God of War Ragnarok review: Better than the first in nearly every way

(Washington Post illustration; Sony Interactive entertainment)


Developed by: Santa Monica Studio | Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Available on: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4

Under embargo: Beat-by-beat descriptions of narrative moments, as well as the fates of any of the game’s characters

“God of War Ragnarok” by Santa Monica Studio is the best told story in a video game in 2022. When it comes to gameplay, it is an iterative sequel to the 2018 PlayStation 4 smash hit, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the whole story is full of surprises, with as many whimsical delights as gory fights.

“Ragnarok” is also one of the rare stories in any medium where the second experience is better than the first, rewarding the audience’s knowledge and attention to details. As soon as the credits roll, you may be immediately tempted to start over, empowered with knowledge on how plot beats unfold and appreciating character and story arcs that pay off big time by the end.

But you also don’t want to restart the game immediately, because “Ragnarok” is an even rarer type of game that offers more adventure after it ends. Some of its biggest emotional payoffs happen after the credits, featuring more playable adventures and secrets to find. It’s a generous game, offering stories that feel like a sequel to the game you just beat.

Even rarer is the game with side content that could equal the quests found in CD Projekt Red’s seminal 2015 hit, “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.” So many other big-budget developers have tried to hit that peak, but I can confidently say Santa Monica Studio has surpassed that bar, having written side quests even more rewarding (in gameplay and story) than “The Witcher 3.” While the main story is a triumph, the side quests that lay off the beaten path are home to the game’s biggest battles, its most awe-inspiring sights and its biggest play areas. In my preview I noted that the start of the game felt narrow and linear, but that does not hold true for areas later in the game. This is easily the biggest God of War game to date.

If players are eager to dive into Ragnarok, they don’t need to finish the first game to enjoy the second (though the context makes for a richer experience). Even if the recap of the story-so-far at the menu comes across as a bit confusing to those who didn’t play the previous chapter, the early game provides plenty of background and plot exposition from the previous game, in which Kratos and his son, Atreus, earn the ire of the Norse gods and trigger the beginning of Ragnarok while attempting to honor the final wish of Kratos’s late wife (and Atreus’s mother).

Santa Monica Studio also took to heart many of the gameplay nitpicks of the otherwise celebrated 2018 game. That game didn’t have much in the way of spectacular set piece enemy fights, so “Ragnarok” has multiple screen-filling, giant-sized monsters to engage in extravagant combat scenarios. The prequel didn’t have a huge variety of enemies, so “Ragnarok” provides unique combatants in each of the nine realms of Norse mythology.

In battle, Kratos feels just like his old self, and it’s a welcome, long-awaited return. Kill finishers have more flourish, incorporating weapons. It’s a constant thrill to throw Kratos’ Leviathan Axe, punch back an enemy to soften them for the killing blow and summon back the ax, punctuating the attack combo by cleaving the enemy in half.

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Kratos begins with his iconic Blades of Chaos weapons from the original trilogy, which were reintroduced late in the 2018 game. Now part of his starting kit, the developers designed combat arenas and levels around the weapons’ ability to hook and fling the hero across great distances and up vertical spaces. It’s here that the comparisons to the recent Doom series reboot will feel apt. In 2016, “Doom” laid a foundation for a reboot just as “God of War” did in 2018. In 2020, “Doom Eternal” built upon that formula with speedier, gorier, and more highflying action, just as “Ragnarok” does, with Kratos flinging himself across chasms and into his enemies.

Kratos rediscovers his old murderous rage against his will, as the Norse gods instigate every fight. He struggles to balance his past effectiveness as a god killer and his current desire to be left alone. There are many interesting, intentional parallels to “God of War 2,” the beloved swan song for the PlayStation 2 era. Both games are about Kratos helplessly careening toward his disposition to kill gods: What will he do now that he’s learned to love and trust others? He taps into his old Spartan savagery in many ways throughout “Ragnarok,” recalling even more movesets from the older titles. In gameplay and story, this is immensely rewarding to anyone who’s followed Kratos since his earliest god-murdering days.

Kratos is a reluctant murderer this time, even more so than in the PS4 prequel. In this game, he’s judicious about who he might slay. This character conflict adds another layer to the emotional drama of each epic battle, allowing the audience to wonder, “Will he or won’t he murder?” It’s a constant question, adding tension as Kratos meets prominent members of the Norse pantheon, including Thor, Heimdall and the All-Father Odin, portrayed with frightful deviance by Richard Schiff of “The West Wing” fame.

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In almost every aspect, “Ragnarok” is the better game when compared to the 2018 release. There is only one area where the game seems to falter, and that’s pacing. The 2018 game was about a literal funeral march with the ultimate goal of scattering a woman’s ashes at her chosen location, but it still moved faster than “Ragnarok’s” story about the end of the world. The story plays coy about whether the actual Ragnarok event, the end of the Norse mythology, will occur, and this coyness drags out at the beginning, with quests that seem to meander. It becomes clear late in the game that the slow pace is meant to introduce new characters, so some patience may be required.

The pacing issue is crystallized by the only weak character in the game, the newly introduced Angrboda. The character might have been an interesting addition to the cast if she did not so neatly fit the definition of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope: a flirtatious woman who lacks agency in the plot and serves only to motivate the male protagonist on their journey. There is an extended narrative sequence in the first half of “Ragnarok” that prominently features Angrboda, and I can only describe it as a much longer version of the Mary Jane walk-and-talk sequences of another marquee Sony game, “Marvel’s Spider-Man.” The Angbroda sequence tasks the player with clearing bug nests, solving light puzzles — and little else.

It’s not as if women in “Ragnarok” are portrayed poorly. Danielle Nicole Bisutti’s portrayal of Freya, the tragic mother of Baldur who Kratos kills in the prequel, threatens to steal the spotlight away from Sunny Suljic’s incredible portrayal of a growing teenage Atreus. Freya’s tragedy at the end of the 2018 game is directly addressed here, and becomes the beating heart of this story of forgiveness and finding purpose in life. The daughter of one of the notable Norse gods is another highlight, as she struggles to define her own legacy while making peace with her father’s all-too-real and chilling alcoholism.

Once the Angrboda sequence ends, the game’s pacing ramps up considerably, all while opening up the playing fields across the nine realms. Side content starts to flood in, and the true epic scope of the game reveals itself. It’s then that you realize the game’s other great achievement: cultivating a sense of belonging across the nine realms. The game reuses areas and digital assets from the 2018 game, but much like Sega’s Yakuza series’ reuse of the same several city blocks throughout seven games, “Ragnarok” does this to establish a sense of familiarity. This extends to the postgame, where revisiting certain areas causes the characters to reflect on the journey and their history in these spaces. Kratos isn’t just here as a mythological tourist; he actually likes spending time and building memories here.

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And more importantly, he likes the people here too. In the 2018 game, a motley crew of helpers gathered around Kratos. They were a colorful, likable cast of characters, but they were avatars for a number of features established for that game. Blacksmiths Brok and Sindri introduced crafting to the series. Mimir, the beheaded, self-proclaimed “smartest man in the world,” functioned more as a dispensary for lore and background in the game’s quieter moments.

But in “Ragnarok,” Kratos is allowing fellowship into his life. When he calls another character “brother,” it’s an important moment even if it’s presented in a casual, informal cutscene. Brok and Sindri are now practically co-protagonists in the story, driving the adventure as much as they assist. Mimir isn’t just along for the ride anymore; he feels comfortable enough around Kratos and his son Atreus to tell them how foolish they can sometimes be. These three characters also own the game’s most poignant and moving scenes across the entire game’s runtime.

The original trilogy was a nihilistic deconstruction of polytheism and the trap of fate. The final, best surprise of “God of War Ragnarok” is how it subverts this bleak worldview into something more hopeful and joyful. By the end, the game pleads with and urges its characters and the audience to be more open, loving people. The way “Ragnarok” transforms the series is remarkable.

Popular entertainment these days is obsessed with lore to a fault. Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars franchises have entire councils of people devoted to keeping lore straight across these stories. Even 2022′s biggest game, “Elden Ring,” was essentially a story all about lore. Despite tapping into well-mined Norse mythology, “Ragnarok” is focused squarely on seeing and hearing its characters. Like Kratos, you will actually like spending time with them. The memories of these people will stay with you long after the credits roll. By the end, you will believe that even a god of war can earn himself some peace.