Disclaimer: Before I crack on with giving you my thoughts on God of War Ragnarök I want to point out that our review copy was kindly provided by Sony (thanks, Sony!). There was no way I wouldn’t have bought this game anyway so you can rest assured that that won’t colour my views at all.
Disclaimer number 2: I haven’t finished the game yet. In fact, going by some estimates I’m barely 20% of the way through (IGN estimate over 70 hours for a 100% complete run and I’ve got a little over 15 hours on the clock). However, I’ve gotten to grips with the bulk of the game’s mechanics and a good chunk of the story. This will probably be a hybrid between a first impressions write-up and a review. I’ll also do my best to avoid spoiling any of the story details or surprising mechanics (there’s one detail about halfway down when I talk about companions so be on the lookout for that). Now that that’s out of the way, what’s it like?
When God of War 2018 launched it did so to universal acclaim from critics and fans alike. Many hailed it as one of the best games they’d ever played, and it revolutionised the way many of us view storytelling in games. Its cliff-hanger ending set our expectations sky high as we see Thor show up to Kratos and Atreus’ door during the depths of Fimbulwinter (I’m not counting this as a spoiler because, while we don’t see his face, we see he’s a huge guy with an electric hammer, who else was it gonna be?). Needless to say, Ragnarök had a lot to live up to but I’m happy to say it’s done so in spades. In fact, God of War Ragnarök is the best game I’ve played all year, and certainly one of the best games I’ve ever played full stop.
The Beginning of the End
Our story opens with Kratos and Atreus out on a hunt while Fimbulwinter rages around them. This is the same winter that began in the previous game after Kratos killed Baldur. It is said that Fimbulwinter is a non-stop winter will last for three years, only ending with the events of Ragnarök, the end of the reign of the Aesir gods and the rebirth of the world. We immediately see that we are
not dealing with the same characters we left in the previous game. Atreus has grown from a headstrong demigod to a confident, curious young man while Kratos has softened somewhat to be more of a mentor and affectionate father to his son. Their dynamic has also shifted to be a more equal partnership than the student/master vibe that we saw previously. For instance, we see that Kratos trusts Atreus to go and hunt for food while he remains in shelter to prepare their weapons and provisions for their journey home.
Atreus has also been working to harness the abilities he inherited from his parents. He uses his mother’s giant magic to rebuild the protective ward around their home and speak to their sled- wolves Speki and Svanna. He is also able to use this magic to explore new areas beyond the realm of Midgard despite Fimbulwinter putting an end to all inter-realm travel. His Godhood also imbues him with special abilities such as healing himself when he’s injured or being far stronger than any teenager has the right to be.
Kratos has also been refining new skills of his own. He can read now! Well, he can read Norse runes now (I don’t know whether Kratos could read Greek but considering all Spartan men went through rigorous training in the Agoge we can probably assume he could). This is, in my opinion, one of the best changes to the game so far. Not only does it allow Kratos to be more independent of Atreus in certain scenarios, but it also allows him to write in the Lore journal that the player can read. This allows us a glimpse of his innermost thoughts and feelings on all manner of subjects. The Kratos we saw in God of War 2018 was a far cry from the Spartan who was too angry to die in the previous trilogy but this time around we see that outer shell cracking even more as he writes about how proud he is of the man Atreus is becoming, about how much he cared for Laufey, and about how annoying Brok and Sindri are.
All of this isn’t to say that these two aren’t without their squabbles. Atreus seems hell-bent (or Helheim-bent) on finding out more about his place in the Jötunn prophecy we saw at the end of GoW 2018, even suggesting that maybe they should try and find Tyr, the Norse God of War who might be able to provide him with some answers. Kratos on the other hand is determined to keep Atreus safe, even if that means spending their days hiding out in their cabin behind their protective ward. In fact, this seems to be a Kratos at the end of his tether. The only thing in the world that matters to him is Atreus, the only family he has left. He knows all too well the pain of losing a child. But he also knows that they can’t hide forever and that someday he will have to let Atreus be his own man, even if that means he’ll have to go to war with Asgard. There’s also the looming threat of the Jötunn prophecy to reckon with which, unbeknownst to Atreus, showed Kratos dying in his son’s arms.
The rest of the cast is as wonderful as they were last time as well. Freya, a mother wracked with grief over the death of her son at Kratos’ hands is relentlessly pursuing our two heroes for what they did to her. We first fight her at the very offset of the game setting the tone for how her relationship with Kratos has soured. Mimir is the dark, comedic heart of the game once again, telling stories of the old gods and making snide remarks at everyone from Brok and Sindri to Thor and Odin themselves.
Speaking of Thor, he certainly lives up to Mimir’s description of him as a “Fat ugly dobber”. This isn’t the happy friendly Thor from the Marvel movies. He’s lore accurate to a fault. A drunkard and a lout who only wants to know who he can get into a scrap with next. Basically, a complete arsehole. Don’t worry either, it’s not long before you find out what happens when two warriors who can control their weapons mid-air go toe to toe. Special mention also has to be given to Richard Schiff as Odin. From the second you meet him he gives an air of menace. He’s the kind of villain whose main weapon is information and the leverage that gives him. You can tell that no matter what situation he’s in he is always the one in control. As I said I’m a good number of hours into the game and I always find myself eagerly awaiting the Allfather’s next appearance!
What a Wonderful World
Now all this talk of Fimbulwinter might have you thinking that the whole game is going to blend together into one huge blue-grey snow-covered mess. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. As Mimir points out shortly after you unlock inter-realm travel, Fimbulwinter affects all realms differently so while Midgard has become a frozen tundra, other realms like Alfheim, Niflheim or Svartalfheim will see different changes to their climate. All these changes are equally apocalyptic, by the way, but they’re different, that’s all that matters.
It’s our differences that make us beautiful, as old wisdom goes, and in the case of God of War Ragnarök, this absolutely rings true. Each realm feels so distinct and unique while offering some jaw-dropping vistas and scenery. The “continuous shot” nature of the over-the-shoulder camera really allows you to feel immersed in these gorgeous environments. Don’t worry about retreading old ground either. While we may have visited Alfheim, Niflheim and Jötunnheim in the previous game, Fimbulwinter has completely changed them, so you definitely won’t recognise these old areas once you see them again.
Play Your Way
So, the story and characters are fantastic, and the game looks spectacular, but how’s the gameplay? Well, it’s mostly more of the same. Very little has been altered from God of War 2018, and I mean that as a compliment. The previous game found a great balance between the new style world exploration for the series and the visceral, brutal combat that the older games were known for.
That’s not to say everything is exactly the same. For instance, many of Kratos and Atreus’ magical abilities and attacks have been lost or destroyed. Fimbulwinter has weakened all the magic in Midgard so anything you collected on your previous adventure is no good to you now. Fairly standard video game sequel fare here to be honest but at least there’s some kind of internal logic to the reasoning behind all your abilities being stripped away. The long and short of this is that you’ll have to acquire a whole new set of upgrades, abilities, and armours as you make your way around the nine realms again.
Chief among these is a trio of new skill trees for Kratos and Atreus. Like last time you’ve got separate trees for the Leviathan Axe, the Blades of Chaos, and Atreus’s abilities. However, there’s a little bit of a twist this time. Unlike the previous game, as you use the skills you’ve unlocked, you’ll work your way through basic, bronze, silver, and gold completion tiers. Once you’ve used a skill enough times to complete the gold tier, you’ll be given a choice of upgrades for that skill. You could, for instance, add extra Frost damage, make yourself more resilient to being interrupted when using it, or add greater stun damage to a given skill. These upgrades, naturally, cost some XP to acquire but you only ever have to buy one per skill, with the ability to chop and change how you see fit.
I think this is a great addition to the leveling system and a great way to really Min-Max Kratos to really suit your playstyle. One potential pitfall with this is the possibility of becoming too engrossed in leveling up every skill, leading to a more difficult combat experience. While many players will certainly welcome this challenge it’s important to remember that you’re rewarded for using the skills you like, not for using the ones you don’t. So just play the way you would normally, and you’ll find your optimum build in no time. However, if you insist on leveling up everything there’s an area you unlock early on where infinite enemies spawn for you to grind away to your heart’s content.
Atreus also isn’t your only companion this time around. I won’t name names, but you get to go exploring with a number of different partners this time around. While they’re all pretty much the same in terms of mechanics it’s nice to see your player character interact with someone else for a change.
Yes, player character. This is probably the most spoiler-y thing I’m going to include here but there are certain sections of the game where you get to play as Atreus. As you can imagine he has more of a ranged combat focus than his father but he’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play as.
Another nice update is how shield combat has changed. This time around you’re given a choice of shields that all, as you can imagine, work differently in the heat of battle. There are shields that give you a more powerful parry ability, shields that allow you to punch an enemy through them to deliver more stun damage or shields that will block damn near everything Odin’s lackeys throw at you. Each is upgradeable using unique resources so, again, you can easily find one that suits your play style.
The armour upgrade system is nearly unchanged from GoW 2018 with a variety of armour sets using the same pools of resources for their upgrade tiers. Earlier upgrades use more common materials, while the higher-level stuff requires you to do a bit more digging for rarer items. The only major change here is that armour sets now have 9 upgrade tiers as opposed to GoW 2018’s 3. Most armour sets can be bought from the Huldra brothers, while others will require certain quest lines to be finished.
This leads me to possibly my biggest problem with the game so far. In the previous game, there was a quest called Eyes of Odin where Kratos had to kill 51 of Odin’s spying ravens in order to unlock the “Allfather Blinded” trophy. Now, this was a fine trophy and GoW 2018 is hardly the first game to have a “collect an arbitrary number of these”-type quest. It was entirely optional and there were no in-game rewards for finishing the quest aside from XP. However, in GoW Ragnarök, there’s a set of armour locked behind set number of ravens. This means that if you want all the best armour in the game you have to go out of your way to find a lot of Odin’s ravens. I found this to be annoying at best and absolutely tedious at worst. I felt as if I was entirely sucked out of the game at regular intervals because at a certain point I wasn’t exploring or questing, I was scanning around hoping to find a fleck of green, drinking in none of the game’s atmosphere or spectacle. This is a game that excels when the player dives right in and finds their own flow state (you know that feeling of being so into a game that you lose any and all concept of time?) and I think that gating certain items behind an arbitrary treasure hunt runs a little bit counter to that whole philosophy.
Gaming is for everyone
That just about does it for all the big stuff, but God of War has a lot of lovely touches that really do show a level of polish that we’ve come to expect from Sony recently. Chief among these are all the accessibility options. The first time you boot up the game players are given the option to configure just about every part of the game to make it easier to play. You’ll be able to completely remap all the controls, turn on high contrast mode (which highlights characters and interactable items in a colour of your choosing), automatically trigger quick-time events and much, much more. I think the fact that you’re presented with the menu as soon as you start up the game is a big help as well. I remember Gears 5 being incredibly well set up for people who might face any number of challenges to playing a game, but these options were tucked away in the settings menu. Ensuring that people know about all the different ways they can play their new game is hugely important. There’s no reason why anyone should ever feel like they can’t enjoy anything to the fullest when there’s no reason for them not to!
The Goosed Roundup
So, the big question is, does God of War Ragnarök live up to the hype? Yes, absolutely it does. As I said up top, this is one of the finest games I have ever played. It’s a near-perfect blend of gameplay and story that can be difficult to get right. The characters feel fleshed out and human, the environments are stunning, and the moment-to-moment action is second to none. This truly feels like the sequel that God of War 2018 deserved. Aside from the little niggle with Odin’s Ravens I can’t imagine a more perfect send-off for this portion of the God of War series and I’m excited to hopefully see it continue in the future.
God of War Ragnarök will be available on the 9th of November on PS4 and PS5. Be sure to get your copy soon as this is definitely the hottest (or coldest?) game of the year!