God of War Ragnarök is a fast-paced, exciting game. Combat is brisk and beautiful. There are boss fights that will absolutely blow your mind. The story goes places you’d never expect and places you’ll see from miles away, and both often end up being amazing. You’ll fight gigantic, towering enemies, team up with unlikely allies, and see awesome vistas from across the Nine Realms. And every step of the way you’ll think about the ungodly sums of money pumped into its development. God of War Ragnarök looks like an expensive game, and that expense pays off.
It starts around three years after the events of its predecessor, in the midst of Fimbulwinter, the snowpocalypse that precedes the actual titular apocalypse of Norse mythology. Kratos’ (Christopher Judge) son, Atreus (Sunny Suljic), now also known by his Norse name, Loki, has aged into a teenager, and although the two definitely have a healthier relationship since the events of the previous game, there’s still a lot of friction between the two surrounding destiny, prophecy and who Atreus ultimately wants to be. In many ways, Ragnarök feels more like Atreus’ story than Kratos’, aided by many extended sequences in which you play as the god of mischief himself.
Playing as Atreus never feels quite as fun or fleshed-out as playing as his father, but the switch in focus to a playstyle centered around ranged attacks and more nimble movement is a nice change of pace from the slower, more powerful god of war. The segments in which you play as Atreus, however, are often the most interesting from a story perspective, as he meets with intriguing characters and gets access to information Kratos is unaware of. It should be noted that, aside from one possible late-game exception, the camera still refuses to cut away, just like it did in the previous game, simply moving its perspective to the other character when it’s time to play as them.
The majority of time is still spent playing as Kratos, however, with Atreus and other allies providing support. Combat as the stoic father feels just as good as it did in 2018, with Kratos dolling out pain with both the Leviathan Axe and the Blades of Chaos, the latter of which you gain access to very early in the game rather than the tens of hours you have to wait to obtain them in 2018. That’s a good thing, because they remain the most exhilarating weapons in the game. The way you’re able to sweep the battlefield with the wide swings of these blazing blades never gets old, even when other elements of the game start to do so.
That’s because between the amazing boss fights and setpieces, there’s a lot of time spent fighting the same hellwalkers, wights and raiders that you fought last time, with not too much to shake things up. I understand that this is an action adventure game, but I personally would have preferred a tad less action in exchange for a bit more adventure. For the most part, the puzzles aren’t too challenging, with the majority coming in the form of activating the three symbols on a chest to obtain a health or rage upgrade, but one puzzle in particular took me nearly an hour before I realized it wasn’t my stupidity but a bug that was keeping me from completing it.
For whatever reason, however, I didn’t get quite as much fatigue with the combat when completing the game’s sidequests. This is far from an open world game the likes of Horizon: Forbidden West, but there are a surprising amount of extra activities to engage in when compared to 2018’s God of War, and they range from simple combat encounters to more involved quests involving new locations, puzzles and story elements. One of the final areas for side quests is surprisingly massive and open, offering the closest thing we’ve seen to an open world area for the franchise.
If any one element is even better than the original, it’s the game’s soundtrack. Bear McCreary’s music was one of the most haunting, overpowering elements of 2018’s God of War, and while most of the best music is new renditions of themes from that game, they’re so beautifully arranged that even when the story doesn’t quite hit the emotional beats it’s going for, McCreary’s score is more than enough to make me tear up or get goosebumps alone.
Despite the technical proficiency and all-around slickness insured by its immense budget, and beyond the power of the music, Ragnarök ultimately doesn’t have the same impact as its 2018 forebear. It’s weird to say a game I’m scoring this high is “disappointing,” but that’s only because of how amazing and era-defining its predecessor was to me. I loved every moment of that game, from the story to the unbelievable locations to the jaw-dropping boss fights. I thought it couldn’t be topped, and although I was hoping I was wrong, itt turns out I was right.
It’s hard to say what factors prevent God of War Ragnarök from surpassing 2018’s entry. Perhaps it’s because that game was so perfect that there was nowhere to go but down. Although we do get to see the few remaining realms that were permanently locked before, those we return to look mostly the same (if a lot snowier), and as dazzling as they looked then, the sequel being cross-platform with PlayStation 4 means they can’t look that much better on the current-gen console. Ragnarök fails to surpass what came before it because it’s essentially more of the same, even if “the same” is more of my favorite game from the PS4 era. And although technically “the same” quality shouldn’t feel like a disappointment, doing the same basic thing twice can’t ever be as powerful the second time.
I can’t stress enough how God of War Ragnarök is a fantastic game with tremendous heights. It caps off the Norse mythology duology beautifully, and I absolutely cannot wait to see where the series goes from here. It’s just a bit of a shame that it can’t quite live up to the game that came before it.
God of War Ragnarök was developed by Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for the PlayStation 4.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.