God of War Ragnarok

Review: God of War Ragnarök

A journey through the nine realms.

I could never fathom the likelihood that God of War would return from its quiet retirement with such an uproarious reception. That’s what happened in 2018 when Santa Monica Studios released the soft reboot starring Kratos, a recent widower dealing with the loss of his wife and having to tackle fatherhood alone. This is the exact opposite of what the Greek god, the murder of the pantheon in Greece dealt with before but somehow, the studio not only made it make sense but also endearing and heartfelt.

The continuous shot camera, delivering some of the best cinematic presentations I’ve seen made exploring the nine realms some of the best experiences I’ve had with video games. Yet it was the stunning open world, the inspiring soundtrack, and the relationship between a father and son that won me over.

To say Santa Monica Studios had a herculean task at hand, one that would see the wildly talented team defy expectations and follow up on a sequel that delivers would be an uphill battle. I’ve asked friends and colleagues how does a studio deliver something that is both meaningful to the player and also to the characters many of us have learned to love? That notion is something I’ve lingered on since I rolled credits four years ago.

God of War Recap

Let’s do a brief recap of the events leading up to God of War Ragnarök. After the death of Faye, the wife of Kratos and mother to Atreus, the two prepare to spread her ashes at the tallest point in the realm. Not long after, a tattooed stranger appears looking for something before assaulting the Spartan. Not long after, the duo meets a colourful cast of characters including the dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri, World Serpent, Jörmungandr, Mimir, and the mysterious Witch Of The Woods.

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Learning that Norse god Baldur is following them, the pair learn he has recruited Modi and Magni, the sons of Thor in his search. Mimir offers his sage advice on the ongoings of his new friends, giving them a lifeline on what to do. Modi and Magni continually pop up at the worst times until Kratos kills Magi, the Modi later on.

Atreus becomes sick because Kratos hid his son’s true heritage from him — the son of a God who had the powers to match. Learning he must tell Atreus the truth, he embarks to find the ingredients that will heal his soul. However, this journey means Kratos must embrace his past and once again pick up the Blades of Chaos.

Healed from his illness, Atreus becomes cocky and unbearable for some time before Kratos puts a stop to this and Atreus apologizes. Opening the portal to Jötunheim, Baldur kidnaps Atreus and tells Kratos to follow him. Eventually, Baldur’s mother is discovered to be none other than Freya, who appears and pleads for Kratos to not kill her son, on whom she cast an immortality spell on. With the help of a mistletoe arrow from Atreus, the God of War kills Baldur by breaking the spell and kickstarting Ragnarok.

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The road to Ragnarök

In series fashion, God of War Ragnarök begins with a stunning setpiece reintroducing Kratos and Atreus. During a particularly tough time during Fimbulwinter, father and son hunt for food once again.

Picking up during the three-year-long Fimbulwinter, an event that portents Ragnarök, we reunite with father and son. Much has changed in the time we’ve been away from them and it is abundantly clear that Atreus is far more independent now as he arrives with a deer he hunted on his own. The relationship has changed for the better given the journey they’ve had up until now. It’s also clear Atreus is a warmer, caring person who cares for both people and animals, and has matured over the last few years.

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The parallels between 2018’s opening and Ragnarök’s opening need to be discussed. Atreus’s growth is in full display, seeing his evolution pay off from the opening minutes is one of the first payoffs you’ll come across in your journey. Within minutes, a familiar foe spots you in the woods, kicking off an escape which culminates with an exchange between Kratos and his son, who apologize for not taking the shot. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to,” retorts Kratos.

In the first hour, a rollercoaster of emotions overwhelms me. From the beautiful one-shot camera tracking the parallels of the first God of War and the dangers that follow Kratos, a touching moment with Atreus at the heart of it – there are already several moments pulling from the events of the reboot with all cylinders firing.

Playing Ragnarök starts off familiar, you’ll hit the same highs as its predecessor and that’s exactly what the sequel needs to thrust you into the heart of this world-ending follow-up. You’ll instantly recall a lot of the mechanics as you begin your journey, which helps pave the way for the new mechanics added.

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I was head over heels in love with God of War 2018’s’s new combat system, at the time it melded some things from previous games while adding some much-needed change. Combat has seen a refresh and it is what I wanted from a follow-up title. In God of War, the Leviathan Axe was a weapon able to be freely thrown at enemies and recalled at the press of a button — it is something still immensely satisfying to do. Now, you also have the inclusion of Runic Attacks. Holding the triangle button encases your axe in ice, adding an elemental attack. The Blades of Chaos have a similar move where the holding triangle button has Kratos swing the blade until it ignites, destroying anything in its path.

I came in thinking I was ready to take names and tear enemies apart in Ragnarök but it was me who ended up taking a beating. Enemies hit harder, and move faster, with the AI delivering some of the best encounters I’ve had in ages. Some of the earliest minibosses put me through the wringer, making me retool and tinker with my armour sets and ensuring I had the right runes attached to Kratos.

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The one thing that many agreed upon was the lack of enemy variety — something the studio has addressed head-on. I’ve encountered over a dozen enemy types in the earliest hours and the further into the realms I explored, the more enemies continue to impress me with not just their variety but also their different attack patterns.

Dealing with conflict, the brutish nature of God of War is yet again elevated in Ragnarök. Kratos once again showcases his raw power and the brutality of war is shown in full across the nine realms. Cleaving enemies in two, decapitating Hel-Raiders, and impaling enemies with the Blades of Chaos before getting up close and pounding them with bare fists is immensely satisfying.

Once you learn the basics, the next bit of fun is learning how to dodge and parry incoming attacks. The enemies are less forgiving and will punish you if you mess up. However, when you time everything right and deliver a pulsating fury combo lands, it’s such a satisfying feeling.

A Favour For A Friend

Sidequests or Favours continue to be optional but I cannot stress how important these quests are to enhancing your experience. One Favour stood out to me and it’s near the start of the journey, not long after arriving in Svartalfheim focusing on Mimir’s past. It was previously revealed that the smartest head to exist once worked for Odin. In this quest, Kratos learns the depths Mimir went to appease the one-eyed god. As we learn more of his past transgressions, Kratos because visibly irritable towards his closest confidant. “I once wore a yolk around my neck. I would not wish it upon anyone,” the spartan tells his Mimir.

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As the quest plays out, we learn how his previous actions have filled Mimir with regret. With the help of his newfound family, he wants to right his transgressions and makes things better, however, things do not end up as you’d expect them to as the quest ends in a way that feels believable.

Odin Must Be Stopped

The main campaign is a hearty 25-30 hours and highlights that not everything needs to be a massive 100+ hour collectathon. Given that Ragnarök foretells the death of key Norse gods including Odin and Thor, Kratos and Atreus are actively working to prevent the apocalypse from happening. In the years since the death of Baldur, life in Midgard is volatile for everyone.

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Not only that but Kratos and Atreus have once again begun to drift apart once again. Atreus is obsessed with the Giant prophecies revealed at the end of God of War while Kratos’ only worry is his son’s safety from those who seek revenge. As the situation becomes dire, both father and son begin to fall into old habits of keeping secrets from each other. This is an important aspect of their relationship and it ties into the narrative so effortlessly, often pushing us into new territory. We’ve seen the hardships the Greek God of War faced when he went against Olympus — a situation that gave the former general the insight to avoid an all-out battle. Atreus doesn’t see eye to eye with his father and constantly butts heads with him, continuing the trend of being brash and problematic.

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Continuing the trend of first-party studios offering a wealth of accessibility options, God of War Ragnarök bursts at the seams with choices. Before even arriving at the main menu you’re prompted to either start the game with default settings or browse the accessibility menus. You can adjust things like the subtitle colour, name, speaker colour or Direction Indicators. Text Size and Icon size was highly requested feature Santa Monica Studio implemented.

The features implemented are thorough with each one offering a preview of what the feature does. Inclusion is a critical part of the industry these days and the more studios offering that support, the more people can freely enjoy playing video games.

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As you can tell by my review, I’ve largely avoided spoilers out of respect and more obvious because of the embargo in place. I’ve had a hard time putting together how I feel about God of War Ragnarök not because it is a bad game by any means, but because of my attachment to the characters. In 2005, I picked up God of War on a whim with each sequel offering higher stakes and bigger set pieces before the culmination with God of War 3 putting the series to bed.

Then came along the initial reveal at E3 2016 with Cory Barlog re-introducing Kratos in a new land, with a new family and an entirely new pantheon of Gods to take on. The biggest change was the tone, something that never gelled with me before. The younger and angrier Spartan was nothing more than a vehicle for chaos. The introduction of Atreus parallels my friends having children of their own and me realizing how much I look forward to joining them in having kids one day.

A lot of this is reintroduced in God of War Ragnarök and regardless of the fantastical setting, the relationships and the reactions to each of them feel real. These might be fictional characters but these are characters created from real experiences. Most of us have had arguments with our fathers at some point in our relationships and some of us are now fathers dealing with unruly children who want to take on the world on their own.

I haven’t felt so emboldened by a video game in literal decades as the last time I felt such a resonance with the world and characters was Final Fantasy VII. I was a 9-year-old child when it launched and yet it was an all-consuming experience for me. And I won’t say other games haven’t come close to offering me such a resonating experience but nothing like the character growth Kratos has shown in two decades.

Without the excellent actors bringing each character to life, I doubt I’d feel close to how I felt by the credits roll. Chris Judge as Kratos continues to be one of the most mesmerizing performances in the medium. Sunny Suljic’s Atreus is a highlight and showcases the young actor’s range while Danielle Bisutti returns as Freya in one of the most frightening takes on Freya, delivering a performance that I found to be harrowing at times. Newcomers Ryan Hurst as Thor and Richard Schiff as Odin are standouts in an already star-studded cast. Hurst’s take on Thor is the furthest thing from Chris Hemsworth’s Thor but I would say he surprises you from the minute he appears. Lastly, Schiff’s Odin is not what I expected but I think the direction the studio and the actor took couldn’t have been done better as Odin is clearly the antagonist of the story but acts like an old friend looking to help Kratos and Atreus. He’s devious and roguish but somehow you cannot help but like him.

Verdict

God of War Ragnarök is more than the sum of its parts. To say it is better than the 2018 reboot is easy because within minutes that’s the furthest thing in your mind. These characters and this world are so endearing and realized that you quickly find yourself overwhelmed with emotions. God of War Ragnarök is an exceptional conclusion to a compelling saga. Filled with larger-than-life characters, deep combat, and a moving score, Santa Monica Studios delivers one of the most invigorating experiences you’ll ever play. It is an emotional, endearing, and visceral experience that has several key moments that left me speechless thanks to the incredible score and performances.

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]

Reviewed on: PlayStation 5

God of War Ragnarok
Recommended
Liked
Combat is deep, versatile, and filled with tons of upgrades
The story, characters, and conclusion are excellent often leaving you in awe of the performances
Tons of accessibility options for those require them
Bear McCreary's score is a perfect companion to the sweeping story
Didn't Like
Some puzzles are frustrating and break pacing