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God of War Ragnarök

Made by: Santa Monica Studio

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms: PS5, PS4

Release date: 09/11/2022

Review date:

Emoji summary: 💀⚠️🔮

Review by: GDLP

Spoilers: 2022 ending AND 2018 ending!!!!!!!! beware

Do you hate knowing what is going to happen at the end of a story? Of course you do. But at the end of this review, I’m going to conclude that I enjoyed God of War Ragnarök but I would have enjoyed it more if it had managed to surprise me. I hate that I am saying that. I hope that nothing I write ever becomes so popular that people around the world are very ready to guess at what I am going to say before I’ve even said it (and I guess I hate that I am saying that as well).

God of War is a series of games about a demigod named Kratos. He is the tragic hero in various stories that blend mythologies from across the world. The games feature kelpies, elves, valkyries; Thor, Medusa, Pandora’s Box. The tragedy in Kratos’ character was forged many games ago, back in 2005, when ‘in the service of a cruel god, I was tricked into destroying a village— not knowing my wife and child were there until their blood stained my hands. I swore revenge.’ Kratos was left with an arguably sympathetic brand of rage. In the most recent games, he is full of PTSD and paranoia triggered by him having a second family. He now has a son, Atreus, who he is terrified he will not be able to protect from the world and himself. Kratos is so convinced of this fact, he treats Atreus like a burden and avoids making any sort of connection with him. He calls Atreus boy, only boy, and keeps him at arm’s length.

In the 2018 title, the game begins with the death of Atreus' mother, Faye. She asks the two of them to spread her ashes at the highest point in all the nine realms, which takes Kratos and Atreus on a long adventure. There are blocks in the road along the way that the player must overcome but it is altogether quite a focused journey from snowy forests and up into the sky, ending in the realm of the giants, Jötunheim. In travelling together, Kratos overcomes at least some of his familial terror and he softens ever so slightly into a dad.

And it’s great, emotional, solid, and portentous. Before the pair let Faye blow away in this golden wind up high, they walk through an abandoned temple together and find it full of murals. These murals just so happen to depict the exact journey that the two of them have taken to get there – images that essentially recap the 20 core hours of gameplay we have just completed. It’s all there in old paintings on the walls… and the characters are stunned. ‘But that just happened. Wait. They knew everything that was going to happen. The dragon in the mountain. The stone mason. All these drawings… this is our story.’

Kratos and Atreus are in shock; I was in shock with them. Fate exists! Whoever painted these murals knew what was going to happen. In a game full of magic and runes, this felt like the most important magic trick of them all; that there was someone or something in the game that had life all sketched out. That was chilling. I was so sucked into the game that it took me a moment to remember that God of War was a game on a disc, an electric thing that had been designed by omniscient, omnipotent game developers in real world studios and writers rooms – that there was someone or something outside of the game that had life all sketched out, before it was transfixed into the form of a game to entertain us. No, I was away with the fairies, thinking about how all those roadblocks were destined roadblocks; and I was comforted in the fact that I was walking the path that Sony’s Santa Monica Studio had set out for me, and I’d really enjoyed the walk so far.

So, I gasped when I watched Atreus disappear round a corner and Kratos uncover a final section of the mural that his son had missed. It showed Kratos dead in Atreus’s arms. I was bereft. When the next game came out, I would have to ready myself for the funeral. This tragic hero who has worked hard to regain a drop of his humanity had been condemned just when it felt like things were changing for him. Maybe Atreus would spread his father’s ashes somewhere? Maybe it would be back here in Jötunheim where he could rest in the wind with Faye. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I dreaded it (in this quietly excited way – death is entertaining, it would be the end of an era, and I wondered how the writer gods would give the Ghost of Sparta a fitting end to his lifetime of drama).

But in the years waiting for the sequel, I realised that there would be no point in them making a game that followed those exact rules. If fate was fate and that was that, then the game was already written. If Kratos was actually going to die, there would be no challenge for the player to overcome, nothing for them to be motivated by. Tragic heroes die but they’d made such an effort in 2018 to begin shedding that part of him by showing he still has a heart. Plus, it’s not good for business to kill off a well-known protagonist whose very image sells games and merchandise (and whose presence makes for a healthy post-game; don’t want to upset the fans). No, they were going to have to taunt us with the 2018 prophecy as if it was inevitable and we were going to have to find a way around it. That would be the game, wouldn’t it? Destiny would be the new antagonist.

And it was. The story of the 2022 game follows Kratos and Atreus as they split up and search the realms for ways to save Kratos from his fate. They are desperate. And I know I fancy myself an armchair oracle because my mild narrative literacy helped predict the eventual ending to this game, but a lot of people guessed that Kratos would survive based on the same logic. We’re not oracles, we’re just well-versed in storytelling and the business of the game industry so we can expect these things. It lessened my excitement just a bit, so waiting to see how the writers would try to convince us otherwise – how they would keep us guessing, or get us to doubt our predictions – became what I was most excited to play for. Because they had backed themselves into a corner and they couldn’t stay there, otherwise the story of the sequel would fall flat.

So, in the first half of the game, the writers set us up. In their quest for more knowledge, Kratos and Atreus discover another mural showing them it’s Thor that is going to kill Kratos. They also learn that Heimdall – another of Odin’s henchmen – is going to kill Atreus unless Kratos gets Heimdall first. If and when that happens, Kratos will begin the chain reaction that leads to Ragnarök, an event set to destroy Asgard and send Kratos running right into Thor’s open arms where they’ll make their mural come true. This Heimdall, Thor, Odin conundrum has legs. I can easily see Kratos becoming so determined to save his son that he puts himself in the line of fire to rage against the Mjölnir. I think this route would have been an emotionally-fulfilling ending with a good sense of character completion; having seen our antihero develop from a loner-soldier to a militant guardian and finally a stubbornly self-sacrificing dad. He would finally be at peace having reversed past horrors, dying to save his son, rather than killing his family and surviving. Love conquers all, and so on. A new balance. The end.

The writers set all of this up to keep us panicking about the likelihood of the prophecy, even though it’s not what goes on to happen. Because when the story reaches the halfway point, Kratos seeks out the Norns who are three deities from Norse mythology that represent the past, present and future. Halfway means it’s the story’s midpoint, when protagonists typically have some kind of revelation. Maybe they receive some new information that changes things, and what they do based on this moment of truth will decide how their character does or does not develop, and therefore how their story ends. What the Norns say is quite basic but it is wrapped in the most intricately written, meta-style cinematic, in which the Norns narrate the action as it happens as if they are the ones writing everybody’s life story.

‘Kratos, Freya, and Mimir’s Head enter the home of the Norns, tentatively. They have finally reached their destination. Kratos speaks first.’

And Kratos speaks. They know what he is going to say so they mimic him, putting on a show of power. They know what he has come here for:

‘You seek what all who search for us seek: to know the ending to your story.’

And they sound almost bored with the request.

‘You come to us, piteous archetypes, seeking freedom from your scripts – as if knowing your lines would grant you the power to rewrite them.’

They assure him he is going to die, but then deliver the midpoint revelation.

‘There is no grand design. No script. Only the choices you make. That your choices are so predictable merely make us seem prescient.’

And they make sure to deliver a gut punch in some incredibly self-aware writing in the line, ‘He still slays gods, but now he’s sad about it?’ The self-awareness comes in because there are plenty of players who resent Kratos’ character development and wish the game series went back to its old carnage ways. But in saying this, it reminds Kratos and the audience that killing gods is his whole thing – that even if he thinks there’s a good reason for it sometimes, even if he feels a bit of remorse afterwards, ultimately it doesn’t change his behaviour because he still slays gods.

And this is what the midpoint teaches, that fate doesn’t actually exist in the game. People always make the same choices so it simply appears that fate exists, because our behaviour is so predictable. I mention the midpoint partly to praise what I now see as one of my favourite scenes ever in a video game. I played before the game was released so I recorded it and watched it back many times before it was available on YouTube, and then I watched it over and over again on there. It’s like the game’s world has been turned inside-out and the writers have popped onto the screen to deliver the bad news in the same breath as the good news; there are two timelines in which Kratos does or doesn’t listen to the Norns, and can or can’t fight fate. They are so closely linked that this new truth raises the stakes and feels completely winnable at the same time, because the Norns say so and they are clearly so powerful. It provides perfect, albeit brief, tension in a game that was lacking in that department; because I also mention the Norns to confirm my own prophecy. This is how the writers climbed out of that corner they’d written themselves into. All Kratos needs to do is change his behaviour and then we can beat the mural, save him, save the world, win the game and –

That’s what happens. It happens beautifully and thoughtfully but that’s the rest of the game decided and it’s even more clear from the midpoint onwards. That’s why the tension is so brief. Kratos accepts responsibility for his prior seven game’s worth of behaviour, and understands that if he carries on in the same way, terrible things are going to happen. The writers give us one more sting in the crisis point when it is revealed that one of the characters in the main party was actually a shapeshifted Odin this whole time, which means the big baddie is now fully aware of Kratos’ sabbatical researching fate, so it is going to be even harder to beat him.

Or a little harder anyway. Kratos gets a little angry. Kratos becomes a little like his old self, rallying the troops and doing a little speech like a real God of War. He still seems quite with it, though. I don’t know. Ragnarök begins, all of the realms bleed into one another, and – I can see what they were trying to do. Baiting our protagonist, riling him up, so that we think he is going to get himself killed. The prophecy, the audience screams! But what should have been a fast, tight, clench in order to convince us of the acute crisis-ness of the crisis and the increasing danger for Kratos, was completely slowed down by these waves of fighting on our way to the siege. Long, slow. Switching back and forth between dad and son. Gameplay really got in the way of the story there for a moment, in a way God of War is usually better at balancing. Like, I remember checking my phone at one point and then locking it and feeling ashamed, or annoyed, or bored. There was something in the pacing of this act that lost me when I least wanted to be lost and most wanted to be gripped.

Dad and lad realise the fight is hurting civilians outside of the Asgard’s wall, Midgardian refugees who have been put in our way for this reason, and there is an important scene that shows Kratos finally subverting the Norns’ belief that he cannot and would not change. I think for this next part to really land, Kratos should have gone madder before it – you know, really gone to the edge like he did when he punched Heimdall’s head in. That kind of moment would have played better here, I think, so that his big change is more active – more like him being wrenched away from the edge. But that’s just me.

The big change happens when Atreus is upset about the Midgardians getting hurt and he tells himself he has to close his heart to it. It is a reference to 2018 when Atreus makes his first kill and begins to cry, and his father says, ‘Close your heart to it. Come then. We have a long journey.’ Just some really good parenting. Back outside the wall, Atreus tells his father that ‘it’s war. Wars are won by those who are willing to sacrifice everything,’ quoting Kratos back to himself. But in seeing that his son is becoming more and more like him – who he has been, past-tense, a psychopathic soldier who only cares about winning – we enter the turning point. Kratos becomes emotional and says, ‘son, listen closely. You feel their pain because that is who you are. And you must never sacrifice that. Never. Not for anyone. I was wrong, Atreus. I was wrong. Open your heart. Open your heart to their suffering. That is your mother’s wish and mine as well. Today, today, we will be better… We will die seeking justice, not vengeance.’ And thus, he changes. Because fate is no longer the antagonist, it is the self.

When they breach the wall and Kratos comes head to head with Thor as the mural foretold, Kratos refuses to kill Thor even when he has the chance; even when Thor taunts him. Kratos is free not from the prophecy but from the expectations other people had of him, and more importantly the expectations he had of himself. Thor shouts, ‘Don’t you know what I’ve done?’ And Kratos says, ‘Yes, but what will you do now?’ Thor is thrown, adamant. ‘WE don’t change. WE are destroyers.’ But Kratos is done. ‘No more. No more. For the sake of our children. We must be better.’ And it is almost cheesy. I mean, it is cheesy. But this is also the moment in playing when I knew he really, really, really wasn’t going to die, and I felt strangely disappointed – and I guess that my disappointment has been implied up until this point but I need to decipher it. Because why exactly did I want Kratos to die? I like playing him! I like his axe! I enjoy watching Christopher Judge perform in the game’s seven hours of cinematics. Put simply, I wanted him to die because I wanted to be wrong so that I could be surprised. My favourite stories are full of surprises, and Ragnarök has its own, but it just so happens that all of the surprises in this game are nothing to do with Kratos (and if the world is moving on without him, it feels all the more reason to politely kill him off).

What I would give to be in the room with Santa Monica while they worked all of this out. I imagine everyone arranged like the conspiracy meme, pointing at stapled images on a murder wall; one thousand post-its describing what happens when, and to whom, and why. The problem-solving fascinates me.

But if I got a clean lesson in character development from 2018, what I got from 2022 was a warning to never make something so successful that you have to write its sequel. Overall, I enjoyed the game. Sindri’s gritted performance deserves an Oscar, the character design was tight, Odin’s smarm deserves an Oscar, combat was much more rewarding this time around, Angrboda’s lightness deserves an Oscar, and the music constantly activated that secret part in my chest that instantly gets me to cry. But in an effort to convince us otherwise, to keep us guessing and doubting and staying open to that core, motivating, prophecy drama, the storytelling was too overwhelming for me. Just saturated. Even in writing this review! I usually get to the end of a game and I can say out loud to a friend what happened, but this wasn’t easily communicated. Not that ease means excellence but you should see the amount of tabs I have open in order to keep all of this straight. We knew what was going to happen, so the writers went overboard with a huge cast, tangents, and distractions. When I try to connect all the pieces, I struggle. All the post-its blow away in the wind. I mean, who the fuck was Birgir and why am I supposed to care that he threw himself off the flying boat?

I feel like a misery guts or an angry gamer who should shut up and celebrate the fact free will exists and Kratos really did change and isn’t that nice. I just wish it had been as tight as 2018, or as tight as that sentence. It’s like someone left the door open and all the heat got out; the game got too big, the story too unruly, and it disrupted the catharsis we could have got from regaining control of Kratos’ future. There was a moment early on in Ragnarök when we fought Thor for the first time. We had to mash circle to push his hammer away but no matter how hard we did that, he wrestled it back and killed us. The screen dipped out to the loading screen where we could click L1 for previous tip, R1 for next tip, the usual. But then we heard Thor laugh. ‘Oh no, I say when we’re done!’ We saw his electrified hammer to Kratos’ chest and watched him defibrillate us back to life and back into the fight. The fake-out is a perfect example of story and gameplay in unison to express the feeling that we don’t have control of our fate at the beginning. I wish there had been a second moment like this at the end of the game that could have given us the opposite effect, although I’m not sure what that could have looked like – and I don’t think they would have gone the route of alternative endings, however suitable that is for a story about volition.

I’m going to conclude that I enjoyed God of War Ragnarök but I would have enjoyed it more if it had managed to surprise me. I didn’t have it as spoiled as some people – there are videos on YouTube of people who predicted much more than I did, including the Tyr reveal based purely on his place in mythology in relation to other characters.

The game was a great overwhelming rush and when I think back to my time playing it, I feel the memory as though I was being chased down by a wild animal – or a whole herd of them. The moments I liked best were when I had clambered up out of reach but there weren’t quite enough of them in there to keep pace or to keep a hold of emotion and intrigue long enough for me to feel like it was really the end of the world.

Kratos and Atreus having a tight hug