Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War series, has faced practically every conceivable challenge since the first game was released in 2005. He has ridden giants to the top of Mount Olympus, slaughtered the Greek pantheon, been resurrected from the dead multiple times, and, in the 2018 reboot of the series, dealt with a misbehaving preteen who discovered he was a deity. But tomorrow’s release of God of War: Ragnarok for PS4 and PS5 adds to that long list. It plunges Kratos and company into full-scale combat, the likes of which are reminiscent of the climactic battles in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Avengers: Endgame.
I’m jumping the gun a bit. In God of War, a somewhat redeemed Kratos and his son Atreus tried to fulfill his wife’s last wish. In the sequel, God of War: Ragnarok, they face an even greater threat: the gods themselves. Kratos eventually ended up slaying the Norse god Baldur after drawing the ire of the entire pantheon of gods along the way. Kratos intended to prevent the death of Baldur’s mother Freya, but his actions ultimately turned Freya against him and Atreus and ushered in Fimbulwinter, the long winter that heralds Ragnarok and, according to Norse mythology, the end of the nine kingdoms.
Got it all? You shouldn’t play Ragnarok without first completing God of War 2018 since you’ll miss out on a lot of lore otherwise. Assuming you’ve caught up, Ragnarok will feel at home. The game establishes its antagonists and the stakes early on: Odin, king of the Norse gods, is aware of Ragnarok’s impending arrival and is eager to join forces with Atreus and Kratos to avoid destruction. Kratos, on the other hand, has an extremely healthy suspicion of Odin and cares only about keeping his son safe and well-equipped for the dangerous world in which they live.
Kratos and Atreus, whether by prophecy or their own decisions, are drawn deeper into the machinations of the gods and embark on a trip through the nine realms in search of a solution to the potential world devastation that has now arrived at their doorstep. From a gameplay standpoint, this means a lot of the same familiar combat introduced by Santa Monica Studio in God of War (2018). Kratos’ Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos return as a formidable and incredibly entertaining pair of weapons with which to dispatch the many mythical beasts that Ragnarok throws at you. One of the most enjoyable actions in any game is throwing the Leviathan Axe using the PS5’s DualSense controller and then magically calling it back to you.
Once again, you’ll begin with a strong but basic set of abilities, which you’ll be able to expand upon by upgrading your weapons, discovering stronger runic attacks for each weapon, forging new armor and magical items, and unlocking new skills via the game’s somewhat complex upgrade trees. The game features a plethora of unlockable moves and armor that can be used to improve Kratos’ stats, just like the 2018 version. It’s a lot to take in, but I found that even in the hardest setting, I didn’t need to think too much about it. However, if you play on the more challenging difficulties, you will have to spend a significant amount of time completing side quests to gather the materials you need to keep your equipment at peak performance.
Even with so many options, it’s still great fun to play as Kratos in combat. There is a flow to the gameplay that, whether you’re taking on a horde of opponents or a single, colossal monster, gives the player a sense of absolute power. It takes time to level up Kratos and find your preferred play style, but when you do, the rush of completely wrecking everything is well worth it.
While I appreciated the combat in God of War 2018, I felt that the variety of adversaries was limited in comparison to other games in the series. It would appear that Santa Monica Studio took this to heart, as Ragnarok features several substantial changes from the previous installments. The undead warriors you face are still the game’s mainstay, but there are now other types of opponents to face. However, this time around, Kratos’ enemies have some sneaky new abilities, like as the ability to attack him with a multicolored “Bifrost” blast, which, once it explodes, causes him to suffer tremendous damage. New, small, and nimble foes have emerged, which I like to see as puppet masters. These foes keep the regular soldiers alive and well by resurrecting and mending them, so it’s going to be a tough fight if you don’t find them and kill them off immediately.
The variety of Ragnarok’s bosses is far more noteworthy. Larger conflicts in God of War primarily involved a few sorts of trolls and ogres along with some elemental beings, but that is most certainly not the case here. Not to mention the expected clashes against the Norse gods, I have slain a giant realm-shifting snake and a building-sized wolf raging across Hel.
The nine worlds Kratos and Atreus see are breathtaking once again. Like other recent PS5 games, Ragnarok has a “favor performance” mode in addition to a “favor visuals” mode. The standard performance setting is 60 frames per second at a resolution scaling of 1440p up to 4K. Instead, 30 fps is capped and native 4K graphics are provided in favor of the visuals. If you have a high frame rate television, you also have several choices; Polygon does an excellent job of explaining the technical aspects.
God of War: Ragnarok has stunning visuals regardless of whether you’re using the performance or fidelity settings. The cold landscapes and frozen lake of Midgard gave me a chill, while the hot confines of Vanaheim made me want to sweat. Kratos’ scars, beard, world-weary eyes, and calloused hands depict the hundreds of years and many tribulations he’s endured, and all of the character models, from Krato and Atreus to minor characters you only encounter a few times, are similarly well-rendered.
I’d be doing the cast of Ragnarok a disservice if I didn’t give credit where credit is due for their great performances and abilities. Throughout their long time together in this game, returning actors Christopher Judge (Kratos), Sunny Suljic (Atreus), and Alastair Duncan (Mimir) reprise their fantastic performances and have a wonderful connection. Meanwhile, Danielle Bisutti’s performance as a grieving, vengeful Freya reaches new depths in this episode.
However, there are a couple of newcomers that come close to being the highlight of the program. As the chubby, overworked, and frequently inebriated Thor, Ryan Hurst is equal parts hilarious and menacing. However, Richard Schiff (well remembered for his role as Toby on The West Wing) is outstanding in the role of the scheming all-father Odin. Odin’s complex personality in Ragnarok is brilliantly portrayed by Schiff. He seeks calm and understanding and can even take on a paternal role. But Schiff’s unnerving portrayal never lets you forget Odin’s vast litany of cruelties, and that he cannot be trusted even when he’s being kind.
Despite this, Ragnarok’s first three to four hours felt too similar, more like an extension than a brand-new game on a more robust framework. This, however, was no longer the case by the conclusion of the game’s first lengthy task. Like its predecessor, God of War: Ragnarok features remarkable direction in the form of a single, unbroken camera shot that lasts for hours (aside from when you die, of course). This time, though, the camera moved away from Kratos and eventually landed behind Atreus as the scene continued. When I regained control of the game, I did it for the first time in the role of Kratos’ son.
Playing as Atreus makes the tale significantly more intricate and less linear than in the previous game; it was a wonderful reveal. As one might expect, Atreus employs his bow more than his fists in battle. This option not only enriched the game’s story but also its gameplay. As the first game in the series to focus on a character other than Kratos, it allows players to witness firsthand the internal conflicts that arise when a parent and child try to do what’s best for one another.
Since both Atreus and Kratos are traveling with companions, both known and unfamiliar, novel combinations are possible. These additional couples deepen and broaden the story beyond Kratos and Atreus by showcasing the struggles of other generations to overcome the trauma of their ancestors and do better in their own lives.
Here end any spoilers.
The addition of so many new characters makes the world of God of War feel more vibrant and populated than in any of the series’ prior installments. Several dwarf towns dot the shores of Svartalfheim’s enormous lake, and you make many new friends in Vanaheim, the kingdom of Freya, and the other Vanir gods. Odin’s homeworld of Asgard is explored, and its human and divine inhabitants are introduced to us. Although I can see that because of Fimbulwinter’s harsh conditions, you don’t encounter many regular humans, I wish the main area of Midgard had at least a few more peeks at how people in this universe live.
Even while Ragnarok’s tale is fantastic, the game might drag on for too long at times. Along with The Last of Us and Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War was one of my top PS4 games. Both of these games’ sequels were technically impressive but were occasionally held back by the pressure to outdo their predecessors. The same goes with Ragnarok; it took me around 28 hours to complete the main storyline, with minimal time spent on side quests. In addition to the game’s length, I found the story’s plodding pace frustrating at moments when I wanted to speed ahead to the showdown.
But what a conclusion it was: Ragnarok’s final three hours or so combine all the elements that have made God of War great: challenging, high-stakes combat; gorgeous and huge set pieces; surprising narrative twists; and an emotionally rewarding finish. I won’t tell more, but I will say that the stunning climax more than made up for the story’s flaws.
It’s a bit much, but not so much that I can’t wait to play again at a slower speed when I’ll have more time to explore. Even after completing the game’s primary storyline, there is a wealth of content waiting for you in the nine worlds (I caught a tease of another incredibly difficult battle to come).
God of War: Ragnarok could have used a bit more editing, but that is by no means a deal breaker for me recommending the game. God of War fans should get on Ragnarok as quickly as possible, and newcomers should try the original out and then go on to the excellent sequel. Ragnarok was a fitting finale to the Norse epic and one of the best games I’ve experienced in a long time, but I have no idea whether or when we’ll see Kratos and Atreus again.