Review: God of War: Ragnarok improves on its predecessor, but you'll need to forgive it its flaws

If 2018's God of War was about the accidental joys of parenting a child through trauma, then 2022's God of War: Ragnarok is the difficult teen years.

Santa Monica Studio's epic series underwent a major reinvention in 2018 when the developer took Spartan hero Kratos out of a simple hack'n'slash action adventure franchise and put him on a path of enforced parenthood as he went on an epic journey to scatter the ashes of his dead wife.

The first game of the reboot ended with a cliffhanger about Atreus, Kratos' son and his part in a prophecy. The second picks that up but deepens the Norse gods' mythology, covering the lands of the first in a constant snowy vista as Fimbulwinter, one of the first signs of the end of days arrives (AKA Ragnarok).

So with Atreus wanting to find out more about his destiny and Kratos reticent to become involved in war among the gods, the game begins. It may sound like this plot is vague, but in truth, one of the joys of God of War: Ragnarok is in how it all unfolds, with some narrative twists and surprises that are rewarding to fans of the franchise and even welcoming to newcomers.

However, it's not all plain sailing in Santa Monica Studios' latest. The game's long opening feels like a disappointing retread of the 2018 game.

Combat is largely the same initially, the fighting dynamics resting heavily on the interaction between Atreus firing arrows and Kratos slamming out his axe into enemies. It's enough to leave the hardcore fan of the series feeling somewhat jaded and also a little disappointed that it appears the developers have rested upon their laurels.

The game presents you with a wondrous land, some of which you saw in the first game, but prevents you from following anything but a prescriptive path.

God of War: Ragnarok's depth is obvious on screen - even if the game doesn't let you visit its far-off places.
God of War: Ragnarok's depth is obvious on screen - even if the game doesn't let you visit its far-off places. Photo credit: Santa Monica Studios

A moment that really brought this home for me saw one character go to explore, only for another to bellow: "No, we cannot explore there." The game's freedom is somewhat of a lie and while it's not a sandbox game by any means, its refusal to go off the beaten track disappoints when rich vistas swathed in beautiful detail lie so tantalisingly close.

And don't even get me started on how characters interject with solutions to puzzles mere seconds after you've arrived at them, robbing you of agency and continuing gaming's desire to handhold you every step of the way.

Occasionally, the familiarity is jarring. Skill tree menus, along with chances to develop weaponry and add runic charms to help are still too confusing and too cluttered, victims of a system that's born out of a desire to aid progression, but bizarrely feels like it hinders it.

As galling as it is to declare, there are parts of God of War: Ragnarok which feel desperately like padding.

One diversion feels like a poorly-written teen fiction with characters intoning words because they're meant to, and not because it feels organic to do so. A supplemental character in this detour is poorly written and loses any agency as they become an exposition-led mouthpiece - it's shocking Santa Monica Studios sunk to this as it really should have been overhauled at the scripting phase.

God of War: Ragnarok
Yep, your eyes don't deceive you. But you'll have to wait and see. Photo credit: Santa Monica Studios

That may sound like a lot of gripes for a prestige title such as this, but in truth, these are just minor flaws and impediments to a game that blossoms like a flower once you forgive its shortcomings.

Once the pacing ramps up, the game opens up to a world that truly feels lived in. If you're worried about repetitive combat, disappointing enemies and boss fights that are a breeze, then Ragnarok has news for you - the sequel has thrown everything at improving combat, improving encounters and has made boss fights rewarding to complete - even on the lowest level setting, victory feels well-earned. Admittedly, mid-boss checkpoints have aided this, but combat is gruelling and tough.

It can't be overstated how beautiful the worlds and realms look too. The PS5 doesn't appear to struggle with what's presented on screen - though there are reports PS4s sound like a jet engine taking off as they deal with the fidelity - and every vista is imbued with rich colours, depth and bounteous beauty throughout.

If God of War was about a son and father trying to find common ground after trauma, God of War: Ragnarok amplifies that relationship and despite it being a tale of the end of the world, filled with destruction and of chaos, it bases itself in the common bonds of raising teenagers.

God of War: Ragnarok's vistas are breathtaking.
God of War: Ragnarok's vistas are breathtaking. Photo credit: Santa Monica Studios

Former Stargate actor Christopher Judge's gravelly tones much suit Kratos, who this time is weighed down with the consequence of prior actions, his attitude more a resigned take in keeping with Greek tragedies. Sunny Suljic's Atreus is given more freedom this time, but there's frustration in Atreus' arc that's well conveyed by the acting here.

As the game's scope opens up, so too does the combat, banishing any feeling of familiarity that dogs its early parts. Weapon-specific kill scenes come to the fore, brutal in their animation and gorily satisfying after a tough fight.

It's also in the game's quieter moments and musings that the storytelling comes to the fore. This is not just a hack'n'slash game, it's a deeply involving saga that is more moving than any game really has a right to be.

Much like many relationships in life, God Of War: Ragnarok is a clarion call to ride out the rougher edges to be able to revel in the good times. It improves on its predecessor - even with some bumps in the road.

Ancient mythology has never been so bloody, so brutal and yet so emotionally realistic or devastating. 

The end of the world may be coming in Ragnarok, but in truth, you'll never want Kratos and Atreus' journeys to finish. 

Where the franchise goes next is anyone's guess, but it's to be hoped Santa Monica Studios continues the highs of a series that's evolved brilliantly since its button-mashing 2005 days on the PlayStation 2.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Newshub was provided with a review code for God of War: Ragnarok for this article ahead of the game's release on November 9.