It’s 6:30 on a Saturday morning, and I am doing something I haven’t done in years. At the age of 41, sleep is often more exciting than any new piece of media, but I hurried from my bed for a simple reason: I want to play a video game. I usually make better choices than this and will often ignore the desire to live like a younger version of myself to appease the needs of the current version. But, to put it bluntly, God of War Ragnarok has ruined that illusion of self-control. I am getting up too early and staying up too late. I am sorely tempted to put a few extra meetings in my calendar this week to buy more time for the adventures of Grumpy Dad and Boy, as I intend to start a second playthrough the moment this review is complete.
Like many others, I have been a fan of God of War since the first installment on PlayStation 2. My love for the series grew with each new title, and I made sure I snapped up the PSP games to get my fill of Kratos’ special brand of badassery on the go. When the series underwent a total reboot with 2018’s God of War, I was a little nervous about it. When I sat down with the game, all that washed away, and I now consider the title to be one of my favorite PlayStation games of all time. I tell you this so that when I say Ragnarok builds upon that foundation, I do so as a compliment. God of War Ragnarok is everything I loved about the reboot, with even more polish and ambition.
With years come wisdom, and with wisdom come both solace and fear.
God of War Ragnarok opens with the same subtle storytelling that made the reboot such a wonderful experience. Kratos and Atreus are a little older now, living at their house and going about their lives. They seem happy. While peace is not a constant, as their enemies still hunt them, they do not actively seek out conflict. Atreus is shown to be a capable hunter; the boy who failed to bring down his first deer is long gone, replaced by a young man coming into his own. Kratos’ quick grunts and taciturn nature are now shown in a different light, as his grumbles and gruffness appear to have developed into an easy shorthand between the two. Where a grunt used to mean dismissal, it now implies agreement. An easy physical closeness also developed between the two; something fans watched slowly unfolding in the previous game.
Before, Kratos was shown as distant from Atreus, both of them slowly floating in different directions after the death of Faye, Atreus’ mother. Kratos lacked the skills to bridge the gap between them, and it was only through an adventure that Faye orchestrated and a few near-death experiences that he learned to overcome his fears and communicate with his son. This bed of shared experienced has allowed a better relationship to blossom, and Kratos is attempting to let Atreus take the lead as he becomes a man.
Despite this, there is still cause for tension. Atreus is obsessed with the prophecy that revealed him to be Loki. With Baldur dead, Fimbulwinter here, and Ragnarok approaching, Kratos wishes to keep his son safe. Kratos is aware that the world is dangerous and filled with terrors and that he is destined to die, so his aim is to exist outside all the god-fueled rage and intrigue that has followed him his entire life. More than that, he wants to be a good father, and in order to do so, he commits to allowing his son to become his own person. Whether he believes the prophecy at the center of Atreus’ obsession doesn’t matter. He joins his son on an adventure to find someone who can stand up to Odin. He wishes to spend more time with his son and teach him lessons, as his chance to do so may be growing short.
Where Kratos feels trapped is that he wants his son to feel capable and strong, but to be able to do so without the need for war. In his own heart, Kratos realizes that the only thing that has ever truly died in his life is love. First, it was Lysandra and Calliope, his first wife and daughter, sacrificed on the altar of his rage when he was tricked by the gods. Next it was Faye, who fought her own battle against the wrongs of the world and who set Kratos on the path to being a better person. But, as much as he loved them all, their deaths were final. While he seems to be endlessly haunted by his old enemies, his old loves can never seem to comfort him. Kratos wishes more than anything to avoid this fate for Atreus. Whether or not a prophecy declares Atreus the victor, Kratos knows the price that must be paid for those wins, and he would do what he can to steer his son toward a better future.
The game’s overall themes continue to be guilt, loss, and forgiveness. The matured Kratos also plays an extra role this time as a confidant to others who are dealing with their own fear, rage, or grief. He is well suited to the task, his attempts to connect with his own emotions and with those of his son priming him to develop deeper connections with others. These newly established relationships are built upon and threatened with a deft hand by the game’s writers. Best of all are moments of joy, family, fun, and friendship that develop throughout the game. With some truly stunning voice-acting performances at play, all the characters become rich and deep, worth rooting for or railing against as you see fit. In Ragnarok, Kratos can still be the terrifying god-killer we all know, but he is also capable of unprompted kindness when someone needs it.
A man of means and he means to hurt you.
As much as Kratos wishes to avoid war, he is still up for a good fight, and you will be fighting a lot as you make your way through the 50-or-so hours of the God of War Ragnarok campaign. Combat is almost surgical, yet perfectly balanced between the folks who will want to hack and slash their way through the game and the defter dancers who wish to flit from enemy to enemy in a ballet of violence. No matter your skill level, this is a game you will be able to enjoy.
You begin the campaign armed with your Blades of Chaos and the Leviathan Axe. Chopping through enemies will earn you experience, and this experience can be spent on a range of skills and ability upgrades that make you even better at eviscerating enemies. Both weapons can equip Runes that allow for new abilities, while a number of armor pieces form the basis of your stats. Everything can be tweaked in small, but satisfying, ways until the Kratos and Atreus that you will play as will be very much your own. It is a testament to the designers that when traveling together, father and son form a skilled team of fighters, playing off each other in fun ways that add further depth to combat. And yet, should you find yourself exploring the world alone, the combat doesn’t feel lacking.
As much fun as simply doing damage is, an important aspect of combat in God of War Ragnarok is Stun. This is a status effect you can build up on enemies, allowing you to stop them in their tracks and opening up a chance to inflict huge damage on them. You also gain access to a range of weapon-dependant finishers, brutal displays of destruction that can earn disturbed utterances from your companions. There is a range of elemental interactions between your own weapons and those of companions that can really dish out the damage, adding a further layer to combat as well.
Best of all, combat is used to build relationships between the characters. Some of the people you will meet will shy away from the use of force, while others will revel in it. All the while, dialogue will play out that helps to make the characters feel deep and well-constructed. For higher-level players, chaining moves and abilities together will feel intense. At more challenging difficulty levels, the game is as demanding and enjoyable as you could hope for. My favorite trick is throwing the axe at short range, bouncing it off an enemy’s face, landing quick punches and strikes from other weapons, then recalling the axe before it can hit the ground for a killing blow.
When not burying an axe ins something, the two main ways that players will interact with the world of God of War Ragnarok is via environmental traversal and puzzle solving. The design of both aspects of the game are deeply intertwined. You often need to find new vantage points, items, or areas to make your way forward in the game. Some of these environmental puzzles were surprisingly challenging and lots of fun to solve. The different realms you visit are also all distinct and wonderfully designed, although somewhat familiar to fans of the 2018 game. This is actually a good thing, as the fact that you have already visited the Realms that make up the game means traveling through them can now be simplified. There are surprises in store, however, as the endless politics of the gods means not everything is at it was when Kratos and Atreus last visited.
A saga worth telling.
Santa Monica Studio is definitely taking advantage of all the power the PlayStation 5 has to offer with God of War Ragnarok, and the game looks absolutely stunning. The lighting, rich sky boxes, and incredible level detail all make the game a joy to watch. Much like the 2018 game, Ragnarok offers some beautiful sights to drink in as you explore the world and the story, but the tiny details to be found on each character are just as worthy of your attention.
What truly resonated with me about God of War Ragnarok was just how good a job it does of drawing me into the stories of the main characters. At this point in my life, my primary fears revolve around the loss of loved ones and the idea of somehow letting down the people that rely on me. Ragnarok manages to deal with these heavy themes while using the opportunity provided by the previous games’ world-building to find even more room for character development. It explores the delicate and tense spaces that exist between family members and friends who share similar fears, but do not wish to burden each other by expressing them. Even more interestingly, it does this in an engaging fashion while providing players with a terrifically designed combat system, deep world design, and stunning acting by the entire cast.
God of War Ragnarok is as slick and beautifully crafted a game as you will play this generation, and my experience with it has been delightfully bug-free. If you have been waiting through the months since Elden Ring for your next must-play game, then this is it. In 2018 Santa Monica Studio reinvented the way they make God of War games, but with Ragnarok, they may have just perfected it.
God of War Ragnarok will come to the PS4 and PS5 on November 9, 2022.