Ragnarok is almost upon us, well, the game from Santa Monica Studio, that is, telling the continuing adventures of constantly angry Spartan Kratos and his son Atreus. Available on both PlayStation 5 and 4, Aussie legend Dylan Burns joins me on the virtual couch for a chat about Kratos’ latest outing with no longer a boy Atreus.
Gerard: So almost five years since the most recent God of War, Ragnarok is almost upon us and, man, I’ve got so many thoughts in my head that I’m just about to explode, Dylan, and I want to be very careful that I don’t spoil anything as there are some definitely spoilerific moments as the game progresses.
As of writing, I’ve sunk in close to 20 hours into Ragnarok (main quest line, a few side quests, a bit of exploring) and I have to say the first hour has a few big set pieces that set the tone for the rest of the game. Combat feels like the first game and I’ve noticed more variety in enemy types this time around, too, which was a complaint from the first game.
I’ve always been a fan of Christopher Judge’s Kratos, too: His deep gravelly tones just fit the character so perfectly but it’s clear that while GOW 2018 was mainly Kratos’ story, Ragnarok is definitely Atreus’ as he and his father make sense of the events from the first game and how Atreus fits into the grand scheme of things. Atreus is much more grown up now: He’s definitely no “Boy” anymore (and I think I’ve only heard Kratos mutter it once the entire time I’ve been playing. Anyway, what are your opening thoughts, Dylan? I want to discuss what we can in more depth so let’s get a discussion going.
Dylan: Sony’s prestige titles have, in the last handful of titles, dealt with the handover between generations. In Uncharted, we saw an apparent end to Nathan Drake’s adventuring days, while in The Last of Us Part II we experienced a brutal account of the cycle of violence. Here, in Ragnarok, similar themes abound, with Atreus visibly older and struggling beneath the weight of his uncertain past and looming destiny. God of War Ragnarok is, I think, about trust, or more specifically, the lack of it. Pasts are murky and secrets abound, with promises made against the weight of secrecy, which in turn causes friction between the frustrated characters present. And let’s get something of a spoiler out the way here – Ragnarok is not about Kratos. It is about companionship, growing up and legacy. Throughout the campaign, there is a shift in perspective as you play across both Kratos and Atreus, taking on various companions in discrete jaunts that bring to mind the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2.
Indeed, it is not until far into the game that the overall picture of the plot starts to become clear, and even then there is the constant expectation of the rug being pulled out from underneath. I do agree that the game is bigger, but only in the sense that it required God of War to build on this – literally. Throughout the game, you will revisit areas from that title, both directly and as vista, standing on a cliff overlooking familiar areas now afflicted by Fimbulwinter, a consequence of Baldur’s demise and portent of Ragnarok itself. Of course, it wouldn’t be very interesting to play through an entire game of snow and ice, so it is established early that Fimbulwinter affects each realm differently. So, snow for Midgard yet earthquakes and greenhouse gases for Svartalfheim. And yes, this is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, especially with clearly upgraded motion capture of performances and meaty, impactful animations. It definitely has an exuding sense of Sony polish. How have you found the moment-to-moment game play, Gerard?
Gerard: I always enjoyed the visceral combat from the first game, where you could chain moves together – be it with your trusty axe or the iconic blades of chaos – culminating in a brutal finishing move that would often tear a foe in half. The familiar combat is here in Ragnarok and like the last game, Kratos can command his companion to attack enemies as well, often softening them with magic arrows. I set the game’s difficulty at what I would consider its “normal” setting but I have to admit I had to drop the difficulty down a bit during a particularly troublesome combat encounter. I was constantly left bloody and beaten so I think maybe the combat is a bit more unforgiving in more challenging difficulty settings. Combat aside, part of the charm of the last GOW game was the exploration: Searching down branching paths for hidden chests and sarcophagus that contain wonderful treasures that impart magical abilities for your armour and weapons. So it is with Ragnarok: Those magical chests abound and while some of the game’s elemental puzzles stumped me for a bit (especially one which requires magic to break through barriers) I stuck with it and was rewarded handsomely. You mentioned standing on cliffs overlooking familiar vistas and I’ve been blown away by the visuals of the game as it has progressed: The vibrant colours of Vannaheim are a stark contrast to the snowy plains of Midgard. I’m also impressed by the scale of the world: There is a lot more verticality this time around. Back to is the RPG-like progression where you upgrade skill trees and unlock abilities. How have you found that aspect this time around, Dylan?
Dylan: Honestly, I felt all that half of the systems in the last game were unneeded and only served hardcore players – those who wanted to track down and beat all the Valkyries. So to see that they’ve effectively doubled down on this aspect in Ragnarok is a bit of a let down. After so many hours, I’m still confused about relic slots and charms and what not. There are special moves that I unlocked only hours in that I’ve never used because I don’t know the combinations required and thus they are not built into muscle memory. But, you know, all that is there if you really want to customise. Different sets of armour that buff health or luck or runic (whatever that is). As for upgrade trees, I often find myself with about 10k unspent XP and just unlock everything available and forget about it.
Like you, I found the combat a real challenge and, due to mainlining for review, quite exhausting. Although nothing wrong with it, per se, I still feel that this aspect of the game is not for me, and so I bumped it down to Easy. I much preferred the exploration and puzzles and must say that the game employs almost perfect pacing in this regard. The moment one aspect feels a bit too heavy, it’s followed by fifteen minutes of exploration or looting or a massive, level-spanning machine puzzle. If you are a hardcore player, well there are some goddamn hard fights here, thankfully mostly optional. Go for it, I don’t have the time!
One thing I did want to touch on is the choices made in representing Norse gods. Odin’s West Wing actor cameo was quite a distraction for me, yet I am quite into Thor as a grumparse giant-killer with perhaps more depth to him – especially considering how friendly his daughter is. He must have a soft side. There is a lot of dialogue here with a lot of characters and I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at the convenience of them all sitting down for a meal and a ten minute chat about the next move. I dunno – I guess there’s no easier way to do things, but quite often a character’s actions juxtapose their somewhat fast change from, say, foe to ally, with almost dual personalities between their early and late game states. Again, this might be due to me playing it so intensely in a short period. And I must admit that each companion is fleshed out a lot on their side missions, which can take many hours if you explore deeply for every chest, secret and collectible. The constant dialogue reminded me of the excellent job done in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy game.
Gerard: I kind of like the customisation with the levelling up system and have to admit I was quite pedantic in selecting armour and stats that would make my Kratos the most powerful he could be, depending on the circumstances. I still died a few times at the hands of stronger foes but I still strove to equip Kratos and his companions with the right tools for the job. Talking of Thor and Odin, I was pleasantly surprised with Thor as he wasn’t what I was expecting, but like you it seems I found Odin a little jarring. I agree that playing for a review like we have hasn’t allowed me enough time to go through at my own pace nor perhaps contemplate enough the nuances of the relationships in play here. I have still explored a fair bit while keeping to the main storyline but I would have liked to have explored some of the words a little deeper, gone off the beaten track a little more. One character I am pleased to see the return of is Freya and her character development, especially after the events of the previous GOW and how things ended there, and I think this is clearly down to the wonderful voice and motion capture work. These characters seem more alive and human than before.
Make no mistake, though, this is a deep, deep narrative that spans many locations and contains a lot of moving parts and if I had one criticism it would be that it was almost overwhelming at times, given the layers of complexity and nuance of Kratos and Atreus’ evolving relationship.
Dylan: This is a big, big game. Character shifts will lock you into a couple of hours and usually an entire new area or realm, and this happens constantly after the opening five or so hours. There is a lot of weight put on your engagement with intense combat encounters and I have to say that my interest did wane towards the latter parts. There’s only so many hours I can spam R1 and R2 before yearning for retirement from finger duty. But again, I am aware that many will be super keen for 30 hours of this, so I am just speaking for myself.
However, I was drawn into the way that almost every character, no matter how seemingly minor, was given enough time and interaction to really deepen their histories and motivations. Some of these were actually more interesting than Kratos himself, who, while definitely still an imposing physical presence for the entire time, has taken a passenger’s role in this adventure.
As to my main complaint of bloated menus, buffs, and upgrades, at least it’s possible to mostly ignore the RPG and upgrade stuff if you just play on easy, which makes my criticism of what is quite a messy user interface somewhat soluble inside the larger experience. It is, however, quite laughable to have a brand new weapon show up three-quarters through with its own brand new tech tree. Almost as if there’s an entire team focused on a spreadsheet regarding player engagement and excitement with the skill menu. Better introduce a new thrill right there! How about more charm slots? Why not?!
Gerard: Kratos is very much a secondary figure to Atreus in this latest outing and I think that is the natural progression of the series, given Kratos’ history. You can only focus on an angry Spartan for so long! Yes, some of the incessant combat grows weary after a while and it’s long but for me it’s the deep character development that is keeping me wanting to keep going, wanting to see what the end game is. Ragnarok is a natural progression of the events from 2018 GOW, offering familiar combat and experiences while broadening things on a much grander scale, both in terms of narrative and character and world building. Final thoughts, Dylan?
Dylan: It is, in all senses, more God of War. Santa Monica Studio has taken the expansive foundations of that title and built Howl’s Castle atop it, offering more of everything without perhaps taking enough of an editing sweep during the renovation. It’s cliched to say, but if you loved 2018’s offering, then nothing is going to stop you from absolutely devouring what is here. That sense of scope and quality that we have come to enjoy from Sony’s flagship titles is certainly abundant here. It is generous beyond what is necessary, with entire swathes of game play that would have taken months of work that you breeze through in moments. I think I would have enjoyed a narrower experience, but again I do feel a bit on the peripheral now with the expectation of engagement and challenge in such titles, and as such I think it will hit with resounding approval from the fan base.