God of War Ragnarök marks the end of a gaming era
It’s the most anticipated blockbuster game of the year, but will it live up to fans’ huge expectations? Sam Brooks reviews God of War Ragnarök.
God of War was arguably the biggest game of 2018. Not only did Santa Monica developer rerail a franchise completely written off as hyper-violent edgelord escapism, it was a huge signal to mainstream media that games could once again be About something. In this case, they may be about paternity. It was a sad, almost existential, tale of the once Greek god of war, Kratos, as he and his son Atreus carried his late wife’s ashes to their final resting place – with many Norse monsters, creatures and supernaturals perishing in the bloody end. of Kratos’ ax along the way. It ran away with millions in sales, universal recognition, countless Game of the Year awards and a large dose of public expectations for the sequel.
Almost half a decade later, God of War Ragnarök must not only meet the lofty heights of the first game, it must give it a satisfying conclusion while also fulfilling the extremely nebulous expectations of the fanbase. And? It mostly succeeds.
Ragnarök picks up a few years after the end of the first game, with Fimbulwinter (basically a cold, eternal winter) in full swing. Atreus, a preteen in the first game, is now a teenager, and a more than capable combat partner for his father Kratos, and in teenage fashion even more capable of defying him. The story follows the couple as they try to avoid Ragnarök, actually the apocalypse in Norse myth. The king of the gods, Odin, is stubbornly on his way along with other parts of the Norse pantheon, including a memorably fat Thor and, after the endgame of the first game, a revenge-ridden Freya.
For the most part, Ragnarök is more of the same. If you liked the first game, you’ll like this one. There’s hacking, slashing, collectibles and exploration. The combat has a little more variety, including a third weapon that opens up fights in an exciting way, the graphics are excellent (but not significantly improved from the first game) and the pacing is in a way that stops it from feeling boring over its 20-plus hours.
Most impressively, Ragnarök manages to significantly improve upon the writing of its predecessor. The God of War franchise, like many video games before it, has struggled between allowing a player to commit acts of violence en masse and critiquing that violence. For the most part, the God of War reboot has managed to balance these two, with it being extremely clear that Kratos is atoning for the violence on his part, and ultimately trying to prevent more violence. That this game manages to mostly succeed in interrogating the role of violence, the cost of revenge and ultimately the restorative power of forgiveness is a huge achievement and not one to be overlooked.
While the game continues to detail a nuanced relationship between Kratos and Atreus—arguably one of the deeper parental relationships seen in gaming—where it most surprisingly succeeds is the vivid, nuanced portrayal of the supporting cast. While this applies to pretty much everyone who appears on screen, it is most impressive with the characters of Freya and Odin. In the previous battle, Freya was reduced to a mother figure, an indulgent nag that led to her own son’s demise. Here, Freya gets more time to explore her motives, her thought process, and who she was before the trauma that seems to be visited upon every character in this game was inflicted on her. It’s deep in a way that almost feels like atonement, an apology for how she (and the other women in God of War) were treated.
On the other hand, Odin is a sharp, slanted version of the omniscient villain. He is written more like a mob boss than a megalomaniac god. It’s a refreshing take on the series, where gods are known to strike first and ask questions later, and it makes for a villain who’s even scarier, more unknown, than he might otherwise have been.
As expected from a triple-A Sony game at this point, the game includes over 60 accessibility options, including high-contrast settings, subtitle size, and just about every option that allows a differently-abled person to engage with the game and have an equally enjoyable experience like everyone else.
The not so good one
Something about God of War Ragnarök feels a little too familiar – like it could be an (albeit rich and deep) expansion pack for the first game. It also feels tonally similar to many other triple-A games – the humor a little too quirky, the drama a little too self-important, with proper names filling out actual stakes. It’s never entirely clear what Odin wants, or what Ragnarök actually is, so when characters are extremely offended by either, it’s hard to understand why it matters so much.
The storytelling in the first fifteen hours is nuanced, thematically dense and psychologically rich, but it does not reach the end. The lessons about the cost of revenge, or the rippling waves of inherited trauma, are not simply resolved, but resolved in ways that reveal the complexity of the character and the world that the developers have set up.
It’s sad that the way the game feels most familiar is how it stumbles across the finish line. There are clear signs that the game, once intended to be the middle entry in a trilogy, feels like it needs to be resolved and give the character a clear ending, be it a happy one or not. Without spoiling, the finale of the game feels like many other franchises that have to desperately tie up loose ends because they don’t get a new game. When the game should be put into fifth gear, it instead idles, pulling the keys out of the ignition and throwing important plot development out the window as it goes. It’s actually telling that the best writing doesn’t actually take place in the main game, but in the many random conversations between traveling companions, and in completely optional side quests, almost like the writers were exploring side roads when they saw the end of the highway fast approaching.
The game always keeps the player invested, but there is definitely a feeling that there was more that could be explored. Instead, we say goodbye to these characters when the journey doesn’t even feel complete yet.
God of War Ragnarök is a great game. Sometimes it’s even an excellent game. But when we enter the high season of gaming’s ninth generation, it already feels a bit like yesterday. The God of War reboot was one of the defining games of the eighth generation, and many of the hallmarks of that game – the constant over-the-shoulder camera, the cinematic backdrops, the brooding, almost self-serious tone – feel like familiar comforts now. Whether on purpose or not, the game is a farewell to that era of gaming. Even the subject matter, a father trying to be a good parent, feels very much like a trend from the last decade. But there was just never that much room for this game to reinvent the wheel, when what was needed was just to complete the story.
We may say goodbye to these characters, and this story, but I’m glad the studio can move on to what this generation has in store. Santa Monica’s version of God of War was always, within the games and outside of them, an attempt to look back, to reflect and rehabilitate. The studio can rejoice that this is the iteration that will be remembered, for its highs and not its lows. I won’t remember the end, or the last five hours—I will remember a moment where a son, after a moment of defiant rebellion, hugs his father, who slowly, surely hugs him back.
God of War Ragnarök is available for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 from November 9.