I’ve been a fan of the God of War series since the beginning way back during the days of the PS2. The original series was a blast in its own way. Fast-paced, action-packed, challenging puzzles, epic stories; a quintessential example of the style of hack n’ slash platformer video games so popular during the early 2000s. As much as I miss that old style of gaming, the newer God of War that released in 2018 revitalized the series, transforming main character Kratos from a ruthless, murdering psychopath into a truly reformed individual who regrets his past and wants nothing more than to take care of his son and live his life in some semblance of peace. Clearly, the story took a more personal and dramatic turn, but the gameplay was also completely reworked with less hack n’ slash combat and replaced with more focused, precise combat, more open and explorable environments, and many side missions to accomplish and collectibles to find. It was all pretty good stuff. Now we’ve got the sequel, God of War: Ragnarok…and it does pretty much the same stuff its predecessor did. Only this time it’s better.
One common “danger” video game sequels face is being too similar to the games that came before them. God of War: Ragnarok does do a lot of things similar to the previous game, right down to having almost exactly the same level of pacing and the same story beats in its first couple of hours of gameplay: a moment of personal loss, a tutorial boss fight, and another more incredibly epic early boss fight that all leads to the main adventure. The following hours are even more linear than in the previous game, the story leading Kratos and Atreus to another couple of realms before giving the player their first real chance to visit other areas and play side missions. Speaking of other realms, we not only have more realms to visit than in the previous game, but many of them are as large and open as Midgard was in that game. So, God of War: Ragnarok is certainly not short on content. Special mention has to go to how they’ve improved Niflheim in this game compared to the rather repetitive mini-roguelike realm that it was in the previous game.
I want to be clear that the early hours of gameplay mentioned above, while linear, are not boring, and that’s largely thanks to the very well done cutscenes and moments of dialogue between the gameplay that involve Kratos and Atreus interacting with old friends like Mimir and the Dwarven brothers, Brok and Sindri. Some of these scenes made me laugh more than any other scene in the series (Kratos telling Sindri in a very serious manner “I do not need a snack” is a definite highlight). The scenes where Kratos and Atreus work through their differences on how to deal with Ragnarok and when Kratos tries to get through to former friend Freya make for very impactful moments of character drama. The game also has you switch control from Kratos to Atreus after every couple of chapters or so, and while I could see this being annoying for some gamers, I thought it was a nice change of pace controlling another character who plays quite differently from Kratos. His son is swifter and has a stronger focus on ranged combat through use of his bow and his abilities tied to it, though he is capable of fighting enemies up close as well, and he even acquires his own specialized rage mode. Bonking enemies around with a bow, however, is simply not going to be as engaging as slicing them to ribbons with an axe or chained blades (and later on, a spear). Also, the second chapter where you take control of Atreus and he goes on a “date” with a new character would have been better if it didn’t overstay its welcome. That chapter almost stopped the game dead and could have definitely benefitted from some trimming.
Not only do we take control of two different characters, but we also have several different companions that accompany Kratos and Atreus throughout their journey. Brok and Sindri bring their own special flavor of combat to the table as temporary companions at times, and there are a few other companions as well, though I won’t spoil them. Just like when Atreus is following Kratos, these other companions will occasionally strike enemies with more standard melee or ranged attacks, but with a couple of simple button presses, they can unleash more powerful and useful abilities of their own for a variety of effects both during combat and when solving puzzles or exploring the environments. Atreus and the other main companion, whose identity I won’t spoil, have their own skill trees that let the player put a little personal touch on how their skills and abilities are built up, and their weapons can be upgraded as well. Armor for companions is strictly cosmetic, which is for the best, I’d say, given how there’s enough stuff to keep track of with regards to upgrading.
Kratos’s weapons and different armor sets, just like in the previous game, can be upgraded with the right resources. A new change is how Kratos now has access to different upgradeable shields with their own built-in advantages. Those who prefer to use a shield to counterattack and reflect projectiles back at enemies or to charge at enemies from a distance and strike them with a shield bash will have their choice of shield to best suit their playstyle. Also, instead of choosing from a huge number of largely superfluous enchantments and attaching them to all your pieces of armor like in the previous game, Kratos eventually acquires an amulet that can have several enchantments slotted into it, and collecting certain sets of enchantments nets you extra perks, like doing extra damage when at low or high health, doing more elemental damage with Kratos’s weapons, etc. I prefer this more streamlined form of using enchantments to build Kratos into the type of warrior the player wants him to be. There also seem to be a smaller number of relics to use, with the ones I’ve found so far providing extra perks upon activation like increasing melee damage, stunning enemies while providing a surge of Rage for Kratos, etc. Speaking of, Kratos’s Spartan Rage ability comes with a couple of extra options to increase his survivability, namely the ability to instantly regenerate a portion of his health and the ability to unleash extra damaging attacks with whichever weapon he has equipped.
One other improvement this game has over its predecessor is the option to add special mod tokens to specific skills and further increase their effectiveness. For example, one of Kratos’s skills with the Blades of Chaos allows him to strike enemies with a series of spinning slashes when the player holds down the light attack button (R1 for most). Using this skill enough times in battle will eventually grant players the option to add an ability mod to this attack, and it could be something like increasing Kratos’s defense as he unleashes that attack or increasing the rate at which the Blades of Chaos gather elemental energy for unleashing specialized fire-imbued attacks.
Kratos definitely needs these abilities given the fact that he’ll likely find himself low on health after many encounters. Healthstones are still a thing, only they seem to be less plentiful than in the previous game, and most of them appear to recover an especially small portion of his health. It’s because of this general lack of healing options between missions that I found myself dying in certain encounters and even boss battles that I should have won in a single attempt thanks to being low on health from much earlier battles. Armor sets, relics, and enchantments are also lacking in special healing perks, which at least the previous game had more to offer.
Is God of War: Ragnarok a flawless masterpiece that skyrockets above the quality of the previous game? No. Some things about the previous game that kind of annoyed me are still present in this game. There are some repeat boss battles, but it’s not nearly to the same degree as the previous game when it had us fight ten or so trolls and ancients. It’s still possible to run into enemies that are way above your level and who will kill you immediately simply by sneezing in your direction. And the previously mentioned lack of healing options doesn’t thrill me either, but I’m sure other players won’t mind as much. Despite these relatively small flaws, this game does what a sequel should do: improve upon its predecessor in most aspects. And given how great its predecessor was already, the fact this game is even a little better is impressive enough, in my opinion. You can do no wrong in getting this game if you liked the previous one.
Developer: Santa Monica Studio
Platforms: PS4, PS5
Release Date: 9th November 2022