God of War Ragnarök review: a stunning finale to Kratos' Norse saga
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Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment
God of War Ragnarök is everything one could possibly have hoped for from the sequel to 2018’s God of War. It’s faster, smarter, and decidedly more savage than its predecessor. It’s also a frequently heartbreaking meditation on fate - one that is unafraid to put away its weapons, slow down, and reflect on the bloodshed.
I feel no hesitation whatsoever in saying that this is the best PlayStation exclusive since The Last of Us Part II; it is a truly stunning achievement of interactive storytelling that boasts world-class visuals, top performances, and impressively slick combat and exploration that improves on the original game in every conceivable way.
Santa Monica Studio’s smart reinvention of Kratos continues in Ragnarök, and believe me when I say you’ve never seen the Ghost of Sparta like this. 2018’s God of War showed us a new side to the iconic character, but Ragnarök paints Kratos in remarkable new shades.
This is a tired old soldier struggling to connect with his teenage son, doing what he can to prevent war and bloodshed. He takes the time to help wounded animals. He tries to avoid conflict and take the path of peace where he can. At one point in the game he even smiles, to devastating effect. It’s a captivating subversion of everything Kratos previously stood for, even if the people around him aren’t quite convinced. “You still kill gods, but now you feel sad about it,” one character (who I won’t name for spoilery reasons) observes at one point in the game. Can we really overcome our true natures and sidestep what seems to be written in stone? It’s a question Ragnarök delights in answering slowly, methodically, and with no small amount of pain. Kratos doesn’t want to be sorry. He wants to be better.
It is, of course, the wildly talented Christopher Judge who provides the beating heart of this story as Kratos, carrying the narrative forward on his substantial shoulders. Judge can do more with a single exasperated sigh or angry grunt than most actors can do with an entire five-minute monologue, and when he is called on to deliver the big emotional scenes, he doesn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t bet against him when it’s time to hand out the awards this year.
If you’re concerned that this all means Kratos is less effective in battle, don’t be. When it comes to combat, our tortured hero has never been faster, or more brutal. Kratos zips across the battlefield with surprising speed for a man of his size, throwing his full weight into every swing of the axe and pounding of the fists.
You get access to the Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos almost immediately this time around, offering a much greater range of combat options from the very start. The Blades of Chaos in particular have been massively improved, as has being able to switch between the two deadly weapons on the fly for devastating elemental effects and wince-inducing finishers. As far as combat is concerned it’s more of a refinement than a complete overhaul, but I daresay the changes are so impressive that 2018’s God Of War may genuinely be a pain to go back to after this. There’s also a third weapon you’ll get later in the game that I won’t discuss too much because you need to experience it for yourself. Trust me though, it’s an absolute blast, and a welcome addition to Kratos’ bag of tricks.
The violence appears semi justified under the guise that you’re either fighting mindless monsters or otherwise “protecting the people you care about”. It can be hard to stomach Kratos ripping a raider in two in between scenes that insist he’s changed, but that’s kind of the point. And, you know, this is a God of War game at the end of the day. Certainly, it handles the relationship between moment-to-moment gameplay and the overall consequences of violence better than The Last Of Us Part II, although the fantasy setting lends it an obvious advantage in that department. You’ll kill things resembling dogs, but it’s not going to leave you as broken as Naughty Dog’s 2020 adventure.
Kratos doesn’t just use his arsenal for caving in skulls, by the way. Like the last game, his weapons also play a part in the game’s many puzzles, some of which are really rather fiendish. But where the 2018 God Of War was fairly content to allow most puzzles to boil down to throwing the axe at a certain spot, Ragnarök is infinitely more creative when it comes to combining weapons and companion abilities in a number of fascinating ways. One early level will see you controlling water wheels by freezing the water with the axe, before using the blades to move things where they need to be. Another memorable section gives Atreus the ability to create a chain reaction with his arrows, making for some fun spatial brain teasers. I only wish there were an option to tell Atreus to quiet down and not immediately give me hints the second I stumble onto a puzzle.
Hardcore RPG fans will also be delighted to discover there are also a range of unlockable and upgradable armours, skills, weapon parts, and stat-based menus that you can lose yourself in, should you wish to. Preparing the right gear and buffs becomes vital at the higher difficulties, obviously, but anyone who doesn’t want to deal with any of that and just get stuck into the action can choose from a wide range of options designed to tone the combat down. All I’ll say here for anyone really hoping for a challenge: if you thought the optional Valkyrie bosses were tough, you haven’t seen anything yet.
While Ragnarök can be a relatively linear game if you just want to tear through the story and move on, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. There are a ton of optional side quests to complete and multiple (shockingly massive) open-world segments to explore. These areas are all roughly the same size, if not bigger than the last game’s Lake of Nine, each filled with their own unique surprises, puzzles, and stories.
These are major distractions from the main quest, as the sheer volume of things to see and do will constantly drive you to push on and explore every inch of the nine realms. And the optional content just keeps coming. About 30 hours into the game, as I actively attempted to put off heading towards what I thought was the final battle, I stumbled across yet another ginormous area packed with branching paths containing all sorts of activities that took me a good few hours to get through. As much as I wanted to get through the story (especially as a reviewer with a deadline) the thrill of exploring new realms with Kratos and Atreus as Mimir shared stories of the old days was too good to resist.
The side quests are also genuinely worth your time, by the way. While there are obviously a handful of the usual collect-a-thons to wade through, there are a number of really in-depth missions that offer much greater insight into the motivations of some of your closest allies. These are some of the best-written quests I’ve enjoyed in a game since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and they feel so necessary to the overall story that I’d hesitate to tell anyone to skip them. Take your time, don’t rush between story beats, and allow yourself to soak up every last second of the adventure. And hey, if you don’t do it for the story, do it for the loot. Every finished side quest results in a cool new piece of armour, a special runic ability for use in combat, or vital material for upgrading your weapons.
As I’m sure you’ve already gathered from the trailers, Ragnarök is a dazzlingly beautiful game but I think you’ll all be shocked by just how consistently stunning and wonderfully creative it is. Even after 40 hours clocked, it was capable of genuinely surprising locations and vistas that left my jaw on the floor. From frozen lakes and crumbling ruins, to realms of lava and sentient forests, the sheer level of variety in Ragnarök is nothing short of dizzying. If you’re anything like me, your screenshot button is going to take an absolute beating.
But for as much as Ragnarök is, for the most part, exactly what you’d expected/wanted from the sequel to God Of War, there are some genuine shocks. To talk too much about Asgard and the gods that inhabit the sacred realm would completely ruin the story. Needless to say, you won’t be ready for what’s coming. Santa Monica Studio’s take on Odin is absolutely inspired, and Thor is easily one of the best video game rivals I’ve butted heads with in years. Kratos’ conflict with this mighty family is packed with twists and turns. Trying to work out where it all ends is impossible - which is exactly the problem Kratos is having.
Then there’s Atreus, who you’ve probably noticed I haven’t discussed much yet. That’s because really diving into what’s going on with the boy who would be Loki would rob the game of much of its joy. What I will say is this: Atreus plays a much larger role in driving the story forward this time around. No longer the young boy in awe of his intimidating father, Atreus is starting to find his own place in the world. He’s smarter, more capable, and frequently challenges - and even lies to - his old man.
Kratos refers to Atreus as “boy” just once in Ragnarök, and the omission of this meme-worthy term of endearment in the sequel speaks volumes. As Atreus, Sunny Suljic matches Judge’s Kratos every step of the way - their relationship becoming richer and deeper than I’d dared hope. The game’s quieter moments, in which Atreus sheepishly tells his father he might like someone, or brags of incoming facial hair, are among the game’s best.
Ragnarök plays with the game’s central relationship in surprising ways by keeping the duo apart for large chunks of the adventure. While this might rankle some who just want to see the two characters together constantly, Atreus’ occasional absence means Kratos is joined by a number of unexpected companions with their own useful skills in combat. And whenever the two do come together, it feels all the more special.
By the time the credits finally rolled on God of War Ragnarök, I was in bits. There’s so much I still want to tell you about, but I know that if I do I’ll be robbing you of the same joy I experienced. So I’ll leave you simply with this: Ragnarök is a fantastically impressive sequel that delivers in every conceivable way. It expands on and improves the formula established in 2018’s God of War hugely, offering up blistering action, gut-wrenching twists, and truly cinematic boss battles with real emotional heft behind them. This is a high-stakes, high-fantasy rollercoaster from start to finish, and an instant PlayStation classic.
Pros: A brilliant story packed with twists and unforgettable moments, outstanding performances, a massive, gorgeous world to explore, incredible combat
Cons: Companions are a little too keen to give hints for puzzles, one or two sections drag a little longer than necessary
For fans of: God of War, The Legend of Zelda, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
God Of War Ragnarök comes to PlayStation 5 (Reviewed) and PlayStation 4 November 9. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a complete guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.