Despite its faults, I gave the revival of God of War a glowing review. It was an excellent game in many regards and had masterful presentation. Four years later, I don’t feel nearly as positive about its sequel, God of War Ragnarök. While it’s not uncommon for a sequel to regress or diverge from the original, that’s not the case here. Instead, God of War Ragnarök is a victim of being overly safe and designed-by-committee, with little to give it an identity of its own. Sure, it’s a competent video game and it’s undoubtably well-made, but its lack of originality makes it unremarkable. Moreover, God of War Ragnarök is bloated and desperately needed more revisions and editing to make it a leaner and more cohesive experience.
Before I dive into the individual systems, I want to make clear that many of these exact same flaws also existed in God of War. While it feels unfair to judge the sequel harsher for the same faults, it’s important to recognize that games don’t exist in a vacuum. Context is important. Being a sequel, God of War Ragnarök should have its own identity but instead it just feels like more of the same. In the four years between the releases, I don’t feel like any significant improvements were made. The combat and RPG mechanics are slightly better than its predecessor, but the story and writing definitely took a dip in quality. The pacing in particular feels bizarre.
God of War Ragnarök starts off strong, throwing the player into a thrill ride of exciting story sequences culminating with a spectacular boss battle. After that, the game’s pacing takes a nose-dive. While the first game in this saga had some slow pacing at times, it was far more character driven than plot driven. The singular goal of reaching the top of the mountain always loomed, and everything in between served as a way for characters to grow and develop their bonds. God of War Ragnarök instead tries to cram many plot threads and events into a single game.
The main plot of God of War Ragnarök focuses on its namesake, Ragnarök. The characters of the game desperately attempt to avoid the fated event and its consequences. It introduces tons of new characters, motivations, relationships, and moving pieces. I think this Norse chapter of God of War would have benefited from being a trilogy instead of a duology. While I understand that the developers did not want to stretch this story over a decade of real time, I think the pacing of God of War Ragnarök would have benefitted heavily from this. The first game in the Norse saga was a slow burn, a character driven adventure, so most of the actual plot of the story had to be stuffed into God of War Ragnarök.
While I believe that God of War Ragnarök would have benefitted from having a sequel to scope its story, it admittedly has other bizarre pacing issues. While the game starts strong, it slows down tremendously for dozens of hours then races through the climax. It spends too long on these “slow-burn” character building moments that no time is left for the actual plot. I was let down by the abrupt ending, which was the result of dozens of hours of build-up culminating in a rather lackluster couple of boss fights.
Where God of War Ragnarök does make strides is its combat. While it does not reach the complexity of other character action series like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta, or even its predecessors in the God of War series, it does manage to be fun. There’s a beauty in simplicity, and God of War Ragnarök manages to keep things straightforward and approachable while also providing some advanced techniques for more experienced players. While the first game in the Norse saga was debatably too simple, God of War Ragnarök introduces some key changes and combat options. First in foremost, the player starts the game with multiple weapons unlocked, allowing for some more experimentation right at the beginning. Unlocking new techniques using experience makes a return, and you can disable certain techniques if they disrupt your flow.
Being able to stack elemental damage to inflict status effects is emphasized, encouraging the player to swap between their weapons for big damage. Runic attacks make a return but have much higher cooldowns, meaning that they are no longer a spammable win condition but instead supplement your moveset. The most important change wasn’t to the combat itself, but in the boss variety. God of War Ragnarök has tons of bosses. Fighting unique mythological beings is much more engaging than fighting the same troll mini-boss over and over again.
Unfortunately, there are a few returning problems in the combat. First and foremost being the camera. It follows the player too closely in an over-the-shoulder 3rd-person view. You can’t see anything behind you, and you have to rely on directional indicators for incoming attacks. These indicators are unreliable and it’s impossible to tell what kind of attack is incoming. Is it a projectile? Or an area-of-effect blast? Or an unblockable attack? Or a standard strike? All these things require different reactions but you never know which it is or how long it will take to reach you. Once you see one of these indicators you pretty much have to stop your combo and maneuver and dodge away from where you are standing. It interrupts the flow of combat pretty badly.
My other big issue is one that plays a larger role on the higher difficulties. Enemy hyper-armor. The ability for certain enemies to shrug off your attacks and continue as if you were a fly buzzing around them. Enemies that are a higher level than you are have the nasty tendency of being doused in hyper-armor, making it impossible to pull off combos on them. You have to rely on an overly safe style of play to defeat these foes. Moreover, it creates an inconsistent experience because a level 3 draugr will easily be combo’d by the player, but a level 5 draugr does not even react to your hits. This isn’t a huge issue on normal difficulty as you will most often be at similar levels to the enemies, but it quickly gets out of hand when attempting the higher levels of difficulty.
The concept of levels itself is strange in the context of God of War, and I maintain that the Norse saga would have been much better off leaving out the majority of its RPG elements. I think that God of War Ragnarök does better than its predecessor because it has streamlined the enchantments and accessories a tad bit. Furthermore, stats and set bonuses actually feel like they have an impact in combat. However, I still find all of this to be unnecessary in a game like God of War Ragnarök. Shoehorning in RPG elements doesn’t feel like it adds anything except for time wasted staring at your inventory menu. Quests are intrinsically rewarding if they have a fun boss or interesting story line, I don’t need a cooldown-boosting pair of pants to make it worth my while to explore.
One of the biggest sources of the game’s bloat is the traversal. Getting from Point A to Point B in God of War Ragnarök is painstakingly slow. Like its predecessor, God of War Ragnarök makes frequent use of walky-talky sections and wall-climbing to pad out the space in between combat encounters and major story moments. I don’t mind having characters talk to each-other during their adventures, but when time spent in combat is dwarfed by time spent mindlessly climbing walls, it’s gone too far.
I understand that some of these sections are meant to hide loading screens, but this was a poor choice. Consider that the amount of climbing and walking can never be shortened, but load times can be massively reduced by newer hardware. This is blatantly apparent as God of War Ragnarök can be run on both the PS4 and PS5, and the PS5 players have to suffer due to the PS4’s technical constraints. If it takes the PS4 one minute to load a new environment, they had to make the climbing section at least that long to compensate. The PS5 can load in half the time, but it doesn’t matter as the game was designed around the slower load times of the weaker hardware.
While I praised the first game in this saga for its use of the single-take cinematic shot, I think the novelty of this has worn off. The immersion that this effect brings is simply not worth the trade-offs. I think that you could argue that most of my complaints with the game could be attributed to the dedication of maintaining this single shot. The camera being too claustrophobic in combat may be because zooming out would break the consistent over-the-shoulder camera angle. Poor pacing could be a result of not being able to utilize traditional cutscenes to cut out lengthy filler and skip to the point. Traversal is frustrating because you have to go slowly in order to avoid loading screens as that would break the immersion.
Furthermore, the number of resources spent in development to maintain this effect and work around its pitfalls could have been spent elsewhere. More time could have been spent refining core systems rather than being so adamantly tied to a gimmick. In retrospect, I don’t think the cinematic benefit of this single-take camera shot was worth it in God of War either. However, at least that game can take credit for originality. God of War Ragnarök doesn’t have the benefit of being the first game to implement this effect. It’s something that we’ve seen before. It’s no longer new or unique. The effect is frequently broken anyway as the player will constantly being opening their menu at their quest log, gear, and map.
More than anything, God of War Ragnarök needed an editor. Simply put, it’s bloated. The unnecessary RPG mechanics, the time-wasting climbing, the poorly-paced story sequences that went on for far too long, the single-shot cinematic effect, the dozens of collectibles that litter the map; there’s just so much extraneous fluff. Realizing what components exist to serve the core domain and what features detract from the experience is a vital skill that’s necessary when creating any form of media. Addition by subtraction is a well-known concept. All these features could have been iterated on, refined, or outright removed for the betterment of the final product.
Despite all of this, God of War Ragnarök is still a good video game. But not a great one. It is still technologically impressive. It has gorgeous environments and stellar animations. The combat is weighty, flashy, varied, but deceptively simple. The setting and premise are intriguing. The writing, despite taking a step back from its predecessor, is still leagues better than most other games. The plot was captivating even if it was poorly paced and had a rushed final act. But I wish these positives were further elevated, rather than having to sift through hours of monotonous tedium to get to the soul of the game.
God of War Ragnarök is a victim of high aspirations and poor planning. There’s too many systems and ideas at work here, bloating the final experience. Cramming two games of plot into a single game resulted in poor pacing. The insistence on being cinematic hampered many gameplay elements. Solid combat isn’t enough to carry the game when the player has to climb dozens of literal walls to get to it. It is for these reasons I give God of War Ragnarök a 6/10. I wish there was further refinement and editing to remove superfluous aspects, as being a more focused title would have benefitted God of War Ragnarök greatly.