Review : God of War Ragnarök : Teaching Old Gods New Tricks

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It was after midnight where I clasped my hands over my mouth, fighting back the tears that were instilled by the events of Sony Santa Monica’s latest entry to the God of War franchise, simply titled Ragnarök. Whether you may have either finished the game or are in the midst of completing it, most of what I have to say will be obvious as we will share a lot of the same qualms. If you have played the 2018 iteration, I cannot find any reason for you to skip out on this incredible chapter in Kratos’ and Atreus’ adventure. If you are stuck at a specific point and can’t feel any reason to continue onward, please do, because with Ragnarök, the ends justify the means. Calling this an emotional ride without deliberately talking about the moments that made me feel utterly crestfallen doesn’t do it justice, yet at the same time I want to provide to you a spoiler-free experience in this review while keeping it as succinct as possible. So please, bear with me.

“You must prepare yourself.”

Most sequels to incredibly anticipated games seem to always miss the mark by just a little bit, and Ragnarök is no different. Openings tend to be staunch and anxiety-driven, changing up enough of the game to make it almost completely different while retaining the core concept (see Mass Effect). Ragnarök changes very little from the last game when it comes to combat, upgrading, and talent trees. Sure, it feels a bit smoother than before, but not by such a large margin where it deserves its own 700-word essay. “If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it” must have been laser etched into Sony Santa Monica Studios’ wall.

Everything revolving around menus to upgrades and skill points all feel familiar but have some additional elements. Some abilities gain bonus modifiers after using that ability so many times. This enables you to fine-tune some combat aspects to your liking and really flesh Kratos out, providing you with a deeper and more meaningful experience that also feels like a bit of a misnomer. Players who adored the 2018 God of War will find themselves right back at home, falling right back into grace with the Leviathan Axe and the Blades of Chaos as well as a new shield equipment mechanic.

“It is the nature of a thing that matters, not its form.”

Graphically, what can I say besides that the game is stunning. I can’t complain about the graphical fidelity because it runs incredibly smooth no matter which setting I put the game in. Sony’s first-party titles always look great, and even their earlier titles that never hit it big looked impressive on the PlayStation hardware. Once again, God of War Ragnarök is no different. As some people will point out the obvious fact: it feels like an upgraded PlayStation 4 game. Well, that is not as terrible of a criticism that folks might think. While the graphics felt like a solid step between hardware generations instead of a fully-fledged PlayStation 5 exclusive, the entire time I still felt immersed in the landscapes. Nothing I saw removed me from the game or broke my connection to the characters. I barely saw any graphical pop-ins that I typically see with less demanding titles.

When it comes to the music and sound, it is equally fantastic. Music queues hit at the right time with the deep, desolate tones of Kratos’ theme music adorned with a chorus of low voices echoing his inner anguish. If there is one thing that Ragnarök does incredibly well, it is using the strength of music to immerse us fully into the material. The music is perfectly scored to a point where it feels lively, natural, and makes me wonder why I don’t have background music playing automatically as I complete various chores around my apartment. It plays lovely with the camera work and cinematic components to drive a lot of the emotional depth home.

This brings me to something that I don’t often get to talk about, and that is the cinematography. Swooping camera swings and larger focus allow you to see lush landscapes in full, showing you the sheer size of some of these realms. Close-ups of these characters allow you to see some of the finer details within each character, which is backed by the graphical performance. You can see the striations in Kratos’ muscles as he rests for just barely a moment. His tired and worn-out demeanor play out well through the times where Kratos needs just a minute to collect himself, which is a drastic change in his character.

There are a few other moments of in-game character immersion that made me think about how God of War ties story elements, acting, and gameplay into a neat package, but I digress. These moments feel great simply because the actors elevate these performances. Christopher Judge, Sunny Suljic, Danielle Bisutti, and the rest of the cast really give it their all, chewing up the scenery with their skills and melodramatic approach to a simple fantasy title. Each performance is genuinely fantastic, especially Danielle Bisutti (Freya) stealing the show every time she was on screen, giving me yet another character that I deeply adore and respect.

“I do not need a snack.”

While there are many wonderful aspects that Ragnarök excels at, there are a few elements that fall just a tiny bit short for me. The biggest and most difficult to ignore (because Mimir will point it out to you before you have a chance to finish this sentence), is that all the characters will give you hints on how to complete puzzles, and it happens almost too quickly. Sometimes I walk into a cave, and I want to think about how to complete the task at hand, but someone decides to throw me a hint that almost ruins that dopamine hit when you solve said puzzle by yourself. You can adjust in one of the various windows to lower the rate in which you receive hints, but not every hint is treated equally. Some will happen as soon as you walk into the room, other times it takes a good fifteen minutes before someone says something. So, your milage may vary. I will note that this seems to be an ongoing trend with Sony’s first party titles, as Horizon Forbidden West did the same exact thing at launch where Aloy was pointing out every environmental aspect to me.

I also felt that there was something off with some of the pacing. Plenty of filler moments bled into the cinematic concept, blending segments of gameplay between these Kojima-like segments. After completing it, I can say that most of these moments are important to the story and lead into the bombastic final act. I’ll be completely honest with you, by the time the end of the game rolls around, every little qualm I had simply disappeared and faded into the background. Every ounce of anger I had caused by dying to so many powerful enemies dissipated because of a deep and rich narrative experience. I cannot tell if I am being too lenient or if I perhaps judged various parts too hastily before I walked into that final act.

Narratively, though, everything works together so well. We even receive answers for questions that we don’t normally get, especially when you consider post-storyline activities or simple explanations of odd questions. When asked why Kratos doesn’t have any of his old armor, he says he got rid of it just because. When offered a snack, he refuses. When told to take care of a freshly upgraded weapon, he also refuses. Each of these moments add a layer of humor that is juxtaposed against the serious tone of the world and Kratos’ own stoic demeanor.

Despite these little nuggets of humor, there is this dark cloud of seriousness that is interlaced between. Listening to characters mingle and spout exposition is purely determined by your patience. Nothing is forcing you to experience the depth that Ragnarök provides. You don’t even need to do any of the amazing side-quests that the game has to offer, but if you like loot and immersive storytelling, then by all means, do it, as each one tells you something new about the world around you or a little tidbit about a character. For instance, at the start we learn about how the Dwarves were slaves to the gods and built what are essentially oil mining rigs, adding a metaphor for slavery as well as climate change. Other side quests are silly and a bit uplifting. Either way, there are plenty of rewards for those who decide to go digging.

“War is not the only way.”

God of War takes the essence of what it means to be mortal and packs it into this digital medium to form a bond with those who are experiencing it first-hand. I tossed myself at Ragnarök for a sense of escapism, and what I ended up receiving was a testament to life and what it means to live and be loved. It is about handling loss and overcoming your own flaws, making peace with what you are and how to improve yourself and the quality of life of those around you before you eventually outgrow your own body. Ragnarök is about remembering those who make yours worth living. How we forget that we tend to take so much while offering back so little. There are so many different themes that it is impossible to walk away from Ragnarök without any sort of reflection on life. No matter what we take away from Ragnarök, there is one thing that we must adhere to, a promise made within the theme of the game, and that is to be better.

Final Verdict: 9.5

Fun Factor: 10
Technical Prowess: 9
Time Investment: 25+ Hours
Replayability: 8

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I wanted to add to this review, because it is grossly important to me, and it had a drastic impact on my experience. On November 8th, the day before Ragnarök launched, my amazing grandmother passed away, and I found myself unable to properly grieve. While it was a surprise, it wasn’t unprecedented, and I ask myself if my reaction to the news was due to the emotional preparation for this moment? Did I close my heart to this and swallow the pain? There is one particular moment that hit me hard and made me realize that my time, over 26 hours of exploring this beautiful game was my grieving process, which ended with a message that hit me like a ton of bricks. While this game might not have parts that resonates to everyone, anyone who has experienced deep emotional loss will find something to take away from what Sony Santa Monica Studios gave to us.

By Steve Esposito

Steve Esposito is a dedicated content creator with a focus on his love for technology, video games, and the very industry that oversees it all. He also takes part in organizing the Long Island Retro and Tabletop Gaming Expo as well as a Dungeons and Dragons podcast: Copper Piece. You can find him on twitter @AgitatedStove

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