As its sequel arrives next week, on November 9th, we’re forced to reflect: The concept behind 2018's God Of War revival was, on the face of it, always a ludicrous one. What if Kratos, God Of War, the most platonically stunted adolescent in all of video gaming, grew up? What if a snarling, tattooed engine for over-the-top mythological violence, asinine sex minigames, and all-purpose teen rage grunts became an actual person?
Santa Monica Studio accomplished this seemingly impossible goal—and won itself a whole boatload of Game Of The Year awards in the process—by crafting a more modern and mature God Of War, examining the ways Kratos related, not to the latest minotaur or deity to fall beneath his blades, but to the people who dotted his journey. His late wife, Faye; his new enemies amongst the Norse pantheon of his transplanted home; and especially his son, Atreus, who accompanied him on nearly every step of that game’s far-reaching trip across the Nine Realms.
God Of War Ragnarök, Santa Monica’s sequel to that improbable resurrection, doubles down on, expands on, and improves upon that trend toward introspection—as it does almost every other aspect of the original game, which it takes as a template for an almost uniformly bigger and better adventure. Its greatest successes, though, come in the ways it tackles the questions raised by its predecessor, applying to them a seriousness that belies the fact that this is also one of the most enjoyable action-adventure romps in recent memory, serving up a steady stream of spectacle and action setpieces, even as it wrestles with the nature of love, family, and fate.
At the heart of it all, still, is Kratos himself, whose scarred skin now resembles less a tapestry of past victories than the broken reminders of a thousand unwelcome hurts. Haunted by revelations from the end of God Of War, Kratos finds himself torn between a desire to bond with his son, and his need to keep him safe from threats—the latter still being the most surefire way to trigger the character’s ever-legendary rage. Actor Christopher Judge—whose taking over of the role of Kratos for the 2018 game might be the single most effective decision in this franchise’s entire history—continues to mine every crag of the god’s stoic personality for depth, dignity, and even occasional warmth. He’s aided in this performance by the game’s stunning character animation, especially in those moments when Kratos drops the bluster, the glower, the power, and you realize that, underneath it all, you’re looking at a very sad old man, trying to do his best in a world he only occasionally understands.
At the same time, Ragnarök widens its focus, most especially as regards Atreus. The “Boy!” of yore is still played by Sonny Suljic, who was good as a pre-teen, playing the character’s more questioning and bratty sides, and is even better here as a young man trying to figure out his own place in the god-and-prophecy-heavy world of Ragnarök. The push and pull between Atreus’ wanderlust and Kratos’ desire for safety powers much of the game’s plot, especially once Norse god-in-chief Odin—heavily foreshadowed in the first game, and now played with affable malevolence by Richard Schiff—comes barging into the relative peace the duo forged together in the first game. But whereas God Of War kept itself locked to Kratos’ back, and Kratos’ story—as exemplified by the game’s still-impressive “single take” camera technique, a trick repeated by the sequel with a couple of neat embellishments—this installment is willing to travel much further afield, treating Atreus as much more than just an accessory to his father’s journey.
That widening scope also applies to the game’s combat mechanics, which dovetail with the story to periodically demonstrate that, just as with our grizzled anti-hero, there’s more going on here than might initially meet the eye. That’s especially obvious with Atreus, whose initially simplistic skill tree steadily expands throughout the game, cleverly revealing itself as the character himself hits new milestones of growth. His steadily expanding moveset represents both his burgeoning independence, and the increasingly vital role he plays in the game’s combat.
Which remains exhilarating, if occasionally frustrating, especially in some of its more punishing optional boss encounters. (All of that is adjustable, blessedly, both with explicit difficulty controls, as well as Sony’s continually impressive efforts with accessibility features.) Kratos starts the game with both the frost-based axe he inherited from Faye in the first game, as well as his traditional blazing Blades of Chaos, and finding the proper interplay between the two—managing the need for crowd control vs. focused damage, stuns vs. inflicting status ailments, and always, always keeping your awareness of threats preparing to clobber you from off-screen—remains key to managing the flow of fights. In a clever touch, Santa Monica has also added a tiered progression system to most of the individual attacks in Kratos’ moveset, with moves gaining both strength and optional modifications with repeated use. The end result incentivizes diverse play and ties neatly into the game’s reward structure, which is almost pathologically devoted to gifting the player some piece of shiny candy—upgrade materials, armor pieces, or a new conversation between your characters—for pretty much everything they do.
That deep need to keep the player motivated—and the attendant feeling of being trapped in gaming’s most beautiful and bloody Skinner box—occasionally dogged the first game, too, which sometimes felt like it had been focus-tested so heavily that a treasure chest or a puzzle seemed to pop up every single time the player’s eyes drifted from the screen for even a moment. Ragnarök sometimes struggles with its own impulses in this department, with the frequent progression-blocking puzzles it drops in Kratos’ path ranging from interesting, down to rote, all the way down to “Dear god, not another one of these stupid turning wheels.” Where it carves a better path for itself, though, is in those tidbits of conversation, which are more frequent now, at least in part because you’re often traveling with a more diverse array of people. (Can you tell we’re trying to avoid spoilers? We’re really trying to avoid spoilers, here.)
Besides being funny, and full of little mythological in-jokes, these mid-travel chats are where Ragnarök lays the track for all its big philosophical swings and character beats. Rather than the (relatively) simple road trip structure of the first game, the sequel is interested in digging in to what it actually means to be a “God Of War,” tying that question into Kratos’ ongoing hopes of becoming a better man, and a better father. By giving Atreus, and your other traveling companions, more chances to talk, Ragnarök plumbs their depths in a way that adds meaning to the big, epic moments of conflict that drive the story. (That deepening of character also helps address the first game’s iffy handling of its few female characters—it would be reductive to note that this game does, eventually, actually manage to pass the Bechdel test, but suffice it to say that Ragnarök is much more careful of portraying its women’s inner lives in general.) And by peppering in these moments of storytelling throughout the journey, it can make even a pretty milquetoast sidequest or detour feel significant.
Which is good, because there are a lot of side paths to explore here. Ragnarök is a huge game, with multiple large hub areas reminiscent of the Lake Of Nine from the first game—including a thoroughly frozen-over version of said Lake, because Fimbulwinter’s not just a fancy name, turns out. To its credit, the game does a decent job of signaling how important any particular bit of side content might be to the story, with lots of moments where characters explicitly lay out some bit of side content you might want to do through dialogue, a clever touch. All that being said, the game’s love of backtracking and repetition do wear at times: This is a game that loves to flash some weird little puzzle element at you, before literally telling you to come back later once you have the tool to solve it. The worst effect of this stuff is the way it sometimes disrupts the flow of the game’s story; characters lampshade what a weird, treasure-hunting packrat Kratos can be amidst the literal coming of the literal end of the world, but it still occasionally gives the sense that you’re playing as gaming’s angriest dilettante.
But these are all nitpicks, really, rather than genuine flaws. The fact is that God Of War Ragnarök is a brilliant, beautiful game, blending compelling play with impressive production values and emotionally intelligent storytelling, all in ways this medium often struggles to do. If you were put off by the first game’s associations with the franchise’s tawdry past, or its past embrace of twitch-gaming difficulty, now might be a good time to re-evaluate that position. God Of War 2018 already had plenty to recommend it—we can now add “prelude to one of the best games of 2022" to its list of accolades.