Never underestimate the importance of a good story.
I kept returning to that during my 40-plus hours with God of War Ragnarök. Every time something tedious annoyed me, or the times I felt the pacing faltered. I remembered how much I loved this story.
Because Ragnarök is also a victim of its success. It’s easily twice the size of its predecessor; a vast, sprawling epic with a hundred hours of material if you’re inclined to put in the effort. But that scope comes at a cost. Dated genre conventions, like mandatory climbing sections, there for exposition dumps, are as bad now as they were five years ago. Boss battles, doubled from the 2018 reboot, are a chore. Combat is more elaborate, as are the battlegrounds, but the claustrophobic camera angle makes controlling hordes of enemies tedious.
Multiple areas feel stretched out for no reason. A simple fetch quest turns into three, while every new area provides a hub with people asking for favors. Gone is the simplicity of the father-son-road trip. In its place is something else entirely. A semi-open world journey that still tries to fit in the same mold. Beneath the surface lies another kind of game that’s eager to break out. But it’s unable to escape the expectations heaped upon it by an unrelenting fandom. God of War reinvented the series so beautifully that it can’t do so again for many more years. Gamers, after all, can’t abide by change, even when it’s inevitable.
Having said that, God of War Ragnarök is still one of the best games of the year. I have my share of issues with it. It frustrates me in multiple places. But it also does things with its narrative, characters, and the franchise itself that are so brave, so eloquent, and mature, that I can’t help but admire it. It’s a milestone in video game storytelling. A sweeping epic that left me breathless and in tears more than once.
It’s a testament to the importance of the story.
Ragnarök picks up a few years after the events of God of War. Fimbulwinter, the precursor to the end of everything, ravages the land. Kratos and Atreus, father and son, live in hiding as they prepare for the inevitable. The memory of prophecy burdens them both. Atreus must decide where his allegiances lie. Is he Loki, the half-giant who will bring about the end, or the son of a broken, but well-intentioned father? Kratos, in turn, is at a crossroads. His past feels like it’s slipping away, and the lessened weight scares him. He doesn’t trust prophecies but knows the danger of avoiding them. If his journey is nearing an end, he would spend what little he has with his son. The man he no longer calls boy.
Then, one day, the Aesir come calling. Their bitter war against Atreus and Kratos has cost everyone more than they can bare. There is no trust between any of them. But in the face of coming twilight, they must put aside differences, at least for now. Or so they say.
What follows is a long, heartbreaking, and often exhilarating quest that will change the face of the franchise once more.
God of War Ragnarök is a risky but intensely rewarding gamble. As far as sequels go, it is akin to Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi, if we compare it to another famous fantasy franchise.
It is, at once, a sequel and a finale. A dialog between fandom and artist. But it is also a treatise on everything that God of War was, is, and could become. It won’t be the easy bridge to a larger world that many have theorized. But even in endings, there are new beginnings.
I’m often hard on games for their lackluster writing. I believe this art form hasn’t yet found a voice of its own. Not in a way that separates it from others. God of War Ragnarök doesn’t break that barrier, but it finds an interesting middle ground. One that’s worth celebrating in its own right.
Where other games attempt to emulate films, Ragnarök is more a season of a big-budget TV series. Something you would see on HBO. On a narrative level, that pacing allows for the characters to properly breathe in the midst of the wild fantasy. These quiet beats, brought to life by an incomparable cast, are amongst the finest in gaming history. Ragnarök, joining a pantheon of few select titles, elevates the art form to new levels.
There’s also a dedication to avoiding obvious answers, which I find thrilling. Ragnarök is obsessed with humanity beyond divinity, which leads down pathways I couldn’t anticipate. It finds masculinity in empathy and forgiveness and asks the player to contemplate the cycle of cathartic violence.
The dedication to a slower pace doesn’t come without issues. While on a narrative level Ragnarök stands almost peerless, its gameplay elements aren’t as polished.
Combat, while improved, feels clumsy and chaotic in a way it shouldn’t. Hardware limitations, and a dedication to a “cinematic” feel, force the player’s vision on a severely limited area. Only this time, these combat areas are larger and more varied. Enemies attack in bigger numbers. Too often I found myself on the receiving end of a ranged attack without even registering where it originated.
There’s an admirable level of counter markers and HUD elements at play, but it all simply feels like too much. It might be my Boomer reflexes, but Ragnarök’s combat just didn’t hold my attention in the way the series has in the past.
Even the boss fights, which are plentiful, felt more like a chore than before. Not all of them, mind, as singular narrative-bound fights are stellar. Especially when the fight is not about the fight itself, but the emotional stakes tied to it. For the first time, God of War finds a way to envelop gameplay in its narrative in an organic and nuanced manner. These moments make every problem worthwhile.
Outside of combat, adventuring is much of the same as in the 2018 entry. That means if the semi-linear open world captured your imagination, it will do so again. I still have a hard time accepting genre limitations in this regard. I find myself huffing at the idea that Kratos, a near-omnipotent being, can’t climb certain knee-high areas. Nor can he open locked wooden doors without performing a puzzle first.
This is highly subjective, of course. These are elements woven into the very fabric of the genre. But they’re also dated by every measure. I wish they would take the kind of chances here as Ragnarök does with its story.
Luckily, adventuring rarely feels like a chore thanks to faultless world design and impressive technical wizardry. Ragnarök is one of the most beautiful games ever made. From the staggering set design to the immaculate animations, there isn’t a single element that doesn’t deserve riotous applause.
Even after 40 hours in the game, I found small details and smartly designed elements in areas I scoured ages ago. They’re not just easter eggs, either. These are objects designed with the world in mind. You can read an entire history into the way a bed is propped up, or how someone has decorated their home.
It’s only in rare moments that these overlap in a way that frustrated me. The game has a lot to say, and sometimes it can’t reconcile what it wants to be. A powerfully dramatic scene cuts short to give way for a tutorial screen about an upgrade. Characters continue reading their preset lines in the background even as another even triggers.
These moments are worthwhile to mention only because they’re rare missteps. They stand out because everything else is so polished. So meticulously well-considered.
God of War Ragnarök surprised me, even though I expected a lot from it.
It is a great game. One that I can recommend to anyone who likes adventure stories. But more than that, it’s a genuinely brilliant example of great writing and directing. The cast continues to prove how vital good voice acting is, and how overlooked their talents can be.
I spent almost two full days on the road with Kratos and his found family. I can’t wait to return. Most of the time, when I finish a review, I don’t return to the game in question. There’s simply no time.
With Ragnarök, I want to experience the thrills again. It takes place in my mind alongside my favorite TV series. Those that I visit every year, even for an episode or two, as a reminder of how that first time felt.
Even if it’s not perfect, God of War Ragnarök proves that any franchise can find new life in the right hands. It is a spellbinding work of art, made better by its belief that gamers deserve great narratives. The kind we can return to for decades to come.