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God of War Ragnarok review: Fimbulwinter is here

Kratos returns for an emotional and epic Norse showdown

God of War Ragnarok lead

We might have had some cracking releases this year, but there was still a worry that, owing to pandemic-related delays, gamers would be left out in the cold when it came to big blockbusters this holiday season. Praise Odin then for God of War Ragnarok.

Sony Santa Monica’s soft reboot sequel has been highly anticipated, but with little shown in the run up to release fans almost feared it would be fated to match Horizon Forbidden West and slip to the following year. That it hasn’t done so should be a relief, but better yet it’s made it out the gate without compromise on quality or content.

For those already enamoured by the angriest gaming protagonist’s transformation into a dad with a much deeper and conflicted personality, as well as a radical overhaul to the presentation and gameplay, Ragnarok simply iterates on that. It’s more God of War, while also opening up the wider pantheon of Norse mythology and polishing everything it does to the nth degree.

Norse code

Things are on course to get apocalyptic from the outset, beginning in the middle of Fimbulwinter – long, harsh, snowy winters foretold to come before the end of the world, Ragnarok. But Kratos hardly cares about the schemes the gods of these Norse realms have – like any father, his priority is about protecting his family.

What elevated 2018’s God of War was the surprisingly emotional storytelling centred on the dynamic between father and son, both in mourning and learning to communicate with one another. The relationship develops further in Ragnarok as the noticeably older, taller Atreus has different ideas from his father on what to do about the threats they face once the Norse gods come knocking on their door. It could easily have gone down the rebellious teenager route (it does occasionally veer into that direction) but rather than just an extension of Kratos as an AI companion, we get to see Atreus become his own character, both narrative and mechanically.

This has also grown beyond just father and son, as Ragnarok brings a larger cast along for the ride. Returning characters like bickering dwarf brothers Brok and Sindri help upgrade your gear, and the severed head of Mimir always has words of wisdom or banter to give while carried on Kratos’s waist.

New characters hailing from the wider Norse pantheon are portrayed in a refreshingly different light. Thor here is a world away from Marvel’s comedic superhero, while Richard Schiff (better known as The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler) as the All-Father Odin is ingenious casting. Whether friend, foe, or somewhere in between, each character is as richly written with the same flaws and complexities afforded our heroes.

Like father, like son

The last game made a radical departure from previous instalments, bringing the action on a more grounded level behind your shoulder and everything presented in one single unbroken take. There’s little need for Ragnarok to reinvent the wheel – so it doesn’t. In many ways it plays very much the same, which is no bad thing.

Combat remains supremely satisfying, with Kratos’s weapons feeling weighty and impactful. As before, his Leviathan Axe swings with immense heft but can also be hurled at range before recalled back to your hand with a simple button tap. He’s also got his iconic Blades of Chaos to begin with this time around. Each weapon feels different but equally fun to use, and you’re encouraged to switch between them to take advantage of enemy weaknesses. The best way to dispatch enemies remains attacking them repeatedly to max out their stun meter, opening them up for an ultra-violent finisher. These visceral payoffs are improved by more enemy variety and what also appears to be more animations, so that it feels like you’re not watching the same canned attack play out all the time.

Your move set can also be expanded with a robust skill tree, while special abilities can also be upgraded just like your gear. There’s so much, however, it can be intimidating when you open the menu to check what you can upgrade, even with handy markers indicating when you’ve got enough XP or materials to use. It took many hours before we realised there were certain skills we could have upgraded.

Brawn is balanced with brains, as you’ll also be using your weapons in puzzles or for traversal. Given there’s no jump button, the latter makes getting around feel more dynamic, whether Kratos is using his axe handle to slide down a zip wire or his chained blades to grapple up ledges. There were only a few occasions where there was perhaps more emphasis on puzzles than we’d like, as we found ourselves nodding when one character tells Kratos, “Less talking, more killing things!”

Ragnarok and roll

While there’s a degree of linearity to how quests and set pieces are designed, Ragnarok is packed with many optional branches to explore. Other characters routinely encourage you to go off the critical path, and you’ll find whole quests and areas to be just as substantial and rewarding. They’re alongside the usual collectibles, treasures locked by optional puzzles, and extra hard mini-boss challenges that are also found across the nine Norse realms.

Even though it feels like the developers have to go out of their way to impose on its single cut gimmick, it ultimately works to keep you constantly engaged in what’s happening. The camera swings around dynamically during the more epic cinematic set pieces, while you’re astounded that this is also done in-engine in real-time.

On the other hand, there are moments when the design feels visibly constrained by being a cross-gen title, as you squeeze between rocky walls or walk around in the celestial ether before you can open a door to another realm. These tricks used to hide loading screens would surely have been unnecessary had Ragnarok been a true PS5 exclusive title.

Still, these are mere gripes when the overall package is so solidly fine-tuned. PS5 owners also the option for an even more enhanced experience, such as native 4K resolution. If your TV has Variable Refresh Rate support, our recommendation is favouring performance so that you can have the smoothest experience at up to 120 frames per second. Now that’s a godly performance.

God of War Ragnarok verdict

As a follow-up to one of the best games of the last generation that already overhauled the formula, Ragnarok doesn’t have to change things up and simply builds bigger and better, providing some of the most thrilling combat and set pieces while treating us to a rich, grounded, and relatable depiction of Norse mythology.

It may not necessarily break new ground, then, but as a AAA title it delivers an astoundingly high bar not seen by another studio this year. It has both satisfying, expansive and challenging gameplay, as well as deep storytelling and fascinating characters reckoning with their mistakes, confronting or defying prophecy, and in search of a future beyond the end of the world. It’s very much the blockbuster game we need for this holiday.

Stuff Says…

Score: 5/5

Bigger and better in both gameplay and storytelling, Ragnarok is a phenomenal PlayStation holiday blockbuster.

Good Stuff

Fantastic performances and writing

Satisfying combat expanded upon from predecessor

Much to do beyond story that’s just as substantial

Both epic and intimate in scope

Bad Stuff

Last-gen concessions feels noticeable in places

Different upgrade menus can get overwhelming