As 2022 draws to a wintery close, the gaming gods have given us one final contender to attempt to unseat Elden Ring as this year’s GOTY. Kratos and Atreus are back trying to stave off the end of the world and plunder a few chests along the way in the follow-up to my 2018 GOTY with God of War: Ragnarök. Can the duo survive the crushing weight of expectations and hard drinking Norse gods, or will they fall back down to Midgard in their inaugural foray onto the PS5?
Note: this review will stay clear of story spoilers but may feature gameplay ones
The Graphics and Performance Mode
While I still think Horizon: Forbidden West is the best looking PS5 game thus far, GoW really brings it in the prettiness department. A truly unique color palette brings each realm to life. This is made even more vibrant by the return of the wonderful single camera gimmick that makes you feel as if you’re constantly in the center of the gorgeous action. It’s just a shame that photo mode was not released until after I had finished my playthrough.
As you may have guessed from the above paragraph, I have never really been a frame rate guy. When given the option, I almost always choose to go with Quality mode to guarantee that 4K shine. Despite my predilection for higher resolutions, I found myself playing most of Ragnarök in the frame rate favoring Performance Mode. The tradeoff in resolution, while noticeable, was not distracting, and the silky smoothness of combat it enabled was worth the minor price as I found things a tad sluggish in Quality Mode. Even with the compromise, there were plenty of vistas that had my jaw drop and my screenshot button tapped.
Combat in GoW freaking owns. While it was a blast in the 2018 game, several elements push it to an entirely new level this time around. First off, there is a lot more enemy variety, so most combat encounters feel unique. Next, the game really encourages you to switch frequently between weapons throughout a battle adding a ton of variety to each opponent even. Lastly, those glorious Blades of Chaos are used exquisitely for grappling around combat arenas adding a real sense of verticality to things that almost reminds me of moving around in the Arkham games. Combine all of this with very visceral brutality, and it is some of the most fun you could have beating things to a bloody pulp.
Our little boy is growing into a young man, and it is fun to watch. Sure that means he can act a little like a brat sometimes or think he is smarter than he really is, but it is all extremely well portrayed and feels true to a teenager. Also, the segments where you take over as Atreus are truly some of the most memorable in the game, and his bow and animal based combat are a welcome changeup from that of Kratos.
If you get a side quest, you absolutely have to do it. I have seen a few reviews compare the side quests in this game to the most revered ones of the standard-bearer The Witcher 3, and I have to agree with them. They add a ton of emotional depth, help expand the secondary characters, and are just plain fun to do. Everything about them works extremely well, and they always seem to be in the sweet spot of only taking 10-30 minutes to complete. These poignant interludes are where you get glimpses of some of the sharpest writing in the entire game as things often take on a more melancholy tone and the fallout is given a moment to hit.
Much as in its 2018 predecessor, Ragnarök graces you with a wonderful new weapon at just the right time to help liven things up for the home stretch of the game. The spear is an utter delight as it combines the best of the axe (cool throwing moves) with the best of the blades (speed and charging attacks). With all the weapons Kratos has mastered over time, it was kind of cool to see him go back to the first one that any Spartan soldier learns. If that was not enough, it also opens up new avenues of exploration that will make you want to revisit previous areas to see what’s there.
The Passage of Time
One thing is very clear from the start of the game – a lot of time has passed since the original. You see it in how the characters interact with each other through the adoptive family formed between Kratos, Atreus, Mimir, and the dwarves. That sense of the passage of time even helps remove any concerns about having to mostly start over as far as armor and skills go – something most sequels struggle with.
Everything about Asgard is fantastic. The city itself is wonderful, but what truly makes it special are the characters that inhabit it. All of the major players up there are easily the best new characters in the game, especially Thor and Odin. In fact, I think if the game had maybe gotten to Asgard a little sooner, it would’ve ended up a lot higher in my GOTY rankings.
Anytime you see a Doggo in this game, you know you’re about to have a very good time (well aside from the opening that has a little bit of sad doggo time, but it pays off into a very good time much later, I swear!).
Unlocking the Inner PS3 Game
There are several sequences that feel like giant PS3-era set pieces on PS5 steroids that are phenomenal and would put the biggest smile on Nathan Drake’s face. They always felt a little corny and dated but managed to leave me with the biggest smile on my face.
The Mixed Bag
About half of the game (especially some of the side quests and the Kratos/Atreus dynamic) is written beautifully. The other half really wants to be a Marvel movie and starts to get on your nerves with never-ending quips and some tertiary characters who feel as though they lack any unique personality of their own. I even found myself not nearly as in love with listening to Mimir’s stories this time around, which was easily one of the highlights of its predecessor. I think some of the issue aside from the Marvely-ness of it all, is that big moments often are not given a chance to breathe, and it’s right on to the next big thing, which seemed particularly odd for a game that felt overly long.
Being a Video Game Ass Video Game
There are too many damn upgrades to keep track of in this game. In fact they even have upgrades inside of upgrades (I’m looking at you, combat abilities). Eventually, you will find a few things you like to use and just worry about upgrading them when it seems that a big battle is imminent and ignore the screens the rest of the time. I am sure you could really get some cool customization out of your characters if you wanted to dive deep into the weeds on this stuff, but I just did not care nor did it really seem to matter all that much.
Quick Time Events
I know QTEs are a staple of God of War games dating back to their PS2 roots, but the time for them feels like it has passed. Save a few of the aforementioned set pieces, most of the QTEs did not seem to actually feel all that coordinated with what was happening on screen, nor were they overly involved to feel like you were actually making a difference. Yet, they pop up constantly. At least the wood chopping ones were sort of cool, I guess.
Without giving away any big plot beats, I will say the ending was a breathless thrill ride that was a helluva lot of fun to play. However, the entire rest of the game seemed to be setting some pretty big and interesting events into motion that are not even addressed in the slightest, which felt like another writing miss. The result felt overly familiar when it could have been a triumph.
Without a doubt, the biggest issue in the game is its pacing, which is evident in almost every aspect. Side quests, which are one of the best things in the game, are extremely feast or famine. You’re either in a realm without them going straight through the story or you’re suddenly surrounded by 10 of them sidetracking you for hours. The main missions also suffer quite extensively from all too common sequel bloat, as the constant dance of switching back and forth between exploration and combat becomes overly predictable and tends to overstay its welcome. Additionally, the game spends far too much of its first act ignoring the most entertaining thing it has going for it in Thor and Odin, with almost 15 hours(!) in between appearances for them. Eventually, the pacing does pick up in the final third of the game, but having those hiccups early really colored my impression of it.
Feeling Like You’re Accomplishing Anything
Often times, I just did not feel like I was making any progress whatsoever toward the main story arc, and it left me with little motivation to play for long stretches or even think about the game when I was not playing it. For large swaths of time, I also was not entirely sure what my main goals were other than “get one up on Odin”. Focus definitely felt lacking.
Hit Detection and Getting Killed by Little Dudes
These last two items are combined together because they are really the nittiest of picks from the game’s spectacular combat. Oftentimes, I found myself on the verge of death after pulling off Kratos’s extremely strong runic attacks and not knowing why. The reason, was that the game does a really poor job of letting you know when you’ve been hit in the midst of an attack animation. After some time, I knew to look out for this, but it led to quite a few untimely demises early on. Speaking of poorly-timed deaths, the most frequent perpetrator of such were tiny little lizard dudes. It was almost comical how many times I would survive a thrilling fight with some behemoth of an opponent only to have my final sliver of health succumb to a single hit from a lone lizard that had not been eradicated in all the smashing, leaving me to start the entire battle over again.
Overall, God of War: Ragnarök was extremely solid, but it did not quite hit the spot for me. It is technologically a masterpiece and everything you could hope for out of a big AAA title, but the story just did not live up to the previous entry. It is in a weird spot for sure as I felt like I mostly had a good time playing it yet I have zero desire to return now that it is over. Despite my surprising level of feeling underwhelmed, I could easily see it being another person’s GOTY without a second thought, and I would not question that person’s pick in the slightest. You know what you’re going to get with a new God of War, and it definitely delivers from a gameplay perspective. Still, much like with The Last of Us: Part II, I just wanted it to be more.