God of War Ragnarok is a lavish production with pristine visuals, jaw-dropping scale, crunchy combat that is as satisfying as it is brutal, and a world that begs to have its every corner and crevice explored. It's a spectacular blockbuster, but these are the least of its achievements.
In a game where a hulking god rips all manner of creatures limb from limb, the most shocking moments aren't bathed in blood, but carried by poignant words and heartfelt emotions. They are a former God of War--known for mercilessly killing his kin--finding the words to empathize with loss; a despondent child emploring a father to break a self-destructive cycle; a moment of tenderness in the life of a boy that has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
God of War Ragnarok's most impressive achievements are its exploration of loss and love; grief and growth; determinism and defiance. It's an astoundingly well-written game that deconstructs the mythology of Norse gods and rebuilds it as an odyssey about families. Its story isn't about the end of the world, but those that have a hand in it. They're revered as mythical gods but are characterized by deep flaws, twisted by skewed perspectives, and corrupted by questionable motivations in the same way the people they preside over are. And yet, some also have redemptive qualities. In that respect, Ragnarok's story is told from a grey area where nuances blur the line between heroes and villains; good and evil. By constantly challenging you to reconsider who they are and the factors that drive their actions, these characters remain compelling throughout.
There are moments when characters you're not supposed to be rooting for reveal the trials and tribulations that have shaped them, or the demons they battle. This alone is enough to humanize them, but Ragnarok also mirrors the struggles of the protagonists in the antagonists, forcing you to ask yourself, "If I'm willing to empathize with the good guys because of what they're going through, shouldn't I do the same for the bad guys?" The answer, it turns out, is very complicated, and that's what makes the story so captivating.
Although Kratos and Atreus are the stars of the show, almost every character is in the midst of their own complicated journey. For some, it's one that will lift them from a pit of despair or pull them from darkness and onto a brighter path. For others, it's one that fuels obsessions that could be the undoing of everything and everyone. This is best illustrated by Kratos and Atreus who, by killing Baldur at the end of the last game, act as the harbingers of the end times.
The consequences of this moment weigh differently on them, and what they feel is their responsibility because their actions pull them in different directions. Kratos, who has finally learned to guide his son through love instead of fear, focuses on steering him away from conflict and the affairs of the Aesir gods, but does so with the knowledge that his son is prophesized to play a part in Ragnarok and he is destined to die. Atreus, meanwhile, is compelled to prevent Ragnarok and find out who he is as Loki–the name he was given by the Giants–and sets off to find Tyr, the Norse God of War, to achieve his goals. This complicated dynamic serves as the conflict between them: a man that wants to avoid war at all costs, having learned the toll it extracts firsthand, versus a boy who believes war is the only way to unseat a power that has ruined the lives of so many.
God of War Ragnarok's most impressive achievements are its exploration of loss and love; grief and growth; determinism and defiance. It's an astoundingly well-written game that deconstructs the mythology of Norse gods and rebuilds it as an odyssey about families
Those who remember Atreus's power-tripping fledgling God phase from the last game will also remember how frustrating it was to go through that--there's nothing more annoying than an arrogant child. But Ragnarok treats the differences in perspective between father and son in a much different way. Kratos is now reckoning with letting his son forge his own path and learning that holding on too tight could push him away. Atreus has matured since we last saw him and is now more cognizant that his actions can and will have consequences. As a result, the dynamic has shifted to where Kratos is trying to learn about his son instead of defining him, while Atreus does his best to see things from his father's perspective. And in both cases, Mimir's counsel plays a major part in this. The fruits of the journey that both characters underwent in the previous game are carried forward into this sequel and, thanks to the superb writing and acting, the back-and-forths between them are genuinely interesting. There's a newfound sense of mutual respect in these conversations, which is uncharted territory for Kratos, and in turn feeds into the motif of growth that underpins God of War Ragnarok.
This is a game where you will see people change in meaningful ways. Without revealing details, new characters and those you became intimately familiar with in the previous game have experiences that profoundly impact them and the people around them. God of War Ragnarok is rich in themes to unpack, from the influence of families and generational trauma to how abuses of power and emotional manipulation can change people. God of War Ragnarok places the Norse pantheon under the harshest of lights to show how deeply flawed they are, and we're able to explore that thoroughly through our own experiences with them, as well as tales told by others that have their own. Mimir, the self-professed smartest man alive, returns to offer his insight on all things Norse history, as do the various writings scattered throughout the realms that recount complex histories, the tales of notable figures, or provide insight into the thoughts and feelings of various characters.
God of War Ragnarok is a long game, but at every step of the journey, the writing and characterization make it count. It justifies that runtime by cultivating an intimacy with the characters that is only possible by spending hours and hours with them, learning how they see the world, and what influences their thinking. And pretty much every character is fascinating, but especially the Aesir gods, who can be a cruel bunch at the best of times. With the looming threat of their demise, however, each of them begins to unravel in different ways. For some, their nature becomes concentrated further, which has unfortunate repercussions. Others, however, are forced to rethink what truly matters to them.
There have been a lot of takes on Norse mythology, but God of War Ragnarok's is easily one of the most memorable. It's elevated by the presence of Kratos, whose past life as a Greek God provides him with a unique perspective, but also because he's placed at the center of it. The legends that we're used to are molded around him and his son, and they adhere in a way that is truly impressive. When all is said and done, you can stand back and marvel at how neatly– and creatively–different strands of narratives and characterization from older God of War titles, the previous entry in this rebooted series, and Norse mythology as a whole have been weaved together.
When it comes to confronting Kratos and Atreus's enemies on the battlefield, God of War Ragnarok doesn't make any drastic departures from the previous game, though there are some new additions and expansions made to key mechanics. Fundamentally, however, the core gameplay remains the same, and this is in its favor. My familiarity with the previous game meant it was very easy to begin tearing my way through the battlefield and the close camera angle offers a dramatic front-row seat to the brutality Kratos's legendary reputation is built upon.
There's a maniacal kind of glee that comes from stomping around arenas swinging the trusty Leviathan axe to cleave Draugrs, Elves, dragons, demons, and all manner of other fantastic creatures. Even all these hours later, the thrill of hurling the axe into the distance and then recalling it back to your side hasn't diminished one bit, and with new skill trees to work through, this ability continues to provide ample opportunities to create flashy combos that hit hard.
This time around, Kratos also has access to the Blades of Chaos from the outset, and Sony Santa Monica has put them to great use. As well as serving as excellent crowd-control tools and dishing out extra damage to ice-aligned creatures, the fiery blades are also used to emphasize mobility and verticality. Kratos can latch onto enemies and close the distance with them, which means they're very handy for target prioritization and even escape tactics. But they're also essential for quickly ascending to elevated platforms, where enemies often position themselves to take potshots. This means you'll need to have a much keener awareness of your surroundings and ensure these threats are addressed quickly. A small but very welcome new addition is the ability to launch off elevated areas and execute plunging attacks on those below, which ensures that the sense of momentum that is built in skirmishes isn't lost when moving around the battlefield.
My favorite weapon remains Kratos's trusty fists, which hit like boulders and generate a significant amount of stun. Like the previous game, enemies have a stun meter which, when filled, opens them up to devastating cinematic finishers that are weapon-specific and usually involve rending something in two, crushing bones, or eviscerating the enemy entirely. It's a wince-inducing kind of viciousness that really drives home the power fantasy of being a god, which is ironic considering that Kratos in God of War Ragnarok is a much more balanced and, I daresay, emotionally stable person. The contrast actually ends up working for the game, as it becomes a stark reminder of how far Kratos has come to be able to cage that kind of beast within him.
Combat is thrilling regardless of whether you're fighting a smattering of Draugers or trading blows with gods. It's thoughtfully designed and thoroughly satisfying from the first swing of the axe to the very last
Another area that has been expanded is shields. You were previously limited to just one, but in Ragnarok, Kratos has access to a wider range of shields. Each one usually has a playstyle it caters to, so for those who want to focus on parrying attacks to create openings, there are a selection that will enable that. But if you're the kind of person that likes to tank damage, bigger and sturdier options are available. Shields also usually have a secondary function that is executed by tapping L1 twice to check an enemy and create space, slam the shield into the ground to break guard, retaliate with a punch that knocks them back, or even rush forward. This new wrinkle further enhances the offensive feel of combat by letting you go from the back foot to the front in an instant. It's a smart little addition that means you can switch up your playstyle, should you want to.
Further enhancing what Kratos is capable of are the various role-playing systems that are tied to equipment. Naturally, equipment can be upgraded to improve their strength, the effectiveness of the element they are imbued with, or the power of the unique Runic attack, among other things. But the most tangible additions are often in the attachments, some of which will further enhance attributes while others go so far as to introduce new functionality--like sending consecutive waves of frost with every swing of the axe. Armor is treated similarly, bestowing pluses and minuses to attributes or having a unique effect that is activated by certain conditions. None of this is particularly game-changing or innovative, but it does offer the freedom to create a build for Kratos that caters to your style of play. In my case, for example, I like to play extremely aggressively and adopt high-risk strategies where parrying comes before blocking and dodging. Because of this, I focused on acquiring and upgrading equipment that rewarded me for this aggression. My entire strategy was built around rushing in and punching enemies into submission until they became vulnerable to cinematic executions, which would in turn grant me a burst of health recovery. I combined this with a relic that creates a Realm Shift, effectively slowing down time and giving me another opening to unleash a flurry of strikes or the space to hunt down life-restoring gems that might be on the battlefield.
Kratos's aggression is reflected in the enemies, which hit much harder than before and aim to overwhelm. In the early hours, this is fine, but as the game ramps up and trickier enemies appear, the mechanics can struggle under the pressure of the increased speed and aggression. These enemies often absorb much more damage, have multiple phases, or move around and attack from a distance, and in many cases, there can be multiple of them. Because of this, it can often feel like you're being pulled in multiple directions and cracks in the defensive options form. I often found myself in the middle of a series of attacks and then suddenly an enemy would appear from behind, forcing me to disengage either by turning around or rolling out of the way. The quick turn input is now L1 and down on the directional pad, and even as I approached the end of the game, it felt awkward and unreliable to execute, especially in the heat of battle. You can remap this, but I never found a place where I was completely comfortable with it.
This also felt like it was breaking the flow of combat, especially since the intensity made it easy to lose track of the on-screen arrow that indicates an attack from behind is coming. The indicator switches from yellow to red to provide some idea of timing, but I still found myself getting clipped a lot. Although this isn't a big deal for much of the game, in the latter half, enemies can stunlock you, so there were numerous occasions where a single enemy would open me up to being pummeled by multiple and I'd die in an instant. These moments arose in a way where I felt ill-equipped and incapable of making Kratos react in a way that could deal with what was being thrown at me, as opposed to not being able to execute because of my own skill. Since there are high-level challenges equivalent to Valkyries from the previous game–and more than a few that are even trickier–this is the kind of thing that can be the difference between life and death. Thankfully, for boss fights at least, God of War Ragnarok is much better about checkpointing as you move through phases. And when you're getting stuck into the combat, Atreus is much more capable this time around. Along with Mimir, he will either do callouts to keep you informed, or fire off some arrows at your command or of his own volition to get threats off you–he's a good lad.
Ultimately, although these issues can be irksome, they are small and in the grand scheme of things don't drastically impact how the mechanics coalesce. Combat is much pacier and more dynamic than before, and it is thrilling regardless of whether you're fighting a smattering of Draugers or trading blows with gods. It's thoughtfully designed and thoroughly satisfying from the first swing of the axe to the very last.
Kratos and Atreus's battles takes them across all nine realms, which is a change from the previous game where two of the realms were locked away. One of the most interesting parts of God of War Ragnarok is how it reimagines areas that were in the original game. Fimbulwinter is used as a narrative conceit to give these familiar locales new life. In Norse mythology, Fimbulwinter, which translates to "the long winter," serves as the prelude to Ragnarok. In-game, it affects the nine realms in different ways. Midgard for example is besieged by a bitter cold, so when you return to the Lake of The Nine once again, it has completely frozen over. Key areas of the lake that you may have become intimately familiar with in the last game may now be inaccessible as new parts of it open up. A cold wind sweeps across the icy surface of the lake and at the center of it all, Tyr’s temple is now barely recognizable under the buildup of snow. In the distance, icy mountain peaks serve as a backdrop to a single lighting strike, frozen in place as the mark of an intense battle. Naturally, navigation is completely changed since you can no longer sail the waters. Instead, Kratos and Atreus get around on a sled that is pulled by their trusty pet wolves, which is a nice way to mix up the way you get around. At certain points, you can even use their keen sense of awareness to sniff out objectives, which is a nice touch.
Svartalfheim, by comparison, looks picturesque from the outskirts, with its bright blue skies. But as you venture deeper into its wetlands, it becomes more desert-like, with craggy rocks awkwardly jutting out and collapsed wooden mining equipment filling the spaces in between. There's an unpleasant, arid atmosphere to it, and yet at the same time, it's quite the visual spectacle to behold, rich in detail and intricate in its construction. Vanaheim, home of the Vanir, is a verdant forest that has reclaimed much of the landscape; trees gently sway in the wind; moss has settled atop the water, and vegetation snakes along stone floors and up onto manmade shrines. And if you take a moment to stop and look around, you'll find wildlife nestled amongst all the green. It's a place that is very alive, which makes it a nice contrast to the coldness of Midgard or the glistening majesty of Alfheim's architecture. There are other areas I won't spoil, some of which have a good amount to see and do, while others serve a specific function.
No one area in God of War Ragnarok comes across as big as the Lake of the Nine, but it seems like this is a symptom of how you're constantly moving around a variety of locations as opposed to repeatedly returning to one. Regardless, each realm has a grand sense of scale and, as you move between them, the scope of the world as a whole far eclipses what came before. While the main story campaign moves Kratos and Atreus through all nine realms, there are plenty of side quests to undertake in each of these locations. Yet another testament to the writing is that these quests are never a distraction and always present a good reward, whether that be an item or crafting materials, at the very least. However, most of the time they also deliver some piece of lore, further flesh out a side character, or give Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir something new to bond over.
Going anywhere with these characters is an exciting prospect, and I often found myself just wandering around to let conversations play out or hoping that new ones would start. In most cases, they did, and I was treated to valuable character growth. In Ragnarok, Kratos is now more inquisitive, Mimir is always ready and willing to offer his insight, and Atreus takes the opportunity to make jokes at both their expense. And that's something I definitely didn't expect. God of War Ragnarok is a funny game--there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments that endeared me to this new family unit that developed over the last game and flourishes in its sequel.
And that's what distinguishes God of War Ragnarok from its predecessor, and most other action games. Despite being a story about warring gods and the end of the world, the soul of the game is something far more sentimental. You may have noticed that I've avoided mentioning the names of characters or describing plot beats, and that was intentional. To talk more about anything or anyone would be to rob you of some of the most unexpected things that God of War Ragnarok achieves with its narrative and the themes they explore. The last game's thoughtful approach to exploring fatherhood was unexpected, Ragnarok somehow manages to feel like an even more personal tale about the complicated nature of families and the people that make them up. For every moment of brutality, there is one of genuine and relatable emotion. How they land will vary from person to person, but there were multiple that left me with tears welling up. If nothing else, God of War Ragnarok further cements Sony Santa Monica's narrative team as one of the best in the business.