Polish off those game of the year trophies, because God of War: Ragnarök is almost certainly going to win a bunch of them. Whether it deserves them, though, is another matter entirely. People are going to love it because this is a massive, visually stunning, and viscerally entertaining game. However, it’s also a true game, in that you’ll spend a bunch of time being entertained by it, and that’s the extent of the value you’ll get out of it.
Ragnarök is a direct sequel to the previous God of War, and you do need to be familiar with the predecessor’s story, as this one immediately begins referencing prior events. It’s probably a fair call on the part of the developers that anyone that was going to be remotely interested in Ragnarök would have played the 2018 “original”, but if you are an outlier there is a recap available that walks you through the key events and gets you caught up. The fact that God of War, being a 30-odd-hour game, could be summarised in about five minutes speaks to my opinion of that game’s narrative pretty well, and while Ragnarök is around double the size, the biggest single problem with it is the narrative can be described in about the same length of time. Given that Ragnarök is, effectively, a narrative-driven experience, there is a lot of game for something this shallow. Naturally, I can’t give away any of it because of spoilers concerns – and this review is spoiler-free – but you can run through the key plot moments like a series of bullet points, and while they can be incredibly dramatic and even emotional, it’s the lack of insight that is disappointing.
Kratos’ boy, Atreus (who, from the last game we know is actually Loki, which should give you a hint about what’s on the horizon through this game) has hit his difficult teens this time around. He’s got secrets. He talks back to daddy Kratos (much more than he did last time). He’s more capable by himself, and also vastly over-confident in his own abilities. There’s a moment where, early on, you get to control him and he comes across his first treasure chest. He goes to punch a hole in it to extract the loot, which he’s seen daddy do dozens of times by this point, only to recoil in pain when the lid doesn’t break. “Looks easier than it is, huh”, the dwarf companion he’s with at that point chuckles, as he proceeds to smash the lid open with his bow instead. That little moment is the kind of indulgence that only the biggest games can deliver, because it’s a lot of development work for a tiny anecdote, but it’s also worthwhile, as a cute bit of characterisation that represents God of War at its finest.
Those micro-moments are really what had me playing onward. A lot of it is emotional manipulation, successfully built through the rousing soundtrack and pitch-perfect voice performances. Kratos and his son’s relationship feels resonant because it’s carefully fine-tuned to draw your emotional engagement. Seeing daddy Kratos chastise his uppity son for swearing a bit when a mine cart rollercoaster ride goes wrong (via monster attack) was amusing, as were the stern lectures he would deliver from time to time when Atreus got a little too smartass for his own good. These are the moments where the bond between father and son, juxtaposed against Atreus’ coming-of-age arc, are truly appealing. The fact that there’s a strong sense of foreboding about what might happen to the two of them on this particular adventure is another reason to continue playing on, because you just know there are going to be some difficult and big, if binary, decisions that the two of them will need to make.
If only that wasn’t undermined by some inconsistent moments where the gameplay seems completely removed from the narrative. Immediately after Kratos delivered that lecture about self-control to Atreus after he lost it and had his swearing session, there was a combat scene, where I needed to activate Kratos’ rage power, an ability that outright encourages you to lose control and mash away at the buttons with impunity. If I were Atreus I’d be sorely tempted to point out that my dad was a dirty hypocrite. And then there’s the tonal dissonance between the moments of interesting characterisation, and the times when Atreus is used as nothing more than a talking quest marker. Lines to the effect of “so we can go over there, where there’s a side quest that we can complete to help the dwarves out. But if you’re in a hurry, we can head on with our quest by going that way instead,” are clumsy, terrible writing, and pure immersion-killers. They happen far too frequently in Ragnarök.
In fact, far too much of the Ragnarök experience is a case study of developers really struggling to balance the need to make a game with the quest for “immersion”. Looking beyond the clash between emotional characterisation and dialogue-as-wayfinding, the inconsistencies affect the gameplay too. Ragnarök’s “puzzles” are often painful to experience. Every puzzle must be completed in a specific way, and if you do things out of order or try and explore alternative solutions, it will generally outright refuse to work. For a simple example, there might be two walls side-by-side, and visually look like they’re made of the same material. One you need to climb to progress the “puzzle”. The other is just there as part of the scenery. Despite looking the same, no matter what you do, you cannot climb that second wall, and if you happen to miss the marker that suggests that you can climb the first, you may never know that it is scalable. For a specific example, at one point I needed to use Kratos’ axe’s ice ability to freeze water in aqueducts, which would manipulate a series of wheels, lifting blocks that I could then climb over. However, there was no indication that I could throw my axe at the aqueduct until I had first cleared away some rubble using Atreus’ bow. The aiming reticle, which would change colour for interactive elements, gave me no indication that this particular piece of scenery was interactive until it became the next “step” in the puzzle. So, naturally, given that so much of this game’s environments are non-interactive scenery, I did at first assume that this aqueduct was something I needed to ignore.
Far too often with these things I was running around just waiting for an icon or other visual cue to show me what the next trigger was. I never felt particularly clever or creative when I moved past a puzzle, because all I was really doing was following the pre-set steps to the solution that the developers laid out. I wasn’t thinking for myself, I was following a trail. It’s the kind of “puzzle” that researchers give to crows to see how capable they are of reaching a treat. And, sure, when a crow figures out the seven steps to open untie a drawer and retrieve a snack it’s impressive. However, Ragnarök is going to be played by humans, and while I don’t think I’m of a particularly elite intelligence, I do believe I’m a little further along than a crow, and these come across as arbitrary and time sinks for the sake of “variety”. Because the formula of the game was almost methodically puzzle-combat-narrative bit-puzzle-combat-narrative bit-boss, I knew when each of those puzzles was coming up, and every single time, I had to push myself not to switch the PlayStation off and go do something else.
Thankfully the other side of Ragnarök is excellent and, speaking realistically here, the main reason to play the game. The combat is magnificent, visceral, and technically rich. Kratos has his ice axe, flame daggers, rage, and a few other tricks up his sleeve, while Atreus has that bow. It feels like just about every enemy has its own tactics and weaknesses, and environments often have features built into them that elevate them beyond featureless arenas. Clambering up a ledge to chase down a monster that is playing hit-and-run feels different from weaving in and out of thugs threatening you with hardcore bifrost damage, and those feel significantly different to the bosses that have nasty ranged attacks. In Ragnarök you do get to travel to a wide range of locations drawn from Norse mythology, each with its own native critters, and the developers have hit the perfect balance between offering some genuine challenge with the chance to feel like you are, indeed, a god and as powerful as befits that title. The boss battles, all drawn from Norse mythology, are a particularly delightful rogue’s gallery, particularly if you’re already familiar enough with the mythology to look forward to them showing up at some point.
I just wish that the developers did something with the massive resources they had at their disposal than to deliver an experience that has excellent genre-leading combat, and then such functional filler between the set-pieces. The recently-released Valkyrie Elysium tracks a similar broad theme to God of War – it’s set within Norse mythology and it also focused on the coming end of the world – and while it plays nowhere near as well as God of War, the developers at least tried to give it meaning and layer it with themes that cut beneath the surface. Ragnarök, meanwhile, is like the Marvel films. Everything it has to offer sits on the surface and is spelled out in an almost insulting and condescending manner, so that there was no risk that anyone was going to miss the point of it.
You look at the profound intensity of the relationship between father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or the way that Max Porter delves into the challenges of a father bringing up children without the mother in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, and it’s easy to see how far videogames – particularly at the blockbuster end of town – truly have to go. God of War: Ragnarök is a lot of fun, and has the production values and detail that you would expect from a game of this level of prestige. As I wrote at the start, it’s going to win game of the year awards, because this is how the industry rolls.
But I can’t help but wish for something more. Not in terms of visuals or gameplay. Those technical elements are fundamentally flawless. Rather, in this story-driven, narrative-focused experience I want a game that is brave enough to actually say something, and give me something to think about. Challenge me on a level beyond my ability to press buttons. God of War: Ragnarök manipulates emotions expertly and people often mistake that for depth. The relationship dynamic between Kratos and Atreus is appealing enough and I’m sure plenty of other reviews will talk about how it made them feel things. There are also plenty of big moments that we’re not allowed to talk about because of spoilers but, yes, those narrative set pieces really are dramatic. These things aren’t depth, though. Ragnarök is popcorn entertainment, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. This game’s going to sell a billion copies for a reason. It’s just worth drawing the distinction, because Sony could also be pushing for much more than what it does with these blockbusters.