“So you still kill gods, you’re just sad about it now?”
That’s the gist of what someone says to our grizzled Spartan warrior Kratos in a critical scene about two-thirds of the way through God of War Ragnarok. It’s a chuckle-worthy throwaway line in the moment, but it stuck with me after seeing the credits roll.
That’s because it’s representative of why Ragnarok never quite manages to meet the remarkably high bar set by God of War (2018), despite being expanded and enhanced in so many ways. What begins as a somber tale of a father and son out to save the world quickly becomes too chipper and snarky (dare I say Whedonesque?) for its own good.
Spelunking around the Nine Realms of Norse myth is exhilarating, with more refined combat, badder boss brawls, and dazzling spaces to explore. But God of War Ragnarok makes a handful of strange narrative choices — most of which I can’t explicitly talk about here — that undermine the growth of its central father-son duo and the stakes of their journey. It’s definitely more God of War (2018), which is far from a bad thing. But it still plays like a late-gen PS4 game, and never quite manages to feel as groundbreaking or fresh as its predecessor.
The most memorable aspect of God of War wasn’t how far it was able to push the aging PS4 hardware at the end of its lifecycle, although that’s certainly noteworthy. It was how much of that game’s story was told through silence, facial expressions, and even combat interactions. Gradually, Atreus became stronger, and his bond with his father did too. Slowly but surely, this strained relationship between a distant, hulking father and his twerpy, introspective son evolved into genuine love and trust.
Our story picks up several years after the events of the 2018 game. Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the world-ending, reality-shattering conflict known as Ragnarok, is in full swing. Narratively speaking, though, Ragnarok may as well take place about three days after the conclusion of God of War. Kratos and his son Atreus continue to be troubled by the fate foretold in the mural they saw during their visit to Jotunheim. Their concern is understandable because said mural predicted some pretty dramatic stuff. (If you need a refresher on the events of the last game, there’s a helpful recap accessible from the home menu.)
Maybe it’s the stress of spending the better part of five years in a single-room cabin together, but father and son have basically reverted to who they were about midway through the 2018 game. Kratos is still bossy and overprotective, even if he doesn’t call Atreus “Boy” all the time anymore. Atreus slips back into being arrogant and impulsive, making baffling decisions that seem at odds with the lessons he learned in the last game. Seeing these characters behave in a way that defies their earlier growth is frustrating, even if it’s offset somewhat by memorable and moving moments elsewhere.
God of War Ragnarok dramatically expands the story’s cast of characters, and some of these new additions are more endearing than others. I don’t want to spoil anything here by being too specific, but a few too many of them speak almost exclusively in one-liners. Others have a tiresome tendency to blather on about their feelings at considerable length. Your mileage may vary, but I found these narrative choices broke the immersion and undercut the gravitas of the story.
“Too much talking about feelings” and “too many jokes” are not complaints I expected to have about a God of War game.
The heroes’ journey
While Ragnarok sometimes feels like a step backward from its predecessor in a narrative sense, core mechanics like traversal, exploration, and combat improve upon already excellent systems. Each of the Nine Realms is distinct and vividly rendered, and stepping into a new setting for the first time is consistently jaw-dropping. The story offers plenty of opportunities to take a break from the main plot and go adventuring, and you’ll want to uncover all the little nooks and crannies of these lush and forbidding landscapes.
Puzzle-solving builds upon the mechanics of the 2018 game significantly. These aren’t setpiece puzzles in the sense of a Resident Evil or Uncharted game, where there’s an elaborate compass or statue you need to somehow unlock to claim an item. Instead, puzzles mostly consist of opening barriers to progress by using some combination of Kratos and Atreus’s elementally-imbued weaponry.
As someone with a fairly low tolerance level for this sort of thing (especially when any kind of geometry is involved), I appreciate that your companions often give pretty clear hints about what to do in order to proceed. However, this generosity mostly applies to main-story puzzles, most of which are pretty straightforward compared to their optional counterparts. I abandoned several side missions out of frustration, hoping for hints that never materialized.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a series called God of War places a heavy emphasis on kicking ass, and combat is truly Ragnarok’s greatest strength. Scenarios and enemy types feel gratifyingly varied and keep you thinking on your feet. Both Kratos and Atreus have multiple weapon options and runic abilities (basically magic), and you’ll need to swap between all of them consistently throughout your journey. In the first third of the game, all the different skills and accessories to upgrade can feel daunting, but the game does an impressive job of cultivating a satisfying sense of progression and mastery.
A broad suite of accessibility options goes a long way toward making combat more enjoyable for more players. In addition to adjustable difficulty, you can also give yourself more generous timing for parries and blocks, as well as simplify and customize button inputs. That said, Ragnarok serves up meaty but exhilarating challenges, particularly in its later hours, and you will be punished for falling back on the same old combat strategies.
I do have one small nit to pick about the combat system. There are quite a few new attacks and abilities this time around, many of which are color-coded to a particular element type or status ailment. For the most part, this is a helpful way to recognize attack types at a glance, but in scenarios where Kratos is dealing with hordes of enemies or a whole lotta magic stuff is happening on-screen, it can feel like sensory overload. I experienced a few crashes during my playthrough and all of them happened during these visually intense combat moments — including several times during the final boss fight, which was very annoying.
Despite its shortcomings, God of War Ragnarok is easy to recommend to anyone with the slightest interest in the action-adventure genre. It’s bigger, brighter, and more expansive than its predecessor, with more realms to explore and fiercer foes to challenge. Kratos and Atreus’s latest adventure will tick a lot of boxes for fans of the 2018 game. But some odd narrative choices hold it back from joining the immortal pantheon.
God of War Ragnarok comes to PS4 and PS5 on November 9. Inverse reviewed the PS5 version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.