God of War Ragnarok reaches the highest peak in blending storytelling and adventure – Review

Nuanced characters and intense action make for a superb adventure through the nine realms.

Image via PlayStation

It’s no small matter for Santa Monica Studio to follow up 2018’s God of War, arguably one of the best action-adventure games of the last decade, with another equally expansive adventure. This sequel to the PlayStation 4 classic not only exceeded expectations but also transcended them in every imaginable way. God of War Ragnarok is a phenomenal thrill ride from start to finish, with resounding storytelling and grotesque violence only Kratos can unleash, textured with wonderful worldbuilding in an enjoyable playground.

Ragnarok takes the experiment of changing up the God of War formula with the 2018 game and excitingly builds on it. Santa Monica Studio doubled down on a proven groundwork and hit a remarkable stride by expanding your combat options, kicking up the already superb writing, and leaning in on those emotional moments fans will love.

Ragnarok has come for all

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God of War Ragnarok is a phenomenal thrill ride from start to finish…

Talking about the story in God of War Ragnarok is challenging — every detail feels like a potential spoiler, from the names of the exceptionally designed characters to the decisively cinematic boss fights. The story picks up a few years after the events of the 2018 God of War game, with Baldur dead at the hands of Kratos, and Freya endlessly hunting the father and son pair throughout Midgard. Atreus and Kratos’ relationship has strengthened since then, and it shows within the first few minutes. Their later exchanges as father and son hold significant weight, especially as Atreus matures, determined to learn who he is and his larger purpose.

Kratos’ story in Ragnarok is equally compelling, as the infamous god killer challenges who he wants to be as a person and who he was. He wishes never again to be another person’s monster, wanting to leave that life behind. It’s an endless struggle on his shoulders throughout the narrative, evident in every detail of the character, thanks to Christopher Judge’s phenomenal performance.

The storytelling reflects a natural progression from the previous game’s end, adding in a few more years. Kratos and Atreus work together swimmingly, and the gameplay speaks to that, though they have complications with one another that still have them at odds throughout their journey. Their disagreements are not the same as before — expect less sass from Atreus and less bickering from Kratos — and boil down to the dynamic of a father respecting the path his son has to walk, even if it’s not the only one he planned.

Other characters appearing in the journey have progressed in an equally impactful way. We see how Freya deals with Baldur’s death and how her fate is intertwined with our protagonists’ journey as they search for Tyr; her tale certainly pays off the climactic ending from the previous game. We feel for the supporting cast just as much as we would for any main character, and their own storylines are gripping from start to finish. The writing is a masterclass of how you develop characters and show their growth in an ever-evolving story. Those who missed out on the first game and the narrative weight it came from may overlook some nuances. To that end, Ragnarok is the Return of the Jedi for God of War — I don’t recommend starting with this one.

None of these stories are precisely black-and-white tales, not even Mimir’s usual anecdotes to Kratos and Atreus during their travels. Mimir’s tales relay what objectively happened between these figures of Norse mythology, but each opposing party in his fables had deeper reasons for why they did whatever they did. The fact that there’s always more bubbling beneath the surface is a thematic core of Ragnarok’s narrative.

Being a God of War has never felt so good

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The writing is a masterclass of how you develop characters and show their growth in an ever-evolving story.

When you’re not jumping between story beats, Kratos is busy ripping apart any foe foolish enough to block his path. The style and finesse that the combat takes in Ragnarok is a stark improvement from 2018’s God of War and consistently ramps up as you progress through the main story. Ragnarok significantly expands on the familiar abilities and skill trees, and Santa Monica Studio exudes confidence from the first game’s success as they provide you with more tools to use in battle. Battles have you fight enemies of all sizes, with each foe requiring a different strategy and every encounter feeling impactful. The depth of enemy types in Ragnarok is fantastic, and as they become more varied, so do the tools available for what players can do in a fight.

Both the Leviathan Axe and Blades of Chaos return, flawlessly working together. The synergy of swapping between these weapons and their drastically unique abilities feels slick, mixed in with Kratos’ shield and fist combat. It’s endlessly rewarding to pull an enemy in using the Blades as if Kratos took a page from Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion and wanted to one-up him. At the same time, switching to the Leviathan Axe to land a series of deliciously clean cuts resonates thanks to the DualSense’s haptic feedback.

Combat becomes an art, and the inhabitants of the nine realms are the canvas to Kratos’ Bob Ross-level expertise, covering the landscape with happy little entrails. The previous mechanics of combat return, but they are perfected and built for players to do as they please. These include the fluidity of the Blades of Chaos, how they can become a flurry of destruction, and the strength of the Leviathan Axe, with swings feeling significantly heavier; their differences in combat are apparent, and they flow beautifully together with some repeated practice.

Enemy encounters only continue to grow in complexity as the realms begin to open up. They stack on each other without overwhelming you with too many choices. Approaching combat comes down to picking the right tool each time, and Ragnarok constantly gives you more options to handle each situation. Fighting never becomes a slog and always remains a fast and beautiful bloody mess.

Come for Ragnarok, but stay for the stories

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Combat becomes an art, and the inhabitants of the nine realms are the canvas to Kratos’ Bob Ross-level expertise, covering the landscape with happy little entrails.

Throughout Kratos and Atreus’ journey through the nine realms, each area has a unique set of side stories, pieces of lore, and collectibles for players to find. Some appear alongside the main story, while others are tucked away in hiding places, waiting for clever players to draw them out. What Santa Monica Studio does exceptionally well is never making these collectibles and checklists feel like a chore, a delicate balance some games struggle to maintain.

Even side quests and unique stories that aren’t required to complete the main story are compelling, meaningful, and distinct. These are not tasks that will save a world, but through them, you’ll learn more about the people of a realm — you can help a character heal or at least be more at peace with their choices. You can feel the weight of these personal conflicts, even though they are relatively small in scale to the greater story.

These tasks and challenges are never given to an unmanageable degree. They’re sprinkled in at the right amount as the main story progresses, and the compelling nature of a side quest almost begs them to be done before moving on. The nine realms in God of War feel alive, and breaking off the beaten path to do the side content becomes second nature.

Always the right amount, and never too much

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The critical building blocks of story, action, and worldbuilding for God of War Ragnarok are all effective on their own, and Santa Monica Studio presents all of this at a reasonable and comfortable pace. The continuity from the previous game is astounding to watch unfold, like the previous game’s single long take never ended. From the beginning of this sequel, Kratos’ equipment feels used; you can see and feel just how much he’s been through before.

Even so, Kratos isn’t overpowered at the start of the game, but he is potent, and you feel it from the first time you swing the Leviathan Axe. Everything from your new skills to the areas you open up are given to the player in due time. The lack of good pacing is one of the problems I had with Elden Ring; while an exceptionally phenomenal game, its expansive world was sometimes overwhelming. God of War Ragnarok has a similar enormous feeling, but the world is more palatable because of how the main story takes center stage; opening it up takes time, and earning the keys to each kingdom is more of a joyful experience and less of a gateway to decision paralysis.

The verdict

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God of War Ragnarok is a triumphant success and is a shining example of how you balance story and gameplay in a fantastic adventure. The bold changes that Santa Monica Studio made in the 2018 God of War semi-reboot paid off, and this sequel is a full realization of what that game started. Like Atreus and his own coming-of-age, it’s clear that the studio approached Ragnarok with a greater sense of confidence, reflected in the game’s characters and the story circling them throughout the nine realms. It’s an emotionally taxing journey that is difficult to put down.

God of War Ragnarok is a triumphant success and is a shining example of how you balance story and gameplay in a fantastic adventure.

God of War Ragnarok might not be a good starting game for someone to jump into. It is distinctly the second part of a growing story, and fans who hit 100% in the first game will reap the rewards from playing through this one. The hype for God of War Ragnarok seemed impossible for the final product to live up to, but Ragnarok does — and so much more.

Final Score:

10 / 10

+The nine realms are massive, and they are lavishly sublime
+The combat is flawless and becomes an art form
+The building blocks of progression feel rewarding and don’t overwhelm
+All characters are wonderfully written, and their stories pay off in big ways
+Every realm in Ragnarok is stunning and equally distinct from the others
Disclosure: Gamepur was provided a game code for review purposes.