At one point or another, Santa Monica Studio was thinking about spreading Kratos' new saga across three games — a trilogy that would mirror the original adventures of the vengeful god. This is worth bringing up because God of War Ragnarok feels like it could have been split in half and sold as two separate pieces. It absolutely dwarfs 2018's God of War in every possible way, and we dare say that other developers, and indeed publishers, may have pushed for that aforementioned trilogy given the sheer scale of this project.
But no, Santa Monica Studio has delivered a game that makes its already excellent predecessor look like a prologue. So much happens in Ragnarok that by the time the credits roll, it's hard not to feel exhausted — in a good way. It's a truly tireless title in terms of creative vision, and we can only imagine the amount of effort that went into crafting such a beast of a game.
That's not to say Ragnarok is some 200-hour monster, but it will take most players around 50 hours or so to see everything that's stuffed away in its impressively detailed world — and we'd estimate that around 30 of those hours are spent doing main story stuff. Again, though, it's the scope of the game that borders on mind-blowing — it's a title that's constantly one-upping itself. Just when you think you're closing in on some kind of conclusion, it whisks you off to something completely new, and the sense of wonder never really diminishes.
But then this sequel did have a rock solid foundation to build upon. Structurally, it's very similar to Kratos' inaugural Norse excursion: you'll once again be journeying between distinct realms (all nine of them, it should be noted), traversing both linear and more open locations, which are home to a balanced mix of combat encounters and environmental puzzles. Some areas also play host to side quests, and, of course, loads of secrets.
At a glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Ragnarok is just more God of War. Honestly, we were thinking the same during the game's opening hours, but it won't be long until your expectations are shattered. As it turns out, Sony has shown only a fraction of what Ragnarok has to offer — which is crazy in hindsight — and as such, we'd recommend going into this as blindly as you possibly can. Once the game's out, the internet will be rife with spoilers of all shapes and sizes — there are just that many surprises in store.
Speaking of spoilers, we obviously won't be ruining anything in this review, but we will say that the main story is one hell of a ride. Set a couple of years after the events of God of War 2018, Kratos and his now teenage son Atreus find themselves in a bit of a rut. Midgard, the realm in which they live, is in the grip of a never-ending winter, and Kratos, all but paralysed with indecision, has Atreus do nothing but "prepare" for the inevitable sh*tstorm that lurks somewhere in their near future.
It's a tense opening that soon explodes into action, and the plot just snowballs from that point on. The pacing is generally fantastic — even with plenty of quieter moments scattered throughout — and that's largely down to the game having a much more involved cast of secondary characters. Indeed, this is no longer just Kratos and Atreus' (and Mimir's) story, with the father-son duo assembling a ragtag group of allies as the plot progresses.
As we've come to expect of a single-player Sony gig, the narrative presentation is of an incredibly high standard. Ragnarok continues with the first game's single-shot style of direction — and even manages to take it to dizzying new heights — while the title's talented motion capture and voice actors put in some superb performances. In particular, many of the interactions between main characters feel impressively organic for what is such a fantastical tale.
Ragnarok is cinematic brilliance at times, but to say it's like a movie would be doing the title's top notch gameplay a severe disservice. As we mentioned earlier, everything is pretty much as returning players will remember it; instead of starting over, the developer has basically branched things out in all directions. Both in and out of combat, Kratos is given a range of new toys to play with, adding meaningful depth across the board. But even if you're unfamiliar with the first game, this sequel does an admirable job of introducing new bits and pieces at a steady, manageable rate.
Combat has a similarly satisfying learning curve, even when taking Kratos' fresh options into account. Fights are still pleasingly visceral, with a bunch of new kill animations and attacks bringing yet more weight to an already punchy system. As was the case in 2018, the camera hangs close to Kratos' right shoulder, and so keeping track of your foes and making sure you aren't surrounded is key.
While combat hasn't seen any significant changes on a fundamental level, increased enemy variety plays a massive part in making Ragnarok feel like a real step forward. New types of creatures are introduced all the time, and although a good chunk of them are repurposed from the previous game, a clear effort has been made to ensure that you're not just brawling with a slightly different group of decrepit draugr every five minutes.
And then there are the boss battles. An overall lack of jaw-dropping bosses was one of the most common criticisms of the previous game, and so Santa Monica Studio has gone above and beyond with the big baddies this time around. There are more unique bosses in Ragnarok's first ten hours than there are in God of War 2018's entire runtime, and every single one of them is a highlight. A colossal improvement.
On the topic of improvements, the first game's somewhat divisive gear and levelling system is better implemented than it was before — but we're still not convinced that it adds anything of true worth to the experience. To quickly recap, this new God of War saga utilises equipment that can be upgraded with materials, with weapon and armour ranks contributing to Kratos' overall power level. A higher level means that you can take on tougher enemies with greater ease.
The gear system is essentially a way of gating optional content. Levelling up gives you a reason to return to previously visited realms, claiming victory in fights that were once insurmountable. Design-wise, you can sort of understand the reasoning behind it, but it's just weird seeing Kratos struggle against a normal undead warrior because its level is higher and its health bar is a different colour. Even if levelled equipment adds a sense of progression, it just doesn't quite gel.
Thankfully, we never once felt like we were locked out of main story progression because Kratos' loincloth wasn't up to snuff. By the game's final stretch, we had more than enough resources to deck Kratos out in high level gear several times over, and even if you avoid every slice of optional content, you're still handed equipment that's capable of getting you through the campaign. You'll obviously have a slightly tougher time of it, but that's just how it goes.
A relatively minor complaint, then, and so here's another one: Ragnarok isn't quite the visual spectacle we wanted. Don't get us wrong, this is an exceedingly pretty game at times, but we'd argue that's mostly down to some sublime art direction, as opposed to the title's technical heft. In other words, you can tell this is a cross-gen release — it's not an immediately noticeable upgrade on 2018's instalment.
That 60 frames-per-second on PS5 is immaculate, though. For us, the game's performance mode is the way to go — the action's just too good to settle for anything less — but there's also a 30fps option at a super crisp 4K resolution if you're willing to take the hit.
The DualSense support is well worth a mention as well. Ragnarok feels fantastic to play on Sony's latest pad, forcing all kinds of haptic feedback based on your actions. It gives combat even more of a crunch, and helps sell Kratos' weighty movements when traversing environments. Meanwhile, cutscenes can be enhanced with a cheeky rumble here and there.
God of War Ragnarok is phenomenal. Even amongst PlayStation Studios' typically stellar output it's a showpiece — a masterfully crafted game that smashes expectations at almost every turn. The sheer, often ridiculous scope of Ragnarok makes 2018's God of War feel like a prologue — and that's perhaps the highest praise we can bestow upon a sequel.