Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Review [Video Game]: God of War Ragnarök by Santa Monica Studio

Godly. What a sequel should be.

As Kratos’ snow-flecked fur sways in the Midgardian Fimbulwinter winds, he holds the pouch that once held his wife's ashes. The look of loss and longing, of deep undying love comes across in every crease of Kratos’ face. I could feel his pain, his wistfulness at a glance. Upon hearing his son return, he puts the pouch away and regains his composure. This opening moment is but a sign of things to come. Through clever writing, phenomenal animation, and god-tier performances, God of War Ragnarök successfully executes all the themes it sets out to explore and more.

Atreus, no longer a boy, is obsessed with the prophecy of Loki and wishes to understand more about his heritage and the role he will play come Ragnarök. The character progressions of Kratos, Atreus, Mimir, and other characters remain here and are bolstered by situational dialogue carefully crafted by Santa Monica Studio. From the outset, God of War Ragnarök is fueled with adrenaline-inducing sequences balanced with grounding moments to build character relations that pull the player further into the narrative. It’s an assault on two fronts, and both are handled exceptionally. You want the combat and the epic boss battles, but you also want more of the heartfelt story. The equilibrium is divine and is a prime example of Santa Monica Studio’s quality and attention to video games and storytelling composition.

God of War
and God of War Ragnarök are two parts of a whole. Each game has its own focus. While God of War focuses on the journey and growth between Kratos and Atreus, Ragnarök is about building trust and subverting prophecy. Both games have a similar core, but Ragnarök doubles down on what was introduced at the beginning of 2018—the game tasks the heroes to be better. To be better than what the world expects of them, and to be better than their history would reveal of them. This is not only for the main characters, but almost every supporting cast member from Kratos to Mimir, and from Birgir to Byggvir these characters set to right the wrongs of their past and make for a better future.

Sony Santa Monica achieved this (and excelled) by writing breathing characters with goals that fit within the narrative. Kratos would normally not help a wandering spirit, but once explained to, he may change his mind and sees the benefit or go along with a companion just to spend some time with them. Or, maybe he is trying to ingratiate himself with another character. In some cases, he sees the plight of another in himself and wishes to help. Character motivations are consistently present throughout the game, and it drives the phenomenal main story, but especially the side quests.

When it comes to side quests, God of War Ragnarök has some of the best around. They make sense and fit perfectly into the story. They feel natural and most content in the game feels well connected to the core—the task of being better. The side quest feels like primary content, creating a wonderful tapestry of game design. Even some of the side content feels anchored in the world. The draugr holes are optional but see the player continuously taking down a draugr that returns over and over again. With a few simple lines of dialogue from Mimir and a page of lore in the notebook, the game gives this side distraction some life, elevating it above the simple “go here, kill this”. There’s almost always a reason for it, and I loved that aspect of this game. There are a few things that seem superfluous—like the treasure maps and some realm tears—which feel like they were included because the prequel had them. But that’s about it, everything else feels like a moving part that works together to drive the experience forward.

Every aspect of God of War Ragnarök is masterfully done, including the award-winning score, which represents each character perfectly. From the simplicity of Kratos’ heavy, powerful theme to Atreus’, which exudes a sense of adventure and questioning—each musical element seized my attention as it melded with the adventure at hand and the actions taking place within it. Bear McCreary’s leitmotifs are implemented impeccably for an engrossing score that carries as much of the emotional heft as the character performances. Ragnarök’s soundtrack is one of the few I’ve listened to after I completed the game.

Speaking of the character performances… Wow. Eric Williams (the game’s director) ensured there were no tertiary characters. Each character has a purpose and backstory. Even those with minimal dialogue—especially those you find in a certain Vanir god’s camp—are memorable and worth spending an extra moment with to listen to their optional dialogue. But where the game shines most is in its primary characters and their stunning performances. Christopher Judge’s Kratos and Sunny Suljic’s Atreus are both wonderful, powerful characters that play off of one another so well. Different performances that contrast, yet work in tandem with such grace that I was moved to the brink of tears on multiple occasions. But that isn’t where the powerful performances stop. One scene involving a certain character (character name absent to avoid potential spoilers) left me hollow, the character’s pain became my own and I almost broke down. The empty feeling of helplessness, of grief and misery, was so perfectly enacted that I could do nothing but put the controller down, reflect, and applaud Adam John Harrington for his line delivery. This isn't speaking of Freya and Mimir, who add to these delightful performances. The game is full of so many incredible, affecting moments that it’s difficult to pick the most memorable.

Considering this is a cinematic-heavy game, vocal and motion-capture performances are principal aspects of Ragnarök. The allies aren’t the only characters that put on a dazzling display, but so too do the villains. Thor and Odin were both flawless casting choices. My initial impression of Odin was that of a used car salesman, which at first didn't mesh well with the Odin I had crafted in my mind. But Richard Schiff’s Odin consistently pulled me into his lies, convincing me that he meant to do good, that he only sought knowledge, a way to make the world better. He was sly, slimy, and impeccable. The themes that apply to the heroes, specifically the task of being better, apply to the villains as well. It’s brilliant to see these characters, while at odds, attempt these similar goals.

The beauty in the character arcs of these deities is in their humanization. It was difficult to empathize with Kratos from the original trilogy. He was a bloodthirsty savage that accidentally killed his own family. But the new Kratos practices restraint and tries to listen to others and understand their plight. He struggles with the fear that he may never truly change. Thor, verbally abused by his father and used only for his muscle, takes to drink to drown away his pain. Freya, coping with the death of her son reflects on her role in it. These human traits ground the experience, and how they affect others makes Ragnarök s tapestry all the more beautiful.

The characters and writing aren't where the beauty ends. Ragnarök’s art direction is splendid. The visuals are crisp and each of the nine realms is realized with fastidious care. From the lush fauna and deadly flora of Vanaheim to the glistening waters surrounding Asgard, and through the rough deserts of Alfheim, no detail is spared. Some areas are massive, eclipsing the explorable areas of the prequel. Midgard, Vanaheim, Svartalfheim, and Alfheim all have explorable areas with optional quests and side activities to get lost in, making this the largest God of War game of all time. Despite that scope, however, the developers never sacrifice visual fidelity. All visuals are honed to a fine point and add to the absorbing nature of the title. This includes all of the character models and the animations that bring them to life. It doesn't hurt that Santa Monica Studio did their best to make the world of Ragnarök feel much more lived in, Svartalfheim being the prime example.

The expertly crafted animations are seen in every facet of this game, from the cinematic sequences to the combat, and from enemy movements to the boss battles. The animation team at Santa Monica Studios are experts in their field and are matched by very few in the industry. The fluidity with which the combat appears on the screen is sublime. The timing between combat combinations combined with the animation sequences that accompany them is an absolute joy to play around with. It’s the most fluid and enjoyable combat system that has come out this year. The weapon play is a blast and kept me coming back for more. More crucible challenges, and more optional boss fights. The balancing between the multiple weapons in the game will be familiar to anyone who played the prequel. Ragnarök is an even better game mechanically and forces the players to familiarize themselves with the combos and controls, specifically the higher you go on the difficulty.

The challenge in the game is ever-persistent, though isn't unforgiving. Managing Kratos’ multiple weapons at different distances maximizes the player’s options, creating new fun ways to play, and constantly unlocking new abilities the more you level up. In 2018’s God of War, pressing the triangle button simply recalled the axe. In Ragnarök, the triangle button uses a weapon's special ability that imbues the weapon with elemental capabilities. Playing around with these options was the most enjoyable aspect of the gameplay. But not the only good one.

I loved the puzzles. They were balanced and gave the pace of the game a constant flow. I was never stuck for too long and enjoyed trying to figure out what to do with the elemental effects of my weapons and how to time my axe throws. Combining the fire effects of Kratos’ blades with Atreus’ sigil arrows also created fun encounters of their own, both of the puzzle and enemy variety. I was delighted to see the Nornir puzzle chests make a return. I never found myself irritated with a puzzle, the game keeps them balanced. There were times when one of my companions would give me the occasional hint to solve a puzzle when I didn’t want it, but those moments were few and far between.

The main complaint many had with the prequel was a lack of enemy types. Ragnarök addresses this and then some. So many enemy types have been added to this sequel that I constantly found myself engaging in new combat experiences. I enjoyed fighting enemies that challenged my gameplay style, forcing me to use a new weapon differently, or swapping out my shield type to help me deal with the type of attack that they delivered. The alligator-like dreki were enjoyable and challenging, quick and deadly. So too were the hunters and many of the other additions to the enemy variety. Ragnarök replaces the search for Valkyries with a different optional challenge quest: Berserkers. These enemies are the toughest in the game and present different challenges to Valkyrie counterparts. Some of them are capable of summoning more enemies into the match, while others have siblings to fight alongside them. While I enjoyed the splendid design and combat of the Valkyries more, I preferred the Berserker side quest that Kratos partakes in on behalf of Mimir.

It’s difficult to pick issues out in this game. I ran into one bug in my fifty hours and it was purely aesthetic (and fixed itself within a moment). As mentioned, my companion gave me hints before I wanted them every so often. In a few instances, I discovered some lore that would trigger another codex unlock. I would then have to search through the codex to find what I was looking for; a slight inconvenience.

When the final lines of the main story are delivered, the characters’ emotions became my own. Their intent and delivery set an example for any developers in the industry who want to create cinematic games with strong, believable character arcs and a wide, emotional story. The visions of Cory Barlog and Eric Williams come to life over fifty hours and don't let go even after the credits finish rolling. The developers even go so far as to ensure that no big lore questions go unanswered. When I finished God of War in 2018, I thought that there was no way that it could be topped by its sequel. But once I finished Ragnarök, I realized that Santa Monica Studios did the incredible; they subverted my expectations and delivered a sequel that not only equaled its predecessor but surpassed it in many ways. God of War Ragnarök is the rare sequel that, like Kratos himself, strives to be better than its past iterations and deftly succeeds. Ragnarök is my favorite experience of this console cycle. It’s a shame I’ll have to wait another four years for another game from this sensational studio.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 10/10

Bonus: +1 for phenomenal animation and VO performances. +1 some of the best side quests in a video game. +1 for engaging, enjoyable gameplay. +1 for fantastic character development. +1 for vibrant, contrasting art style with high quality visuals.

Penalties: -1 for minor UI annoyances.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.