God of War Ragnarok Review
An expanded action-adventure across the realms
Franchise reboots aren't always easy, and for every new DOOM and Hitman there's a Saints Row and Thief. But with plenty of talent and budget behind them, Sony Santa Monica Studio were largely successful in bringing back the bombastic PS2-era series to the modern audiences with 2018's God of War. Complete with a new setting, characters, and camera perspective, the third person action title offered well-designed combat, exploration, and high-end visuals. The sequel, God of War Ragnarök, very much follows in the same vein, with a variety of tweaks and changes, but overall it is a wholly familiar experience.
The sequel picks up a few years after the first game. It's always appreciated when developers include a recap of previous events – however in this case, the recap is rather poor and very short, and you are better off finding a YouTube video to refresh your memory. God of War, Kratos, and his son Atreus are still living in their secluded hut in Midgard, where they continue to focus on training. Fimbulwinter has set in, as a telltale sign that a cataclysmic event called Ragnarök is coming to the Nine Realms. Mimir is still with them to provide advice, while Freya hunts them seeking revenge for the death of her son. Atreus is now much more self-sufficient, and the relationship with his father is sometimes strained. The young man has begun to adventure and explore on his own in search of answers to his past and future, while Kratos is still being overprotective.
One evening, they are interrupted by a visit from the Allfather, Odin, as well as Thor, whose sons Kratos killed in the previous game. However, in order to try and avoid Ragnarök, Odin offers to end all hostilities if Kratos agrees not to let Atreus pursue his drive for knowledge and finding out why some refer to him as Loki. Refusing the offer, Kratos and Atreus begin a new adventure in search of answers and learning more about Ragnarök. Over the course of the campaign, players will get to visit all Nine Realms, as they discover new prophecies, battle foes big and small, and Atreus gets caught between different motivations.
In many ways, the narrative of Ragnarök is both a step forward and a step back from the previous game. On the one hand, the repetitive structure - of having to side-track to multiple other goals each time you seemingly reached your objective - is gone. Events now flow in a straightforward fashion, and you accomplish everything needed when setting out on a trek. But on the other hand, the narrative is rather thin; while there are a few memorable moments, they are stretched out across hours of gameplay and often mundane, lengthy cutscenes with plenty of throwaway lore dialogue. Things finally improve in the second half of the story, but getting there can feel like quite a drag as nothing of significance happens for hours. And that's just following the main story path – if you choose to explore, the narrative pacing slows even further. The story just isn't very strong, with many events being inconsequential and some chapters dragging on for far too long.
The adventure also lacks tension and stakes, nor is there a sense of impending doom. Everyone keeps talking about Ragnarök as a major event, but it only seems to affect Midgard– the rest of the realms you visit are not changed much. Without getting into spoilers – this lack of scale and grandiose continues throughout the whole adventure. Just like the previous game, the realms feel void of life – it's only Kratos and Atreus, a few minor characters, and enemies that populate these worlds. You will venture across camps, towns, and attend big story events – but where in any other game these locations would be full of life, there is barely anyone around in the realms. It's just so strange that the game is adamant on having almost no NPCs, even in cases where their presence would create a sense of scale that is sorely needed. The impression of urgency is further lost when, even during critical events, there are still long cutscenes as minor characters say hello to each other and have dramatic conversations.
Off-putting writing style is another issue that the sequel doesn't address. It continues to be a mix of dialogue that uses older words and sentence structures, randomly mixed with wholly modern American English and swearing. With gems like "We are not with Odin, we are the good guys!" and "Holy sh-t, you know magic?", the dialogue is constantly off-putting and removes whatever brooding tension the game continues to try to impress upon the players. The majority of the writing just sounds like an attempt to be a Marvel film in a modern-day setting, and it falls flat in an ancient world that's supposed to be full of gods, prophecies, and personal sacrifice. Players can look no further than the recently released A Plague Tale for an example of dialogue that actually fits the world. The game could have seriously benefitted from tightening up of the dialogue and pacing.
But if you are mostly here for the action and the adventure, Ragnarök has plenty of content to dive into. Players will get to explore all realms, as mentioned, which basically boils down to different environment types – lava spewing mountains, lush green lands, coastal areas, and so on. The game isn't afraid to re-use realms over the course of the story, making you return to the same areas. In each realm, you will first follow a largely linear story path, with the occasional short side-path that leads to a treasure chest with resources. Like the story, the environmental puzzles have been streamlined. You will be often faced with an obstacle or something blocking your path, or a gate that needs opening, and solving these challenges is very straightforward. Most are just one, sometimes two, steps and very little thinking is required. There is good variety to the types of actions you will need to perform, though many return from the first game. It's a little disappointing that puzzles are so simple, but in the grand scheme of things the game already struggles with a slow pace, and forcing players to stop for a while to solve something complex would have been detrimental.
In-between the puzzles and cutscenes, Kratos will be happy to bash some heads. Both the Blades of Chaos and Leviathan Axe are available from the start, so the third-person action has a great flow and decent variety. The moves are all much the same as before, and there is great heft and feel to the weapons. Both light and heavy attacks are available, along with special Runic attacks on cooldowns and combos. New to the sequel is the ability to equip different types of shields, which can have various movement styles and abilities – such as absorbing blows, or focusing on counters. And like the first game, your combat options get expanded later on in the story. The special chests that are unlocked via nearby puzzles return from the first game, letting you increase the health and rage meters for Kratos.
Enemy variety was a bit lacking in the previous game, and while God of War Ragnarök adds a few more opponents, the combat doesn't evolve a whole lot. You'll face off against enemies from the first game, as well as some newcomers such as lizard-like bipedal monsters, wolf-like Wulvers, and so on. Most only have a couple of moves – as well as usual unblockable attacks that must be dodged. You can hack away at enemies until their stun meter is full, which lets you perform an almost-always lethal violent takedown animation. You can always expect a fight when entering a larger, arena-like area of a level; there are more occasions where the arenas have multiple elevation levels and platforms, letting you traverse as you see fit. The game toys with the idea of adding complexity to combat – such as enemies having health bars that must first be broken by the opposite element of fire/ice (blades/axe), and an enemy that must be defeated first as it makes others invincible – but these scenarios are seldom utilized. The condition effects – such as blind, stun, etc – are also not utilized often.
The combat also changes a bit since Atreus is more grown up, and he can participate in the fight with greater intensity. You can call for him to fire special arrow types at enemies and in some puzzles, and for most of the adventure Kratos has a companion by his side. Further, you'll even go on Atreus' own escapades, so you'll play as the young man as well. His chapters and combat is a bit more streamlined, since he only has his bow, though it can be used to bash at enemies in melee as well. He also almost always has an AI companion due to the story, who do a decent job of keeping at least one or two foes at bay.
Bosses, while occasionally fun and there are more of them, still are missing the epic showdowns that the PS2/PS3 era games were known for; and as already mentioned, the finale is a bit of a letdown due to the lack of scale. Optional bosses, especially, are rather monotone and don't even feature different stages of a fight. That's not to say the combat is easy; it will still offer a challenge, and you can the tweak difficulty setting at any time as needed. The problems most often arise during battles where health drops are scarce or run out completely, leaving you without many alternatives. You only heal via these typical green pick-ups, and if there are none left in the arena, you may have to restart. To focus on the fight, there is an accessibility option to enable auto-pickup of health and rage items, as well as loot, to save you having to press X on each individual item.
As mentioned, players will get to explore all the realms, and the size of the game world is certainly larger this time around. You are even teased with certain inaccessible elements when first traversing realms as part of the story, giving you a desire to return later. At the end of each story section you can return to the home base in the World Tree, or explore the newly revealed larger open area for side quests. There are a few such areas, which you will traverse on either a boat or sled, and travel between different points of interest scattered around. These locations usually contain more of the same core loop – some traversal, some combat, a puzzle or two, and a boss encounter. The map is still low-level detail, but it tracks collectibles and locations of quests. If you enjoy this fairly typical modern core gameplay loop, there's hours and hours of content to dive into. The main story with some exploration should take around 20 hours, and optional content adds another 20+ hours on top of that.
Through all of the combat and adventuring, you'll collect a variety of resources, as well as Hacksilver that still acts as currency. The variety of resources you find are used to craft upgrades for your weapons, as well as new armor pieces and their upgrades. The weapons can still be slotted with different components to improve their stats and gain new passive abilities; a relic can be equipped for a short term boost in combat, and amulet collections can further increase passive benefits and stats - the stats are still strength, defense, runic, cooldown, vitality, and luck. With enough exploration, you should never be short on resources if you stick to one or two armor sets; you will also occasionally find / be given armor at no cost. You won't have the materials to max out any armor during the main story, and will need to hunt for materials in the post-game if you wish to keep playing. This will all be familiar to players of the previous game, as not much has changed here – these RPG and inventory management elements are still worthwhile, but the UI remains rather cumbersome to use.
Aside from material finds, Kratos and his companions also earn experience from combat, quests, and collectibles, which can be spend on three skill trees. The skill trees unlock more moves and improve existing ones; performing a specific move enough times unlocks another opportunity to improve its effectiveness. This again is a fairly straightforward design that works, and you should actually be able to max out all skill trees by the end of the campaign, letting you explore the post-game with all moves available.
As any first-party exclusive, it goes without saying that God of War Ragnarök performs and looks great. There are a few expected different visual fidelity/framerate options on the PS5 version of the game, and a high level of polish overall. The textures look sharp and some of the background vistas are really great looking. The animations are very smooth as well, and the cutscenes are captured effectively. The game once again utilizes a single-shot style, meaning the camera never cuts, even in cases where characters must take breaks or the perspective switches to Atreus. As mentioned, the voice acting is still very solid. Still, this is a title that's also available PS4 also, so we can't expect anything ground-breaking. In the audio department, the sound effects and music are utilized well. Most of the main voice actors once again do a good job, despite the questionable writing. There's one exception, with the case of Odin - his delivery is very off-putting, and it's not clear what they were going for. It sounds like an impression of Korg from the Marvel films, and doesn't really fit the character.
The phrase "more of the same" can often be interpreted in a negative connotation. However, when you're coming off of the successful 2018 reboot, in the case of God of War Ragnarök, it's not a bad thing. The great core combat is now diverse from the start of the game, and there are more enemies, realms, and puzzles. You're certainly getting your money's worth if you enjoy the core gameplay loop, even as the story lacks tension and tedium can set in during the first half of the adventure. The sense of scale is still oddly missing, in both bosses and world events, but at least the said world looks beautiful throughout. As a first party PlayStation exclusive, the game performs well and sounds great on the PS5. If you enjoyed the previous entry and want more, the sequel delivers, without treading any major new ground.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.