In Norse mythology, Fimbulwinter presages Ragnarok, and so starts the sequel to 2018’s God of War. We’re back in the Wildwoods, now blanketed in thick powdery snow. But what snow! God of War Ragnarok’s pivot to the PlayStation 5’s next-gen cores and capacitors conjures the illusion that each flake has been painstakingly animated.
Trudging through thick drifts doesn’t just leave a path; the snow displaces and tumbles in pixelated splendor. Ragnarok is lavish, technological prowess spilling out of every passing cloud, strand of Kratos’ beard, and jittery bird darting off as you approach.
If God of War was a game that squeezed everything it could out of a console nearing its twilight years, Ragnarok fully leverages the next-gen promise touted by Mark Cerny and co. in the lead-up to November 2020. Without a frame drop, bug, or blemish to speak of, this is the best looking PlayStation game of this generation so far, surpassing even Horizon Forbidden West, which suffered from a certain haze in its dense, vibrant open world. If there ever was a game to prompt an upgrade to the next gen on visuals alone, God of War Ragnarok is it.
Taciturn as ever, Kratos communicates with grunts and exasperated huffs. But, they take on a docile, discreetly loving quality directed at Atreus, now in the throes of his teens, questionable haircut and all, as the two wrap up a hunting run.
This snow-capped idyll doesn’t last long, as a vengeful Freya interrupts the sled ride home. One thing leads to another, and before long, you’re fending off a hulking bear, a set-piece arena fight that highlights Kratos’ might, reminding us that we are in control of a battle-worn god. It’s textbook God of War; theatrical, technical, challenging, and intimate.
After a brief visit to Sindri and Brok, who add a spot of levity to God of War Ragnarok’s solemn proceedings (and weapon upgrades), you’re off to Svartalfheim, where the game opens up. It’s a world of dwarves, a swampy land of geysers – and the sulfurous gusts to match – a place untouched by the Fimbulwinter.
You’re free to explore, cut loose on a circuitous waterway, docking at beaches to fight, loot, and solve puzzles that open locks that bar your way forward. Runic spinners need axing to unlock chests and geysers need freezing to reach mechanisms. Familiar but delightful, the puzzles match 2018’s God of War for not being overly complex, but as before, the gratifying pay-off outclasses the moment-to-moment solution hunting. The lush environments of weathered mechanisms and machinery, in this case huge, splintered waterwheels and colossal counterweights, churning and grinding to open the mission path.
Cleaving the lanky, bi-pedal lizard-like grims that pepper Svartalfheim in two, the camera pivots to showcase this brutal incision in all its gory, throbbing violence. Combat is visceral and joyful as ever. You feel Kratos’ nimble heft, the athleticism despite his bulky frame, mirrored in precision controls, with the crunch of skulls and the wind up of each axe throw brought to life when the DualSense’s haptic sorcery kicks into gear.
God of War Ragnarok combat
Despite his bulk, Kratos never feels cumbersome, but always reactive, making the player feel even more in control of this powerful deity than in the 2018 reboot. Combat is supplemented by an array of skills ranging from axe throws imbued by frost to brutal attacks that chuck an impaled enemy forward, hurling nearby enemies skyward. And, in an early game surprise, the Blades of Chaos are available almost from the start.
From the get-go, Kratos’ fighting tool kit feels broader and more sympathetic to different situational playstyles. By way of example, taking on frosted raiders with the axe only chips away at their health bars, extending fights, while switching to the fiery Blades imparts massive damage. There’s a tactical pleasure to swapping between the two weapons as you chart the optimal path through God of War Ragnarok’s tight and constrained gameplay corridors and combat arenas.
As for the plot, well, understandable restrictions about what I can talk about, and a firm conviction that Ragnarok’s story is one best experienced first-hand, the less said, the better. Rest assured, though, the first few hours weave a net of intrigue heavy with the clashing ambitions of bickering gods, looming Ragnarok, and Mimir’s mouthy quips and retorts, setting us up for something with the potential to be just as extraordinary as 2018’s God of War.
After a brief taste of the first few hours of God of War Ragnarok, it’s hard to shake off the notion that this is a soon-to-be-hallowed arrangement of polygons. Each one fused to another with intent and purpose to create a game that unshackles itself from the 2018 reboot as something bigger, better, and more ambitious.
The sense of more-of-the-same timed to the same overarching tune is there, but changes in tempo – new skills, characters, a big old dollop of next-gen polish – and an engrossing story keep it feeling fresh and impactful.
This begs the question – do you need to play the first God of War? Ragnarok promises a spectacular time, but to get a grasp of the events leading up to Fimbulwinter – and to simply play a damn fine game – take the weeks leading up to launch to play 2018’s God of War.