Review: God of War Ragnarok – The Nature of an End

Reinventing the wheel is a tall order. So much so that we literally have a phrase warning against doing so. And even if you manage to reinvent the wheel – where do you go from there? How do you iterate upon the next big thing? With God of War (2018), Sony Santa Monica fulfilled that initial tall order. With God of War Ragnarok, the studio proves that the second question was never truly a concern.

From the very start, Ragnarok is a triumph. The story opens a few short years after the events of the previous game, with Kratos awaiting Atreus in a cave. As the latter returns with a deer from his hunt, the two head home – but not before Kratos offers his son a warm embrace and slight smile. It’s a small thing, yet is immediately noticeable. After spending an entire journey to Jotunheim mired in stoicism, seeing the retired god of war actually act like a father means so, so much. Through just hints of body language and a fatherly grin, Kratos becomes much warmer as a character. The tiniest gestures carry the greatest weight, and Ragnarok takes this idea to new heights. Moments of intimacy abound as the world ends.

Kratos and Atreus share a warm embrace.
Really awkward embrace after garlic bread.

This style of storytelling is prevalent throughout Ragnarok’s story. Few details can be given without spoilers, but the number of subtle cues, poignant thoughts, and grin-inducing callbacks are enough to have kept me engaged the whole time. Even with multiple bits of unsolicited advice during puzzles, the company Kratos keeps in this outing consistently earns a chuckle. Banter on the road, combat quips, and, of course, Mimir’s storytelling mean there is never a dull moment as we journey through the Nine Realms.

And what a journey it is. Ragnarok opens up all nine realms to explore, expanding the scope set by the first game. Not every realm is immediately available, but there is such a wealth of content that I hardly noticed the staggered approach. Each realm is realised in painstaking detail, with visuals as excellent as expected from Sony Santa Monica. There is such variety in the levels on show here. Vanaheim is lush and green (but deadly). Helheim is icy and atmospheric (but deadly). Svartalfheim is a rocky joy to climb and ride around (but deadly). For all this aesthetic difference, though, there’s still something in common between each realm. I just can’t quite put my finger on it.

Kratos aims the Leviathan Axe at a deadly blue plant ready to burst in the realm of Vanaheim.
Listen here buddy, it’s me or you.

Of the Nine Realms, only three are limited to mostly linear paths. The other six all sport massive exploration areas, rivaling and at times even besting Midgard’s Lake of Nine in size. Vanaheim in particular stands out, as it eventually opens up to a far larger scale than I ever could have imagined. It’s a big world coming to an end out there.

Of course, size does not equate to quality. While exploration is generally enjoyable, and the golden path clear to follow, there are some backtracking issues. Take the realms of Vanaheim and Svartalfheim. Both have multiple large areas to traverse, with many collectibles to find. However, some of these collectibles are only available after certain story beats, while others must be stumbled upon to show up on the map’s collectible checklist. A problem arises, then, when I’m not sure if the [Undiscovered] collectible on my current list is blocked behind narrative progress or exploration. There’s a fair amount of tedious backtracking required to determine what’s stopping me from grabbing the next shiny thing. You can always come back later, but the way in which God of War Ragnarok naturally pushes you towards exploration always clashes against these initially unknowable blocks.

If only there was some obvious way to progress.

Again, though, the sheer amount of fun content makes up for this completionist’s nitpick. Optional boss fights, interesting puzzles, and side quests that offer fulfilling stories in their own right can be found across the realms. These other tales are often so engaging that it’s easy to forget you’re not currently progressing the main story. The writing is funny without trying too hard; puzzle areas interconnect in satisfying style; varied combat keeps you on your toes. The beaten path is not the only well-rounded one, making every last action feel like meaningful progression towards a greater purpose.

Well, almost every last action. I cannot talk about exploration, combat, and meaningful design without mentioning the repetitive mess that is Muspelheim. Returning from the previous game, Muspelheim is Ragnarok’s arena realm. A home for combat challenges, and a stomping ground in which the limits of Kratos’ arsenal are truly put to the test. In this game’s part of the volcanic realm, there is a central arena surrounded by three smaller, differently laid-out ones. The central arena houses the final challenges. To unlock those, you must complete the other three grounds. Simple, right?

I think I’ve figured out how to get to that statue…

Wrong. Each room contains two challenges, with a third unlocked by beating the first two. The first problem arises here – these challenges suck. They’re just not that great. Where God of War (2018)’s rendition of Muspelheim offers a genuinely enjoyable tower of unique combat scenarios, which truly drove me to a flow state, Ragnarok goes hard on gimmicks. Keep constantly spawning enemies out of different rings; knock them out of a big central one; throw energy into a big rift while also dodging attacks. These are the most egregious examples (though, granted, that last one is actually a little fun once you get into it). There are constant mobs of different enemies—oftentimes the most annoying ones, like the ever-zippy Dark Elves – surrounding Kratos. Yet, there is little in the burly god of war’s moveset to actually deal with being surrounded. You can turn and parry, dodge roll, and even swing away with the Blades of Chaos if the arena allows it, but arena foes are so belligerent that it hardly matters.

These challenges are not so difficult as to kill you. They are simply so artificially intense that it will take multiple attempts to complete them within their time limits. I often had to take many frustrating hits just to complete goals in time. More often than not, Muspelheim’s challenges felt like a hard choice between self-preservation or achieving the objective, instead of a blend between the two, which… Isn’t very fun. To add insult to injury, the final challenges are unlocked by repeating challenges in the previous three arenas in specific orders. First arena then second, first then third, second then first, and so on. It is the most laborious, repetitive, padding-like gameplay, in which you are made to repeat aggressively aggravating encounter design. Fitting with its ash and brimstone aesthetic, this realm is hell.

Look at Kratos’s face. He hates it here.

Yes, Muspelheim is entirely optional. But with how Ragnarok is designed, going for such optional content is heavily encouraged. Either Mimir will egg you on, or Atreus will remind you that there’s more to do before progressing the story. Collectibles are listed, big fights are marked, and the promise of greater gear and more fun lore looms. Muspelheim will absolutely be a destination on your trip along Yggdrasil, and for that, God of War Ragnarok is clearly not sorry.

…but it is better.

Bothersome as Muspelheim may be, it still houses a fair number of Ragnarok’s best type of encounters: boss fights. Bosses in this game are not so much trials by fire as they are cinematic events in their own right. There are movesets to learn and attacks to counter, of course, but with the way in which these things are clearly marked and lead to various set pieces, you’re more likely to be swept away by how much fun you’re having rather than how much you’re being challenged. That isn’t to say this grand journey is a cakewalk, though. Put simply, the boss fights in God of War Ragnarok’s story are what combat designer Stephen Oyarijivbie calls “combat puzzles.” You’re fighting to a rhythm, and the joy comes with gradually learning that rhythm and all its permutations. As for the optional bosses? Those are fights.

Mine’s bigger.

The combat puzzle approach still stands with side bosses, but these are built to challenge you. Timing windows are much tighter, moveset shifts are more pronounced, and the bastards hit that much harder. The rhythm is more difficult to fall into. Patience is key, and it is brilliantly rewarded. Few things are as satisfying as perfectly parrying a weirdly staggered chain of attacks from a Berserker – Ragnarok’s equivalent of Valkyries – after having fallen prey to the very same chain for multiple attempts prior. General combat perfectly iterates and even evolves what came before, making the moment-to-moment of God of War Ragnarok an exciting romp. The side fights are where this growth truly shines, however. Every Berserker arena is a stage, every fight an ancient epic, and Kratos stands as the roaring lead.

The actual performances in Ragnarok aren’t half bad, either. Characterisation is wonderful here. Everyone has depth. Odin, the big bad of the events unfolding, lives up to the image of him built in the last game. He is a conniving, ruthless, sneaky old goat, who indeed feels omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And yet, his desperation could not be clearer. The All-Father is not some cartoonish villain, hellbent on screwing everyone over just because he can. He is a frightened old man, facing ferocious fears in a scrappy feud with fate. Odin knows what comes for him, but simply wants to know what happens next – no matter the cost. His son, the storied Thor, is no different. Fearsome destroyer as he may be, the god of thunder is a thoroughly broken man, running away from his personal demons as fast as Mjolnir will carry him. We’re meant to hate the Aesir gods, and yet they make it impossible to do so.

He’s just a silly little guy.

Well, almost. Odin’s pretty terrible.

For all this depth on the other side, though, the star of the show is firmly in our camp. Christopher Judge remains an enlightened choice for the role of Kratos, bringing a gripping sense of gravitas to his performance. The dad of war is simply doing his best, for himself and especially for his son. Even for his new found family. With Judge’s gruff yet emotional spin, this intention shines through with the utmost clarity. What you see is what you get with Kratos, and he is a sight to see indeed.

Adding to the performances are the other deft touches Sony Santa Monica uses for storytelling. The no-cut camera established in the first game is used to gorgeous effect. Clever transitions and reactive shakes are a fun way to maintain immersion. Those transitions also set acts of the story apart, with the second act using one consistent motif for its perspective switches. I’d say more, but spoilers.

Speaking of clever little things…

What isn’t a spoiler is that composer Bear McCreary’s score and soundtrack are divine. The music of the Nine Realms is a constant high, with epic crescendos and fittingly somber respites in equal measure. “A Son’s Path” enchants and pushes us forward, “Muspelheim and Niflheim” drive us to conquer any foe that dares stand in our way, and “Blood Upon the Snow” leaves any completionist slumped in their chair, finally at rest after the long road to platinum. The road home.

Add to this auditory ambrosia a heap of reactive ambient dialogue in exploration, sweeping vistas and detailed environments, and sound design that lives up to the PlayStation pedigree. Wrap it all in a story that will shock, sting, and ultimately uplift, and the result is an incredibly immersive, unmissable experience in God of War Ragnarok.

Sarim played God of War Ragnarok on PlayStation 5 with his own purchased copy.

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