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God of War Ragnarök review: an epic story makes up for a lack of combat innovation

In my playthrough of 2018’s God of War, there was no other moment that matched the intensity and emotional awe of Kratos retrieving his Blades of Chaos. In God of War Ragnarök, there are several such moments. It’s been a long time since a game’s story knocked the wind out of me like God of War Ragnarök has. I felt emotionally drained and wrung out, akin to experiencing a 30-plus-hour cathartic cry session.

There’s been discussion about what makes a game worthy of the elusive 10/10 rating. While we don’t rate games at The Verge, I’ve nevertheless settled on this criteria: the game doesn’t have to be perfect, but its systems, story, and the overall experience of playing have to be more memorable than its drawbacks. Ragnarök has many issues typical of a blockbuster action game, but that’s not what stuck with me days after the credits rolled. Instead, I’m going to be thinking about the emotions I had playing it for a good long time.

Before I can describe the emotional roller coaster of the game’s story, let me start with God of War Ragnarök’s only (but honestly relatively minor) flaws: there are no real innovations to combat, and the game’s RPG elements are way overwrought. God of War 2018 and Ragnarök are what happens when huge game studios erroneously conclude that the only way to keep a player engaged without live servicing a game to death is to Assassin’s Creed-ify the shit out of it. Ragnarök’s non-story elements are souped-up next-gen versions of the collect-a-thons of old. There are way too many things to kill, chests to open, environmental puzzles to solve, and bits and bobs to pick up that serve no greater purpose than to tick off a box in Kratos’ journal.

It’s been a long time since a game’s story knocked the wind out of me like God of War Ragnarök has

It wasn’t totally unfun. In fact, I mostly liked figuring out how to get to a particular out-of-reach area to satisfy some quest or another. One task required you to kill green spectral ravens that litter the realms, and I enjoyed casually roaming through an area as the story dictated, happening upon a raven and figuring out the best angle to throw my ax to kill one. So while I didn’t entirely object to the quests themselves, it seemed like these Banjo-Kazooie-style “get the jiggies” quests were a superficial way to get the player to better engage with the pretty but otherwise empty world Sony Santa Monica spent all that time on. 

The world’s design can also be utterly confounding. The environments are a confusing mess of linear corridors that require the right tools or strategies to traverse. There were times that I got hopelessly turned around because of the winding nature of the path I was on, making me lose hours of time. Or I had the right tools to progress but wasn’t using them in the precise way the game required, which made me believe I did not in fact have the right tools, leading me to waste hours of time trying to figure out just what the hell I was supposed to do next. 

Let me introduce you to the two biggest headaches in the game: Vanaheim and sigil arrows. Vanaheim is a confusing mess of jungle in which it was so perilously easy to get lost that I wish there were a way to leave breadcrumbs à la Hansel and Gretel. There’s a location in Vanaheim — one of the nine realms you visit — that you have to return to often, and it’s so hard to find, with nary a visual cue to let you know “here” other than a button prompt that only appears when you’re on top of the location. It is literally a dark hole in a jungle wall that looks like every other hole, and I had the damnedest time navigating in and around that place for necessary quests. The map patently does not help you because the liner paths often double back on themselves, causing the navigation marker to yell “you are going the wrong way” when you are in fact going the right way. 

Vanaheim sucks. It’s pretty, but it sucks.
Image: Santa Monica Studio

Sigil arrows are a new mechanic in the game by which Atreus can help open up blocked paths. Shoot a sigil arrow at a surface, then Kratos can hit it with his blades or his ax to clear the path. It’s not always that straightforward, though. To add a layer of complexity, you can line sigil arrows up in order to chain a reaction where you need it to go. Say there’s a Nornir Chest that requires you to light some braziers. The first two are easy enough — you simply fling Kratos’ blades at them, and they catch fire. However, the third one is out of Kratos’ range. To solve this, you shoot one arrow at the brazier, then fire another arrow at a surface Kratos’ blades can reach, then fire a third arrow in the middle connecting the other two. The ensuing explosion lights the flame. 

If this sounds complex in writing, it is way, way worse in practice. I wasted so much time frustrated that a blocked path wouldn’t clear, thinking I was doing it right when I actually wasn’t spacing my shots correctly or taking too long and letting the arrows decay before I could explode them. What’s even more annoying is that Ragnarök attends the Horizon Forbidden West Academy of Puzzle Solving: the game’s dialogue will endlessly remind you of what you need to do even though you already know that; you just can’t figure out why the motherf***** isn’t working!

What’s even more annoying is that Ragnarök attends the Horizon Forbidden West Academy of Puzzle Solving

In addition to having so many silly things to do, Kratos and Atreus have so many things they can wear, wield, and equip. In the original God of War series, it was simple: you acquired a weapon and then you invested in them the blood of your slain enemies to make them more powerful. Ragnarök is much the same (swapping blood for simple experience points because, hey, Kratos is a changed man now). But there is so much extra that it gets a little unwieldy. Not only can you make your base weapons more powerful but also you can attach to them any number of weapon modifications, which are themselves upgradeable, then there’s all the armor you can mix, match, and upgrade. There are relics that convey some special power, then heavy and light rune attacks for each weapon (your blades, your ax, shield, and a new spear), then — and I’m not making this up — an amulet with slots that you can fill with essences from all nine realms. It’s like World of Warcraft’s gear system but only slightly less sadistic. Then double that because, oh yeah, you have most of those options for Atreus as well. 

Customization is good. Kratos 1.0 didn’t have too many ways to tailor his fighting style to your preferences. But in Ragnarök, the upgrade system was so complicated that it largely went ignored. Like Kratos, I am a simple woman. If my enemies are dying and I am not, then whatever I got is working fine and need not be fussed with.

But these complaints are so minor as to be forgettable in the larger context of the game itself. 

Screenshot from God of War Ragnarök featuring Kratos gently touching the face of his son, Atreus, in comfort

Image: Santa Monica Studio

Ragnarök starts with Kratos and Atreus struggling to survive the brutal winter that has overtaken Midgard after the death of Balder. (If you don’t know Balder or don’t remember the events of God of War, there’s a neat recap you can watch at any time to get up to speed. All game sequels should do this. Ten points to Sony Santa Monica.) After a chance encounter rattles both men, Kratos and Atreus are unwittingly sent on a journey, and they must figure out if they want to prevent or usher in the events of Ragnarök — the end of all the realms.

While I enjoyed 2018’s story, I didn’t really agree that it was this emotionally resonant game. It was a “bad dad” story coming out at a time when we were saturated with bad dad narratives (paging The Last of Us). The story was a marked departure from what God of War was originally, but it wasn’t too innovative for the space it occupied in its time. And quite frankly, I’m skeptical of narratives that try to rehabilitate monstrous men just because they’re sorry sacks of shit all the time. 

God of War 2018 tried to make Kratos more sympathetic by simply giving him a small child to care for without doing anything himself as a character to inspire sympathy. He frequently yelled at his son and refused to use his name for 85 percent of the game, so much so that it became a meme. The lengths Kratos went to for Atreus were supposed to represent his love, but it frequently reminded me of parents who make sure a child’s basic needs are met while emotionally neglecting the shit out of them. And yeah, Kratos is awful and doesn’t know any better, but if games want me to feel for their grizzled male protagonist in a sea of grizzled male protagonists, they’re gonna have to do more than make him a sad hot dad.

I’m skeptical of narratives that try to rehabilitate monstrous men just because they’re sorry sacks of shit all the time

Ragnarök makes a better case for why we should root for Kratos because it actually shows him doing the work of being a better human, a better god, and a better father than the first game does. There are no gruff shouts of “boy” anymore. Kratos no longer demands complete obedience from Atreus but — with great and understandable reluctance — has allowed him to slowly grow into his own person while reining in the temper that made him Greece’s god of war.

Screenshot from God of War Ragnarök featuring a tender hug between Kratos and his son, Atreus

These tender moments happen often, and it is awesome.
Image: Santa Monica Studio

There’s a moment when Kratos’ obstinance causes Atreus to run away. While he’s gone, Kratos instantly and without prompting from his comrades recognizes that he’s at fault. “I pushed him away,” he says in mournful reflection. When Atreus returns, he stands still, in that half-flinching stance that is sometimes second nature to children with parents prone to violent outbursts, expecting Kratos to yell. When he doesn’t, Atreus flies into his father’s arms for comfort, and the look on Kratos’ face is one of shock and awe. Not only is he surprised at Atreus for the hug but he’s also surprised at himself for his lack of anger. Kratos never cries in this game, but here and in several other moments, his lip quivers like he’s just about to shatter into pieces. I don’t care about graphics at all, but seeing the emotion in that well-detailed, wrinkled, and bearded face makes an excellent case for owning a PS5.

In Ragnarök, Kratos is a much better person who seems like he wants to truly redress his previous harms. But he’s still Kratos. He doesn’t smile or laugh, and he doesn’t enjoy Mimir’s jokes or riddles. But he will put a hand on his son’s shoulder, and he will offer a hand to a friend in need. It’s great to watch, especially in the softer moments with his son. 

Ragnarök is equally about Atreus’ journey into manhood. I adored the moments in which he’s allowed to be himself outside of his father’s imposing shadow. It’s also charming watching him try to figure out his feelings or how to talk to girls, and I was desperate for the game to allow Kratos to provide some fatherly advice, but it never did. (Yes, let’s hear what the guy previously known for bedding women for EXP in gross mini-games has to say about how to court a lady.) Every day that passes without a Kratos and Atreus Have The Talk DLC, Sony’s leaving money on the table. 

Screenshot from God of War Ragnarök in which Atreus is petting a giant wolf

Something something, pet the dog, something something.
Image: Santa Monica Studio

Atreus has some hard lessons to learn about family and relationships. Video games tend to be too neat in their conflict resolution. The main character inadvertently causes something bad to happen to a side character. They’re mad at each other for a time, even though it’s not the main character’s fault, before the side character shows up at the final battle acknowledging they were wrong to be upset, and everyone kisses and makes up. Ragnarök does not follow this script, deftly displaying how a single mistake, even a well-intentioned one, can destroy relationships that cannot be repaired no matter how much one apologizes. Atreus had, through no real fault of his own, ruined a friendship that remained broken at the end of the game. It’s not fair, but life seldom is.

The game’s treatment of women was also extremely refreshing. As my fellow Kotaku alum Gita Jackson pointed out, being a mom (or woman in general) in God of War sucked ass, and that’s been a throughline throughout the original series all the way up till this very day. Every woman Kratos has ever interacted with in the series has either directly been harmed by him or has died in service to his plot. God of War did not try to be different, killing off Kratos’ wife Faye before the game even started. When Freya was introduced, it felt like the game was finally going to have a female character of substance who does not die or sleep with Kratos, but then she was inevitably harmed when Kratos kills her son. 

Ragnarök’s treatment of women feels like it took those criticisms to heart. For starters, and this is a bit of an achievement given the series’ history, every woman in this game lives! Hooray! The female characters, particularly Freya, feel real and not like caricatures to serve some part in Kratos and Atreus’ journey. I want people to be surprised by some of the game’s developments because they’re pretty cool, so I won’t go into further detail, but I’m really glad at the direction the story took with women. 

When I look at this game and compare it to its predecessor, God of War, Ragnarök feels like what God of War was supposed to be. This narrative of a terrible man trying to ensure his son does not repeat his mistakes while on this epic journey is better reflected in Ragnarök than in the first game. There were so many great moments, large and small, that left me breathless, like I had experienced the very best of what video games can be in both narrative and gameplay. When non-gaming people find out what I do for a living, they usually ask me for recommendations if someone wanted to understand the appeal of video games. I don’t keep a list; that’s too hard a question to answer because video games encompass so much, and what Sonic or Mario or Joel may do for one person will almost certainly not work for another. But despite its design frustrations and perfectly fine, if ho-hum, combat, God of War Ragnarök is now on that list. 

God of War Ragnarök launches on PlayStation on November 8th.

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