A life lived with trial-and-error impulse is most often treated as unforgivable in a centrally divided, mob-happy and moralistic society no longer able to sow community, creating an ugly and prideful blindness to the shared faults of all humanity. There are few things more genuinely repulsive than a now stoically humble person who cannot seem to stop apologizing for their sordid past, and this is especially true when folks do so purely for the sake of begging for social and fiscal opportunities in the future. A person who cannot live with the consequence of their actions, cannot stop scrambling for acceptance and instead live in a way which reflects new values and “better” actions is perpetually in a state of mewling performance for a society unconcerned with the process of change to begin with. In this sense the felon, the thief, the addict, and the abuser are often stuck in an endless loop of being reminded who they were before and proving to others who they are now. — The upstream battle against the deterministic beliefs of others weighs similarly upon the characterization of Kratos in this rebooted God of War sequel God of War: Ragnarök, who does his best to fend off the consequences of new and old actions, the reputation he’d arrived with, and the nagging demands of a tragically chatty crew of quipping idiots throughout this rambling-on adventure. In the end the answer is nonetheless mayhemic carnage for the old beast, it cannot be helped, yet he goes on protesting by words alone and not actions as the story lingers on. The message is summed within an ambiguous and soon overstated, patronizing “Be better.” as a sort of death note delivered to anyone toxically unwilling to change their ways under duress of his axe, or blades, or spear.

What is a god, but a miserable pile of muscles and dad problems?

In many ways this sequelitis infected follow-up’s plot reads as one big nagging and obtuse comic book screenplay adaptation intended to translate to a dry, high budget straight to app television series which lands miles away from the gorgeously complete vision of its predecessor. There was simply nowhere all that compelling to go with it, and the ensemble gathered only muddies the waters far away from any sensical profundity. Yet Santa Monica Studios‘ve persisted to pour it on thick enough with more of fucking -everything- that it’ll feel equally epic ’til the overlong story resolves and you’re left with loads of convoluted level design, endlessly chatty backseating from multiple companions, and a host of collectibles to scoop up and strap onto your increasingly gaudy backpack full of vikingr outfits ’til satisfied with your time. The saving grace of the experience is in the occasionally open areas, the plethora of rewarding side-quests available, and the moderately enriched combat options the game has provided in order to chop away at the league of spongey and screaming idiots you need to kill while trekking around this already souring franchise reboot, looking for socially acceptable reasons for an aging Greek demigod to kill Norse gods and dement an ancient culture’s mythos of its charm with a strange brew of blood and modern day social platitudes.

First view where I had to take a screenshot.

Sony’s in house Santa Monica Studio built a decade strong empire for the ages atop the burly shoulders of Kratos, an over the top and absolutely ruthless ball of vengeance tucked into several award winning chop-and-fuck fests between 2005 and 2015 until the allure of his one-note shtick began to appear antiquated in both attitude and presentation. The seeming redemption of the franchise beyond that point, from games that’d basically played themselves while the dude went screaming through a series of gloriously bloody cutscenes towards the sensitive, purgatorial poignancy of God of War (2018) was genuinely in good taste without laying it on too thick. The character had changed as a person, or, become a person again and it made sense as a video game intending to match the mature tone of games like The Last of Us in presentation of a cinema worthy journey through a fantastic setting. That first game’s interpretation of Norse mythology and most of the Nine Realms were as much of a draw as the relationship between Kratos and his son, Atreus, where the fellow was living by example rather than apologizing endlessly for his past. I genuinely loved that game, played through it twice, and went for all the achievements before slotting it in as #1 on my Top 10 Video Games of 2018, beating out the infinitely fun and comparatively repeatable Kingdom Come: Deliverance that year. Yet as I fired up this game and began trotting through it it became clear that Ragnarök had been overworked in the same way the transition from Nioh to Nioh 2 found the artists and directors going completely maximal with too many hands in the cookie jar design to the point of doing too much rather than just, more at the same standard of quality. The first hint was the grotesquely crowded UI and as soon as the path forward and motivations opened up the obstacles to traversal just… fuckin’ went off like a game design student’s metroidvania passion project.

The level design of Ragnarök is not initially labyrinthine as the introductory moments generally push the player on rails through a series of linear sequences, probably getting a tear out of most folks as Fenrir the wolf dies in Atreus‘ arms before some combat tutorials find Kratos fighting Atreus in bear form. Yes, the story immediately goes places ultimately tasking the player with finding where Odin has imprisoned Týr. Here we land within Svartalfheim, an initially linear area with several branches which are yet impossible to explore, as soon as the general ‘tutorial’ requisites end and our first glimpse of a Dwarven village impresses. There is some real fealty earned as the Bay of Bounty soon becomes available as an alternative to the main story path outright. This area alongside the relatively small Alfheim realm and the northern parts of Vanaheim (The Crater area) are the only parts of the game which harken back to God of War (2018) and its sense of free exploration and clever level design. Unfortunately the rest of the game is a knotted mess of maze-like areas you’ll have to traverse and re-traverse several times as the plot and your own exploration of the side-quests and collectibles yield rewards. At some point in Svartalfheim’s first mine area the button prompts, hidden items, breakable walls, and traversal puzzles became annoying and I’d soon turn on the auto-traversal options alongside auto-aiming for puzzles, extended the timing for timed actions, and attempted to push these events along so that I could enjoy the combat and exploration of the game.

The Muspelheim trial are pretty weak this time around.

The feeling and mechanics of combat are generally unchanged from those of the previous game as Kratos is still a slow-turning hulk with a quick left arm for parrying and the occasional dodge roll now coming slightly faster with more options for follow-ups. The lightning effect has been downplayed, the sparingly used bifröst status effect is introduced to Odin’s einherjar and various bosses, and the three arrow types (Light, Shock, Mistletoe) for Atreus now whittled down to two entirely different ones (Runic, Sonic) which again factor into traversal puzzles and combat effects. At certain points in the game Freya replaces Atreus as Kratos‘ companion, leaving combat largely unchanged while other sections find the player controlling a set of uninspired combat sequences as Atreus with Thor’s daughter Thrúd or Sindri tagging along. Switching it up might’ve seemed like a good idea on paper and each transition makes great sense, sometimes switching them out seamlessly in cinematic form yet none of these detours feel anywhere near as solid as when the player is controlling Kratos. This time around they’ve added a third weapon to his kit, the Draupnir spear which likewise introduces new traversal options for later stages of the game, prompting a full revisit of most areas. The spear ends up being a lot of fun per its infinite ammunition and detonation mechanics in combat which can be tuned towards strength modifiers and Stun effects which make quick work of boss fights even if the Leviathan Axe tends to provide the most weighty and effective damage over the course of the full game.

Visiting the Norns is, not as cool as the horse you rode in on.

I played the game on the Give Me Balance (Normal Difficulty Setting) and did all of the side-quests, finding no lack of resources or experience points to upgrade all combat options throughout the game. After finishing all but the last two bosses I had in excess of 60,000 experience points in reserve for Kratos and ~half a million hacksilver unspent after upgrading and crafting everything I could. My combat focus early on was boons from parrying, capitalizing on last minute dodges that caused realm-shifts, and a general focus on Defense, Luck and Strength stats. This eventually included Stun build-up builds for Atreus/Freya to push along the Berserker side-quest fights which echoed the challenge of the Valkyrie fights that’d highlighted God of War (2018). This time around there were plenty more boss fights though most of them are unsatisfyingly dependent on multiple enemies rather than competitive AI, making for robotic and frustrating combat scenarios where the enemy simply had a numbers advantage and ridiculous cooldown on cheaply spammed techniques. The only challenging portions of the game generally involved enemies capable of incurring status effects such as Burn and Poison which ate away at hit points faster than I could regenerate them with Rage Mode (Fisticuffs with healing) which can now be swapped for Valor (a burst of healing), or Wrath (charging the enemy for extra damage) modes which use the same bar. Different enemies are weak to a broad variety of effects and techniques so it always paid off to switch between weapons and give different tactics a try, though it didn’t seem like any one build was guaranteed to be any more effective than simple highest-stat boosting gear to eat the inevitable interruptions from scores of enemies or bosses sneaking around the corners of the slow-ass combat camera.

My core issues with the combat arose as I began to attempt to perfect my last second dodge timing and parrying efforts, the most frustrating being the timing on parries being far outside of the yellow-coded tells for attacks. This’d meant follow-up attacks I’d kitted out for were basically useless when factoring in the speed of follow-up attacks by most enemies in succession being uniformly faster than my ability parry. I can’t count how many times I nailed a perfect parry only to get hit within a millisecond of cracking it off, then getting stun-locked by two or three of the enemies attacks. Parrying more than twice in a row seemed impossible due to some manner of baked in cooldown. Likewise forward rolling, for whatever fucking reason, has no invincibility frames and this’d been one hell of a realization after hours spent thinking my timing was off. Finally, you can get attachments for each weapon which automatically fire off Realm Shifts (think of Bayonetta‘s witch time) alongside relics which allow for on-call realm shifts yet when attempting to get these to fire off in succession the game seemed to fight their cumulative effect by not allowing any additional collision for bosses who weren’t able to dodge away. The feeling that the game was artificially amping its difficulty to subvert the tools it’d given me for the sake of adding a scripted combat event to a fight began to nag more as I’d completed various Berzerker fights, most of which relied upon cheap attack spamming, auto-aim missiles, and tiny interrupt windows for unavoidable attacks to win. The previous game felt fair and impactful whereas this one is spongey, cheap, and repetitive for the sake of just spamming everything available until every thing was dead. When testing higher difficulties none of this seems to change beyond bigger HP pools, making further playthrough an absolute “nah” on my end.

Leave the moon alone, kid, these dogs are too happy.

Did I have fun playing God of War: Ragnarök? A bit, yes, and predictably because the scant exploration the game does allow comes in a couple of long bursts, eventually resolving a lot of its core issues by sheer distraction. Most of Vanaheim is a twisted nightmare, a jungle you’ll have to traverse in knots by canoe on a map which doesn’t reflect any of the changes you make to its many blockages along the waterway. Going the wrong way, backtracking, going in circles, most of it was absolute hell beyond the first run through, yet when Vanaheim’s Crater area finally becomes available much later in the game it begins to live up to some of its predecessors greatness with a set of excellent boss fights and environmental puzzles which task the player with weaving through the more open space filled with hours worth of entirely optional challenges, compelling lore, and such. The rest of the Nine Realms are generally linear story-related strings (see: Prince of Persia during the Playstation 2 era) of combat and traversal or similar knots of holding the left thumbstick in a direction and occasionally tapping the circle button in between combat encounters. The best parts of Ragnarök were not only optional but also their most gameplay focused, yielding rewards at every turn and, well, because this game’s plot is about as deep on paper as your typical shitbag Marvel superhero style assembly, full of annoying quips, flashy destruction and stilly emotional reactions into absurdity throughout.

A couple of deaths might keep you invested and your daddy issues might have you wanting Kratos and Atreus to both “Do better.” as they proceed with the generally awful, selfish trail of destruction they’ve left across the Nine Realms but none of it left me wanting anything more from this story and its frustrating (assumedly) middle chapter presented herein. The fact that so much of the game was packed with enough quip heavy dialogue from the voice actors meant Ragnarök actually felt like it was designed to slow me down so that I might be charmed by their incessant prattling. If you don’t agree, you were probably playing the game and focusing on certain gameplay goals. Watch a good half hour of the game during its first twenty or so hours outside of the cutscenes, while the action might be impressive the cast never shuts the fuck up. This stands out even more when revisiting areas as you begin to see all of the repetitive cues for soundbites, jokes, and little comments either no longer firing off (allowing for the brilliant peace of God of War (2018) to ring through) or firing off -constantly- showcasing the awful carnival ride full of automaton dreck that most of the experience truly is. If they’ve designed this game to emulated what it is to be a father surrounded by irritating, self-centered and still emotionally developing children, good job. The oversharing is mind numbing to the point of zero replay value on my part, at least for now.

Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) is excellent as Faye

By the way, this shit is beautiful. — Ah, right, well man you saw the screenshots. This is the best looking video game I’ve ever seen on a console. Playing God of War: Ragnarök in full 4K on a 65″ HDR television at an extremely steady 60 FPS with extra responsive and gorgeously designed surround sound felt absolutely top of the line compared to everything else I’d chucked into my Playstation 5 thus far. It is surely worth something that this game completely burst out the screen with color and detailed, deepest black definition while I played it and sure, after a while I didn’t mind that the UI for the menus looks like a chunky cellphone game from 2010. The ~60 hours I spent playing this game should maybe speak louder than most but not all of my complaints. The facial animations and rendering of all characters besides Kratos were generally ugly, most of them looking and moving like skin-wrapped automatons with ghoulish features and bugged-out eyes but a few key performances were exceptional, including Richard Schiff as Odin and Deborah Ann Woll as Faye and of course Christopher Judge is impeccable in everything he does.

The major takeaway I’d had, taking a few days to reflect after finishing the main story and all of the side content (excepting the final two optional bosses) was that Ragnarök is this particular game studio attempting to flex up their resume in the hopes of inspiring a similarly big deal television/streaming series production along the lines of the upcoming The Last of Us adaptation and much of what this game does seems to reflect how they’d direct that sort of experience in a relatively fluid way, ensuring that folks looking for television quality production values will be impressed with this game to no end. To be fair, sure, it is about as fun as watching television. All of this comes to the detriment of the actual gameplay experience which is claustrophobia inducing, handcuffed slog about half the time and an endless fight club full of constantly shrieking fodder to the point of resembling the awful sort of cheap excess we found in… well, the first six or seven God of War games, eh. All of this said for the sake of keepin’ it real and salty as fuck, yes, I did have fun playing this game and found it generally worth the inevitable discount down to twenty or thirty bucks it’ll receive. They’ve not given much hope for its assured sequel bearing any substantive value, though. In a trash year for video games that weren’t Elden Ring it’ll have to be one of the best. A moderate recommendation.

Moderate recommendation. (68/100)

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
DEVELOPER:Sony Santa Monica Studio
PUBLISHER:Sony Interactive Entertainment
Action Role-Playing Game,
Single-Player, Third-Person
RELEASE DATE:November 9th, 2022


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