Editor’s note: This review is spoiler-free, and does not reveal any beat-by-beat descriptions of pivotal narrative moments
There’s a simultaneous sense of comfort and trepidation that accompany God of War Ragnarok’s opening hours. On the surface, it’s a very familiar game — you still play as the hulking, grunting Kratos (who at this point, might hold the record for most gods slain) with your sharpshooter son Atreus by your side, and this familiar setup makes it easy to slide back into another romp across the Norse world’s nine realms. But on the other hand, a giant cloud of tension and anxiety hangs over the pair (well, trio, if you count the sentient head of their trusty advisor and surrogate brother, Mimir, as a full person). By the end of 2018’s God of War, Kratos and co. had managed to not only piss off the Aesir gods even further (having killed a few along the way), but they also brought about Fimbulwinter, a harsh, lengthy winter season that serves as the prelude to Ragnarok.
This serves as the starting point for a rather lengthy game, with the long runtime explained by the fact that developer Santa Monica Studio almost split God of War Ragnarok into two games. Admittedly, I’m relieved that they didn’t go down that route — while Ragnarok is certainly no slouch (it took me just north of 40 hours to see the credits roll), I can’t say with confidence that two separate titles would have done enough to justify their existence. And while one could argue that Ragnarok might struggle under the weight of its lengthy story, that lone misstep is a blemish in an otherwise masterful game.
Now that I’ve had a chance to play both games, it’s interesting how 2018’s God of War and Ragnarok complement and mirror each other with their narrative beats. During Kratos and Atreus’ first journey, their goal of spreading the ashes of Atreus’ mother was always in clear sight, but the two were constantly sidelined with the introduction of new characters (often with malicious motives in tow) as well as a handful of distractions. In Ragnarok, there’s a similar setup — from the get-go, it’s pretty clear that the world-ending Ragnarok will occur at some point, but it’s not entirely clear how that’s set to happen, and Kratos and Atreus spend the opening hours arguing about what their path will look like moving forward.
This paves the way for one of the game’s central themes — the concept of prophecy, fate, and breaking the cycle of violence, though it’s worth noting that God of War Ragnarok has its fingers in a lot of pies, tackling weighty topics including generational abuse and trauma, coping with grief and loss, and how compassion can be a strength, not a weakness. Addressing these is no easy task, which is why the writing team at Santa Monica Studio has to be applauded for handling them with nuance and tact. Hands down, this is easily one of the best stories ever featured in a video game, and it’s executed beautifully thanks to the ever-talented cast of voice and mocap actors. If that sounds like Ragnarok is a bit too serious for its own good, rest assured, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that help balance things out. One character, in particular, begins to point out how Kratos (or rather, the player) tends to smash every pot he comes across and looks behind every nook and cranny for treasure chests, and I’m still chuckling about Sindri and Atreus referring to each other as ‘Sin’ and ‘Tre’. In fact, the game is chock-full of standout moments, both hilarious and melancholy, but in the interest of not spoiling anything, I won’t divulge any of them.
I might be giving off the impression that God of War Ragnarok doesn’t do a ton to shake up the established formula, but that doesn’t paint a complete picture. For starters, the dynamic between Atreus and Kratos has drastically changed. Sure, Atreus is still Kratos’ son, but he’s matured and grown, literally, during the events of Fimbulwinter, and is more trusted by his father this time around. There’s a level of mutual respect this time around, and Mimir even refers to Atreus as “little brother,” which absolutely did not make me shed a lone tear.
Speaking of Fimbulwinter, its harsh weather and climate have dulled Kratos’ combat skills, so you’ll be spending some time pumping XP into each of your weapon’s skill trees in order to relearn some must-have moves. It isn’t an entire retread though — the Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos have a mix of both recycled and brand-new skills to master and unlock this time around, and there seems to be a greater emphasis on crowd control and area of effect damage. Some skills can even be mastered, and once you’ve used them enough times in combat, you can unlock and outfit them with modifiers, which can bolster them with extra stun or elemental damage, and the like.
In fact, the entire armor and weapon system has been revamped and streamlined for the better. While your blades and axe can still be outfitted with light and heavy runic attacks, along with corresponding pommels and handles, Kratos now has the option to equip different shields, each of which can be outfitted with different abilities — I opted for a high-risk/high-payoff loadout that rewarded blocks and parries with damage buffs. Talismans have been replaced by Relics, still offering a variety of both passive and active combat buffs. Kratos’ signature Spartan Rage can also be specced differently; while the default option still lets you dole out damage while gaining back small slivers of health, you can also choose the new Valor variant, which restores a larger chunk of health in lieu of dealing any damage or opt for Wrath, which unleashes a massive attack against a single enemy. Chest, wrist, and waist armor are present and accounted for, but they no longer are categorized by rarity. This might sound like an odd design decision but in practice, it means that any given piece of armor remains a viable option throughout your entire playthrough, as they can be upgraded several times over to keep up with stronger enemies and bosses.
Outside of combat, there are plenty of puzzles to tackle, though Ragnarok isn’t so eager to reuse mechanics. In fact, some have been excised completely, with light and shock arrows being cut in favor of the new sonic and runic arrows. Some of Kratos’ old abilities, like being able to harness the Winds of Hel, are absent, and environmental objects like scorn poles or realm tears don’t make an appearance until the second half of the game. The same rings true for enemies — while you’ll end up visiting every single realm over the course of the story, much of your time will be spent exploring new locales, such as Vanaheim and Svartlfheim. In fact, thanks again to Fimbulwinter, some returning areas look completely different, with Niflheim, in particular, seeing the biggest change (players can rejoice, the procedurally generated, grind-heavy rooms of Ivalid’s Workshop are a thing of the past).
Visually, God of War Ragnarok is as stunning as ever, with a seemingly endless number of varied environments, each bursting with color. Seeing as how it’s available for both the PlayStation 4 and 5, you can expect the same level of fidelity as the 2018’s God of War, though Ragnarok has both 30 and 60 FPS options for those playing on PlayStation 5, and you can even boost the framerate higher if you’re rocking a 120 Hz display.
When the credits began to roll on God of War Ragnarok, I admittedly felt a little disappointed, and at the time, I attributed that to the game’s finale, which, while extremely well-crafted and scripted, felt a tad anti-climactic. But, after a few days of reflection, I realized my disappointment was, in fact, grief. It actually pains me a little to type out these words, as I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that we’ve reached the end of Kratos’ and Atreus’ journey, one that I hoped wouldn’t be over so soon. There are only a few video games that I wish I could play again for the first time, and I’m happy to confidently say that God of War Ragnarok (along with its predecessor) has made the cut. This one is an absolute masterpiece.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
God of War Ragnarok is a masterclass in storytelling and design, and it'll easily stand the test of time as one of PlayStation's finest games.