Bigger battles, better pacing, better story, better everything
God of War (2018) was a triumph. The nuanced writing, cinematic flare and mix of puzzle solving, semi-open exploration, fast-paced combat and dazzling set-pieces set a standard for what a single-player narrative game could deliver.
God Of War: Ragnarök then has some hefty God-sized shoes to fill and thankfully it not only lives up to the expectations of its predecessor - it exceeds them.
Ragnarök is a bigger game, not just in size and scope, but in the ambitions of its story and the goals of its narrative. This is a story about cycles of revenge, prophecy and fighting fate, being allowed to make mistakes and of course - parenthood.
The sins of the father
Fimbulwinter has arrived in the harsh Norse lands. Snow and ice have blanketed the realm of Midgard and plunged the other eight realms into chaos in various ways. Kratos and his son Atreus are once again hiding from the Norse pantheon, hoping to live out their lives in peace. Years have passed since we last left these characters and Atreus is now a burgeoning teenager, ready for responsibility and willing to strike out into the world and make his mark.
There's a lovely growth and development between our two main characters, it’s clear that Kratos has learned from his son Atreus during the three year gap between the end of the last game and when Ragnarök kicks off. Kratos can now read the Nordic runes carved into certain shrines and temples without the help of Atreus and fatherhood has made him noticeably more understanding and open.
It’s a small detail, but the fact that ‘boy’ no longer clings to Kratos as you climb or zoom down a zipline makes it feel like he’s really growing up and becoming his own person.
There is also a subtle change in visual storytelling, the journal keeping track of your progress and quests is now written by Kratos instead of Atreus, providing further insight into the Ghost of Sparta’s mind. They can even be quite tongue in cheek, a nice contrast to the more serious and stoic side of our main character.
Mimir, the knowledgeable talking head and former prisoner of Odin who returns for this outing, is described warmly by Kratos in his journal as ‘compact and [not consuming too many] precious resources.'
And that’s a good thing, as you’ll be needing those precious resources on your quest travelling across all nine realms.
Realms of possibility
You'll return to familiar locations but each have been touched by Fimbulwinter, returning locales feel extremely different, with new places to explore within them. For instance, Midgard is extremely frozen over and crumbled, leading to new paths of traversal that keeps exploration fresh.
Throughout your journey, there will be many intriguing lore-steeped caves, mines and temples. All of these places come to life thanks to Mimir’s many stories and the wonderful banter and conversation between the trio as they explore the world around them.
You’ll move between more linear dungeon environments, each with different puzzle mechanics and problems to solve that will temporarily gate your progress.
After a bit of linearity and a large set piece or boss encounter, most of these locations will open up for further optional exploration and side-questing. The ebb and flow of linearity and open-ended exploration is similar to the previous game, but with a slight difference - here the pacing is markedly improved.
Just as you’re feeling slightly worn out by a long stretch of dungeon-crawling and combat, Ragnarök will open itself back up to you. Back for another round are the expansive lakes to explore on boat as well as more inventive exploration such as sledding over smoky sand dunes pulled along by hell-hounds.
Movement and exploration is enhanced thanks to an expanded toolkit at Kratos’ disposal - in particular, the fiery Blades of Chaos which opens up the level design from the beginning. Previously a late-game unlock, Kratos now starts off with his trusty cursed blades from the get go, - allowing him to grapple onto ledges, swing down from high locations, set torches ablaze and drag and shift heavy objects.
But perhaps the best refinement about Ragnarök’s traversal? You can now kick down those golden chains without Kratos immediately climbing down them.
Puzzles and side-quests dot every corner of the world, some offering a reason to return back later when you’ve unlocked new skills and abilities while others are more involved story-beats, further fleshing out the motivations of the Aesir or side characters. Some of these moments can be grand, dramatic set-pieces that should not be skipped.
As for the puzzles - they’re a mixed bag. Some feel intuitive and a joy to solve, while others felt poorly signposted, mixed into the noise of the highly detailed and cluttered environments. There were several moments where I found myself stuck for at least 10-15 minutes, wrapping my head around a puzzle I just could not solve. It’ll be a problem that’s less pronounced once the game is released and irritating puzzles can be quickly YouTubed for their solutions, but if you’re playing blind - expect to be annoyed by a couple of these clunkers.
An axe age, a sword age, shields are riven
So how about the combat then? Just like everything in Ragnarök, it’s a subtle improvement on its predecessor in every way. Kratos can now swap between his Blades of Chaos and Leviathan Axe from the beginning of the journey - and each weapon has its benefits and uses.
Each weapon can be empowered to do more damage to enemies using their opposing element, offering an opportunity to get tactical with which weapon you’d like to play with. By holding triangle, you can now imbue the Leviathan Axe with frost, offering a small damage boost to any attack. Similarly with the Blades, tapping triangle will make Kratos rapidly swing them in an arc until they are ablaze with the flames of the Greek Underworld - before slamming them down onto an enemy.
The Blades are fast and swift, offering extended reach and the ability to grapple an enemy and pull them directly to you (fans of the original PS2 and PS3 games will recognise this move immediately). By contrast, Kratos’ trusty Axe is a little slower, but its heft and powerful freezing abilities come in handy throughout combat. Switching between the two in frantic combat was fun in God Of War (2018) and it’s even more fun this time around.
What is a welcome addition is the integration of environmental hazards within combat - Kratos can now rip out stumps of trees and swing them directly into enemies or use his Blades to grab and hurl a giant rock causing massive damage. There are limited uses of these in any given combat arena, but it helps to keep the variety fresh and introduces more situational awareness and strategy to encounters.
The violence (which was noticeably toned down in God Of War (2018) compared to the original PS2/PS3 games) has been stepped up quite a bit for the sequel. Some finishing moves are utterly brutal with blood and viscera flying everywhere during fights. Expect beheadings, dismembering and some very gross set piece spectacles.
Enemy design and variety has been bumped up across the board. Enemies that dance toward you with the grace of a ballerina, their high-powered sword attacks requiring a special parry move to counter. Some moves can only be interrupted by double tapping the shield button, others can be evaded, and some can be blocked normally. Other enemies inflict new status ailments on you - freezing you to the spot or hitting you with a particular power that causes their next attack to do extra damage to your life bar.
I played the first 10 hours of Ragnarök on the second hardest difficulty, and I noticed the combat to be far more challenging than the previous game. I must have died at least 7 or 8 more times in every boss encounter, including the minibosses that litter the world. Daddy Kratos was teaching me not to just rely on old tricks - and that’s a great thing.
Itemisation has changed slightly too to match the new enemy variety. There are now more types of shields on offer, from parry-style shields for a more risk-reward playstyle to a big bulky tower shield that can make you more of a straight up damage tank. You can once again tinker with your gear to max out certain stats like cooldown and runic power, and there are oodles of interesting armor pieces that offer different bonuses to upgrade and swap around.
Atreus has changed dramatically too. He’s more active from the get-go and you’ll unlock powerful abilities that will allow Kratos and Atreus to enact combo-finishers together.
Some problems remain though; God of War: Ragnarök, like its predecessor, is obsessed with its over-the-shoulder cinematic camera angle, keeping you tight and close to Kratos and Atreus during combat - with no option to shift or adjust the field of view in battle.
Enemies can flank and creep up behind you quite easily, and although Atreus and Mimir are much more vocal in the heat of battle this time, I still wish the camera would move out a little during fights and provide some breathing room.
Performance wise, God of War: Ragnarök even on the the PlayStation 4, which runs at a locked 30fps that stunning attention to detail in environments and character design is still evident.
Granted, there were some slower load times upon death as well as occasional pop in, probably as much a limitation of the physical hard drive rather than the more advanced SSD of the current gen consoles.
It’s the PlayStation 5 version that really comes to life though. The high-performance frame-rate mode offers a locked 60fps with very little traded off in return.
The result is hyper-responsive combat and movement that lends itself well to God of War’s twitchy and fast brawling. Bugs were few and far in-between, with some minor pop-in at moments and only one major crash during a combat sequence that I wasn’t able to replicate.
The four long years between games has felt a bit like Fimbulwinter here on Midgard and finally experiencing God of War: Ragnarök feels like a big reward for fans of the series.
It is one of the best games of 2022 and the fact that it doesn't feel like a compromised experience on last generation consoles is frankly outstanding.
Not only does the sequel capture the same quality and feeling of the previous game, it exceeds them in meaningful ways, a natural evolution of gameplay design that tells as much of a story as the dialogue.
A copy of GOD OF WAR: RAGNARÖK on both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review. All screenshots captured on PlayStation 5.