How do you follow up on one of the greatest video games of all time? Sony Santa Monica finds itself in a situation not dissimilar to when Francis Ford Coppola created the sequel to his mob movie masterpiece, The Godfather. Like part two of the Corleone story, God of War Ragnarok puts a fierce, younger member of the family directly under the microscope. In doing so it manages to reach the heights of its predecessor and, in some ways, even tower above it. The writing, performances, and music are each exceptional, bringing this expansive Norse tapestry to life – but even as it holds your heart in one hand with its elegantly told story it’s crunching bones in the other with fantastically ferocious combat. It all binds together to forge a monumental action epic that adds yet another impressive landmark to the video game landscape.
Keeping things broad and spoiler-free, Kratos’ story picks up a few years after the final revelations of 2018’s God of War – this is absolutely not one of those sequels where everything will make sense without playing the first game, or at the very least watching the included story recap (which is probably too brief to serve as anything but a jolt to the memory). The apocalyptic Ragnarok is coming, and its events circle around his son Atreus like one of Odin’s ravens. Fimbulwinter – a time of unrest that presages Ragnarok – has very much come and, during the intervening years, Atreus has been growing stronger, learning about his Giant name “Loki”, and trying to convince his father to trust him. There are touching callbacks to the hunting scene from the 2018 God of War as Kratos proudly watches Atreus prove that he’s no longer a child. But it’s no slow introduction: Ragnarok wastes no time in stepping into the action and, after a breakneck opening battle, the first step of this new journey is to leave the frozen realm of Midgard and find a missing Norse god in the broader and varied universe.
It may not be as tightly told a story as 2018’s, but Ragnarok has much grander designs. This is a sprawling epic that always keeps things on the move without ever becoming disorientating, gluing me to the edge of my seat as it repeatedly toyed with expectations. It’s an ambition regularly met by stunning execution, with a momentum that never slips as you hurtle towards its bombastic ending. This journey took me just over 28 hours with a few fair side quests completed along the way, but with plenty still left to do afterward.
Prophecy and sacrifice swirl at the story’s centre as it repeatedly prods at the concept of destiny and whether blood runs thicker than the ink that pens it. It doesn’t merely offer up surface-level readings of these themes; instead, each character and their motives are given the respect they deserve by delving in deep. It’s a truly special and fittingly grand conclusion of Kratos’ Norse saga, as well as providing resolution to some of his more troubled Greek memories.
There are twists and turns aplenty, with fakeouts and misdirection woven into the story’s fabric as it darts between loud spectacle and tender conversation. Characters old and new play their own crucial parts, including fresh characterisations of Norse behemoths like Thor and Odin, with a line of dialogue rarely wasted between them. These are truly unique depictions, and it’s a credit to Sony Santa Monica and the actors playing each that I wasn’t reminded once of their MCU equivalents. Despite being laden with myth and melodrama, there’s still plenty of time for welcome pockets of self-aware silliness that almost always elicit a laugh, whether that be another bizarre dwarven contraption or the simple thrill of Kratos eating a sausage.
When not eating dinner, Kratos’ thunderous voice actor Christopher Judge frequently engages in smartly realised dialogue with his equally impressive castmates. Make no mistake, though: this is firmly Judge’s court, and one he frequently dominates. Kratos’ traumatic personal history is reflected in everything from his mournful tone of voice to his appearance – his Icarus wings are long-since clipped, but his complexion is still pale like a square of wall where a family portrait used to hang. Death weighs heavy in the winds that guide him on every journey he takes, whether delivering it himself or searching for some closure. The everlasting cycle of violence between parents and their children has long been a theme ever since the original God of War trilogy, although one that was only truly emphasised in 2018’s revival. Now it’s an inescapable fixture of Ragnarok; an exploration of the rawest and most human of emotions, and what happens when they are channeled through superhuman vessels.
Pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate – this is the genesis of the stalking threat embodied by the incomparable force that is a grieving mother. Portrayed incredibly with a newfound fury by Danielle Bisutti, Freya is a striking presence to be reckoned with in the sequel and casts a much darker shadow this time around. No longer just a helpful witch in the woods, she’s given a whole new spectrum of emotional depth to play in, and Ragnarok is all the better for it.
Each character is given their own moments to shine throughout; Sunny Suljic fires back regularly with the sharp, teenage tongue of a brasher, more confident Atreus, and Alastair Duncan’s severed head accessory Mimir continues to provide levity and exposition in abundance. Various newcomers to the vastly expanded cast also deliver fantastic performances, with a particular standout being Laya DeLeon Hayes, radiating infectious energy from the mysterious Angrboda. Ben Prendergast brings warmth to the nuanced Týr – he’s charmingly plucky as the Norse God of War. The foul-mouthed Brok and skittish Sindri continue to bring their unique brand of dwarven charm while granting you those all-important upgrades. They often provide pockets of humour, as well as a lot of genuinely helpful info along the way as they play a much more central role in the story this time around.
Also returning is composer Bear McCreary, whose score – like the dwarven smith brothers – goes hammer and tongs from the first moment to the last. There’s some truly beautiful music to be heard along the journey, as well as explosions of raw orchestral power during intense fight scenes. The artistry bursting from every seam is astonishing – even when running in the high frame-rate favouring Performance mode – with excellent costume and world design on show. Ragnarok is incredibly well polished, with little details from the etchings on a dagger to the clunk of a cupboard door closing shown love. It’s expertly animated, with saliva-sputtering grimaces launching towards the lens during the heat of battle, and hair flowing realistically on Kratos’ less-follically challenged enemies.
Layered writing, impeccable acting, and stunning set design are all crucial aspects in driving God of War’s filmic aspirations home, but they’re also never let down by the rock-solid technical craftsmanship at work. The one continuous camera shot style of 2018’s reboot returns, snaking through the entirety of Ragnarok as if mimicking the world serpent Jörmungandr himself. The technique may have lost a little of its initial wow factor four years on, but it’s still a remarkably impressive achievement that has several new tricks to show off, and only adds to Ragnarok’s cinematic nature.
A Song of Ice and Fire
God of War’s combat has always been the flashy attraction that draws a crowd in to be wowed by its story, however, and Ragnarok continues that tradition. It may seem familiar at first – and indeed some things remain the same – but it isn’t afraid to play with expectations and throw a curveball your way. Kratos’ blades whip around in every direction, delivering a clanking firey pain to any face they meet. Heavy cleaves of his axe crunch into enemies, making them fold like bloodied origami. And yes, that axe still slices through the air, meatily lodging itself into anything unfortunate enough to be in its path, before being recalled to your palm with a hearty kick from the DualSense controller’s haptics in what remains one of the most satisfying button presses ever assigned to a controller. It’s all unapologetically fast, and undeniably glorious – harking back to the brand of frantic action in which the series was originally rooted.
There’s a fair helping of excessive violence on show, with Kratos willfully impaling and ripping apart any enemy put in front of him. Arenas are often tight spaces full of threats, and though you aren’t going to see the return of dozens of enemies on screen at once that spawn in wave after wave, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some aspects of those older games shining through. But even with that slight shift to old-school action, Ragnarok’s eyes are still drawn more to the shimmer of Nathan Drake’s gold rather than Bayonetta’s platinum. Cinematic spectacle takes precedence over the chaotic, bordering-on cartoonish action of old.
The axe feels largely similar to how you remember (and that’s no bad thing) with its dynamic mix of heavy attacks and ranged power, but how you wield the blades is noticeably different. There’s a greater emphasis on using them to hook enemies and maneuver them around the arena – whether that be dragging them in towards you or juggling them in the air like the hottest of potatoes. They’re much closer to how they felt in the original games; a nostalgic move set with a brilliant modern edge. The action feels and looks outstanding and there are no caveats or exceptions when I say that Ragnarok is only an improvement over God of War’s already ferocious combat.
Both weapons have new tricks to show off, too: you can “Frost Awaken” the axe by holding in the triangle button to power up your next attack, or mash the same button while the blades are equipped to ignite them. Locking down an enemy by freezing them with the axe before switching to the blades to unleash pain on their friends is an endless source of enjoyment. Even the shield is now more of an offensive tool, and different types can be bought and crafted to fit your playstyle. A sturdier one can soak up heavier hits, while a high-risk/reward version boosts your parry’s effectiveness. Parrying has a delicious weightiness to it, and when you nail the timing, it still feels fantastic after the thousandth deflect. Trust me when I say that’s a skill you’ll want to perfect before taking on some of Ragnarok’s toughest fights, as well.
Runic abilities (special cooldown attacks assigned in your inventory) also return and, while there isn’t the same abundance of choice this time around, each is devastatingly effective. For example, Hades Retribution – a fiery stab that lodges a bomb into the ribcage of an enemy – is particularly fun to put into action. Brutal finishers on stunned enemies are another enjoyable throwback to the God of War of old. Heads are dismembered, waists are left standing and spouting blood, and torsos are carved in two. There’s noticeably a good amount of variety in the randomly chosen, weapon-specific animations, too, so you won’t get bored of seeing that one head stomp execution move from 2018 over and over again. My favourite has to be the simple pleasure of seeing the shock on a soldier’s face as their arms are hacked off one by one. Beautiful. Most importantly, all of these additions give an extra tactical edge as you mix up the cadence of your strikes and control each fight.
Kratos is a little lighter on his feet this time around, with a bit less of a thumping clomp to his sprint. Movement is further emphasised by the way you can now grapple up from a distance using the blades, and launch across gaps to dive into combat. Taller arena design literally adds extra layers to battles, allowing you to leap from a ledge to deliver death from above. Combat sequences can feel akin to Doom kill boxes as you dash and swing around elevated platforms toward your next victim in performances of acrobatic bloodshed – juggling cooldowns, Atreus’ arrows, and your rage meter to efficiently and spectacularly destroy everyone sent to stop you.
You’re required to think on your feet much more and take into account a vastly increased variety of enemy attacks and status effects such as burn, frost, poison, and many more that affect both you and your attackers. Each fight feels like a real occasion as you slalom your way through ranged, parryable, and unblockable attacks in order to sneak in a hit or two. Enemies can now perform powerful-but-interruptible attacks signified by a blue ring above their head in addition to their regular skills. A double tap of the shield will sort these out, but get your timing wrong and you’re in line for some considerable pain.
Combat really develops over time too, as small wrinkles and bigger game-changers are introduced throughout. Environmental strikes – such as ripping a jagged tree from the ground before swinging it like an oversized baseball bat – are often available to introduce to an unfortunate soul’s face. There are plenty of other big additions to combat that I won’t divulge so as not to ruin the sensation of discovering them yourself, but Ragnarok includes some of the most eye-catchingly colourful magic attacks I’ve ever seen in a game, beautifully destructive summon abilities, and much, much more. All are further examples of Sony Santa Monica’s seemingly endless pool of creativity. Ragnarok has myriad more tools in its bag than God of War 2018 ever did, and is all the more enthralling for it. It all feels exceptional when in full flow, often mesmerising with its top-tier action drenched in rhythmic brutality, and is quite simply the best combat I can remember playing in a game.
And that just goes for the regular fights. Boss battles are of both a higher quantity and quality, including one encounter that makes the opening Stranger fight from 2018 look like a playground scuffle. There are definitely some of those huge boss fights that were so much more prevalent in the original trilogy this time around, with creatures regularly of a bigger scale than we saw four years ago. A lot of these one-on-one encounters are a true test of your capabilities as well, and even when playing on the Give Me Balance (medium) difficulty setting I’ve found myself needing resurrection stones far more than I did in the previous game. It’s not just the story bosses, either – I’ve fought massive alligator bastards called Dreki on more than one occasion, which are a real event to fight and more of a challenge than 2018’s trolls ever posed. It’s great to see sprinklings of that old-school monster mayhem thrown into the mix, which manages to successfully offset some of the more serious stretches of the story.
Puzzles offer much of what you’d expect – lodging the axe into objects to keep them from moving or freezing them to redirect water flows, burning vines to get elevators working, etc. Smart new puzzle ideas are consistently introduced, though, and build in complexity throughout as more abilities are added to your arsenal. They’re often fun and never in danger of slowing your progress to the detriment of the plot, but even so, Atreus or Mimir can come in with a hint far too early and sometimes rob you of that satisfying “aha!” moment. It’s a very rare annoyance in a world where normally every last word is a joy to listen to.
Armor customisation has been streamlined, resulting in the removal of the slotting system for a more straightforward upgrading mechanic. Enchantments are now placed inside a separate amulet rather than spread over various pieces of gear. This division makes seeing what you have equipped easier and means you aren’t lost delving into too many menus within menus. This also means you can upgrade a piece of armour and take it with you through your journey if your playstyle happens to perfectly click with a certain set (or if you just love how it looks). I found myself changing up my builds regularly throughout, however, as I kept wanting to experiment with all Ragnarok has to offer. The same goes for weaponry, which can be upgraded, as well as fitted with attachments such as individually named hilts and handles, each with its own perks and bonuses. Who wouldn’t want to play with the Stonecutter’s Knob, after all?
Further experimentation is encouraged by the new skill token system, which allows you to add damage, stun, elemental, and other boosts to any unlocked ability. It really does feel more like you’re being encouraged to build your Kratos this time around, rather than playing with a pre-designed action figure straight out of the box. It’s not stingy on the availability of resources needed to craft gear, further prompting you to inject your personality into a build. It’s an accessible level of RPG tinkering without ever becoming overwhelming.
Realms old and new are regularly a sight to behold – many looking torn from the pages of fairy tales, stocked with oversized flora and fauna. There’s an extra effort to delve deeper into the mythology this time around and, as someone who’s a fan of the Nordic source material, it’s a real pleasure to see all of the different interpretations of creatures, people, and places they inhabit brought to life in all manner of delightfully weird ways.
The dwarven city of Nidavellir is a welcome rural change of scenery, with its many homes and tunnels that Kratos must amusingly crawl around in. It’s at the centre of the rocky realm of Svartalfheim, where waterways weave through islets littered with bubbling geysers. There’s a real sense that the realm was ripped right out of the Old Norse Poetic Edda’s home of Iceland. Those geysers are also key to solving many of the puzzles in the region as you freeze them to create stepping stones and manipulate machinery – quirks like this help in making each place feel unique.
Similarly, fun new ideas are introduced in the returning Alfheim, such as reflective crystals that you can ricochet your axe off of to open doors or even use to blindside unwitting opponents in combat. It’s a further example of not only each realm looking distinct, but also feeling distinct to play in from one another. Every location almost feels like a puzzle box that you’re gradually unlocking through a combination of brain and brawn as you make your way through it. There’s also plenty to discover, with some realms surprising in their vastness. Exploration is encouraged via boat on the Dwarven seas, or via dog sled across Elven deserts. Once again, Metroidvania elements encourage you to revisit blocked paths at a later date once you own the skill required.
These new worlds bring with them dangerous new threats. If there were any faults to be found in 2018’s revival, then modest enemy variety may well have been one of them. However, there is no such issue in Ragnarok, with its bestiary vastly expanded to accommodate all sizes and shapes of creatures. Familiar foes such as draugr and elves have made their way across, but this time they’re joined by Grims which, you guessed it, are pretty grim scuttling toad people, and a personal favourite, the Einherjar; Aesir warriors who harness the power of the Bifrost that makes a section of your health bar glow before removing that chunk on the next hit. Each forms a part of a whole – there’s an engaging but never unfair difficulty curve throughout as you’re met with progressively greater threats.
Side missions are sometimes spectacles in their own right. Standout Favours involve helping giant creatures in distress and adventures full of personal revelations through the lush jungles of Vanaheim. They are a great source of character development as you learn more about your friends and companions by helping them right past wrongs. Some side quests do just present a pure gameplay challenge over extra stories, however, such as hunting down powerful legendary enemies dotted across the realms of Yggdrasil’s roots.
There is no shortage of genuinely tough side boss encounters, either. While I was perhaps taking them on too early out of eagerness, they were a great test of skill nonetheless. Chipping away at larger health bars is a really satisfying challenge and remarkably well-balanced against the standard quick-kill nature of the majority of Ragnarok’s fights. It’s yet another testament to the masterful combat design on display. And yes, there are some absolutely tough-as-nails, endgame-level challenges to rival the Valkyries of 2018, but I’m going to let you find out what those are for yourself.
There’s a substantial slew of collectibles to clean up as well with Odin’s Ravens, puzzle chests, artifacts, and much more to find in every corner. There’s a ton to be done after the main story has been brought to a close, all of it incredibly moreish and fun to complete. Regardless of their nature, all of the optional content is joyously snackable. They not only flesh out the world of Ragnarok and riff smartly on the mythology, but also serve as valuable father-and-son time, with the end of the world creeping ever closer.
Ragnarok never once rests on its laurels, throwing new ways to play at you until the very end. Despite having a seemingly endless amount to praise here, I really have barely scratched the surface of what God of War Ragnarok has to offer – I’m deliberately omitting dozens of secrets and surprises. I wouldn’t dare spoil what’s to come for anyone booting it up for the first time, but rest assured, there are both huge story moments and fresh gameplay additions that live up to and often surpass expectations. Taken all together, much like The Godfather Part 2, God of War Ragnarok delivers not only a chapter that reaches the lofty heights of its predecessor but leaves it impossible to imagine the series without it.
Source: IGN Video Games All