God of War Ragnarok Review - Bigger, Better, Bolder

God of War Ragnarok is, as the headline suggests, an epic expansion of and the finale to the story kicked off in Santa Monica Studios’ 2018 God of War reboot. The new game dives deeper into the reinvigorated franchise’s combat and exploration mechanics, delivering a finale surpassing gargantuan expectations with a heartfelt story. It fucking rules. At the time of writing, I have spent over 50 hours in the game on my PlayStation 5, now exploring the aftermath of everything awesome that went down in its 25-ish hour story.

In this review, I won’t be backtracking to add context to character backstories. I will also not be spoiling any major story beats, so rest assured your trek through Ragnarok at launch shall retain all of its surprises. However, if you know the events leading up to and around Ragnarok, the Norse mythology version, some of this might be light spoilers for the game.

Story & Characters

Ragnarok picks up a few years after the events of the 2018 reboot, with Fimbulwinter in full effect across the 9 realms. While Atreus wants to go out into the world to explore the secrets behind his newfound identity, ‘Loki’, Kratos wants nothing but to remain at their house, training for the inevitable. Things have changed since the last time we saw these characters, which manifests well in the writing and gameplay. Atreus, while still a kid with less experience, is leading the charge more often than not, with a reluctant Kratos following behind. Surviving Fimbulwinter is hard enough, but dodging occasional attacks by Freya makes things harder. None of this, however, can prepare Kratos or Atreus for when the big boys, Odin and Thor, come knocking at their doorstep.

Ragnarok is less a collection of epic events and more a slow, reluctant fulfillment of the prophecies leading up to it. What starts as a small adventure to find and rescue Tyr leads to more events causing a clash between Kratos and Atreus. Of course, like any classic story about prophecies, the action of trying to stop them propels the story forward toward the inevitable.

Ragnarok improves character interactions tenfold, thanks to extremely sharp writing and subversion of expectations of certain encounters. Take side characters like Brok and Sindri. In the last game, they were the comedic relief alongside tools for upgrading your weapon/armor and had a small background story that progressed throughout the game. This time, you learn even more about them and come to respect their individual wants and needs even more, beyond being tame NPCs. Sindri in particular stole my heart with a storyline I can’t wait for people to explore. Freya, who in the last game was more of a passive character conduit to propel Kratos and Atreus forward in their story, gets a major bump up in narrative priority, making her anguish towards the All-Father even more impactful than any exposition ever could.

Characters like Thor and Odin are way, way more nuanced than I would’ve expected them to be. They’re not just the evil gods of this realm that need to be vanquished, but they have their own personal issues that make them wholly unique characters instead of archetypes. Thor has his own demons to fight, but they’re not what you expect. I gained a deeper understanding of Santa Monica’s pantheon of Aesir gods, whose history manifests subtly in their dialogue. If you thought Kratos and Atreus had a complicated relationship, just wait until you meet Odin’s household. The addition of Angrboda is a welcome one, bringing a sense of warmth and comfort that, as you’ll know from Norse mythology, can’t help but make Loki fall for.

The on-shot continuous camera returns and is used effectively, pushing beyond Kratos and Atreus into exploring the psyche of NPCs. Seriously, the camera used here makes the 2018 game look like a proof of concept. It reflects the distance between characters, both physically and emotionally, in a better way. Paired with excellent motion capture and voice performances, the no-cut camera’s focus on micro-expressions of characters tells you more than the already excellent writing does. I can’t wait for the game’s launch and the eventual spoiler discussions, as the genius of the camera and how it’s used will provide a lot of interesting discussions. Some of these moments include the camera flying away from our heroic duo and focusing on other characters in isolation, a perspective I didn’t expect to be presented with that reveals much more under the surface.

Ragnarok lets players visit all 9 realms throughout its story, and each area has its own story. Whether it’s about the buried dwarven rebellion in Svartalfheim, the ongoing battle between the Elves in Alfheim, or even the secrets that Odin buried in Niflheim, each realm presents a unique purpose. Unlike the last game, where most areas were either littered with enemies or barren, Ragnarok’s realms also provide comfort and a sense of community. Vanaheim, Freya’s homeworld, holds (arguably) more side quests than all the other realms, and it only makes sense, given the history between Freya and Odin. Jotunheim’s glorious return holds wonder and comfort, offering more areas and stories to explore that flesh out what the Giants were like.

If there’s one word or theme encapsulating what Ragnarok does best, it’s — perspective. Each character has their own story and their own battle to fight. Nothing is as black and white as trailers may suggest, and sometimes they don’t have anything to do with Kratos or Atreus directly. People are more than the exposition machines they effectively need to be, and by the end of the journey, I was itching to learn more about these characters.

We meet various characters over the plot, and I always love it when writers challenge my notion of what this world is. Tyr, the once Norse God of War, has abandoned his old ways, regressing to a pacifist lifestyle. Freyr, brother of Freya, is a fierce but party-hard cool dude with whom I’d love to have a beer. Ratatoskr, a talking squirrel who tends to the world tree and offers you collectible side-quests, has literal manifestations of his emotions that yell and smirk at Kratos. Heimdall is a jerk you can’t wait to punch every time he’s on screen. The writers and performers breathe so much life into these characters that I never wanted to skip any side quest that would tell me more about their history.

That said, there are sections of the game where the pace slows down a little too much. Story beats, which seem a little too low-key, fall into the last game’s too frequent “we have to get the McGuffin to do the thingy” trap. I’m not a fan of that. Here I am playing a game called RAGNAROK, and I’m expected to trot around for an hour to find some small key to open a gate? C’mon, that’s tiring. Mimir’s tales keep me busy, and the game’s surprising humor stops it from being dragged into occasionally boring missions. I love Atreus here, who has clearly grown from his adventures with dad in fighting monsters and solving puzzles. Atreus talks back to Kratos a lot! But not with annoying edgy teen angst, but rather logic and drive. I laughed hysterically as Atreus mocked Kratos for not being able to make big jumps during puzzle-solving. “Oh, come on, you can make that jump. Your knees aren’t that bad!” Amazing.

The relationship struggles between Kratos and Atreus are at an all-time high here, with major highs and lows going beyond the scope of the last game. How that affects gameplay, I won’t reveal here. But Santa Monica has pulled something new and ambitious that might make some people mad. Not me, though. Not at all. In a bold move, it’s not always Atreus that Kratos will go out on adventures with. There are missions where your companion will switch, allowing you to play with and exploit their unique moveset in combat.

Even now, after beating the game, I am still discovering secrets and epilogues to major narrative beats that occurred in the story. It feels like a proper endgame content rollout than 2018’s side-quests in its final hours. You learn more about all the companions you’ve met in the game in these side quests, and I wish I had completed some of them before beating the main story so the extra context packed more punch in the finale.

Gameplay Breakdown

God of War Ragnarok Accessibility & Menu Options on PS5

God of War Ragnarok is one giant flex of gameplay mechanics with its foundations created in the 2018 game. Everything from the last game is here, but with new and deeper additions that made me look forward to every encounter. Starting off, you no longer have access to all of the skill-tree abilities of the last game, thanks to the effects of Fimbulwinter (clever one, writers). Kratos’ Leviathan axe and blade of chaos work the same way as before but can now be charged up for hitting harder.

The game’s RPG-esque mechanics have seen a facelift, like the UI, for the better. You can now equip multiple boons a la Hades, and swap between heavy and light runic attacks for different scenarios. You also get to use some keepsakes (relics), which all have different mystical abilities. You can even change what Kratos’ spartan rage does, switching between the general “Fury” or “Valour”, which gives you a burst of health so you can stay aggressive in a fight.

The skill tree gets a light overhaul, allowing you to mod slots on certain abilities. There, you can increase either the damage, stun or protection (I-frames) of said skill to pack an extra punch. These things work behind the scenes to give you an edge, as their passive effects aren’t easily noticeable. Abilities in the skill tree now have various associated levels, unlocking the more you use them. So individual abilities can get more potent the more you use them, providing an incentive to not forget about them after unlocking.

The weapon and armor menus allow more customization of your allies, so passive effects can be equipped on them too. If you were getting bored with the axe and blades last time, you’d seldom find yourself sliding into any sedentary playstyle here. Constantly switching up boons and passive effects is part of the fun. Even the shields get a makeover, with various shields available to Kratos for different needs. I stuck to my trusty stone-wall shield, which can absorb kinetic energy and then be slammed hard for a knockback effect (kinda like Black Panther’s suit in the MCU). If you’re one to play the risk vs reward game, then some shields specialize in volatile parries too. Shield mod slots offer various offensive and defensive options, so no weapon in the game plays the same way for any two players if you put enough time into them.

Combat is brutal. If you get a kick out of seeing Kratos decapitate monsters, this will one sweet adventure. The amount of gore has been heightened, reminding me of the epic fights in the original GoW trilogy. It also helps that each enemy variety gets its own death animation, and you can choose which weapon to use for takedowns. Using the environment as a weapon is encouraged, so you’ll often find giant boulders to hurl around onto a bad guy’s face. Swinging across platforms to slice through monsters, jumping down with a ground pound, and then chaining a couple of runic AoE attacks only to finish them off with a tag-team fatality kill with Atreus will never get old. Combat feels faster than the last game, with the number and aggressiveness of enemies seemingly increased. It’s always a pleasure to discover what kind of new mini-boss awaits me after a few rounds of “normal” fights, and coming up with new strategies by switching weapons as their runic attacks deplete over time is a fun challenge.

But it’s not all about combat, as God of War has always included cool puzzles. Ragnarok’s puzzles are a step up from the last game, requiring more thinking from the player. Chaining runic arrows to carry forward fires, and freezing multiple choke-points to keep a gate open, are all fun when you figure them out. However, sometimes it’s hard to notice where the puzzle pieces are due to the extreme environmental detail rendered on the PS5 version. It’s the same problem I had in Horizon: Forbidden West where interactive objects were covered by environmental assets, making them harder to notice in gameplay. There’s a good variety of puzzle types too, with many requiring backtracking after acquiring tools later in the story. For a game about hacking monsters and gods with burning chains and a magic axe, it’s surprising to see so much thought put into puzzles.

Puzzles of course, also include platforming. Kratos gets an upgrade to his moveset early on, allowing him to use his chains as a quick grapple hook to go across, above, and below all sorts of elevations. And if there’s something I know about video games, adding a grappling hook is always a good decision. It’s a fun reminder of the older games’ platforming sections, which were far removed from 2018’s more boots-on-the-ground approach to level design. Kratos’ move set also includes a ground pound, adding an extra dimension to encounters with small elevations.

Essentially, the amount of options players are given has doubled, with us having more agency in how we want to play with our prey. That doesn’t mean combat is easier, far from it. I died considerably more times in Ragnarok than I did in the entirety of the 2018 game. It can get tough. I played most of the game in the “Give me Balance” (normal) difficulty but had to drop it down one level later in the game so I could finish it in time for this review. While most encounters required switching up my playstyle for different enemies, some things bugged me. Stun-locking due to animation duration is a big one. There were many moments where failing to block the first attack, I was pounded on by enemies with vicious strikes, and the small window to engage my defenses between rollback animations wasn’t enough to turn the tide. Thankfully, the accessibility menu includes an option where failing a mini-boss fight will trigger a checkpoint restart where the boss already has half of their health removed. This made it much more manageable to complete fights where I had run out of regeneration health stones. It’s funny that Kratos can go mano-a-mano with entities like Thor and giant Dragons, but one tricky elite enemy of lower ranks can whoop my ass back to Helheim by stun-locking me.

There are surprises in store here regarding tools you acquire through the story that help completely change the flow of combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving. I won’t spoil them here, but if somehow you were getting bored with the axe and chains, the game will reinvigorate your interest in its mechanics once you reach a certain point.

Like Forbidden West, you now get a proper hub area that acts as a narrative extension of Tyr’s temple that housed the realm travel room in 2018. This hub is where you convene after major narrative beats, assembling allies in hopes of preventing or fighting in Ragnarok when the time comes. It houses much more of an ensemble cast than the first game, giving a sense of comfort and family throughout its story.

Since the gameplay is a big expansion on the foundations, every small thing you do has satisfying rewards. Even killing Odin’s ravens, who are secretly scattered across all realms, unlocks treasure chests in Niflheim that grant you permanent status effects when equipped. No traversal mechanic is universal, so different realms have their own ways of navigation that a lesser studio would’ve used throughout the game. In Svartalfheim, you’ll be using the familiar boat; in Midgard a wolf sled; and in Vanaheim you can even change the time of day at certain locations to unlock new areas.

Art and Tech

God of War Ragnarok Screenshots (PS5)

God of War Ragnarok is very much a direct iterative continuation of the technology found in God of War (2018). It looks sharper and prettier, more so on the PS5, but it’s still very much rooted in the engine that drove the first game. The excellent environmental design complements the level design with newfound verticality, adding more depth to each level. Each realm feels different, be it the harsh cold of Midgard or the sunny weather of Svartalfheim. There is no ray tracing to be found here, and I suspect the reason for it being Santa Monica just hasn’t been able to, or more accurately decided not to, integrate it into their game engine. But no fuss because aside from screen-space reflection artifacts on the edges of the screen, it’s hard to pick out any big faults. Sure, it’s not inherently as big a jump from the first game as Horizon Forbidden West was from Zero Dawn, but that’s fine.

What’s impressive is the game as well as it looks, with 4 performance profiles at the launch itself:

  • Favour Resolution Mode: 30fps at a 4K resolution.
  • Favour Performance Mode: 60fps at a dynamic 4K resolution.
  • Favour Resolution (High Frame Rate On): 40fps at dynamic 4K (1080p on HDMI 2.0 displays)
  • Favour Performance (High Frame Rate On): Unlocked up to 120fps at 1440p (1080p on HDMI 2.0 displays)

I played most of the game in the usual 60fps mode, and save for one instance it felt pretty much locked to its target. This is a very polished game and will probably only get better with post-launch updates. However, I did run into a couple of bugs in my playthrough. About 8 hours in, a boss fight gets triggered while you’re fighting normal goons, and in my case, the boss never did anything to trigger me. They walked around the map, eying Kratos ferociously, but with no health bar above them and no attacks to speak of. Hacking away at them did nothing, so I restarted the checkpoint hoping to fix the mission, but instead, it booted me into a QTE sequence at the end of the fight. Essentially, I had skipped over the entire boss fight. Aside from that, I experienced precisely one full game crash to the PS5 dashboard.

Both of these issues occurred in the base version of the game, which got 2 patches throughout the course of the review period. The first of these patches, which may or may not be included on the retail disk, added extended support for haptic feedback on the DualSense controller. By then I was already more than halfway through the story, but I can say that the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers now work as intended, instantly immersing me even more into the gorgeous environments.

The accessibility menu clarifies that you don’t have to give up gameplay options to achieve a boundary-pushing narrative video game. It’s close to what The Last of Us Part 2 did for video game accessibility. I, fortunately, didn’t have to turn too many knobs to enjoy it, but even something as small as adjustable subtitle size (a major problem in the first game) is a win. You can fully remap every button on the controller, and the other options only make it clear that Santa Monica hasn’t forgotten the lessons it learnt while porting God of War (2018) to PC.

Everything from camera sensitivity to reducing light flashes, aim assist in puzzles to color filters on every interactive object and NPC type has been accounted for so no player will be lost in the (wild)woods. I only wish photo mode was available in the pre-launch period, but that will have to wait for a patch, which hopefully drops soon enough.

A special mention needs to be given to Bear McCreary’s excellent soundtrack. It’s a continuation of God of War (2018)’s themes but, like the gameplay, heavily expanded on to include moments of joy, confusion, and even cuteness in certain moments. Of course, when it comes to the other moments that brought a tear out, it delivers hard. Hitting that final credits roll is haunting, and McCreary’s music certainly brings the goods where it’s needed most for a game dealing with an event as epic as Ragnarok.

VERDICT

God of War Ragnarok is an excellent sequel that surpasses the soft reboot in gameplay and narrative design. The sharp writing rarely slows down any moment, with bold decisions that explore and test Kratos and Atreus’ relationship harder than before. Ragnarok delivers a finale worthy of its title and expectations, instantly becoming another PlayStation classic.

God of War Ragnarok is now available on PlayStation 4 and 5, starting at Rs. 3,999 and Rs. 4,999 respectively for the standard editions on both consoles. The Digital Deluxe edition of the game retails for Rs. 5,599 on the PlayStation store, which includes in-game bonuses and copies of both console versions.

REVIEW COPY PROVIDED BY PLAYSTATION.

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