“God of War Ragnarok” is a sequel that plays it safe, at least in its opening hours. While the 2018 reboot upended the series formula, 2022′s game is about pushing that formula as far as it can go — within the bounds of remaining playable on the PlayStation 4.
That means that, again, for the first several hours, “Ragnarok” feels very much like a PlayStation 4 game that’s been ported to the PlayStation 5. It evidently does not take full advantage of Sony’s highest-end current technology.
An embargo decreed by PlayStation means I can’t talk about the rest of the game, which became more interesting pretty quickly, but that’s about as much as I can write; you’ll have to wait until the review embargoes lift in a few weeks. In the meantime, you can expect “God of War Ragnarok” to feel like an immediate follow-up to 2018′s critically acclaimed blockbuster, with little deviation from what that game achieved in combat, level design and pacing. It’s like the next season of a nail-biting prestige show — except we’ve waited four years to continue its story threads.
“Ragnarok” plays just like its predecessor: one long tracking shot, lots of walking and talking and solving environmental puzzles, punctuated by arenas filled with bad guys to rip apart.
It also very much feels like a game built first for the PlayStation 4. The PlayStation 5 features a solid-state drive that many hoped would be the end of loading screen “masks,” essentially gameplay elements that hide when the console is loading assets for the next part of the game. In “God of War,” this often came in the form of squeezing through cracks in walls.
In the first several hours, Kratos and his son Atreus slide through several cracks in several walls at virtually every in-game location. The first disguised loading screen happens less than half an hour in. While Sony first revealed “Ragnarok” as a PS5 title, spending one hour with the game makes it loud and clear this was designed first for the PlayStation 4.
Even if this was expected, it’s a bit disappointing in its frequency. Svartalfheim should feel like a thriving Dwarven community, yet we are locked to mostly exploring its linear mines, connected by these hidden loading times. It feels less like a world and more like video game environments, where story moments are unlocked. Oftentimes, the game will make you forget about these generational holdovers, particularly during an action-packed opening sequence that involves sledding through the most impressively detailed snow environments ever committed to digital space. But when the game gives the player control, it’s largely through funnels, arenas and puzzle rooms, much like the 2018 PS4 game.
The violence — the signature feature of the series — is more diverse in animation and feel than in the 2018 game. Kratos retains his chains and ax, adding to the sense of continuity. While the kill animations of 2018 felt a bit repetitive, “Ragnarok” does a better job making each fight feel beautifully choreographed. Shield deflections are now supported with follow-up shield attacks. Even if it’s similar to 2018′s game, Santa Monica Studio’s fight mechanics remain unique among action games thanks to the ability to throw and summon back the ax. Kratos can throw the ax at a group of enemies, charge into them with flying fists, recall the ax to hit an enemy from behind and punctuate it all with a glorious finishing kill animation. It’s all player-led beautiful fight choreography that makes the game feel like an X-rated violent version of a Marvel superhero film.
If the gameplay portions feel familiar, the story is immediately gripping and explores new territory. The writing in “Ragnarok” is a monument to efficiency as it catches the audience up on ongoing character motivations, and what’s happened in the years since 2018. Questions raised by the first game’s conclusion are quickly addressed, including the nature of Atreus’s lineage, his father’s ominous role in a prophecy the protagonists aren’t quite sure they can trust, and the concerning matter of Ragnarok itself, an event that seems to occur throughout the game as the Fimbulwinter, the prophesied three seasons of cold, is in full force as the game begins.
The 2018 game’s main quest was to scatter the ashes of Atreus’s dead mother. It was an intensely personal journey that resonated with many players, and its success was largely due to how players were invited to explore the characters. As Kratos learned about his son, so too did we. As Atreus’s journey raised new questions about his past and his mother, we were there with him.
Atreus was a youngling then. In 2022′s “Ragnarok,” he carries far more confidence. His talk back to his father is more immediate and harsh, yet his father also respects the gall of his son. Kratos — at least in his body language and facial animation — seems far more willing to trust his son’s judgment, even if he can’t quite say that out loud. Atreus, meanwhile, seems to have gained godly sagacity; he’s fluent in ancient languages, at once the student and master of many cultures. He’s practically a Gandalf-like character in the frame of a growing teenage boy, easily surpassing his father in wisdom, if not experience. Atreus is learning to lead and Kratos still hasn’t gotten quite used to that reality.
If the first few hours hold few surprises in gameplay, they hold many captivating narrative sequences, including tense moments of dialogue between characters that have every reason to hate each other. The embargo restricts me from further detail on who’s talking and about what, but I wouldn’t dare spoil the surprise anyway. When these characters clash, it’s enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
I’ve yet to see whether “Ragnarok” can rock the foundations of its genre or the medium the way its predecessor did. But I came into this game most excited to see what happens next — as if I were starting a new season of a beloved TV show. There was some initial disappointment. This is not the PS5 game I was waiting for, one that takes full advantage of the console’s memory capabilities.
The God of War series has changed dramatically over the last 18 years, yet it’s been molded by many of the same developers throughout every iteration. In “Ragnarok,” there’s the sense that the character, creator and player are all on the same journey together, a rare feat of emotional resonance in gaming. To get the chance to see it to its end, regardless of the underlying hardware, is its own reward.