an exciting but heartfelt blockbuster triumph

God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok

In the wake of 2018’s hugely successful God of War reboot, former chief combat designer Vince Napoli has lifted the curtain on one of the games – no, one of the Games– the most satisfying mechanic: the boomerang recall of the titular deity Kratos’ Leviathan ax.

Kratos launches his totem weapon with terrifying force, before the press of a button spirals it back to his outstretched hand with a shiver, chopping and dicing anything it passes on its way back. In a blog post from the game developer, Napoli detailed the attention to refinement of the mechanic: whether to clear trees, the right bow, the exact the time before waiting for its return has become too long (1.5 seconds, by the way). Particular credit went to engineer George Mawle, who sadly passed away last year. It’s a fascinating read for those interested in the practicalities of game development; but playing, watching or reading all lead to the same conclusion: throwing an ax is damn good.

God of War: Ragnarok is all about feelings. Its predecessor was too, but as is the case with video game sequels, everything is amplified and expanded. Even your senses. So the brawny weight of the ax in battle grinds against mythical Norse beasts; flapping and frozen swings encountering flesh, the ax thrown and rammed into another ghoul turned to ice, some fists hammered and a boot for good measure while he was away, before being called back and used to separate the head from the neck in a show of visceral blood and tendon.

Kratos has had his Blades of Chaos from the start; lethal, swirling chains doused in fire and tied to the wrist; the groups are crushed in a criss-crossing light show. Harpoon a floating eyeball, pull it towards you before crushing it in your hand. Both blades strike a larger enemy, a pulse of flame traveling along the chains and igniting your target. It feels good too.

God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok

This weight isn’t just in combat either. As you roam the realms of Norse mythology, snowstorms whip and rumble in Midgard, the towering engines of the dwarves of Svartalfheim creak and rattle. You’ll twist levers and grapple walls, the ax pointed in a careful loop to cut through the writhing dark matter in the bowels of the elf Alfheim. And have you ever seen a vengeful god use a key? Kratos doesn’t just unlock the doors, he sticks the key in the lock before opening them as if they’ve wronged him. Which they did, in a way: by getting in his way. Ditto the chests, the lids crushed to shards to free the treasure inside.

There are many. It’s important to point out just how good God of War is in the hands, because beneath the formula is comfortably familiar. Although the framing has evolved of course. Kratos and his less “boyish”, more teenage son Atreus are lodged in Midgard during Fimbulwinter, staying out of trouble while Kratos continues to train Atreus. The brutal cold snap would be the precursor to Ragnarok, the orderly destruction of the realms of gods and men. Atreus thinks there is a way to avert the apocalypse, if only Dad would agree to travel the realms again to find him. Kratos only wants to protect Atreus as long as he can, but a violent visit from mafia all-father Odin and his brutal son Thor sends them on their way.

So you pop. Kratos, Atreus and the loqacious Scottish cut Mimir traveling between realms, battling beasts, completing clever environmental puzzles that block your path (usually including freezing things, hitting things, or setting them on fire) and collecting trinkets and power-ups to unlock new skills and shiny new armor. It has RPG trappings, but isn’t an RPG, with upgradable skill trees and gear – ax pommels that give +23 strength and slow time on perfect dodges, nice big shoulder pads with detailing adorned and a health boost. It has a Metroidvania-style gear gate, with tempting locked areas scattered across the world blocked by obstacles you don’t have the kit for, but its backtracking happens at your own pace and usually because you really want to see what was behind it.

It is, again like its predecessor, a purse of recognizable video game vanities, including those looted from its own history. But it’s all executed with such skill, confidence and absurd expense that it rarely matters that we’ve been here before.

God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok

What is that Is operate on its scale. It’s all bigger and more fleshed out; I spent a lot more time in Ragnarok thinking about my modest stat confusion. I was looking forward to returning to dwarf smiths gobby Brok and Sindri, both for the rude talk and the upgrades to my shield. The side missions are also something to see. While God of War: Ragnarok pushes things along a linear track, it will often tempt you with an adventure within an adventure.

Early in Svartalfheim, a remorseful Mimir begs you to investigate a set of rigs he set up in a past life to enslave hapless dwarves for Odin’s needs. It sends you boating across a vast lake, giving you time to explore as you throw down each gear, before heading off in another direction entirely. You’re out of the main quest for a good few hours, but comes with exploration of characters’ pasts, additional grounding in the world, and payoff that goes way beyond a simple power boost. ‘XP. It feels like it matters, fundamentally, which is something that many (most?) video games struggle with when it comes to after-school programs.

A lot of the “big stuff” can be attributed to the relationship between Kratos and Atreus, which is unmistakably the driving force behind the game’s narrative. The bond between the two has deepened, and Atreus is a more rounded character as a teenager. As it deals with his supposed destiny as the savior of the realms and gaining new powers, the fact that it’s a parable about growing up isn’t exactly subtle.

But it is not necessary. It also touches, deftly, I thought, on parents’ ingrained fear of lack of time, of failure, of death. For all his grumpy demeanor and demands of Atreus, that fear and vulnerability ripples through Kratos as much as it does his muscles. It’s surprisingly touching at times, given that it’s largely a game about bad guys with a magic axe. A throwaway moment has Atreus asking why they embarked on another lengthy side quest rather than focusing on the task at hand. Mimir kindly suggests that it’s because Kratos wants to spend more time with his son before the world ends. A moment of calm in the relatively measured first half of the game that makes fire, brimstone and narrative punches harder.

God of War Ragnarok

God of War Ragnarok

Some of the issues from previous games have been clearly resolved. Perhaps most notable is that combat benefits from a wider range of enemies to take down; blended into ever-changing groups that demand a broader mastery of Kratos’ skills and arsenal. Atreus is also a much more advanced combat partner. He has a wicked line in magic arrows, shields, spells and now has the strength to smack beasts with his bow. During fights, he is never a burden, only a boon; a now crucial extension of Kratos’ skills that can take care of itself.

Until you are given direct control, of course. It probably won’t come as a surprise that Atreus drives his own daddy sections away in Ragnarok, as he sneaks out to pursue his apparent fate. Naturally, these don’t quite provide the crunchy fun that comes with being Kratos, but he’s fast and skilled enough that being the boy brings his own kick. And inevitably helps him to advance his story – his life – without the presence of his father. As children growing up are wont to do…

For all of this, God of War Ragnarok doesn’t forget that it’s first and foremost a “triple-A” video game with broad appeal and a grizzled determination for crowd pleasers. You’ll embark on a literal rollercoaster ride, zombie draugrs smashing through your cart. Travel through magnificent realms that vary in stunning detail and vivid color. Face toothy bosses that fill the screen. And, of course, fight the evil gods of Asgard. Quiet and introspective as he may be, reserved he is not.

This cannot help but bring some of the inherent disadvantages of excess. There is some bloating and meandering at times, especially near the start. And opening a chest every fifty paces for more knick-knacks, even in heartfelt conversation, suggests he can’t entirely free himself from the gratification of number-hunting. But God of War: Ragnarok manages to rein in the best of blockbuster games under his muscular control. Spectacle. Excitement. Accountability. Well, we all know what that feels like, don’t we?

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