The previous God of War game appeared four and a half years ago and is considered a masterclass in reinventing a long-running game series. Brief refresher: in the previous part we play as Kratos, the former Greek god of war. In a series of four action games on the PlayStation 2 and 3, Kratos slaughtered the entire Greek pantheon – great fun, but relatively two-dimensional.
2018’s God of War placed that same Kratos somewhere in Scandinavia. Fled from his past: big beard, woman, child. In that first part, Kratos again cuts and cleaves through a series of supernatural evils, this time from Norse mythology. But then the great thing: the story went much deeper. The grumbling god Kratos showed his most human side while traveling with his young son Atreus.
The game cleverly balanced storytelling, great action, beautiful environments and witty characters with real character development. All of that came together in one of the best so-called gameplay loops of recent years – a setup that God of War Ragnarök continues with largely unchanged.
Gameplay Loop: What makes a good game fun
A gameplay loop is, at its core, the repetitive sequence of actions that makes a game fun and engaging. Tetris for example: you rotate the pieces and build as best you can while the clock is ticking and the pieces keep coming. Or Super Mario Bros.: you run and jump and are lured further and further into the level by a row of coins.
God of War Ragnarök consists of many more different parts, but has an almost perfect gameplay loop. The combat system is largely the same as in the previous installment, which is fine. Kratos is armed with a huge ice ax that he can throw, which also flies back to his hand. His flaming swords on chains are also back, and son Atreus is once again armed with a bow and several magical arrows. Kratos’ ax in particular continues to impress: it’s not often that a game weapon feels so intense and realistic.
The challenging battles are seamlessly interspersed with environmental puzzles, where you have to manipulate the levels with the weapons. And then again with walking tours, or boat trips, where the story is told through questions from the curious Atreus, and answers from Mimir. In Norse mythology, that’s the smartest person there is: in God of War, it’s a severed head on the belt of Kratos, who has an elaborate and often witty answer to every question.
Human, compelling characters
That smooth storytelling is made so smooth by characters like Mimir, who at every dull moment tells a compelling story about Thor, or Odin, or one of the other Norse gods. Without giving away too much: these gods are present this time and are portrayed in a unique way. Human, with almost banal family problems despite their immense deeds. Classically designed but with modern language and played by actors Ryan Hurst (The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy) and Richard Schiff (The Good Doctor, The West Wing).
The dwarfs Brok and Sindri are also present again. These mastersmiths make the weapons and armor of Kratos and Atreus stronger, but they are also crucial to the story. And also contribute more to it this time: the relationship between the two dwarfs, with their own problems, forms a nice extra track.
In any case, the world of Norse mythology proves to be a suitable background for universal themes. Father-son relationships, mother-son relationships, close friendships, shame, mourning, legacy: everything passes and the balance is well preserved. It goes deep enough, but there is certainly something to laugh about – although God of War Ragnarök fortunately never gets as shitty as that other well-known interpretation of Thor and his family, the Marvel films.
Nice balancing act
The dosage in this balancing act is just as good as in the previous part. That gameplay loop continues to taste for more. Story, puzzle, combat, upgrade weapons and talents, explore the world: it all alternates perfectly. Before you can even get tired with one part, the next one presents itself.
It helps a lot that the game looks beautiful again. God of War was one of the most beautiful games on the PlayStation 4 and one of the first to take full advantage of the PS4 Pro – with stunning 4K visuals. The extremely detailed worlds managed to achieve the previous part through the design. Not an open world game as is so popular now, but a seamlessly linked series of smaller levels. Kratos regularly crawls through a crevice in the rocks while the next piece is loaded.
That setup is also used now, because God of War Ragnarök is available for PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. The PS5 of course has much more to offer, and does not need that loading trick. The power of the PS5 can now be seen in the enormous smoothness on which the game runs. If you have a suitable TV with VRR function, you can play the game in Performance mode at more than 60 frames per second – usually around 80 to 90.
By default, the game is set to that mode , which makes sense. Although the game will not be shown at full 4K resolution (but upscaled 1440p), the extra smoothness benefits almost every aspect. Fights are more pleasant, estimating enemies is better and because of the action you don’t see every little detail anyway. Ragnarök still looks phenomenal on a 4K TV without VRR. And those who want to can play the game in full 4K resolution, in Quality mode – you sacrifice some flexibility and the game then runs at 30 to 40 frames per second. And on a PS4 or PS4 Pro, the game looks and performs roughly the same as the previous part.
Bigger world with plenty to do
The comparison with the previous part is especially lurking because this is really a direct sequel. Everything that was nice about the previous part is also in this. You start again with an empty collection of talents that you have to expand again: fine, that’s how games work. But unfortunately you also start with a slightly reversed relationship between Kratos and the slightly older Atreus.
That relationship seemed to have improved a lot at the end of the previous game, but Kratos has now fallen back into his role as an overprotective father – another universal theme. The more adolescent Atreus sharpens that relationship this time, but as a starting point it feels a bit strange as a direct sequel.
Furthermore, it is great to see characters and places that were only discussed in passing in the previous game. Because this time all nine realms are available, instead of the six from the previous part. These realms tell the main story, and also offer additional challenges for those who want them: optional bosses, special armor, arena battles and more.
A full plate of delicious gameplay
God of War Ragnarök is another roller coaster ride that never gets boring. The strong gameplay loop, the believable characters and the varied world offer a nice whole. And yet it’s a good thing that developer Santa Monica Studios has chosen to limit this Nordic adventure from Kratos to two games. Many other studios might have squeezed out a trilogy, but then something would undoubtedly have been watered down.
God of War Ragnarök now makes no concessions, and thus ensures that this second part does not feel like such an in-between act in a larger story. It is a full-fledged sequel, a worthy conclusion and above all a very full plate for everyone who was left hungry after the previous God of War.