God Of War Ragnarok: The Kotaku Australia Review

God Of War Ragnarok: The Kotaku Australia Review

God of War: Ragnarok, the sequel to the wildly popular 2018 reboot of the venerable PlayStation franchise, is finally here. The continuation of Kratos and Atreus’ adventures through the Nine Realms of Norse mythology pushes the Lone Wolf & Cub spirit of the reboot to one side as it pushes its central father-son relationship to the breaking point. Though it is an evolutionary step in terms of mechanics and overall design, Ragnarok doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. More practical in its ambitions, it undertakes the subtle but no less important work of perfecting the new Santa Monica Studio house style. Where changes are made, they are always in the service of making the existing game feel better and more satisfying, rather than instituting change for change’s sake.

This aversion to change in favour of adherence to ritual and discipline is typified by its main characters. Kratos and Atreus feel the world changing around them, the wheel turning beneath their feet, putting both men on the path to hard-won self-improvement.

god of war ragnarok
Image: PlayStation

The Story

God of War: Ragnarok revolves around several different, though connected, ideas. The first is a philosophical dissection of fate and its apparently immutability. The second is that our past decisions, actions, and mistakes shape our present and future selves, but do not define them. If we are to accept the premise that fate is real and immutable, are all these character-building steps part of that too? The third: That trust and vulnerability require more strength than just about any Spartan, or Jotun, can muster on their best day. There are about 30 other ideas swirling in its head, but if I list them all this review will be 6000 words long. Maybe I’ll write about those another time, once you’ve all had a chance to play the game.

Ragnarok opens several years after the 2018 reboot, but with our characters still grappling with that game’s final moments. In the wake of Baldur’s death, Fimbulwinter, a brutal, endless cold has descended upon Midgard, leaving Kratos and Atreus bunkered down in their little cabin against the elements. An aggrieved Freya, desperate to avenge the death of her son at Kratos’ hands, leaps out of the bushes to assault them at odd hours. She is, however, the least of their problems. Atreus, like his mother Faye, is of Giant descent and his true name, it appears, is Loki. What’s more, Loki is a core component in a prophecy that says he will kill his father and play a part in bringing about the end of the world.

This, obviously, does not bode well for our heroes. Kratos approaches the problem with his typical pragmatism: fate is bullshit. Fate is what happens when you hesitate. Atreus, as the subject of the prophecy at hand, takes an understandably dim view of this assessment. Obsessed with the prophecy and the grim events it depicts, he strikes out, behind Kratos’ back, in hopes of changing his fate. As Atreus sees it, knowledge is power. Uncover enough information about the prophecy, and you could theoretically subvert its thornier predictions. In the long run, Atreus feels this might be the difference between killing and saving his father.

As the milestones pile up and the doomsday clock moves ever closer to midnight, Kratos and Atreus find themselves dangerously close to a falling out. Too stubborn to come to terms, and either side petrified by the thought of losing the other, they are nevertheless driving a wedge between themselves. As Atreus forces the issue of the prophecy, insisting that they look into it despite his father’s reservations, Kratos attempts to piece together the mystery of Faye’s final message. She could have sent Atreus to the tallest peak in Jotunheim to learn the secret of his heritage alone, but she wanted both her boys to see it. Kratos is smart enough to know that Faye was trying to tell him something, but he hasn’t figured out what it is yet, which only makes him crankier. Atreus, questioning everything and refusing to heed his father’s advice, becomes the unintended target of Kratos’ frustration. Because Kratos won’t open up to Atreus about his concerns, the teenager becomes infuriated by his inscrutable old man and his outward unwillingness to trust his own son.

god of war ragnarok
Image: PlayStation

Into this dispute steps Odin, the All-Father, who has taken an interest of his own in the prophecy of Ragnarok. With Kratos and Atreus on opposing sides of the same fight, Odin sees an opportunity.

And so begins another rollicking adventure through the Nine Realms with father and son driven apart, each desperate to save the other.

To go much further into the story than this risks spoiling what I truly believe is a game of rare storytelling ability. Games this well-written, particularly in the AAA space, just don’t come along very often. It has so much on its mind, and it articulates its thoughts and ideas so beautifully through gameplay and cutscenes alike that I expect people to spend the next couple of years unpacking it. God of War: Ragnarok grapples with ideas that are both preposterously huge, and earnestly intimate. It is a game that conducts itself on a dizzying scale, no matter where you set your level of zoom.

But, if you’ll permit me to single out one perfect moment:

God of War: Ragnarok unfurls its mission statement in a single, tiny moment in the game’s opening hour. Kratos and Atreus return to their humble cottage in Midgard, having brought home a deer carcass for food. Kratos grumbles as he stows their dogsled. He tells Atreus that he will tend to the deer himself, before turning to see his son has already dragged the carcass to a nearby rack and has hung it up under his own power. There is a pause as Kratos takes this information in, turning it over in his head. He gives a small grunt of recognition mixed with surprise.

That’s it. That’s the moment when I knew what God of War: Ragnarok was going to be about.

Atreus is growing up. Soon, his training will be complete and he won’t need his old man anymore. To Kratos, the thought of life as an empty nester is scarier than any monster he’s ever faced. Atreus came into Kratos’ life at a time when he was struggling to put an awful past behind him. Raising Atreus, and training him, gave Kratos a new and meaningful purpose. With his wife deceased, no son to train, and no pantheon to belong to, what becomes of the Ghost of Sparta then?

To Kratos, watching Atreus hang that deer up is gut-wrenching. It feels like the end of the world.


god of war ragnarok
Image: PlayStation

The Gameplay

If you go into God of War: Ragnarok expecting huge changes to its core gameplay over the 2018 reboot, you’ll be disappointed. Rather, Ragnarok hones an already strong combat system to a fine edge. There’s no hunting around for Kratos’ axe or Blades of Chaos this time — he had them at the end of the last adventure, and so he has them here from the off. His weapons work in much the same way they did in the previous games. The axe can be charged with frost and either swung at foes in close-range combat or thrown to freeze opponents further away. The Blades of Chaos are great for lighting enemies on fire and for a bit of crowd control.

This is where the system starts getting a little more complex. Burning enemies are weakened against cold, so switching to your frost axe and smacking a flaming foe around will deal bonus damage. Part of what makes God of War: Ragnarok‘s action RPG systems sing are understanding that its combat sequences are just another type of puzzle. Sure, you can wail on a crowd of enemies and they’ll eventually be dispatched, but it’s more fun when you turn the systems to your advantage. You’re looking for lovely little efficiencies that have you swapping between your weapons, and calling in Atreus for fire support.

Atreus’ kit has been expanded too with new arrows that fire wards. These can be used to create detonations that will deal damage and stun any enemies caught in the blast. It makes Atreus feel much more useful in a fight and allows him to play his part in those little efficiencies.

Weapon upgrades and skill trees remain fairly similar and are filled out using XP gained from fights and completing quests and side quests. They are kept separate from the standard weapon and armour upgrade paths, which are still done at Brok and Sindri’s store. What I liked about the crafting and upgrading in Ragnarok was that it felt just a little more lenient than in the 2018 reboot. There wasn’t quite as much scrabbling around for supplies and rare items here. If I couldn’t craft a new recipe right away, I knew I wouldn’t be far off.

Like other narrative-driven titles in the PlayStation library, God of War: Ragnarok is at its most pacey and breathless when sticking closely to the game’s golden path. Doing so will have you hopping between regions and interacting with its giant cast of characters at such a rapid clip that it’s easy to get lost in the sauce. I would often stop to take in the world around me and think back to where I was only a couple of hours prior. How did I get here, I wondered. Progression is still fairly linear, and objectives are still point-to-point. One of the few areas where the game shows some weakness, for me at least, is in its puzzles. There is no problem in the Nine Realms that cannot be solved by throwing an axe at it three times. Ragnarok‘s puzzle design is so married to the old video game Rule of Threes that the writers eventually have Mimir wring it for a bit of observational humour. It must be said, this self-referential moment did help the medicine go down, but it can’t hide the fact that the puzzle-solving feels somewhat lesser when placed against the complexity of the combat.

Image: PlayStation

All nine of the Nine Realms are available to visit during the course of the story, meaning you can return to locations from the original game and see how they’ve been transformed by Fimbulwinter, as well as explore entirely new regions at your leisure. Every area is opened up to you once you’ve completed its primary questline, and you’ll be free to explore larger open areas full of powerful enemies and high-level loot. Upon finishing up in Midgard, the game urged me to explore with the pleasant demeanour of a travel agent suggesting a sightseeing tour. So I went exploring! Like it asked! And I got properly rinsed by literally every enemy cluster I came across! These exploratory sections are not for the faint of heart. They are for people who relish the combat and want more of it, beyond the returning trials of Surtur, and completionists who must collect every last skerrick of high-level armour in the game.

I’m not often a completionist, but now that I’ve clocked the campaign, I think I want to go back through all of them to finish them off. That’s a mark of the quality of the experience in and of itself — I play so many games in the course of my work that, to put one down usually means it’s down for good. I rarely have time to go back, even to games that I really liked. But I can see myself carving out more time with Ragnarok. I can see myself taking the PS5 home with me for Christmas so that I can knock out these completionist tasks over the holiday break.

The invitation to explore, once your first order of business is done, is one of the ways the game encourages players to get off the beaten track. The original did this with chests and winding pathways that asked you to depart the golden path. These return as well, with chests dotted generously across each of the game’s Nine Realms. And when I say generous, I mean generous. Chests feel a bit easier to come across in Ragnarok than they did in the original game — I felt like I was bumping into the rare crafting materials chests with great regularity — though Santa Monica still hid a few around the traps that had me scratching my head and wondering how the hell to get to them.

I like this “meat first” approach to action RPG design. Compare this to something like the recent Assassin’s Creed games, where quests and wider exploration are often level-gated and can’t be accessed without first completing a certain amount of side quests. You are, in that instance, effectively made to eat your vegetables. In God of War: Ragnarok, you finish your main quest first and then the game says “Right this way, Mr. Ghost of Sparta, the rest of the Helheim theme park is yours to investigate at your leisure.” Santa Monica Studio isn’t offering me a plate of veggies, it’s asking if I’m ready for the second course.

I love it. More of this, please.

Image: PlayStation

The Visuals

Director Eric Williams must have made a dusty crossroads deal with a devil to get an art team that could make this game look the way it does. Eric, if you ever read this, I want you to know the deal was worth it.

God of War: Ragnarok is the first game I’ve played on my PS5 that feels like it’s making the console work for a living. In the 4K-first, 30 fps Resolution mode, the game is a dazzling feat of art direction and engineering. There is an immensity of detail in every little thing. From imperfections in skin and armour, to the ornate fittings inside Brok and Sindri’s beautiful home; from the game’s towering bosses to its stunning vistas viewed from on high, it is a wonder that the game won’t launch with a photo mode. I have hundreds of screenshots from my playthrough. Hundreds. There is a 60 fps Performance mode you can activate as well, if you prefer a smoother frame rate and (only slightly) less impressive visuals. Though I switched between them to get a sense of how each mode felt, I ended up on Resolution mode for most of my playthrough because it was just so damned pretty.

On the technical side, the game uses the PS5’s fast SSD transfer speeds to shift its characters between scenes without ever breaking its famous Brian de Palma “oner”. Like the original game, Ragnarok uses the camera technique of a single, unbroken shot to tell its story. There are no edits, there are no cuts. The “camera”, as it were, never stops rolling. This means that Santa Monica Studio has had to get creative with how they move their characters through dream sequences and teleports. The only times I noticed any loading at all beyond the initial boot-up was on reloads after death, and a brief, three-second pause after choosing which realm I’d like to visit next. Otherwise, the game flows from scene to scene without any indication that it’s all been stitched together. Like the 2018 reboot, this is one of Ragnarok‘s most impressive feats.

Image: PlayStation

Final thoughts

There is so much more I want to say about this game, but I can’t, partly because I am bound by the rules of a prescriptive embargo agreement, but mostly because I want you to be able to experience this game for yourself. It’s a masterpiece, which is insane because the 2018 reboot was also a masterpiece. How Santa Monica Studio took a masterpiece and made a second, better masterpiece as a follow-up is a mystery for the ages.

Deal with a devil at a crossroads, I swear to god.

To up the ante, not through spectacle, but through thoughtful storytelling and substantive character work is no mean feat. There is spectacle and a lot of it, but I cared about none of it as much as the story of a father and son fighting, each with everything they have, to keep from letting the other go. I found this game thrilling and beautiful. I found it frustrating and upsetting. I found it cathartic and complex and it made me miss my dad so much that I burst into tears on more than one occasion.

If you’ve spent the last (checks watch) two years waiting for a reason to hunt down a PS5, you’ve got one now. God of War: Ragnarok is a special game, one that, like Faye, will reward you for stopping to think about what it’s trying to tell you.

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