The ashen protagonist of God of War Ragnarok, Kratos, sits in a cave by a campfire. His face is more worn than ever before; significant when considering the collection of wrinkles and scars he’d already accrued. The fire casts a warm light onto him, contrasting with the darkness of the cave walls, and what we can see awaits outside. The blizzard of Fimbulwinter, the last season the Earth will ever see, has rendered the entrance to the cavern a frozen white void, as light bounces off of endless snow.
He heaves a heavy sigh and the cold steals his breath and turns it to fog. He raises a satchel to his sight. The entirety of the last God of War game is spent fulfilling the wishes of his late wife by spreading her cremated remains from the tallest mountain in all the realms with their son. Now, the bag is empty. In silence, he laments. He looks like he wants to ask her a question, but she is not there. Not even her ashes are there. After a moment, he regains his composure and his face reads quiet determination. He uses his knife to craft arrows for his son; he needs to prepare Atreus for an uncertain future. A future, that prophecy foretells, will see Atreus fending for himself.
A God’s Perspective
This is how God of War Ragnarok begins. Carrying on a series tradition since the first entry in 2005, this real-time view of Kratos serves as the title screen. Players can view a short recap, choose from an award-worthy number of accessibility options, or start a new game from this menu. Following the ambitious creative decision in God of War (2018), the game begins from this moment and the camera never cuts away. In film, “one-shot” or “single-shot” refers to the concept of having a scene, or entire movie, be one continuous sequence with no break in continuity. While the camera roams freely, we never switch to another camera.
At first, it may seem less impressive in gaming, since the set, actors, extras, etc. are virtual and can be more easily altered. But it’s the effect this practice has on the creation and pace of a grand 25-hour-plus story (plus many more hours of side content) that’s striking. This bold choice means there’s no jumping between plotlines, no “meanwhiles”, and no moment that passes that the player isn’t present for. And despite its cinematic ambition, it makes no effort to defensively obscure its medium; God of War Ragnarok feels proud to be a video game.
A Mythological Gumbo
Much like in one of its more obvious inspirations, Resident Evil 4, Ragnarok‘s collectibles and health pick-ups have colorful beams of light trailing from them to catch players’ eyes during navigation and battle. Treasure chests glow so luminously that they fly right past whatever would be the in-game mythology reasoning for it and land at “neon signage for loot”. You’ll encounter elusive lizards who hoard crafting materials, familiar to anyone who’s played Demon’s Souls. An early boss pulls a trick with the user interface that would feel right at home in the Metal Gear or Nier franchises.
Eschewing believability and prioritizing player experience, whenever there’s a shore, even if you recently took the available vessel and abandoned it elsewhere, there’s a boat waiting for you. Sometimes obstacles that you’d logically be able to traverse with Kratos’ godly athleticism or rope/zip-line-esque chainblades only allow you to pass after a puzzle or two. This is for the same reason Resident Evil won’t allow you to blow doors open with your shotgun and instead makes you search for a key: this is a video game, these are the rules here, and that’s how challenges are presented.
A beautiful amalgamation of the biggest and best titles that came before it, there’s no shame in Ragnarok‘s game here. But there’s no denying the importance and impact of the gorgeous cinematic presentation of the excellent voice and motion capture performances of the cast behind Ragnarok‘s characters. Blending these elements and weaving a unique world that pulls from Greek and Norse mythology, God of War Ragnarok astounds with spectacle and tells an entertaining and thoughtful story.
On the Warpath
God of War (2018) saw Kratos and his son Atreus under attack by the insane god Baldur. They slayed him to save their friend, Baldur’s mother, Freya. His death earned the father and son the promise of Freya’s vengeance, and also plunged the realms into the prophecied season of Fimbulwinter.
This winter is said to lead to an apocalyptic war known as Ragnarok. Wary of prophecy, but not taking it as gospel, Kratos and Atreus have been doing their best to survive the harsh conditions and intermittent attacks by Freya. Kratos fears that the prediction of his death will come true and he wants to ready his son for life on his own. Atreus fears his father’s murder as well and wants to take action to prepare for war and prevent it. Shortly after the opening of the game, their plans are fast-tracked by a visit from local gods with ill intent.
Not only does God of War Ragnarok directly pick up from the last game narratively, but also in the gameplay department. While God of War began as a series of action games with puzzle and platforming elements, God of War (2018) was a reboot of sorts that changed the camera from a flowing but fixed one to a player-controlled, over-the-shoulder configuration. The jump button disappeared and leaping became contextual.
With the addition of open-area levels, skill trees, quests, and equipment, the genre of the new Norse saga is now action-adventure with RPG elements. These RPG elements include armor and equipment that can be upgraded and crafted. This system returns in Ragnarok and has always felt a little tacked on to me, but players are allowed to dive in or barely interact with it thanks to an auto-equip option. Ragnarok shares all of the framework of the last entry and builds from this solid foundation.
We Will Fight It
Combat is quite familiar, but is even more viscerally satisfying and deep. The animation work here is stellar, with the various gory finishers and the Blades of Chaos being standouts. The presentation of certain attacks harks back to classic God of War with their use of mid-strike slow motion. Sound design, haptic feedback, and awesome visuals lend weight to every hit you land and receive. God of War Ragnarok may not reinvent the wheel as its predecessor did in regard to battle, but its action is absolutely a more robust and exciting time.
There are many more enemy types and many more attacks for both Kratos and Atreus to utilize against them. The skill tree for each weapon contains plenty of abilities to unlock, including Devil May Cry series style delay combos and timing-dependent weapon priming, allowing for a high skill ceiling while keeping controls simple. Bosses are varied as well, ranging from duels against humanoids to creatures that nearly fill the screen. A lack of enemy variety was a common complaint with the last entry, and this is something Santa Monica Studio seems to have heard. The first encounter with a troll in Ragnarok seems to wink at players and address fans’ fatigue with that species of foe.
God May Cry
Though there’s no style meter or ranking, Ragnarok has its own methods of encouraging player experimentation, combos, and move variety. While some enemies do have elemental affinities that encourage the use of a specific weapon, it’s much more common (and much more appreciated by me) that enemies in God of War Ragnarok simply move or attack in ways that lend to players naturally finding the right tool or skill for the job.
Some fiends are easy targets for any of your abilities, but the game will throw a tight group of them at you. Then, intuitively, it’s time to make use of the wide hitbox on Kratos’ Blades of Chaos. Many attacks also allow players to choose a buff to add to an attack after they perform it enough times. This is a fun reward for using your favorites, as well as a nudge to try others so that they’ll be more effective. I enjoyed exploring attack options I hadn’t considered before to level up my movelist.
Avoiding damage by dodging, blocking, or parrying while landing consecutive blows charges weapons with their respective elements. This adds power and increases the elemental status infliction of your attacks, and you can also spend this charge to give your weapon unique properties for a short window. While all these mechanics reward stylish and skilled play, the presentation makes even sloppy skirmishes satisfying, and all skill levels should enjoy God of War Ragnarok‘s fights. Gamers seeking more of a challenge without raising the difficulty level should seek out the sidequests and optional content. Like in many RPGs, these true tests of skill, tactics, and equipment lay outside of the main campaign.
As the big-budget follow-up to PlayStation’s single best-selling first-party game of all time, it’s the expectation that God of War Ragnarok‘s production values be stellar. But even still, it’s astonishing just how good the game looks, sounds, and runs. On PS5 you have the choice of native 4K resolution at 30 frames per second (quality), dynamic 4K at 60 frames per second (performance), and even more options if you have a display supporting higher frame rates or variable refresh rates. I spent time with the game in both quality and performance mode and both looked spectacular and ran without drops even in the middle of hectic combat in large areas.
God of War Ragnarok‘s visual style is photo-realism, but that doesn’t hold back how wild the team’s artists got when adapting Norse mythology into their own style. The texture quality and the realistic way light interacts with the surface of fur, skin, and metal lends to flora and fauna feeling more detailed and realized. Though all aspects of the visual presentation are impressive, character models are a highlight. Kratos’ eyes in particular are incredibly emotive, letting Christopher Judge’s powerful performance shine through.
Each realm you visit is beautiful and distinct. Fimbulwinter affects all the lands of Ragnarok‘s world differently, so despite the marketing and the first few hours of the game, the visual identity of the game isn’t defined by snow. This leads to Ragnarok not really having “a look”, but it comes as the result of giving players a buffet of marvelous landscapes. The HDR implementation is strong too, further enhancing contrast and color. Many tunnels, caves, and ruins in the game use this to great effect. Bright beautiful light leaks into these dim areas making for a gorgeous view
A Chorus of Praise
God of War (2018) composer Bear McCreary returns for Ragnarok, as do the wonderful character themes from the last game. Returning players will surely recognize the melancholic humming associated with Atreus’ mother and the powerful Icelandic choir in Kratos’ theme.
New pieces blend leitmotifs wonderfully as the situation calls for it, framing the story beats and adding emotional impact. The new theme accompanying Odin mirrors Kratos’ own, featuring similar chanting. But the All-Father’s is much more foreboding and features horns that give the piece a regal feel. Having gotten to know the character over the course of the game, it’s quite fitting. A vocal track featuring Hozier was created for God of War Ragnarok as well and is used in the game to great effect.
Ragnarok‘s sound design is also strong. Combat is a wondrous cacophony of beasts growling, chains rattling, flames swirling, ice cracking, and blades rending flesh. Outside of combat, I appreciated the bass filled thump of Kratos’ footsteps when running and ambient noise from the features of the environment like sandstorms, waterfalls, insects, and animals. The magical hum of the Leviathan Axe being recalled to Kratos’ palm with a thwack is as satisfying as ever, and feels even better with the DualSense’s haptic feedback.
When players aren’t eviscerating foes or watching a gorgeous cutscene, they’re likely to be exploring or puzzle-solving. These activities are decidedly separated, but inextricably tied. They’re different modes of play, but to do one in God of War Ragnarok is to do the other.
While traveling the realms, you’ll encounter many traditional puzzles. You’ll need to move platforms and objects with levers, light torches, and open gates and freeze them in place, as usual. There are sometimes specific tools for specific puzzles, but often all you’ll need are Kratos’ and Atreus’ weapons and the right perspective. Using the weapons for the puzzles makes them feel even more essential and also lends to the feeling that everything in the game can be tackled ferociously.
A feature that’s proven contentious is the puzzle hint system. Kratos’ companions will chime in with ideas on puzzles while you solve them. The first time you encounter certain mechanics you’re guaranteed to hear from your party, but otherwise, it seems to be based on triggers. You may hear different tips depending on where you’re standing, how long you’ve been in the area, what weapon you have out, and whether you’ve used it.
Side-quests and puzzles off the beaten path seem to have fewer hints, sometimes none, while the main story seems to have these for just about every scenario. I solved most instances without much trouble, so my companions weren’t too overbearing. The hints I did end up receiving (outside of one instance in Vanaheim) felt like dialogue the characters would naturally have, so I wasn’t bothered by this.
A Lengthy Labyrinth
Exploring entails wandering the realm to progress the story, battle enemies, and find treasure by leaping across chasms, climbing cliffs and structures, ziplining from one landmass to another, and more. With no jump button, this is as simple as pressing the appropriate prompt when it’s time to jump or ascend.
However, it’s the way that the world is created that makes nearly every realm one big puzzle box. Combat, side-quests, traditional puzzles, and tools you receive all change the realm around you both in appearance and accessibility. Not to mention the way climbing, tight corridors, and tunnels are used to move players through locations in interesting ways and space out party dialogue and gameplay type. You’re rewarded for thorough exploration with lore, new runic attacks for your weapons, unique dialogue, and shortcuts that make returning to areas a breeze. It’s quite satisfying.
The Bear and the Wolf
I don’t want to spoil even a fraction of God of War Ragnarok‘s narrative, so I’ll be talking about the story without specific reference to plot developments beyond the prologue. As Ragnarok begins, even with Kratos and Atreus both uncertain and fearful of what’s to come, it’s clear their relationship has continued to develop for the better since the end of the last game. Atreus is a capable teenager now who’s coming into his own and Kratos is more comfortable connecting with him, and their beheaded companion Mimir. With Kratos’ past revealed, there’s more communication and honesty between them, but Atreus has been exploring on his own in fear that his father’s protectiveness would prevent them from taking action.
From this point, as their forced journey has them travel to each of the nine realms and interact with the local gods, we see both characters wrestle with intense internal struggles. A supposedly destined death awaits Kratos and both he and Atreus must decide how they’ll deal with it. Both characters search for purpose in a cruel world that appears to have already written their stories. Kratos, with a long regretful life behind him, and Atreus, with an important prophecied destiny ahead of him, work to determine, and accept, who they must become. Many characters in the supporting cast have impressive arcs of their own, and the single-shot story has them intersect with Kratos and Atreus’ path in a natural way.
The Tortoise and the Hare
As good as it is, there are sections of God of War Ragnarok that feel needlessly long, and some story beats that I thought needed more time to develop. The parts that felt a bit too long are still often carried by excellent presentation, combat, and puzzles. Admittedly one section light in both puzzles and fights dragged on for quite a while and featured more authentically written annoying teen dialogue than I was down for. However, it ends with a thrilling boss battle, and one of the most poignant scenes in the game afterward, pretty much redeeming the chapter in my eyes.
There are places where it feels like the game’s pacing is designed with the idea that players explore every nook and cranny off the beaten path. What gives me this impression is that in a few places, characters have conversations that feel redundant. It isn’t jarringly unnatural, but it was noticeable enough that I wondered if the party reiterating certain ideas was to return players’ minds to the current plot point after they ran off to treasure hunt or do sidequests.
I did a decent chunk of the optional quests on my first playthrough but began exclusively playing the main story after the halfway point to finish the game before someone spoiled it for me online. Returning to the game after I completed it, I wish that I’d done even more of it before I took down the final boss.
Favors Big and Small
The sidequests in God of War Ragnarok are excellent, ranging from small favors tied to the natural exploration of the realms, to optional content that’s so high quality it’s a wonder it was made optional. Some of the optional quests in the game have their own entire unique locations, bespoke animations, entire cutscenes, creatures, enemies, and puzzle mechanics not featured anywhere in the main plot.
Some of these side-quests even have a huge impact on the realm you’re currently in, from adding a new playable landmass to bringing a river back to a barren area. Luckily nothing is missable. After the main campaign ends, players can return to any location to hunt down collectibles and discover this marvelous side content.
I’d recommend that players who aren’t in a rush check out optional content they haven’t completed before they finish the game. I believe it’ll make for an even more enjoyable conclusion to the central story. Besides, the post-game has its own brand new side-quests that offer new perspectives on locations you’ve visited and more context on the implications of God of War Ragnarok‘s events. There’s never a shortage of favors to ask of gods.
The Cycle Ends Here
Ragnarok is excellent, with top-of-the-line visuals, sound, and combat. Cumbersome menus, a superfluous equipment system, and a couple of less thrilling chapters do little to dull the shine of an otherwise spectacular action-adventure experience. Playing much like its predecessor, the shape this new title takes doesn’t subvert expectations, but exceeds them. When originally shown, some gamers remarked that Ragnarok looked like DLC. In hindsight, the beloved God of War (2018) now feels like a demo for this jampacked feast of a game.