Here is our spoiler-free Review of God of War Ragnarök.
Before we Start
For a game that is as high profile as God of War Ragnarök, it feels a little scary to review because you'll step on someone's foot eventually. I want to preface now that I enjoyed God of War Ragnarök a lot more than I thought I would. But at the same time, it felt like a lazy sequel. The game has been out for a hot minute and reviews have been up for longer. Reading through what my colleagues have written about the title makes me feel like a crazy person. Maybe my standards for games are just impossibly high but maybe it's because I got exactly what I expected.
Not being excited about the title at all may have helped because God of War (2018) felt like a neat personal, if not a bit bloated journey that could've ended the entire franchise on a high note before we go into reboot territory. But games don't end anymore, do they? So before you go ahead and read my ramblings about a title whose score was decided long before review copies even went out, let me clarify. God of War Ragnarök is a competent sequel that never manages to exceed its predecessor and feels just by the numbers.
The Marvel DNA
I'm gonna talk about the story first, don't worry there won't be any spoilers here, just some general observations without naming any specifics. We'll talk about the actual contents of the story at a later date.
While I don't remember the first game being like this, probably because the game had like five named recurring characters, God of War Ragnarök's cast is gigantic. It's what you'd expect when the title of your game implies the end of the Norse pantheon. My problem here is that first, everyone talks way too much for no good reason and the dialog feels painfully Marvel.
I know the Joss Whedon style of writing is very popular, but it takes a master to make it feel like it's not out of place. Characters will often quip to break up the tension of a scene or try that family-friendly anti-humor to make sure everyone is still having a good time. In isolated cases, that might be fine but if that comes at you every few minutes because the game seems to be afraid of having any downtime to let a moment breathe… it'll get on your nerves pretty quickly.
While not the entire game is like that, you still get some nice scenes with Kratos teaching his son how not to become a PlayStation 2 action protagonist. Dialog often feels like it's trying to ham,mer a point home by smashing it into the ground. I know why this is the case. You have long sections in which you walk from A to B while sometimes collecting a chest or two, and we need to fill that time to make sure the player is not bored. Because walking through beautiful vistas gets boring really fast if you do it for 2 hours at a time in the same looking beautiful vista.
And even if I'm not a fan of how all the characters are written, all the performances knock it out of the park. Be it the cocksure elderly Odin, who sounds slimy and weirdly friendly at the same time, or Thor, who is just over everything that is happening. The two main characters get special praise however, casting Christopher Judge as a battle-hardened warrior about to retire is just an extension of his character in the Stargate franchise, and it's perfect. The little breaks, the little grunts, and the weighty breaths are endearing touches that really work.
Sunny Suljic's Atreus operates on a similar caliber, there is something about having someone grow up in a performance that always works for me. And he definitely strikes that role of a young god who hasn't really figured out what kind of person he wants to be. (On that note, I highly recommend you watch Jonah Hill's Mid90's in which he plays the lead role.) Direction and performance are amazing across the board, if only the script didn't feel too bloated at times and characters wouldn't flop between moods from scene to scene, it could've been perfect.
Modern AAA RPG Progression Hell
So when did we collectively decide that every single game needs vertical RPG progression with equipment and lots of numbers? What happened to just unlocking new abilities as you play through the game with an experience point system? Especially when you have a largely linear story with linear levels? But no, everything these days needs to bloat up to the 40 to 50 hours mark in order to tick all the boxes.
If you can't tell by now, I don't like the progression system in God of War Ragnarök. Or in its predecessor. It feels artificially inflated because the game really, really needs to offer you the illusion of choice, even if you'll end up not using most of the stuff you're finding. Given Elden Ring, released earlier this year, suffered from a similar issue; but at least you were progressing in one way or another.
I have a suspicion that this progression system only exists because of all the side content. In theory, that works, but in practice, all that side content barely offers anything new and exciting outside of extra dialogue from the characters. And the amount of upgrade materials feels meaningless since I highly doubt anyone will change their entire playstyle midway through the game. Not that you have many choices anyways — besides building your Kratos around whatever abilities you like the most. Why not let me use all of them? But we'll get to combat in a little bit.
It is a case of “more doesn't equal better”, especially when the player's expression will boil down to choices like doing more damage, being able to use more abilities, or having more health. Those are not interesting choices to make. They are just tricky sliders hidden in an equipment menu. These things might fly in open-world RPGs where all of this means something. Here, it just feels like meaningless fluff, any busy work. This is a shame because some of the areas you'll visit are expansive and breathtaking.
The Semi-Open World Linear Video Game
I played the game on a PlayStation 4 Pro that threatened me with nuclear fusion when I was walking through the various landscapes of God of War Ragnarök. There is something about video games today, especially in the AAA space, that they fear almost afraid of going back to being linear. The result of this is often getting to a crossroads in which one will progress the level and the other one will have some goodies for upgrades. I can't even count the number of times I had to backtrack because I realized that I had chosen the way forward instead of the loot crate.
Wanna hear the worst part of it? Most of the time, I didn't even need the materials I would find, but I'd still open them in hopes I'll get the materials I needed to upgrade my set of equipment. And here lies my big complaint about God of War Ragnarök's structure, is it that hard to just keep your video game on a linear track? After a while, this will just feel like busy work but my self-induced need to optimize my equipment had me chase this anyways. It doesn't feel rewarding at all. It just feels like playing for time in a game that's mostly characters talking anyways.
And I don't need characters commenting on me going off the beaten path every single time. You made this game. Why do you feel like being funny about it every time I do it? A similar thing happens to the riddles and puzzles. While they never go beyond simple logic puzzles that are often about positioning yourself or combining two skills with each other, why is there a need for characters to spoil the solution or have them comment on every single step of it?
Not sure who started this trend, but I remember the Witcher 3 being the first big game to really overdo this. Now AAA hand-holding in a video game is nothing new. It's a plight that is rarely enjoyable. It feels like the game is almost desperate to make sure everyone is having a good time at all times, which funnily enough, can really kill any sort of enjoyment you might have. I don't need characters to congratulate me for throwing my axe in the right spot and I certainly don't want them to point out the solution to a puzzle I have just solved the moment I walk into the room.
That being said, despite most levels boiling down to flat tunnels sometimes branching off, even on a PlayStation 4 the game looks beautiful and makes for great backdrops. But at the same time, since you're gonna walk through temples and abandoned cities a lot. The world feels very distinctly video gamey. And I mean that in a way that these temples and cities don't feel like places someone used to live in them, they are just vaguely themed backdrops and it feels like the paths were laid out first before someone considered who might've lived here.
Generally, it feels like a mixed bag. Some levels look great and have a nice sense of verticality to them, while others don't exactly convey a sense of scale. This is a shame because the first game and its Midgard section, especially, was so good at that. It often feels like all the realms have been included just to bloat up the level selection, even if they end up as side attractions in a game that already feels like it lacks focus.
Combat is Kinda Good when it Works
So I'll start this section off with a statement, Devil May Cry 3 released in 2005 and, to this day, remains the bar that every action game should be held against. And yes, God of War isn't part of the beat-em-up, character-action game or whatever that is called now genre anymore. But Devil May Cry 3's design quirks still remain important to this day as it perfected and created its sub-genre 17 years ago.
I want to go into this somewhere else but compared to a title that was released so long ago, God of War Ragnarök feels like a retreat of the 2018 title that barely made any steps to improve its particular brand of action combat. Now I don't want Kratos to do backflip dodges and 500-hit air combos, even if that would be cool. The third-person action game suffers from some issues that are hard to ignore.
For reference, I played on the No Mercy difficulty for most of my playthrough, which makes, at least from what I noticed, enemies a lot more aggressive and hit harder. This is great because the normal Balance difficulty felt like the game was pulling its punches sometimes. I will go out here and say, the combat system works best when you're up against one enemy in human shape. Parries feel nice and weighty and your weapons all have a distinct purpose. The axe is for meaty single-target damage and the blades of chaos are fast and work best against multiple enemies.
The visibility you have over the battlefield will not feel odd. Not only are rooms in which you battle way too large to keep track of every enemy. Sometimes it's just way too hard to tell when you're about to be smacked over the head from behind, which will often cause you to play a lot more conservatively by circling around to have everyone in your field of view. Sometimes God of War's combat feels like the melee version of Resident Evil 4's gameplay which also had you manage huge groups of enemies while picking them off one by one.
This highly depends on the arena you're fighting in. The best ones have lots of verticalities in which you can jump around platforms, while the more aggravating ones are just flat big spaces with geography you can get stuck on with enemies that just spawn in from all sides.
What irks me the most is just how inconsistent the game feels. Sometimes you can smack an enemy out of an attack that is marked as unblockable. Sometimes, you can't. Sometimes a parry will work consistently on one enemy, while not working at all on the next. With the parries, I don't know if the issue is the low frame rate of the PlayStation 4 since I know that these mechanics are usually tied to that. This doesn't make it better by any means but it would at least explain why I would sometimes have issues with it.
Another thing that really, really rubbed me the wrong way was trying to parry an attack only to be hit mid-animation by another and be hit twice. Another issue I found annoying was that sometimes your special abilities would leave you invulnerable and sometimes not. There was never any consistency in any of those, so I would often just ignore them because using my hard-earned and upgraded skills never felt worth the damage or the potential risk of getting smacked over the head from out of nowhere.
And I also wish there were just more interesting things to fight against. Most of the enemies you'll fight are just variations of another with one or two gimmicks smacked on top of them. Perfectly passable but if you're already reusing a fair bit of the enemies from the 2018 game, it just feels like a lazy and boring selection.
God of War Ragnarök 8/10 Not Great, Not Terrible
My feelings towards God of War Ragnarök are conflicted at best. While it ticks all the marks of what you'd expect from a modern classic, it never really goes above and beyond even its own predecessor. To put it best, it is a lazy and overproduced sequel like many other recent Sony first-party games. Not exactly a bad thing but they are starting to feel really by the numbers. I have no doubt that there was a lot of passion put into the title but it feels like it's doubting every step.
If only the combat would feel more expressive and consistent. Instead, it's being bogged down by largely meaningless RPG mechanics that only exist to give reason to its vast amounts of optional content. I'd feel different about it.
If you've played the previous title, you'll know exactly what to expect, you'll just get more of it. But the story feels a lot less focused and it could do with half of the main story and probably be better off that way. God of War Ragnarök feels too long and bloated in terms of content while at the same time not having any room to breathe. You'll get a conclusion to the story started in 2018 but it lacks the focus that made the last one so special.
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