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God of War Ragnarök
This review contains spoilers
I’ve said a lot about video games over the years, both here and in other places, stuff regarding game balance, difficulty, fun, the idea of games obsoleted by other titles, but one comment I don’t ever think I’ve made before is that it feels like a game has too MUCH money, and the nature of how constantly showering it around can ultimately dilute the core game experience.
Now I’m not against the idea of a game wanting to look as prestige as possible. A big part of why games like Psychonauts 2 and Hi-Fi Rush are able to elevate the conceptual goals of smaller scale stuff like A Hat in Time or No Straight Roads is because of that big company money injection. There’s a lot of appeal seeing a game be as visually robust and smooth as God of War Ragnarok throughout the whole runtime, and much praise should be given to all the talented animators at Santa Monica who brought it all to life. Ragnarok can look quite gorgeous on the PS5, with much more environmental diversity than its predecessor, but in this case, it almost feels like because of the way the game designers and the story writers communicated everything, there’s just a stupendous amount of STUFF fit into the game. Remixed old worlds and plenty of new ones, tons of new characters, substantially more enemy types (there was one single time I fought a troll recolor in this one compared to 2018’s 5+), tons of gear, tons of gear slots per character, three characters, different gear slots per weapon, tons of skill branches per character, forty different crafting materials, various lore poems, cute references to other Sony adventures, a surplus of walls to climb up and shimmy between, and a LOT of pretty water to slowly boat around. But there’s a cost to all this, that being when so much money is thrown at the game, a lot of these systems feel like they were created to fill holes that only exist because they themselves built them, giving the development teams reason to be busy, and that it was necessary to make sure almost any possible player could get to the point of interfacing with them.
The majority of God of War Ragnarok (or at least 2/3 of it) is in combat, and combat functions almost exactly like it did in the previous game. As Kratos you attack enemies with either your axe or the Blades of Chaos, parrying attacks when they come across, activating various cooldowns for more powerful attacks, calling for your companion to attack when you want an opening in, and gradually getting more gear and toggles and skill tree attacks as the game does on. It’s easy to pick up and well-balanced on the main path, but like in the 2018 game, the numerous RPG elements of looter gear and stats and associated bonus effects don’t convince me of complexity as much as add more numbers and uncertain effects to enemy reactions, and more things for the staff to be busy designing.
I made my way through by making my build as much of a mighty glacier as possible with high defense, high attack and buffs to get around the overly tanky enemies; most of these stats still feel pointless and the vast skill trees have a handful of interesting techniques but few things as practical as basic attacks. In most cases my general game plan was to upgrade attack as much as possible and stack with both a weapon buff and the melee buffing runic (nothing else seemed as tempting as the simple yet practical strength boost), which could inflict devastating damage upon most enemies and even bosses. That strategy never changed once I discovered it, and as much as the game showers you with three types of armor and weapon handles and six different runic attack slots, nothing felt like it ever disincentivized me from sticking with the 1.75 second Realm Shift for how much of a headache the combat can be at its worst.
While this applies to 2018 as well, the idea of a “Luck” stat still feels obscenely pointless in an action RPG. In a turn-based RPG or other game based around skill checks with particular set outcomes, a luck stat is mimicking the idea of D&D rolls, and it can be incredibly helpful for landing attacks or status effects with a very low hit percentage but high reward upon nailing it, as well as avoiding could be devastating blows from your opponents. In the context of an action game, where very small character movements can change the properties of your attacks and it’s hardly a “guess” if an attack right in an enemy's face can hit them, (unless you’re negatively affected by move assist) it doesn’t feel meaningful because nothing in the various skill trees feel like they offer “chances.”
It feels like it was thrown in because “hey, we’re an RPG now, want to see number go up and have specific equipment built around that number going up, even if prioritizing it would make enemies more spongey? Trying to work out the effects of this stat was another money sink that didn’t meaningfully make combat more interesting.
He does get one new weapon: a Spear. It’s………not great. The main gimmick of the spear is the fact that it can be thrown and detonated, up to five separate times, but even beyond it turning the combat into a clunky TPS where the throws are meant to be at range, the spear explosions lack animation oomph for some reason, the melee doesn’t feel as fluid as the other weapons, and it takes long enough to set up all the spears that it just seemed easier to get in with the more damaging, impactful melee weapons. For all the effort put into its design and place in your arsenal, it felt unnecessarily situational in ways I’m not sure it was meant to be outside of puzzles. Even as a projectile, the axe you start the game with feels more effective and powerful. Puzzle-wise, it’s used to put in a hole, either for swinging or for blowing up specifically marked rocks, some of which you’ll see in the middle of long dungeons before you have it. For all the effort put into crafting the spear and its skill tree and everything, to battle Heimdall in the story, it felt clunky trying to integrate it into basic gameplay. I like how the Heimdall fight itself uses the spear, trying to catch him offguard with ground bombing, but for everything else, this weapon felt like a thing to add, not to enhance, just to add.
At the very least though, when playing as Kratos, the sheer number of options, however needless they may feel on combat as a whole, at least give you a lot to learn and experiment toward, provided you go through the hassle of unequipping and reequipping numerous different skills tucked in their own sub menus within submenus.
This doesn’t apply as much to this game’s handful of drawn-out Atreus gameplay segments. From a story perspective, their existence makes perfect sense as a way of getting information Kratos could not and building up tension for the final battle and making Atreus better stand out as his own person making meaningfully developed decisions. From a gameplay perspective, they’re reflective of the worst stereotypes of western “movie games.” Atreus’s combat is even simpler than Kratos’s, with only one weapon, two kinds of arrows and some basic melees. There ARE other kinds of combinations in the skill tree, but his skill tree feels like even greater fluff, because it doesn’t feel like any complex technique has much of a significantly greater effect than basic happy slapping. It’s also during these segments when the longest, most consistent talky walky climby moments in the game occur. The second one introduces a manic pixie dream girlfriend character just to give him someone to talk to, to tell him some exposition and to fight a boss together that’s never mentioned again. This chapter is spread over at least two hours of gameplay. I’d find the relationship endearing if she wasn’t so obviously shoehorned in to fit the plot purpose of giving him someone to talk to for otherwise limited effect on the core plot, and even though the segment of their meeting ends with fighting one of the two bosses who stands out from the others mechanically because of the arena, it feels incredibly slow and limited to have the pacing drag to such a crawl while forced walking (or slowly animal riding on water) along a rail.
Speaking of keeping you on rails, for being an M rated game, as opposed to an E for Everyone experience, there’s a shockingly high amount of “no child left behind” moments when it comes to literally any kind of puzzle. Once Atreus gets the Hex arrows, the puzzle design more or less plateaus there. Can you arrange the arrow shots in a line, then throw your axe or Chaos Blades into one of the spots in order to activate them? Congratulations! You’ve solved most of the game’s puzzles in different variations. Outside of one late game variant of this puzzle for a chest I may or may not have cheated hitboxes around to solve, one of the few standout puzzles was early on. You had to figure out the right timing to decide which geysers to freeze and which ones to unfreeze, affecting a weight that you need to rise with you on it in order to open a gate. It’s a nicely thought-out puzzle that stands out from everything else. Or at least it would be a nice puzzle, if you didn’t get two companions chirping about what the answer is should you struggle for even 2 minutes.
Much has already been made of the amount of backseating the game gives you if you spend basically any extra time at all thinking over a puzzle. It feels weirdly patronizing and you can’t turn it off. It’s one thing for a game to just have easy puzzles where a player can get an Ah-Ha moment from something which isn’t that hard to more experienced puzzler gamers. It’s another thing to tell the player a puzzle solution out of pity because they spent slightly too long trying to figure something out. For the most part this level of backseating doesn’t even make sense narratively; Kratos with his world weary experience should be more aware of how rudimentary contraptions work than needing his son or a talking head to tell him the answer. There is ONE time in the entire game when this backseating adds to the experience, and that’s when Freya is so desperate to be freed from her being bound to a realm and so fed up with Kratos at that point for the additional grief he gave her on top of that, that her barking orders at the player on how to finish puzzles fast actually makes sense contextually. It’s still annoying, but in that instance makes sense contextually as a moment of gameplay and story being in harmony.
But what about the core story? Overall, it kept me curious for most of its run and largely succeeded at what it wanted to do. Its presentation and characterization carry it and on a moment-to-moment level it felt like its focus on plot made things more interesting to think about compared to 2018. Aside from said obvious girlfriend insert, the rest of the core cast has interesting things to say and distinct personalities when reacting to situations. Many scenes with Kratos are carried greatly by Christopher Judge’s performance and the character animation presenting his reaction to the heavier story scenes with a massive chip on his shoulder. Freya is a character for whom certain people were very very upset at what happened to her at the end of 2018, but I think despite that contextually appropriate backseating, her character’s arc felt like it was given thorough consideration and a satisfying conclusion.
Despite some corny MCU-esque writing in parts and a few questionable voice direction choices (mainly Odin, who sounds like the grandfather character in a typical sitcom), it’s enjoyable and incredibly well presented thanks to the talented team of character animators and voice actors. Saying that, ProZD’s squirrel character is both well-voiced and animated, but none of his constant quipping landed for me and he felt jarringly out of place relative to every other character, even that not super funny but still occasionally charming Mimir. The game starts well, and the ending does mostly deliver on promised spectacle, even with that second Atreus segment bringing things to a halt for a few hours, and a long section with the Fates feeling more like a means to stress the direness of the current situation more than meaningfully add. The Hellheim section also felt very tenuous in terms of importance despite the solid gameplay contained in it. It started with an Atreus segment that leads to freeing a giant hell dog, then going to a Kratos segment where he and Atreus must go through an entirely different set of areas clear up the mess that was just created. Mostly it serves as more of a reason to want to stick a spear through Heimdall’s head and fight a giant boss more than progress anything more relevant; a stark contrast to how this game’s predecessor handled that realm. Also, somehow, you’re forced to backtrack through a lot of previously explored Vanaheim once you get the spear weapon, but there’s an entire massive giant separate area in that realm that’s completely disconnected from anything plot wise, elaborately designed with tons of pathways and chests and encounters. It’s like the gameplay team was incredibly inspired but the story team wasn’t entirely sure how to meaningfully carry a lot of the runtime despite solid scripting.
With that being said, I appreciate a lot of what the gameplay team pumped out, plot relevance be damned. Most areas give you the option to keep exploring after your plot goal is accomplished and it doesn’t feel like typical open world filler. These sections feel meaningfully curated in a way you rarely see in modern AAA games. It’s nice to free the shackles of a giant whale, reunite a giant Jellyfish family or have an entire crater hunting giant dragons. Even if I did groan when a chest contained only money or random crafting materials, there was a lot to explore toward outside the main story. The side content was more absorbing than I thought going in, except for the combat trials which like Hellheim are an unexpected downgrade from 2018. They started off fine but gradually became a massive test of patience, where the “final” trials require you to replay previous combat missions again and again to get 5 different combinations of mission clear order for the hardest fights. It’s blatant padding to replay basic mobs over and over for what? A 5-minute survival challenge that does nothing but show what happens when big arenas are thrown out the window and the camera does a horrendous job showcasing enemies attacking from off camera with grabs and projectiles given no distinction by the red arrows? No thanks.
Finally, the soundtrack, the Game Award “Best Score and Music” winner over such distinct contenders as Metal Hellsinger with its uproarious standout metal or Xenoblade 3, a game showing Yasunori Mitsuda continuing to evolve his style over nearly 3 decades of VGM compositions? Unfortunately, it’s extremely forgettable. Specifically, the battle tracks. There are a few cutscene BGMs in the game that do shine, such as that plays after Atreus is practically shooed out of Sindri’s house, a couple during scenes Kratos is sad and mournful, a moment when an incredibly devastating plot beat plays out, and a particular standout when meeting this game’s version of the Fates. The main theme is used at an appropriate time as well to hype up the final battle, but in general, despite spending nearly 50 hours in this world, very little stuck in my head musically while playing. The composer didn’t do a bad job at all; he just did a solid job composing what the expectation of film score is. Moments like a bar brawl presented in one of Atreus's sections could’ve been severely uplifted by a strongly distinct track. Heck, Hi-Fi Rush did a similar thing to hype up one of its brawls near the ending of that game, so I don’t see a reason why a game with so much more scope and capability to do almost anything it can defaults to the general expectation of what music is for an average blockbuster film, rather than a game.
And that’s just it. Few moments encapsulate the God of War Ragnarok experience than having an incredibly pretty, cinematic cutscene where the game wanting you to press the touch pad for heartfelt hand painting will constantly bring up the gameplay pause menu while trying to do it. The need to be cinematic feels in turn, overcompensated by game design that kept its game designers very very busy, regardless of how impractical or obsolete those efforts might be at enhancing the game’s core combat. Some of these efforts are a success, with some strikingly effective story scenes, character beats, consistently gorgeous visuals, and a ton of side content that stands out as being meaningfully crafted, but the game as a whole left me mixed. It is acceptably enjoyable and painless a lot of the time, but the battle between itself to hit as wide an audience as possible feels as though too much money was spent to put too many cooks in Sony Santa Monica’s kitchen.