Aficionados of Greek mythology might have hated God of War. Kratos literally killed the canonical god of war from Ancient Greece, Ares, after Ares tricked him into murdering his whole family. The vengeance-fuelled events that followed elevated the once Spartan general, Kratos -- an utterly fictional and modern character -- to demigod; replacing Ares at his seat in the titular role, and joining the other gods of Olympus in the world’s most beloved and well-known pantheon outside of the Marvel Universe.
For anyone not an aficionado of one of the greatest mythological cultures in antiquity, the popcorn events of the God of War games were butter; smooth, easily spreadable and could pretty much go with anything.
Learned folk of the next most comparable pantheon in ancient history and mythology -- the Norse gods; dramatis personae of the soapiest of levels, might also baulk at Kratos’ invasion of their already conjecture-laden sagas. Stories from which prose were recorded hundreds of years after they might have been first uttered around a hearth, sewn into a tapestry or shared upon the high seas while sojourning to the nearest Monastery for a bit of culture.
Snorri Sturluson was the scribe’s name and his sagas and poetry of the exploits of the All Father, Odin, his brutish son, Thor, and the other Aesir gods of Asgard -- one of nine realms that exist as part of the sacred tree, Yggdrasil -- now live on as one of the most potent settings for modern storytelling. The aforementioned bastard intrusion of Ancient Greece, God of War and its incumbent deity, Kratos, among them. That “baulk”, as it were, will likely stem from some of the structure around the loosely understood events and performers in a particularly interesting bit of Norse mythology the game reviewed today focuses on -- Ragnarök.
"He employs the smithing of the subjugated Dwarves to make an unbreakable bind, Gleipnir, made of, among four other “impossible” things, the breath of a fish and the sound of a cat’s footsteps...”
In the most recognised version of events, or those most adapted, Ragnarök is essentially the end of the world (that being the world of the Nine Realms), and comes about after a harsh winter as all of the Nine Realms experience a level of chaos like never before. The wolf, Fenrir, son of Loki and Angerboda -- both giants or, "Jötunn" -- bites off the Norse god of war, Tyr’s arm, after Odin tries to trick the beast into bondage fearing its place in triggering Ragnarök. To do this, he employs the smithing of the subjugated Dwarves to make an unbreakable bind, Gleipnir, made of, among four other “impossible” things, the breath of a fish and the sound of a cat’s footsteps. Fenrir, however, breaks these bonds, swallows Odin and then eventually swallows the sun. Following this Baldur, once dead after being felled by a mistletoe-laced arrow, comes back to life and the world resets.
Amidst all of those events a lot more takes place including, very specifically, Odin’s attempts to thwart his own fate at the jaws of Fenrir. But as with all of Norse myth, one cannot undo the weavings of the Norn -- three seamstresses of fate the All Father takes exception to, thus leaving Odin’s hubris and immutable desire to survive as a beacon for destiny, manifest, and him being more commonly the cause of Ragnarök at all.
Four years on, we’re offered the truest of sequels by Santa Monica Studios whom, for whatever reason, appears to have steadfastly kept building upon what might have at one time or another began life as DLC (in fact game director Cory Barlog had once said SMS had begun pre-production on DLC but it was eventually abandoned for being too big). In God of War Ragnarök, we’re not too far on from the events of the first game that saw the death of Freya’s son, Baldur, by a mistletoe trinket hung around Atreus’ neck. Once he was harmed by this seemingly innocuous item and became effectively killable, Kratos snaps his neck.
"This has created a chaos that will eventually draw both Kratos and Atreus out of the safety of their Midgardian home, to which they returned after their 2018 exploits...”
In doing this, as with historic Norse mythology, Ragnarök begins and a terrible coldsnap, Fimbulwinter, takes hold of Midgard while inadvertently affecting all eight other realms in different ways. This has created a chaos that will eventually draw both Kratos and Atreus out of the safety of their Midgardian home, to which they returned after their 2018 exploits, relying heavily on the Staves protecting the abode in hope of keeping any vengeful Aesir gods from knocking on their door, again.
In addition to this, Atreus’ own curiosity about his place in all things as a seemingly half Jötunn (or “god”), someone else entirely named Loki, and a child of destiny whose very existence is the ire of the All Father, Odin (and half the reason for everything unfolding in the first place), is the perfect point to pick things up which have, as you might expect, gone fairly awry with an adventure for the ages in waiting.
ᛈᚱᛁᛗᛖ ᛗᚩvᛖᚱ - Prime Mover
For reasons totally in line with Santa Monica Studios’ plea for reviewers and content creators to avoid spoilers, we’re not going to go much deeper on the story lest it be in the context of a review point, but what we’ll say is that God of War Ragnarök is big. Very big. In our hands-on with the game we already highlighted that the newly accessible realm of Svartalfheim, home to the Dwarves and their precious mines, is akin to the Lake of the Nine in size, and features a near equal amount of points of exploration.
And that’s just the one realm.
As with God of War (2018), Ragnarök is delivered in a pseudo sandbox and linear way. Apart from a number of moments in canoe or behind sled (a new traversal feature), most of the game’s paths are fairly locked and heavily directed by the studio; climb here, swing there, crawl through here, solve this environmental puzzle, ready yourself for battle now. It’s not an on-rails experience, strictly, as there’s a heavy element of Metroid Prime mixed into its makeup, to the point my review notes featured “Prime-like” on a handful of different occasions, but it’s far from an open-world-like experience. But that shouldn’t detract newcomers, or rile up the Sony elitists -- Prime is good company, and in 2022 (and 2018) it’s as close as we’ve come to a new Metroid Prime and likely will for some time, it’s just that the influences are fairly striking, especially for fans of that series and deserve mentioning here.
"The game even acknowledges this often with characters remarking on indulgences of exploration...”
What this means is that you’ll revisit paths as the game’s ‘open’ areas feature gated teasers to something more. Unfortunately, more often than not these are just harder to reach chests with better gear set to be unlocked once you’ve discovered a new ability to open up the world. It’s a little bit smoke and mirrors in this way. For the most part, the road you travel in the first place is the meat and potatoes of its narrative with most of everything else there for the 100-percenters out there, or lore purists like myself. The game even acknowledges this often with characters remarking on indulgences of exploration, or if you manage to find hidden chests or suspended items that the devs clearly took the time to make hard to reach.
You’ll be able to realm hop as you did in the first game, also. However, early on the game’s desire to go all berserker on its story means you’re kind of stuck following the beats Santa Monica Studios has laid out for you. It’s not a bad thing and there’s actually a lot of differences in gameplay, beat-to-beat. Whether that’s playing as Atreus in solo missions without Kratos, or with a supporting character along for the ride, the first two-thirds of the game truly serve up disparate experiences for the player and keep things fresh, while also making sure the series’ staple, combat, is persistent in its import, regardless of the moving nature of any given tangent or story moment-slash-path.
Though sometimes that’s to the game’s detriment.
ᛒᛖᚱᛋᛖᚱk ᚠᚩᚱ ᚳᚩᛗᚾᚪᛏ - Berserk for Combat
Full disclaimer: we reviewed the game on its highest difficulty setting, Give Me God of War. At this level enemies are harder to kill (they take far less damage), come in greater number and rubberband the fuck out of you. In addition to that nugget, the game’s animations simply aren’t friendly with overly grumpy, aggro baddies who can snap to, or away from you in a microsecond, as if they were sporting tech from a high-end Ripperdoc who got lost trading with the Dwarves in Svartalfheim. And none of that is helped by the problem that movements stack and that neither evade or block-slash-parry tend to take precedence upon input.
The number of times we were standing waiting for the Leviathan axe to return to Kratos, and for that full animation sequence to play out, only to be smacked about and not be able to just evade once it was clear we were about to be torn to shreds took the game to ever-frustrating levels.
"Waiting for the Leviathan axe to return to Kratos, and for that full animation sequence to play out, only to be smacked about...”
And it’s annoying because we’ve played games that have handled this situation better. In the Batman: Arkham series, for example, Counter and Evade always interrupt any previous inputs and take precedence, while still allowing the player to maintain their combo. It’s not a system you can mash or spam, either -- timing is still a key factor to it, especially while trying to raise that meter. And it feels like Santa Monica Studios has tried to mandate this, but in Ragnarök so many other systems playing out all at once break the flow, and it was very often we found ourselves taking the All Father’s name in vain, it felt that cheesed. You can navigate this with some luck (if you manage to avoid the game’s equally annoying invisible walls), or by being super-aggro yourself and just cheesing a stun and heavy attack combo, but these require a lot of stars to align, and you kind of need full health and an at least half full Rage bar.
There’s a frustrating mini-boss encounter with a Forest Ancient -- we’ve faced similar in God of War (2018), and this guy is tough but on his own not difficult to beat; just wait for him to bear his chest, attack his ‘heart’ and avoid his chest cannon and laser beam. However, in this instance the game throws a small horde of Legion at you -- exploding Brood-like enemies that dish out poison and will also attach themselves to you, forcing a Circle mash QTE to remove them. And it does this at a crucial moment while fighting the Ancient, whom you can only damage when he’s open and vulnerable, which is effectively a timed event.
"You need that separation in order to unleash a Leviathan Fury or Chaos Slam to crowd-control...”
The frustration here is a few-fold: creating distance between yourself and the horde while escaping either of the Ancient’s attacks is actually difficult because you need that separation in order to unleash a Leviathan Fury or Chaos Slam to crowd-control. And in addition to this, depending on your controller setup, having any form of lock-on assist can severely limit you, and actually hinder. I also found that that animation issue mentioned above, the one attached to input; here, switching to the Blades of Chaos, which is almost essential to dispatch the Legions, might not register or worse (the animation leaves you too vulnerable for too long). This is hard when they’re not only swarming you, but their leap attack isn’t blockable. So you also need to be mindful of using evade, but remember, evade isn’t a priority move, and so you’ll just find yourself in a frustrating mess of needing some luck and to hopefully aggressively finish the Ancient early on to give you the time and space to deal with the Legion.
When I faced this situation it was in Vanaheim and I was alone. Atreus usually offers great crowd-control while having the ability to direct his arrows is super-important. And hey, I understand that playing the game on Give Me God of War isn’t meant to be a cakewalk, but what’s highlighted above is an example of how the broken evade and block and parry system, which is never a priority input, stacked against other animations, can more often that not make for a vexing combat experience.
That said, when combat flows and the game’s systems play nice and you kick ass, it’s awesome. And on No Mercy it feels as it should, and you feel capable. It’s just a shame that on the game’s highest setting it feels broken, cheap and at times impossible.
ᚹᚪᛚk ᛁᚾᛏᚩ ᛏᚻᛖ ᛚᛁᛏᛖ - Walk into the Lite
It’s important to highlight that combat isn’t solely a reaction-based setup, and the game comes with a remarkably familiar menu system that features plenty of upgradeable aspects for both Kratos and Atreus. Skilltrees follow each weapon for both characters, so Leviathan and Blades of Chaos for Dad, and Bow for Son, respectively. Armour comes in the familiar Chest, Waists and Wrists modules, and everything can be like-geared or mixed and matched, and it’s all upgradeable with the right resources by Brok and Sindri who return in even more expansive form this time around. There are new additions here, too. Such as the Amulets slots which allow you to gain passive abilities -- these act a bit like the Mutagens of The Witcher 3 and can be swapped in and out, geared or configured in different ways. It's one of a few standout new parts of the game.
"As far as serving a larger part in helping with game-world exposition, new characters to actually interact with is still very cool...”
Another new, or at least more expansive addition to the game is also one of the aspects we bemoaned with God of War (2018) -- was in its lack of life. And while we addressed this a little in our hands-on it wouldn’t be spoilerish to reveal that you’ll come across a lot more friendlies in God of War Ragnarök, which is actually really cool, and some will give you side-quests (or Favours) to perform, but once they’re done with you they just blend back into the background, which is kind of fine given the sort of game we’re playing, but we can’t help but feel this could have been a larger part of Ragnarök being a bit more evolutionary in how it went about things. But as far as serving a larger part in helping with game-world exposition, new characters to actually interact with is still very cool.
Lore entries come in thick and fast in addition to the above and are written as a mix of Mimir and Kratos, with notes from Atreus thrown in for teen angsty measure. And it’s all very good, though not incredibly in-depth (which I’d personally have preferred). Moreover, the game’s map is almost a like-for-like from the 2018 outing, which helps highlight something you might have already seen or heard mentioned from others who’ve had early access like us, and we’ve alluded to it a bit, but Ragnarök is familiar all-round. It is a sequel, sure, but it also feels like it belongs (a bit) to 2019, or even 2020. There’s no expansion (heh) to the formula here, and evolution really only comes in the form of its scale. And that’s actually kind of okay. God of War (2018) won the TGAs that year for a reason. But to temper expectations, you need to go into this expecting a lot of familiarity.
"It certainly feels bigger because its setpieces and new locations, alongside a greater understanding of this game-universe’s aesthetics (and with more power, to be fair), means the team has gone all out...”
The game’s writing is very good, again, as are the performances of its cast, and on the PS5 it’s a stunning, stunning game. But then so was God of War’s PS4 self when being played on a PS5 thanks to the “Enhanced Performance Experience” SMS released, and this is more in line with that than with feeling wholly PS5-built. It certainly feels bigger because its setpieces and new locations, alongside a greater understanding of this game-universe’s aesthetics (and with more power, to be fair), means the team has gone all out. But if I’m being honest, God of War doesn’t present as next-gen. And that comes down to more than just visuals -- the similar traversal setup and Prime-like makeup didn’t really offer anything new, and for all its bombast and bosses and mini-bosses and excellent cutscenes, and that one camera shot, which of course returns here, I felt like I was playing that “more” I wanted at the close of God of War in 2018. So you have to understand it's really very good, it's just not anything overly new.
ᛒᛖᚳᚪᚢᛋᛖ ᛏᚻᛖ ᚾᚩᚱᚾᛋ ᛋᚪᚣ ᛋᚩ - Because the Norns Say So
Where does this leave God of War Ragnarök when stacked against its Game of the Year foundation piece? That’s a hard question to answer. Sony diehards will froth over the game, without question, but like Horizon Forbidden West earlier this year we can’t help but feel it could have gone to another level (it is infinitely better than that game, though). And there’s room with this iteration of God of War as a generational franchise to do that, it’s just that God of War Ragnarök’s fate wasn’t to be that game, apparently (to maintain a theme).
That said, what is here is incredibly good. In fact it’s as good as most of the other top games released this year, it just doesn’t reach the same peak as the first outing, despite being somewhat on par with it from a gameplay, setup and cadence sense.
"It’s fine that I’ve had to go through the same tropes and pitfalls to become god-like powerful again, we just wanted to do it a different way this time....”
In future what we’d like to see is this combat or similar, only tightened and balanced for all difficulty modes, first and foremost. But also something a bit more open. The backtracking, especially in sections of the game with required climbing animations, tends to grate on those of us willing to stick around for all of the game's hidden goodies. (A simple ‘drop’ option would have been good when climbing, for example.) But larger than that, maybe a less strict path for overall level design and a more sandbox approach that carries over in a less repetitive way would be good (we’re not asking for open-world -- plenty of those going around). And maybe a deeper look at item and skill expansion.
It’s also criminal that the Kratos we finished God of War (2018) with couldn’t carry over to Ragnarök (which could even have led to a very Metroid moment where you lose all of that gear and those abilities, contextually. The game does have magic, Cory…), and if that is a feature, we haven’t found it at the time of writing. And it’s fine that we’ve had to go through the same tropes and pitfalls to become god-like powerful again, we just wanted to do it a different way this time. We wanted to experience a different saga, and God of War Ragnarök feels like the expansion of one we’ve already heard around the hearth, seen in a beautiful tapestry and heard on the high seas venturing towards more loot. Though it’s still a very, very good saga. One worthy of the Edda.
What we liked
A true sequel that addresses all the questions we had after the 2018 release
A stunning game with a new twist on some familiar spaces
Also new spaces to explore, and each as beautiful as the last
Great performances with a stand out shout to Sindri
A decent variety of missions that break the norm early on in the piece
Options aplenty to craft the best experience for you
What we didn't like
Combat on the highest difficulty setting is incredibly borked
Despite this being a fantastic sequel, we can't help but feel it had another level to go to
Looks as good as the enhanced PS4 version of the game running on PS5 (which is still good)
Tedious backtracking thanks to certain aspects of traversal