'God of War: Ragnarok' is bigger but not massively better

Given how good the original was, that's not a problem.

Sony / Santa Monica Studio

This story contains extensive spoilers for the 2018 game ‘God of War’ and light spoilers for ‘God of War: Ragnarok’.

The God of War series has thrown nearly everything you can imagine at its protagonist Kratos since the first installment arrived way back in 2005. He's ridden giants up Mount Olympus, murdered the pantheon of Greek gods, come back to life from the underworld (several times) and, in 2018's reinvention of the series, dealt with an unruly pre-teen who just learned he was a god. But God of War: Ragnarok, which arrives tomorrow for the PS4 and PS5, manages to add to that impressive list. It throws Kratos and his companions in the middle of a full-on war, the kind of battle that calls to mind epic cinematic showdowns like the climax of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King or Avengers: Endgame.

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. God of War: Ragnarok is the direct sequel to God of War, which saw a semi-reformed Kratos and his son Atreus try to carry out his wife's final wish. Along the way, they inevitably caught the attention of the Norse pantheon of gods, which led to Kratos killing the deity Baldur. Kratos meant to save Baldur's mother Freya from death, but he instead turned Freya against Kratos and Atreus and also brought about Fimbulwinter, a years-long winter that is the precursor to Ragnarok, which it is said will bring about the end of the nine realms.

Got all that? Clearly, you won't want to play Ragnarok without playing the 2018 God of War first, because you'll be missing a lot of backstory. Assuming you are caught up, you'll feel right at home in Ragnarok. The game quickly and clearly lays out the enemies and the stakes: Odin, leader of the Norse gods, knows Ragnarok is coming, and wants to work with Atreus and Kratos to try to survive it. Kratos, on the other hand, has a more than healthy distrust of Odin, and isn't interested in anything besides staying out of the gods' affairs and helping his son stay safe and prepared for the harsh world they inhabit.

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots
Sony / Santa Monica Studios

Whether by prophecy or their own decisions, Kratos and Atreus unsurprisingly get pulled deeper into the machinations of the gods and begin journeying through the nine realms looking for a solution to the potential world destruction that is now at their doorstep. From a gameplay perspective, that means a lot of the familiar combat that Santa Monica Studio introduced in 2018's God of War. Kratos is again equipped with his Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos, and they remain a formidable and extremely fun pair of weapons to use on the many mythical beasts Ragnarok throws at you. Throwing the Leviathan Axe with the PS5's DualSense controller and magically calling it back to you remains one of the most satisfying moves I can think of in all of gaming.

As before, the game starts you out with a powerful but relatively basic set of moves and you can add to that arsenal by upgrading your weapons, finding powerful runic attacks for each weapon, crafting new armor and magical items and unlocking new skills in the game's fairly complicated upgrade trees. As in the 2018 title, there are a dizzying array of moves you can unlock, as well as a treasure trove of armor, all of which affects Kratos' stats. It can be overwhelming, but I also found that I didn't need to think too hard about it, at least on the difficulty level I was playing on. If you play on the harder settings, though, you're going to need to spend a lot of time doing side quests to get the resources you need so you can constantly optimize your gear.

Regardless of the over-abundance of customization, going into battle as Kratos remains extremely satisfying. Whether you're fighting a massive swarm of enemies or focusing your efforts on a massive, ultra-powerful beast, there's a level of fluidity to the combat that makes the player feel, quite simply, god-like. It takes a while to upgrade Kratos and figure out what style of play works best for you, but sometimes you can get into a flow state of total destruction that is a delight.

One of the complaints I had about 2018's God of War was that, while the combat was great, the variety of enemies was lacking compared to earlier games. Santa Monica Studio seems to have taken this to heart and mixed things up significantly in Ragnarok. There are a greater variety of basic enemies, though undead soldiers remain the game's bread and butter. But those armies have some tricky new powers this time, including the ability to hit Kratos with a multi-colored “bifrost” blast — while you're in that state, a single hit explodes that bifrost and significantly reduces your health. There are also new small and agile enemies that I think of as puppet masters; they keep reviving and healing the ordinary soldiers, so unless you track them down and dispose of them quickly, you're in for a rough fight.

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots
Sony / Santa Monica Studios

More significant are the variety of bosses in Ragnarok. In God of War, the larger battles mostly consisted of a few different types of trolls and ogres along with some elemental beings, but that is most definitely not the case this time. I took down a massive realm-shifting serpent, a building-sized wolf rampaging through Hel, and that's not even mentioning the inevitable battles against the Norse gods.

Once again, the nine realms Kratos and Atreus travel through are simply stunning. Ragnarok, like some other recent PS5 games, has both “favor performance” and “favor visuals” modes. The default performance mode runs at a locked 60 frames per second and scales the resolution between 1440p and 4K. Favor visuals instead locks the frame rate at 30 fps and delivers native 4K graphics. There are also a variety of options if you have a HFR TV; Polygon did a great job of breaking down the technical details here.

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots
Sony / Santa Monica Studios

Whether in performance or fidelity mode, God of War: Ragnarok looks beautiful. The snowy vistas and frozen lake of Midgard put a chill in my bones, and the lush and swampy confines of Vanaheim were real enough to make me want to sweat from the humidity. All of the character models, from Krato and Atreus down to minor characters you only meet a few times, are equally well-rendered — Kratos in particular is more detailed than ever, with his scars, beard, world-weary eyes and callused hands showing the hundreds of years and innumerable trials he's been through.

I would be remiss not to mention the incredible skill and performances from Ragnarok's cast. Returning actors Christopher Judge (Kratos), Sunny Suljic (Atreus) and Alastair Duncan (Mimir) reprise their excellent performances and have a wonderful rapport throughout their extensive time together in this game. Danielle Bisutti, meanwhile, takes her performance as a grief-obsessed, revenge-driven Freya to new levels of desperation in this installment.

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots

A couple of newcomers almost steal the show, however. Ryan Hurst as the overweight, overburdened, often drunk Thor is both comical and terrifying. But Richard Schiff (perhaps best known as Toby from The West Wing) steals the show as the conniving all-father Odin. Schiff perfectly executes the many facets of Odin's character in Ragnarok — he seems to want peace and knowledge, and is almost fatherly at times. But even when he's being kind, Schiff's unsettling performance never lets you forget Odin's long list of cruelties, and the fact that he simply cannot be trusted.

Note: the following section contains light spoilers for God of War: Ragnarok

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots

Despite all this, Ragnarok felt a little too familiar in the first three or four hours, a bit more like an expansion than an entirely new game on a more powerful platform. That all changed at the end of the game's first extended mission, however. God of War: Ragnarok has the same impressive direction as the previous game, where everything is done in a single, hours-long camera shot, without any cuts (aside from when you die, of course). This time, however, the camera panned away from Kratos and slowly, as the cutscene proceeded, settled in behind Atreus. And when the game was back in my control, I was playing as Kratos' son for the first time.

It was a brilliant reveal, and playing as Atreus makes the story far more complex and less linear than it was in the prior game. Atreus naturally has an entirely different combat style, based on more on his bow than hand-to-hand combat. But more than the gameplay, this choice greatly expanded the narrative of the game. It marks the first time the series shifts away from Kratos and gives you a more up-close view of the struggles that persist between father and son as they both try and do the right thing for each other throughout the game.

This also opens up the opportunity for new pairings, as Atreus and Kratos are both accompanied by characters familiar and unknown. These new pairings expand the story far beyond just Kratos and Atreus, showing a variety of different conflicts between parents and children all dealing with generational trauma and trying to simply be better than they were before, with varying results.

End of spoilers

God of War: Ragnarok review screenshots

Thanks to the many new characters, the world feels more alive and populated than any other previous God of War game. The dwarven realm of Svartalfheim has a number of settlements along its vast lake, and you meet a number of new allies in Vanaheim, the home realm of Freya and the other Vanir gods. We also get to meet both the human and godly residents of Asgard, Odin’s homeland. It makes sense that in the brutal conditions of Fimbulwinter you don’t run across a lot of ordinary humans, but I do wish that the main area of Midgard did contain at least a few more glimpses of how humans live in this universe.

While I’m a big fan of Ragnarok’s story, the game does occasionally feel overlong. God of War was one of my favorite games of the PS4 generation, alongside The Last of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn. The sequels to those latter two games were both masterfully executed — but also occasionally hampered by the need to make everything bigger and grander than the prior games. The same is true for Ragnarok: it took me about 28 hours to play through the main quest, with very little side questing done. More than just the sheer hours, though, was a simple feeling that the narrative got a little too weighed down at times when I was eager for some momentum to bring through to the game's climax.

But what an ending it was: The last three hours or so of Ragnarok pull together everything God of War does well, from difficult, high stakes combat, majestic and massive set pieces and surprising narrative twists to a satisfying and emotional denouement. I won't say any more, but a little bit of narrative flabbiness was completely forgiven by the breathtaking finale.

It's slightly too much of a good thing, but not enough to keep me thrilled about the idea of playing again at a more leisurely pace, where I can do more exploring. And when you finish up the main story, there's still plenty you can do around the nine realms, including a few side quests that only unlock when the game is complete (I definitely caught a tease of another incredibly difficult battle to come).

While God of War: Ragnarok may have benefitted from a little bit more editing, it's not nearly enough to deter me from recommending it. Anyone who enjoyed God of War should play Ragnarok as soon as possible — and if you never played the first game, give it a shot and then move right along to this brilliant sequel. I don't know if or when we'll see Kratos and Atreus again, but Ragnarok was a fitting conclusion to the Norse saga and one of the best games I've experienced in a long time.