If you had the chance to change your fate, would you? That’s the question at the heart of Sony Santa Monica’s “God of War Ragnarök,” which picks up the story of Kratos and his son Atreus in the midst of an unforgiving Fimbulwinter.
The “God of War” franchise has been a critical darling since its first entry in 2005, lauded for its commitment to nuanced storytelling without sacrificing gameplay. Just when the Greek revenge tale seemed to reach a natural conclusion, Kratos came back with a vengeance in 2018’s Norse mythology-themed series revival, graduating from combo counters and slash ‘em up battles for a sophisticated and streamlined action adventure epic.
Following up that masterful game may seem to be a Herculean task (or a Thor-sized one, in this case). But like Kratos, “Ragnarök” defies the odds and manages to surpass its predecessor in every way.
It’s clear that time has passed since we last saw our protagonists, but little has changed — Kratos is stoic as ever, while Atreus (aka Loki) thirsts for answers about his role in the impending Ragnarök.
The game wastes no time throwing the player headfirst into action, kicking off with an electrifying dogsled battle against former ally Freya, still furious over the death of her son Baldur at Kratos’ hands. When an unexpected Æsir god encounter shifts things into high gear, the father-son duo must travel across the nine realms as they face a world-ending prophecy.
The essence of battle feels largely the same as the last game, with a host of new runic attacks and refreshing improvements made to the Spartan Rage ability. But some major combat surprises tied to the plot propel the gameplay from “excellent” to “practically perfect.” Finisher animations are more gruesome and plentiful, and better tailored to each kind of enemy. My personal favorite is one in which Kratos hacks off an attacker’s arms before kicking them into oblivion.
While players can stick to the main quest and experience a complete story, it would be a shame to miss out on many of the satisfying side adventures that contribute to the overall lore, from unearthing the backstory behind a Valkyrie Queen to helping a quirky ironworker recover a mysterious orb.
Completing the full campaign and the majority of optional quests on a PS5 took me 35 hours on the standard “Give Me Balance” difficulty. Gluttons for punishment could easily clock another dozen (or more) hours taking on a number of Berserker battles, “Ragnarök’s” version of its predecessor’s challenging Valkyrie fights.
Longtime fans will enjoy more winks to the franchise’s distant past — one particularly enjoyable moment comes when Kratos, typically a man of few words, attempts to share the story of Pandora’s Box. Spoiler alert: he’s no Mimir. Moments like this remind players of the hero’s impossibly long journey since his Greek origins, and just how far he’s come. Christopher Judge’s commanding voice work brings both gravitas and a newfound tenderness to Kratos, whose “Ragnarök” arc takes the character to entirely new depths while remaining true to his ethos.
Lovable dwarven brothers Brok and Sindri, who’ve finally made amends, get far more screen time this go-around. They prove themselves to be more than just a neat-freak and a crass troublemaker, becoming the heart of some of the game’s most poignant moments. Of course, they still pop up across the realms, upgrading the Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos to wreak maximum havoc.
They’re joined by a menagerie of new characters, the silliest of which is the caretaker of the world tree Ratatoskr (in his full squirrel form, not just as a runic summon). Additions to the already-large ensemble may seem risky, but Sony Santa Monica fleshes them out with great detail without sacrificing development for any of the fan favorites.
For a plot that’s rooted in prophecy, “Ragnarök” still manages to surprise at every turn, pulling off a jaw-dropping twist at its eleventh hour. Its storytelling is simply unmatched, with several cutscenes bringing me to tears (both of laughter and sadness). It sticks the landing, too, with an emotional gut-punch bringing its tale to a close.
“God of War Ragnarök” is a 10 out of 10, checking every box with a combination of pulse-pounding action, humor and character development that will stay with players long after they’ve completed the campaign. It’s a masterpiece that proves even an old god can learn new tricks.