Taking a Moment of Quiet in a Thunderous Journey
Around 25 hours into the action-packed God of War Ragnarok, I encountered a rare moment of tranquility. After a long and eventful trip to Svartalfheim, Kratos, the reformed God-killer, enters his bedroom and sits silently, contemplating his strained relationship with his son, Atreus. In this vulnerable moment, his stoic facade falters, and a glimpse of his vulnerability emerges. As a tear threatens to trickle down his weathered face, he retreats to sleep, seeking solace and healing in the only place he can find it.
This quiet scene stands out as one of the best and most understated moments in a game that thrives on relentless action.
A Sequel that Battles with Familiar Territory
God of War Ragnarok, the PlayStation exclusive action-adventure, is an impressive work. However, it grapples with a well-known challenge: sequel syndrome. Developer Santa Monica Studio adopted a “more is more” approach in an attempt to surpass the remarkable and self-reflective 2018 God of War reboot. The result is more characters, more exploration, more puzzles, and more banter. Everything you loved (or didn’t) from Kratos’ previous adventure is amplified here.
Although God of War Ragnarok expands on its predecessor, it is not inherently superior. It is reminiscent of the transition from the original God of War in 2005 to its sequel, God of War 2, offering a similar experience with familiar plot beats. While the broader scope creates a messier narrative that loses some of the previous game’s intimacy, the trade-off is an even more intense combat system that solidifies the franchise as the epitome of action games.
Ragnarok Approaches: A Mythological Journey Continues
God of War Ragnarok is more accurately described as a “part two” rather than a standalone sequel. It picks up the story of Kratos and Atreus, the reformed God-killer and his son, which felt somewhat unfinished in the 2018 game. Inadvertently, the duo set in motion an early Fimbulwinter, and the new game starts three years later, with the long winter finally drawing to a close. However, the looming cataclysmic event of Ragnarok is not far behind, as prophesied.
As one would expect from this premise, the sequel ventures into grander narrative territory. While the previous installment centered on the strained relationship between Kratos and his son, Ragnarok unfolds as a sprawling epic that delves deeper into Norse mythology. The cast of characters expands significantly, featuring imposing Gods like Thor and Odin, as well as wise-cracking companions who deliver quips like they’re auditioning for a superhero movie (though the returning Mimir’s jokes become grating over time).
While the story presents an entertaining mythological romp, it falls short compared to the introspective and emotionally resonant narrative of its predecessor. The 2018 God of War was groundbreaking in its exploration of video game storytelling, as it engaged in a thoughtful examination of the series’ hyper-violent past. It artfully spun a moving tale about a grieving father who desperately wanted to ensure his child didn’t repeat his mistakes. With its intimate focus on a small group of well-developed characters, and its innovative one-shot camera technique, the game left a lasting impact.
Ragnarok, on the other hand, veers away from this introspection, favoring a more scattered and less focused approach. Thoughtful themes about parenting and musings about war and teenage experiences vie for attention. The abundance of chatty characters often results in an emotional information overload, leaving little room for subtlety. The pacing suffers from the expanded scope, with the larger cast leading to narrative diversions that interrupt the core story for extended periods. It sometimes feels more akin to a TV show blueprint, as if Sony anticipated the need for additional characters to transform the property into a multimedia phenomenon, much like The Last of Us.
The Intimacy of Father and Son
However, amidst the apocalyptic chaos, the game’s true strength lies in its portrayal of Kratos and Atreus’ relationship. In the midst of all the noise, there is a beautiful story about a father learning to trust his son and cherishing the time they have left together before adulthood sweeps him away. Christopher Judge, a series veteran, delivers a tremendous performance as Kratos, portraying the character with vulnerability and deadpan humor, making him the most endearing version yet.
One poignant moment that resonates is when Atreus insists on stopping to free a jellyfish trapped in the sand during a trip to Valheim. The father and son navigate a long dungeon together, working in harmony to save the creature. At the end, Atreus questions why Kratos would divert his attention from their world-saving quest for what appears to be an unnecessary rescue mission. The answer is simple: Kratos seeks to maximize the time he has with his son, making every moment count, regardless of the impending threat of death or cataclysm. As I reflect on my journey, I find myself wishing for more of these heartfelt moments with them.
The Ultimate Action Experience
While the narrative might be divisive, Ragnarok’s combat is undeniably spectacular. Building on the foundation of its predecessor, the sequel retains what worked well and introduces enough innovations to keep battles fresh. Kratos can now wield both his powerful Leviathan Axe and the swift Blades of Chaos right from the start, providing greater combat versatility. Seamlessly switching between these weapons allows players to adapt to different situations, whether confronting hordes of enemies or focusing on a single foe.
The most significant change lies in the increased emphasis on elemental attacks. Holding the triangle button freezes Kratos’ axe, while rapidly pressing it sets his blades ablaze. These elemental enhancements unlock a wider range of devastating attacks, expanding Kratos’ already impressive repertoire through skill trees. Moreover, performing these attacks repeatedly unlocks modifiers that enhance specific moves, increasing their damage, stun potential, and more. This level of customization adds depth to the combat system, enabling players to tailor their playstyle according to their preferences.
The RPG elements introduced in 2018 make a return, although they might not satisfy everyone. Stat increases still feel somewhat insignificant, making the pursuit of better equipment more tiresome than fulfilling. However, gear perks shine in Ragnarok. By the end of the game, I was equipped with gear that allowed me to heal by vanquishing enemies, akin to Doom, and freeze time with successful dodge rolls reminiscent of Bayonetta. With careful tinkering, I could piece together my ideal action game experience, selecting the best elements from the genre.
Ragnarok also offers ample opportunities to put one’s combat skills to the test. While the previous game featured challenging Valkyrie fights that drew comparisons to Dark Souls, the sequel introduces more memorable monsters. Confronting these creatures forced me to utilize every tool at my disposal. One particular encounter with a colossal beast locked in a treasure vault compelled me to master my parrying skills, deepening my overall approach to battle for the remainder of my adventure.
Companions play a more prominent role in this game as well, with Atreus becoming an essential ally in combat. This added variety breathes new life into the gameplay. While I won’t divulge specific details about Atreus’ role, it becomes evident why he receives substantial attention in the sequel: Ragnarok’s story ultimately revolves around him, more so than Kratos. Although we spend more time with Kratos himself, this is a coming-of-age tale about a teenager seeking his own identity—a concept foreshadowed by the surprising twist in the previous game’s finale. It’s a decision that may polarize some fans, especially since the young Sunny Suljic’s voice is maturing throughout production, making his portrayal fall short of Christopher Judge’s powerful performance as Kratos. However, it demonstrates Santa Monica Studio’s willingness to step out of its comfort zone and introduce something fresh into a sequel that otherwise plays it safe.
Bigger but not Necessarily Better
Right from one of the game’s opening sequences, it becomes evident that Santa Monica Studio is adhering closely to a formula this time. Memorable narrative beats from the 2018 game are echoed here in a manner that feels somewhat calculated, as if the developers compiled a slide deck of what resonated with fans and aimed to double down on those elements. This tendency is not exclusive to God of War Ragnarok but can be observed in many game sequels (such as the excellent Horizon Forbidden West). While this approach doesn’t detract from the game, it also fails to create a truly addictive experience.
For example, exploration, a key aspect that garnered praise in the 2018 game, returns in Ragnarok. Multiple open spaces, spanning the nine realms, allow Kratos and Atreus to embark on journeys in search of substantial side-quests. This concept, which was effective in 2018, still holds true here. The rewards of exploration are immense, with vast areas teeming with treasures and clever environmental puzzles (though, it seems the companions doubt your ability to solve them, based on their constant hints). The side-quests remain a highlight, offering some of the best narrative moments in the game. The early side-mission involving the rescue of a trapped whale, transforming into a puzzle-filled island, particularly stands out, cleverly reflecting Kratos’ own insecurities.
However, despite these positive aspects, moments in Ragnarok tend to blur together. The abundance of puzzles, collectibles, and excessive banter during travel between locations create a sense of amalgamation. Unlike the comparatively compact journey through the Lake of the Nines in the previous game, the individual moments in Ragnarok fail to leave a lasting impression within the grander realm-jumping adventure. It’s not necessarily better or worse; it’s simply more.
Moreover, Ragnarok doesn’t feel like a significant technical improvement, despite running on the PS5. The game retains a PS4 feel, even masking loading times with clever realm travel transitions. While this aspect doesn’t personally bother me, as allowing fans who have yet to upgrade consoles to experience an incomplete story is fair, it does contribute to a sense of stagnation, further tying it to the great yet safe formula of God of War 2.
If my critique appears as harsh as Kratos scolding his son, it’s because I recognize the immense potential of this series. Santa Monica Studio reinvented the franchise beautifully in 2018, delivering a bold game that stands among the best of its generation. Although God of War Ragnarok falls short of my expectations, and likely those of many fans, it still surpasses its peers with unrivaled action, breathtaking landscapes, and emotionally driven storytelling. I longed for more from this sequel, but perhaps I need to set aside my eagerness for it to mature and instead appreciate it for what it is—an evolution that inevitably encounters growing pains.
Please note that this review is specific to God of War Ragnarok on PS5.
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