it nuanced reflection or the unhinged fury of a Spartan in battle.
Exquisite Writing, Slight Drop in Pacing
As much of a thrill-ride God of War Ragnarok's approximately 30-hour campaign can take you on, there are one or two bumps along the way. If the story were to be broken into three acts, both halfway through the first and second go on for slightly too long - with new elements introduced eventually starting to overstay their welcome, whilst you’re waiting to get back to the parts of gameplay and plot you enjoy most.
Be that as it may, any frustration felt with a particular segment will dissipate once the narrative rollercoaster journeys you through its numerous twists and turns. In main missions as well as the Favours side quests, some of those you're taken through are actually stories with other companions - like the aforementioned Brok and Sindri. Amongst other pleasant surprises, these personal tales further develop other characters to better their roles and are woven into the narrative, coming together for a more compelling drama as a whole.
Even when you think you can see the next step in a chapter coming from a mile away, Ragnarok takes you in another direction - having a much deeper impact than could have been foreseen. With each conclusion fitting better than one would have hoped, God of War Ragnarok makes every suspected instance of predictability work in its favour, creating so many memorable moments that won't be forgotten for years to come.
The Gameplay You Love And More
It wouldn't be a God of War game without series-defining hack-and-slash gameplay that tears enemies limb from limb. Thankfully, Ragnarok once again captures the best in playing as the God of War, paired with new tweaks to take the gameplay to a higher level.
Swinging around the Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos feels better than ever, more so when enjoying the silky smooth higher framerates from the Favour Performance mode on PS5. Along with new techniques to supplement combat variety, like frosting your axe for extra damage and pre-fall attacks, even more depth has been added to combos and finishing moves to make you truly feel like a God of War. Addictively fun aspects of past games have been built on, with those like grappling with the Choas Blades - which are now also usable for satisfying traversal and puzzle-solving.
Along with an overdue boost in the range of enemies from the last game, combat difficulty has gone up in tandem to make for an extra level of challenge. Although playing in what is deemed as the normal difficulty setting, coordinating responses to attacks that are either unblockable, can be parried, or even interrupted with freshly added Shield combat can be a task to get used to, as one or two deaths make your way. Nevertheless, such an assortment feels like a delight once you get used to it - having you effortlessly block damages whilst chaining moves from memory to deal out your own. With every bloody kill and gory finishing move, Ragnarok feels like God of War gameplay at its finest.
Not much had to be changed about God of War's inventory system, but Ragnarok optimises what was needed to be in making the tailoring of your Kratos layout that much easier. For example, instead of each armour piece having its own set of enchantment slots to continuously switch around like in God of War (2018), enchantments get their own section to keep better track - with various bonuses when pairing those of the same archetype together. Slots, in the same manner, have also been added to Kratos' skills, letting choose between boosters like Damage, Stun, and Element to enhance your particular playstyle.
Along with these new systems and those to enhance shields, weaponry, and even Atreus' role in combat, God of War Ragnarok encourages extra experimentation before further delving into RPG-like mechanics. To its credit though, these are introduced gradually so you're not overwhelmed by too many numerous mechanics at once - and to continuously spice up combat, exploration, and customisation as you progress.
A Few Bugs to Clean Up
With the amount that this God of War sequel has grown in scope, it is a surprise that only a small variety of tiny cracks have shown. Still, they are cracks that need mentioning.
In spite of the several patches sent out since God of War Ragnarok's launch, a few bugs reared their heads continuously during certain sections. Such glitches like Atreus being stuck repeating "there's a hole in the fence over there!", a companion's command prompt not responding during a puzzle, or one of the equipment menus becoming inaccessible could only be fixed by closing and restarting the game with each instance. Minor bugs are always to be expected with games of this magnitude, which hopefully will get patched out, but they are still a small frustration all the same.
Setting a New Standard
Be it occasional pacing drops or infrequent technical glitches, any small hiccups greatly pale in comparison to the big picture of what God of War Ragnarok brings to the table. While God of War (2018) was a story about loss, not letting your past control you, and wanting to move forward, its sequel is about letting go and trusting those you love so you can finally do so. Yes, there are some patchable bugs, but few games have actually been able to accumulate so many elements on such a massive scale and balance them all to such near perfection. Altogether, we've been left with nothing short of a finely crafted interactive drama of epic proportions, packed with as much heart in turn.
For this God of War sequel, developer Sony Santa Monica upped the ante in every way by channelling the best parts of the narrative and gameplay from Kratos and Atreus' last journey - using a bigger brush to take it to a much larger canvas with more realms, higher stakes, powerful character development, and extra nuance in its narratives. As a result, the payoff for the end of the Norse saga feels greater than the sum of its parts, with its masterful writing and exhilarating gameplay merging into one of the most exciting gaming experiences in years.
Ultimately, God of War Ragnarok raises the bar for blockbuster storytelling in gaming - a reminder of what single-player games can be in today's standards. The true anticipation now lies in wondering what comes next from one of the industry's finest developers.
Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Code provided by the publisher.