God of War Ragnarok Review (PS5) – Axe and ye shall receive

Though I had the Kratos’t of expectations for this sequel, I still went in reasonable about it. I told myself: if there isn’t a huge amount of evolution between God of War (2018) and Ragnarok, that won’t be the end of the world. I’d be Loki annoyed, sure, but that kind of result would be far from a Greek tragedy.

Because really. How could you have a bloody great axe to grind about boomeranging back into a modern masterpiece?

Ragnarok’s
predecessor was a phenomenon. It was a reboot that won Santa Monica Studio a whopping 262 GOTY awards. Hel. it even landed a Greatest Game of All Time award. Which—if we’re being sensible—was taking the love a bit too far.

With regards to forging a sequel, clearly, the blueprints of greatness were already in hand—Santa Monica Studios need only belt out something similar but bigger. The only danger to that process? A series of unfortunate events to test the mettle of the dev team.

Going through a period of End Times-esque things like pestilence and war sure qualifies as a developmental hiccup. The fact that Cory Barlog handed the wolf sled reins to a new Director might be another point of concern. Kratos’ voice actor, Christopher Judge, requiring multiple surgeries mid-crunch…yeah, that’s a big one.

Despite all of those trials and tribulations, however, I’m happy to say this upfront—God of War Ragnarok is a shining example of a sequel done right. Much like young Atreus, at minimum, this newcomer effortlessly keeps pace with its impressive forebear. And in many, many ways it eclipses the old alpha dog with the sort of new tricks that only a new generation can provide.

Thor-tful Story is Electrifying

Let’s talk basic plot.

Three years have passed since the official beginning of the end, Fimbulwinter. Also, the equally chilling “true end cutscene” arrival of one of Odin’s heavies. And I do mean that literally—as elite warfighters go, Thor’s an absolute Gravy Seal.

As Kratos, the angriest cue ball in gaming, you’ll continue to hew your way through The Nine Realms, trying to put a pin in the impending apocalypse and trying to discover why some people call your son, Atreus, Loki. As before, all events are elegantly handled as one big, single-camera shot. Classy stuff.

At its core, this is a tale centred on the impossibilities of defying prophecy, striving to be better than you were made and, of course, the worries of keeping a young warrior in check. That last point being said, sorry meme fans – not a single “boyyyy” is uttered. You will, however, be told to “keep [somebody’s] name outcha **** mouth” at some point.

Clearly, while the source material is ancient, Santa Monica Studio is all about keeping the script less pagan poetry and more contemporary modern drama with in-fighting immortals. I love their take on this. 

One of the finest examples is in Richard Schiff’s wonderful portrayal of Odin, All-Father. I went in expecting verbose monologues in Ye Olde English and was delighted to meet a supremely sarcastic, matter-of-fact geezer. Old mate’s just trying to run a family business out of a ski lodge but he’s surrounded by planks of wood (his pain in the arse kids).

In the trailers, you’ve also no doubt spotted the presence of Týr. He’s on the opposite end of my approval spectrum – being the Norse, “we have one at home” version of the God of War. As for other cameos, you’re on the personal shit lists of Freya and Thor (the latter being voiced particularly well by Josh Brolin).

The two comedy and armour-slinging dwarves, Sindri and Brok, return to team Kratos. Once again, there’s absolutely fantastic interplay between this odd couple – the former being a prissy neat freak and the latter being a sweary curmudgeon. Their dialogue is so good, I gladly milked every extra chat prompt that popped up.

That’s all I’m willing to divulge about the narrative which runs roughly 26 hours if you stick to the main path. I don’t have too many negatives here. Much like Thor, things are a bit bloated in the middle and the tail end. I still loved being in this world, but I found myself champing at the bit to Ragnarok and roll already.

On the plus side, I love that this tale didn’t go the way I thought it would – which is always a delight. And, somehow, even though my brain knows and accepts that they rebooted Kratos from a one-note asshole to a complex father, I’d almost forgotten that God of War games have the power to Heavy Attack our heartstrings.

Getting Almighty Combative

Though light puzzling, wolf sledding and cliff-humping do feature. axing people a series of short, sharp rhetorical questions is still the focus here. Aside from Kratos being able to lock onto enemies at twice the distance, and targets more effectively, the fisticuffs feel very familiar in the first act.

Melee feels hyper-responsive and extra meaty in glorious 60fps. Hurling a magical axe right into somebody’s beak still feels amazing, too. Hell, missing that shot – but then recalling the axe to thwack ’em in the back of the melon – is somehow even more satisfying.

As a veteran of the Valkyrie Trials of the previous God of War, my first go was a blind run on Give Me God of War difficulty. Even with this considerable experience under my belt, I had my work cut out for me, because Ragnarok rolls a little differently. Also, I suspect Santa Monica has tuned things a little harder this time.

Obviously, there’s a culture shock from going from tons of techniques and God-tier Mist Armour to only basic attacks and a loincloth. But what surprised me more was the new need to prioritise aspects of my personal progression by “doing a thing to make that thing better”.

Doom 2016 fans will know the risk/reward here – if you doggedly stick to the same offense, you’ll not evolve into other, juicier perks. The flow on; you run the risk of making yourself brittle and flush with many different tactical avenues in a boss fight. Branching out (literally, by earning and XP buying new techniques through three trees per weapon) is just as imperative as mastering these new moves via repetition. Each mastered move can be souped up with better stun, damage or elemental properties.

To survive God of War difficulty is to expertly swap between weapons and techniques, as you desperately try to control distances and have your buddy character ping timely, disruptive projectiles into mobs. Combat is fast, fun and challenging. And even the most ‘armless looking grunt can mess up your day if you take your eye off the cueball.

Because you’re revisiting realms from the previous game, expect some enemy and environmental l deja vu. Once you open progressively more of the Nine available – weird, wild places that have their own look, feel and theme – a larger cast of tricksy grunts and mid-bosses rock up to do you in.

You can, of course, expect enemies with certain elemental resistances that reduce your favourite weapon’s effectiveness to a feather duster or harsh language. Plus, berserker foes who will grow larger health bars and become more rabid if they’re not finished quickly. Every arena fight is like spinning many, many plates. But the old-school Greek style of it. (You smash the hell out of every goddamn plate when you’re done.)

The perk/technique trees for each of the three weapons are roughly double last time’s. Likewise, there’s a new Spear weapon that offers some interesting melee applications, though its true worth lies in using it like a Halo needler. Essentially, you insta-deliver a bunch of low-pain shafts into your victim, then try to find the time to cause a detonation move that chains out the full damage pay-off.

I enjoyed using it in certain situations, but it kind of shows up too late. I couldn’t pull myself from my continuing love affair with the Leviathan Axe and Chaos Blades. Especially now that both of them feel weightier to look flashier, thanks to fancy new VFX.

Last but not least, many arenas have more verticality this time around. Using the blades to whip to new positions feels slick and empowering. Especially if you then Obi-Wan somebody from your high ground with these potent new drop attacks

Oh, and axe lobbers will adore the new rebound gems. Basically, if an enemy is turtle blocking, you can move to a certain angle, then ricochet ol’ mate Leviathan off the wall and into the back of their bonce. After finishing the game and much reflection, I think it’s my favourite new mechanic.

A Digital Foundry Masterwork

When it comes to presentation, the abundance of prerelease videos has given you accurate impressions of how epic this game looks and sounds. Bear McCreary’s excellent new soundtrack pivots away from wailing Greek divas. What’s here fully embraces Viking drums and brooding bass-tacular dirges that will grow a beard on your chest after one listen.

Likewise, the VO is phenomenal across the board, though it’s clear that Chris Judge is not in his finest form. To compensate, Santa Monica Studios keeps Kratos more stoic this time around. It’s a shame, but an understandable one.

Visually, God of War 2018 was always looker on PS4 – the exact same can be said of its PS5 baby. I’m a fiend for fluidity, personally, so I played it in 4K60fps Performance mode and had a flawless experience. What’s immediately apparent is the work done on more complex facial rigs. Also, these nine explorable realms are all distinct, ludicrously detailed and full of vista scenes that flex harder than the big bald man himself.

In the end, the prophecies were true. The prediction that God of War’s carefully constructed world, characters and gratifying combat could only be made better in a sequel is absolutely on the money. This is a sequel that certainly starts out safe and familiar, but across a very, very generous runtime it steadily ramps up into clever ideas and an adventure that exceeds expectations.

Smash open every jar in your vicinity and gather some Hacksilver together. God of War Ragnarok is an essential purchase.


God of War Ragnarok was reviewed on PS5 using digital code provided by PlayStation Australia.

God of War Ragnarok
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
Pros
Already amazing combat fleshed out in great new ways
An impressive new-gen visual overhaul
Flawless 60fps Performance mode
Top notch storytelling and world building
Hugely generous in the side content stakes
Cons
The odd, exploitably “dopey AI” mid-boss
Lengthy main campaign a touch bloated in the middle
10
Overall
Adam Mathew
Adam Mathew
I grew up knowing and loving a ludicrous amount of games, from dedicated Pong console onwards. Nowadays you'll find me covering and playing the next big things. Often on Stupid-Hard difficulty. Because I'm an idiot.

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