Thursday, February 2, 2023
HomeNewsGod of War Ragnarök feels trapped between great design and blockbuster movies

Related Posts

God of War Ragnarök feels trapped between great design and blockbuster movies

- Advertisement -


- Advertisement -

In 2019, I bought my first PlayStation 4. It was the first Big Console I’d had since the days of the slim PlayStation 2, and it came with God of War (2018), a new game from a series I wasn’t too familiar with. But I fired it up on my shiny new toy, keen to try something different. A big part of my God of War experience — something that didn’t click until later — was the one-off novelty of playing a big blockbuster on a “new” console. And it was fine. It was OK. Sitting down to write this, I realize now that the finer points of the story were almost forgettable, which is kind of what happens when you follow the game-as-a-prestige-movie story path that seems to color a lot of the AAA landscape.

In 2022, God of War Ragnarök has improved on that recipe, taking a page from the success and spectacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is, in essence, the most non-Marvel Marvel story I’ve seen in a game, from the eminently recognizable story beats — heroes face difficult dilemmas, friends become enemies and vice versa, boy meets girl, beloved characters die, and so on — to its practiced use of comedy and tragedy (the two classical storytelling genders) to push the player’s buttons.

Like its predecessor(s), Ragnarök is the distillation of an everyman power fantasy, in which you enact powerful and badass acts of redemptive vengeance upon your enemies while retaining the moral high ground; you are, after all, playing a struggling parent with a whole lot of hang-ups. And while the writing does a much better job at building out the characters and their respective places in this world, the end result is a passably good but unevenly paced experience that, more often than not, feels like something I could binge on Disney Plus in any given week.

- Advertisement -

Kratos and Thor speak at the table with Atreus hovering in the background in God of War Ragnarök

- Advertisement -

Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Kratos and Atreus start off in Midgard, quietly reeling from the giants’ prophecy that warned of impending apocalypse and Kratos’ death. Since Baldur died, all nine realms have been thrust into Fimbulwinter — a precursor to Ragnarök — which is sort of analogous to drastic, world-ending climate change.

Kratos, who shares the same weary countenance as the Ben Affleck Smoking meme, is still figuring out how to be a dad. Atreus is puberty incarnate, Mimir is still a head, and Freya — well, she’s still around, and she’s still mad about Kratos killing her son. It turns out that Atreus has been quietly researching giant lore without Kratos’ knowledge, and poking his nose into what happened to Tyr, the Norse god of war. Things kick off after an unannounced visit from Thor and his father, Odin, and Kratos reluctantly, cautiously agrees to follow his son’s quest.

Like the previous game, Ragnarök builds itself around a central hub — a cozy treehouse where Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir make their home base. Gameplay is pretty much the same, too: They explore different realms, carve their way through hostile locals, and solve intermittent puzzles. Kratos has both his signature weapons, along with new toys that pop up along the way (one appears after the midway point, in one of the game’s many pacing issues), like a helpful amulet that gives you a variety of build options; Atreus has his own skill tree, along with largely cosmetic armor and limited bow upgrades. There are all the usual hallmarks of modern AAA game design: treasure chests, minibosses, and a Herculean grind to make your way through locked gates. Kratos still doesn’t have a dedicated jump button, but that’s fine — he’s a big boy.

Atreus, Brok, Mimir, Tyr, and Kratos sit around a square wooden table, eating stew out of bowls, in God of War Ragnarök

Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

The universal core of Ragnarök is, of course, the bond between Kratos and Atreus. It speaks to emotionally constipated parents and frustrated kids, and for the most part, watching both of them grow up is appropriately maddening. The first third of the game can be grating if you’re not a fan of claustrophobic bickering and puberty-driven tantrums — I’m not talking about a taut, bristling sense of dramatic tension, but a lot of whining and grunting. But this also creates an immediate sense of relief whenever Kratos and Atreus split up to do their own thing; Atreus finally gets to be his own person on his detours to other realms, where he finally meets other kids his own age and embraces his own identity. The game, for the most part, does a good job of letting Kratos’ horrendously repressed emotions bubble to the surface. Over time, it also does well at untethering an extremely codependent familial relationship, which I can relate to as the kid of a single parent.

Further into the story, it becomes crystal clear that the writers drank deeply from the well of The Great Sopranos Renaissance during the pandemic. There are all-too-familiar echoes of a made man getting pulled back into an old role, the moody scion who makes reckless decisions, the ritualistic sit-downs and mob negotiations that trigger inevitable conflict, and the overriding need for everyone to go to therapy. In ancient mythology, mob drama isn’t too far off from how gods behaved — unbridled pettiness, strict adherence to duty, maudlin displays of spite, and plenty of disguises and scams. And at the heart of it all, of course: family. Odin is a cross between Woody Allen and a neurotic Guy Ritchie mob boss, which I’m sure will appeal to some folks, but after 35 hours, I’m not one of them. It’s true that God of War’s characters (mostly Brok and Sindri) already established this anachronistic “what if ancient beings followed modern stereotypes” style, but Ragnarök seizes this approach by the neck and dials it up to 11. The result is more of an assault than an accentuation.

Like all art and entertainment, games reflect the cultural contexts and trends surrounding their development, and when there’s big money involved, it means, more often than not, following a path that has already proved effective for the bottom line. Besides the Sopranos-like undercurrents, Ragnarök also channels toned-down antihero qualities of The Boys, spatters of aspirational Tarantino dialogue, and the frat pack era of filmmaking — the latter is evident in the character of Freyr, who, besides being a huge stoner, fails to show the blistering X-factor appeal that supposedly draws elves, dwarves, men, women, children, and stray dogs into his orbit. While some may delight at the banter when Thor shows up at Kratos’ house, it can feel a bit like eating reheated leftovers, albeit well-voiced ones. This isn’t a complaint about derivative media; all our stories are derivative. But how you do it matters — and when storytellers are generally too keen on remixing the hits without adding anything new, it means you have to work twice as hard to pull off a banger that still feels fresh and invigorating.

Angrboda, a Black teenage girl wearing overalls with her hair in dreadlocks, stands behind Atreus, a white teenage boy in gold and blue armor, looking at him in God of War Ragnarök

Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Watching Odin godboss, gaslight, and gatekeep his way to Atreus’ heart is pleasantly sadistic revenge for the squabbles that came before. It is fleetingly comical to see the hypochondriac Sindri get sneezed on, and the game leans hard into the dysfunctional family dinner trope, where a humble dining table becomes the focal point for the story’s big “what now?” moments. On the other hand, characterizing Thor’s drinking like a modern-day affliction feels incredibly forced; it is simply a weird choice to bring contemporary concepts of accountability and Alcoholics Anonymous vibes to a mythological world of gods. Odin’s obsession with his own fate, too, feels poorly thought out. You can’t just shoehorn modern sensibilities into Valhalla — even with the goal of making the gods relatable and “human” — and expect all of it to fit well. “It’s me, your entire economy, speaking,” Odin yells at the dwarves, in another overwritten callback to his mob boss characterization.

Despite its painful self-awareness about script structures, Ragnarök’s pacing is, at best, inconsistent. There’s a lot of filler and circular rambling — mostly on Atreus’ part — about what needs to be done to either avert or trigger Ragnarök. Atreus is also brimming with the sort of ceaseless questions that give parents gray hairs. On one hand, it does the trick: The characters are understandably anxious! But the constant hemming and hawing can get old, and in some instances, undercut the urgency and direness of the whole situation. NPCs will also routinely remind you to go blow off steam and do other things before continuing the main quest. But when the stakes are literally the end of the world and it’s already established that Odin has more eyes on you than a Ring doorbell, it doesn’t exactly make you want to run around and take in the scenery.

Perhaps the problem lies with the frustrations of Ragnarök’s architecture as an “open-style” but non-open-world game. As in God of War, the main quest is essentially a series of tunnels pushing you toward an inevitable end. Many of these sections feel interminable, like the early portions of Svartalfheim and Vanaheim. What’s more, some realms feel like assignments rather than exciting new places — NPCs shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me to be thrilled about exploring a locale. For such an enormous world that clearly prides itself on its scale and wonder, there are times when my adventure felt like an amusement park ride (there’s a flume-boat section that looks and feels just like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad) where I just wanted to careen off the rails. Some of the mechanics, like Atreus’ chain-reaction Sigil arrows, feel like they belong in a different, more creatively permissive game that lets you actually experiment with the environments. Ragnarök constantly hints at deeper interlocking systems, but fails to follow through.

Even so, Alfheim is by far the most captivating realm, possibly because there’s just so much to do, and also because the Temple of Light seems visually inspired by Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay (upon seeing the non-hive-encrusted Lake of Souls, I immediately thought of this local landmark). The temple is one of my favorite environments, next to the earthy reds and ochres of Jotunheim’s flora (and how it plays with size and scale), which had me peeking around corners for Elden Ring’s Malenia. Asgard, though, remains a wasted cipher — there isn’t much room to explore, even though a huge part of Atreus’ story arc involves going there to do just that.

The squirrel-like Ratatoskr climbs on Kratos’ shoulders in God of War Ragnarök

Image: SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

That being said, most of the side quests (known as Favors) are a lot more compelling than the main storyline, like Freya’s very personal mission to get closure from her forced marriage to Odin. I’ve always maintained that the real heart and soul of a game world can be found in side quests, if it has them, and Ragnarök is no different; there’s an especially engaging slow burn in the Vanaheim Crater area, where you get thrown a few crumbs about Kratos’ enigmatic late wife Laufey and her past. A fair amount of Favors involve cleaning up messes — again, back to the theme of accountability and making things right, or trying to leave something better than it was before.

In a more welcome departure from God of War, Ragnarök also lets you experience, for limited periods, different combinations of characters working together. Atreus has extremely strong synergies with a new character who I won’t spoil here. And when a stronger, marginally wiser Atreus reunites with his father, it almost feels unfair to relegate him back to a sidekick role. But such is the power of the parental gaze — it makes sense to have Atreus inhibit himself around his father until dire circumstances call for dire actions. The big emotional gut punches in the story, when they do happen, do hurt (to be fair, I’m also someone who cries at cable television). The very last act of the game, where everything comes together and ties back to Kratos’ past and status as a god, felt like a bittersweet triumph for both father and son, and almost made up for all the times I wanted to knock their skulls together.

For all of its flaws, there are moments in Ragnarök that well and truly rule. Mechanically speaking, the Aesir boss fights are all pretty much the same iterations of dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge — nothing to write home about, and more of a test of endurance and evasion than anything. But one boss fight, against Nidhogg, captured my heart. It’s metal as hell: a full technicolor blast of adrenaline and visual flourish and great monster design that I would replay in a heartbeat. There are also, to Ragnarök’s credit, a lot of very good dogs, and very purposefully weaponized uses of them.

Atreus looks up at the towering World Serpent, Jörmungandr, while Sindri cowers behind him in God of War Ragnarök

Image: SIE Santa Monica/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

After dozens of hours watching Ragnarök’s characters struggle through a quasi-comical escalation of events — the kind of domino effect shitshow where one thing inadvertently sets off a chain reaction of mini-shitshows that nobody wanted to happen — it’s great to forget about fate and decorum, and simply feel content with the knowledge that everyone in this big, messy not-Marvel, not-Sopranos production experienced a promising modicum of character growth; at least enough to make it a better game than its predecessor.

There is nothing life-changing about the way Ragnarök wraps up, but it delivers the same pleasant satisfaction that I get from finishing a Marvel movie that lets me run on autopilot. Even where the game can be frustrating, rote, and uneven, it’s also safe and comforting, like a rerun of Cheers where everyone knows your name and you know that you’ll never get thrown out of the bar. God of War Ragnarök, as the sum of its many disparate and often conflicting parts and influences, isn’t here to reinvent the wheel. But its single-minded desire to emulate all the hallmarks of an epic Hollywood narrative will remain both its biggest weakness and its enduring source of success. And like many, many Hollywood success stories, it shouldn’t feel this weird to say that something of this scope and scale is just OK.

God of War Ragnarök will be released on Nov. 9 on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

- Advertisement -

Latest Posts

%d bloggers like this: