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God of War Ragnarök review: Facing your destiny

God of War Ragnarök review: Facing your destiny

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Sony Santa Monica’s God of War was a masterclass in emotional storytelling, providing character development and a touching tale of parenthood wrapped in one of the most violent game franchises ever made. Can the sequel, God of War Ragnarök, top it? I would argue that it did, although it has taken an unorthodox path to do so. It’s at least as good as its predecessor, even if it has some of the same gameplay and story peccadilloes.

Just a warning, this review will contain a very mild story spoilers — I’m not talking about anything important, but it’s impossible to address certain aspects of the game without spoiling it. There are several story and character moments I can’t even discuss for fear of spoiling the experience, but suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in God of War Ragnarök.

The end of the world as we know it

In this adventure, a teenage Atreus and Kratos deal with the consequences of their actions from the previous game. Fimbulwinter, the meteorological disaster that precedes Ragnarök, has set in when the two receive a less than friendly visit from none other than Thor and Odin. Forget the loving mythological Norse gods: in this game, Thor is a violent, abusive beast, and Odin behaves with all the predatory heartlessness of a mob king.

After this little dust-up, Kratos and Atreus must decide what role, if any, they will play in the Norse apocalypse—and, in a bittersweet metaphor for reaching adulthood, their decisions take them on separate paths. This means both are playable, as they go on separate journeys of discovery, complete with separate companion characters and skill sets.

It is a matter of fate – not only whether it can be changed, but whether it even exists. Atreus spends most of the game figuring out what role his “Loki” persona will play in the fate of the world, but others point out that the only reason he participates at all is because he’s been told he will, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kratos, on the other hand, rejects fate not because he fears the future, but because he fears confronting the past that brought him there.

There is something wistful about the early parts of the game, where it becomes clear that Atreus is growing up and needs less help from his father. The first time I went to climb a wall and Atreus didn’t jump onto Kratos’ back, I felt more than a little sad. “Boi” grows up, and this little game is just a taste of what we will go through the rest of the story. Kratos, like myself, spends most of the story learning how to let Atreus grow and become his own person. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s still hard for both of us.

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The beauty of God of War Ragnarök cannot be understated.

The story plays exceptionally well, with players seeing things from the perspective of both the headstrong, stubborn Atreus and the brooding, tormented Kratos. It’s easy to see where both are coming from – and it’s amazing that the game managed to make me sympathize with Atreus, who throws what can charitably be described as a teenage tantrum around the game’s midpoint that completely changes the direction of the story.

Aside from the two leads, the side characters – new and returning – are all done exceptionally well. These include Tyr, former god of war, destroyed by experience; Freya, violent and unhinged after her son’s death; Angrboda, Atreus’ adorable new partner-in-crime; and of course Sindri and Brok, who get more story focus than before. My favorite was Heimdall, who here is more reminiscent of Hermes from the original series than his mythological counterpart, both in his powerful appearance and insufferably smug attitude. I loved to hate him.

Increase for permission

For the most part, the gameplay in Ragnarök hasn’t changed much from the previous game. It’s still the same fighting style, and Kratos still has his trusty frost ax on hand to deal with any problems that may arise. However, he also has Blades of Chaos right from the start, giving the player more combat options. He also gets a certain weapon in the second half that immediately became my favorite.

The game feels much faster and sharper, for lack of a better way to say it. Kratos’ weapons hit with more precision and power, although their actual damage output has been reduced since the end of the previous game. He also has more varied enemies to fight – there are the usual two-legged types, but there are also creepy crawlies, beasties and ghosts to add to the rogues gallery. It feels a bit closer to God of War Classic than God of War 2018.

The game is well balanced between combat, puzzles and story. The environmental tasks are more complex and varied than they were at the beginning of the previous game, especially since Kratos has two weapons at his disposal (to begin with). Sometimes the gameplay feels a bit safe – it doesn’t really create much new. I don’t necessarily think it has to, as the game’s comforting rhythm of violence and discovery is part of its charm. But still, if you weren’t a fan of the last game’s combat, this one probably won’t win you over.

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One of my issues with God of War 2018 was that it replaced the fixed third-person hack-and-slash camera with a Last of Us-style over-the-shoulder one. I felt it slowed down the game more than I liked and made fighting enemies in a wide arena boring. As much as I like the character Mimir, I found the solution of literally sticking a set of eyes on Kratos’s backside to yell at attacking enemies blocked by perspective a bit ridiculous.

Atreus goes on his own journey, meeting old and new characters.

Tragically, the cursed camera is just as big a gameplay problem in Ragnarök. It remains stubbornly on Kratos’ shoulder as Kazooie, and the aforementioned problem of making characters yell when you’re about to be attacked from behind is still intact. In fact, it’s even worse here because we have new companions, so there are more people to shout instructions at us in battle. Just pull the camera back and let me wail on the enemies like it’s my job.

Also, I think this should go without saying, but Ragnarok is also gorgeous. The different realms Kratos and Atreus visit look beautiful on PS5, and even the graphics and character models look even better than they did before. We visit several new realms, including Vanaheim, a lush, dangerous jungle that immediately became my favorite; and Svartalfheim, the charming, industrialized home of the dwarves.

God of War meets God of War

Remember back in the early impressions where I mentioned that God of War 2018 barely referenced the original series? I might as well be an oracle, because Ragnarok drops several references. Kratos is much less reticent on the subject, speaking freely about his past in Sparta – he even mentions his daughter Calliope and brother Deimos. To be clear, these references are later in the game than the impression period, but I’m glad to see this particular prediction fulfilled.

Ratatoskr is a delightful addition to the Ragnarök cast.

These references are more than simple gags. Kratos confronts his past more directly as an angry Godslayer, and how this has affected both him and Atreus. At one point, a character even points out that Kratos hasn’t changed since the original games in terms of godlike body mass – he’s just sad about it now. It also follows the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies, as Kratos acknowledges how it played a role in his own history.

This is even incorporated into the gameplay, with some of the boss fights – one in particular that I won’t spoil – playing out more like the bosses in the Greek series than the 2018 title. And I loved every moment of it, as the faster gameplay helped capture some of the original Kratos hack-and-slash goodness I was missing.

If I have one complaint about the story, it’s the lack of direction. In the final match, there was a clear goal and objective: Kratos and Atreus were to scatter Faye’s ashes, and the match ended when they did. In this one, it’s less clear what the two are trying to achieve. At various points, Atreus seems to either want to learn more about his role in Ragnarök, then he tries on others to avert Ragnarök – more than once, other characters comment that he has no idea what he’s doing.

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God of War Ragnarök’s visuals are stunningly beautiful.

Similarly, Kratos is adamantly opposed to participating in Ragnarök at all, and yet at some points seems either resigned that it will happen or is fully willing to participate to protect Atreus. While these choices make some kind of sense for the characters, it makes the whole journey harder to follow than the last one. The fact that they use large parts of the game separately makes the sidequesting a little disappointing, as Kratos’ adventures with another character feel wrong no matter what the game does to smooth it out.

Leaves the nest

Ragnarok has one advantage that its predecessor didn’t: the players who play it are more likely to know what to expect. If you were a fan of the action-heavy Greek God of War series – and I’m speaking from experience here – the slower, more story-driven procedural of the Norse title was a culture shock. So when I say that Ragnarok is very similar to the previous game, you know what you’re going to get.

The story of God of War Ragnarök may not be as straightforward as it was in God of War, but that is to its credit. It’s messy and complicated, but that makes the emotional payoff all the better. The gameplay remains mostly unchanged, which unfortunately loses some points with me, but it feels nice when the player can settle into a rhythm. God of War Ragnarök is an exceptionally good game, and if you loved the last one, you’ll almost certainly love this one too.

Sony provided GamesBeat with a review code for this product. God of War Ragnarok launches on November 9, 2022 on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4.

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