God of War Ragnarök Review: Be Better

Photo courtesy of PlayStation

Photo courtesy of PlayStation

As of release, this game will only be a week old so there will be no spoilers in this review. 

After years of buildup and anticipation, the sequel to 2018’s “God of War” has finally been released. This was by far my most anticipated game of the year after “Horizon Forbidden West” ultimately let me down (yes I know I gave it a 9/10 but opinions change). 

In my review of “Horizon Forbidden West,” I called it a “triumphant generation-defining” game, and now looking back, I was completely wrong. “God of War Ragnarök” is exactly what a “triumphant generation-defining” game looks like. It elevates and improves on the original systems and mechanics of 2018’s game in every way and provides one of the most engrossing and rich stories ever brought to a video game.

Rarely does a game grip me so much that I play it until five in the morning multiple nights in a row. Rarely does a game have my jaw dropped to the floor. Rarely does a game get me choked up once let alone twice. Rarely does a game have me squirming in my seat because of how tense a scene gets. Rarely does a game leave as much of an impression on me as “Ragnarök” has.

Sony Santa Monica Studios hit it out of the park with this game. They have managed to elevate their already massive blockbuster franchise to the extent that I genuinely do not know if they will be able to top it once they decide to return to the world of “God of War.”

Photo courtesy of IGN
Photo courtesy of IGN

Firstly, “Ragnarök” has an excellent soundtrack by Bear McCreary that builds off the 2018 game excellently. It will often evoke the same themes and melodies but they will often be grander or more personal depending on the situation.

I won’t spoil it, but there’s an excellent scene that changes what I think is the best theme of the 2018 game, “Memories of Mother.” It creates one of the most beautiful and powerful scenes in the game that left chills down my spine because of how effective the use of music is in conveying the importance of what’s happening on screen.

This may sound like a downside since the game is heavily reliant on the original soundtrack but I’d argue that it’s the exact opposite. Evoking those familiar themes that are already associated with important and impactful scenes I think only elevates the scenes that use similar music.

This soundtrack feels both epic and extremely personal and the way it builds off the original soundtrack leads to some really impactful scenes in large part because of the music.

Photo courtesy of Polygon
Photo courtesy of Polygon

Like its predecessor, “Ragnarök” is a technical marvel. It’s not quite as visually impressive as “Horizon Forbidden West” but it makes up for it in quite literally every other department. 

The sound design is impeccable. The world feels extremely well-realized in large part because of effective sound design that adds a ton to the atmosphere. On top of that sounds of different hits, and slashes sound so brutally satisfying that you can feel the power behind them. 

The different realms you visit across the world of Norse mythology all look beautiful. From the fiery mountains of Muspelheim to the lush jungles of Vanaheim, brought all of the 9 realms to life in jaw-droppingly gorgeous detail. On top of that, the already existing realms you visited in the previous game have been changed to show the effects of Fimbulwinter. Midgard, for example, has completely frozen over and travel through the realms using Tyr’s, the Norse god of war, temple is impossible because of the frozen river. Alfheim, the home of the elves, sees some major effects of Fimbulwinter as it now has brutal desert storms.

Most impressive though is the voice acting and performance capture. I do not know what wizardry Santa Monica Studios pulled but the facial animations look outstanding. You can see every single subtle movement on these characters’ faces including even the slightest of quivers on the lip. To boot, the voice-acting audio is captured perfectly where you can hear every single subtle intricacy in these characters’ voices but I’ll elaborate on that later.

Photo courtesy of GamesRadar
Photo courtesy of GamesRadar

The gameplay here is very similar to the previous entry but you know the saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The gameplay before was already great so this time around all they really had to do was make the combat a little more dynamic and fast-paced. 

The combat in this game feels a lot better even with the marginal changes because you start off with a good amount of weapon variety whereas in the previous game you only had a slow and heavy axe for most of the game. This time you have the Blades of Chaos from the get-go which makes the combat feel a lot more fun and dynamic since you can immediately use multiple weapons right from the start.

The game is also generally a little more challenging than before (Which it should be since the threat is significantly higher in this game). This time around I often had to stay on my toes and carefully consider how the battlefield is laid out. The game forces you to consider which weapons to use in different situations which adds another layer of challenge and fun to it.

Weapons here feel very heavy and powerful. Every hit feels like it has a tangible impact which a lot of games struggle with (I’m looking at you “Gotham Knights”). The Leviathan Axe feels hefty and weighty whereas the Blades of Chaos feel like you are shredding through cheese. The combat especially when you get into the groove of things feels so satisfying and rewarding and I honestly think this could be my favorite melee combat in a video game because of how fun it is.

My only suggestion next time would be to have some aerial options along with even faster pacing.

The game also has a lot of puzzles and they generally tend to be hit or miss. Some puzzles are really fun whereas others can be finicky and frustrating. There is a certain kind of puzzle that requires the use of a special arrow and generally speaking they are just a pain to get through because they don’t work half the time. The game also weirdly spoils the answers to puzzles before you solve them by having characters tell you what to do. I don’t know about you but being told how to solve a puzzle kinda ruins the fun of……. solving a puzzle. This was just a very strange choice because characters will literally tell you what to do right after you start a puzzle and it just ruins the fun half the time.

The world is vastly expanded this time around. The last game had Midgard as a big explorable hub area with a ton of things to do with the other realms having considerably more linear designs. In “Ragnarök” this design philosophy has been expanded to multiple other realms. Alfheim, Svartalfheim, and Vanaheim all now have fully explorable maps with their own side missions and secrets to uncover. Of course, Midgard is also explorable again but thanks to the 3 years of Fimbulwinter it is now completely different than it was before with entirely new areas to explore.

Photo courtesy of PlayStation
Photo courtesy of PlayStation

If you’ve read my other reviews, you know that I place a lot of weight into a game’s narrative and this is no different. The first game left me in awe with how good its story was but this one ramps it up in every way. The story is a sweeping epic spanning all the 9 realms and Norse gods. Last time around it had a lot of Norse mythological elements and characters but it was considerably more self-contained than this where you get to see the growing tensions that will eventually lead to war.

Despite the grander backdrop, this game never loses what made everyone fall back in love with the series, to begin with, the characters and their relationships. In fact, I’d even say that the character writing overall is superior in “Ragnarök.” Every character that could have been overlooked or written off in the last game now has a deeply personal and emotional arc. Even the main villains are more sympathetic with their own understandable and human struggles despite being gods.

The best examples of this improved writing are with Brok and Sindri, the dwarven blacksmiths. In the 2018 game, they were for the most part just comedic relief and a tool for you to be able to upgrade your weapons but now they have their own conflicts and arcs that are both beautiful and gut-wrenching.

It’s no secret that Odin and Thor are the primary antagonists of this game and after only hearing outside perspectives of them previously, it’s exciting to finally see them in “Ragnarök.” Simply put, they are two of the best villains in gaming history. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers but they are incredible here and they frankly put the Marvel versions to shame.

At the center of the story though, is a heartfelt tale about father and son. Every corner of the story revolves around the motif of family and how those bonds can both be strengthened and fractured. These may be larger-than-life gods and mythological figures but they cannot escape the very human propensity to form and sometimes destroy familial bonds.

Photo courtesy of Digital Trends
Photo courtesy of Digital Trends

This story pushed both Kratos and his son, Atreus, to their highest highs and lowest lows, and seeing different sides of them as they grow even closer is both engaging and heartwarming. While a core theme of fatherhood is present in the last game, the theme is a bit different here. It’s not contradicting the 2018 game; it’s just simply different on a thematic level to account for the years of growth and development Kratos and Atreus have gotten.

The story admittedly has some pacing issues in the first half but I can’t help but overlook it when the rest of it is so incredible. The character work is impeccable so I’m willing to look over an admittedly messy plot at times. It may have some bumps in the road but I was still glued to my screen to see what happens next.

Performances across the board are also incredible. Ryan Hurst gives a thundering yet saddening performance as Thor. Richard Schiff as Odin is scene-chewing and is one of the biggest standouts in the game. Danielle Bisutti does a fantastic job as Freya once again and provides a much more emotional performance. Sunny Suljic is better than ever as Atreus and it’s great to finally see him coming into his own outside of Kratos. Last and certainly not least is Christopher Judge as Kratos who gives one of if not the single greatest performance put in a video game. It’s hard to put into words how astounding he is in this game. You can tell that he pours his entire body and soul into playing the character because he channels every fiber of his being to portray every feeling Kratos has. He already had a show-stopping performance in the previous game but here he’s just on a whole other level.

There are so many layers and subtlety to unpack with all these characters and I frankly find it astounding that they were able to make all of them so engaging while also doubling the size of the cast. 

The story is fantastic and provides an epic but also deeply heartfelt tale. The excellent character work here is what makes this grand and epic conflict so compelling because of how much is at stake for all of these characters each character including the villains has sympathetic reasons for their actions the story has so much heart and humanity to it that I can’t help but gush just thinking about it. The first 30 minutes alone are worth the price of admission and the finale is one of the most heart-pumping and inspiring final acts in a video game.

Overall, “God of War Ragnarök” is an astounding achievement and stands as possibly the best game PlayStation has ever released. The soundtrack is perfect, the game is a technical marvel, and the gameplay is brutally satisfying with it all being wrapped under the ginormous bow that is the excellent story. I hope that this is a game that is remembered for years to come because I believe it truly stands on the pantheon as one of the greatest games of all time.

Score: 9.5/10