God of War Ragnarök: Open Your Heart – A Deep Dive Review
Open your heart. Open your heart to their suffering . . . Today, we will be better.
SPOILER WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN FULL SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE 2018 GOD OF WAR AND GOD OF WAR: RAGNAROK
Reviewed on Playstation 5
This is the story of a bear and a wolf. The Ghost of Sparta who killed a pantheon true, haunted by sins of the past. He sought rest in a faraway land and met a giant who he conjoined and made the wolf out of his burden. The bear and the wolf wandered the nine realms and walked the twilight path to fulfil their promise to the giant. They found revelation in the wolf’s destiny to be the harbinger of the end, and a leader for the war to end all wars. Thus the three long winters ended and so did their hidden refuge.
God of War Ragnarök is the direct follow-up to the 2018 entry of the God of War series where you kill gods of pantheons, previously the Greek pantheon and now the Norse. Indeed, for the majority of the franchise’s history, the premise was indeed that simple. The Greek saga saw Kratos killing an entire rogue’s gallery of arrogant gods, titans and mythological creatures. While this Norse saga acts not only as Kratos’s redemption, but a journey of self-forgiveness and atonement as he navigates the gargantuan quest of raising a teenage boy.
It would not be true if you simply make the reductive argument that the Greek saga was merely a mindless action brawler with a psychopathic and murderous young Kratos. There were brief moments where Kratos’s story was sentimental if we remember the death of his previous wife and child, or his brother Deimos. However, that was simply not the focus; the Spartan Rage and vengeance, a pure reptilian thirst for celestial blood drove the story forward. Kratos was relatively one-dimensional throughout the series, a being of pure masculine carnage that wreak havoc and left destruction in his wake.
The 2018 God of War saw a more mature, guilty Kratos who sought to not make the same mistakes to his son Atreus — named after a brave fallen Spartan brother — and raised him to be strong in a world where being part God is dangerous, even if it meant Kratos himself would die. It was a journey of breaking the cycle of hate and abuse. Kratos’s patricide of his father Zeus and the demise of Baldur under Kratos’s hands after he almost committed matricide against his mother Freya, they’re portrayed as lessons for Atreus. Change is possible, even when there is no real redemption for a monster like Kratos. But it comes with the heavy cost of a lifetime of guilt that you can never wash off, and you must develop a steel heart to atone and repent. Kratos vehemently wanted to bestow Atreus his same icy heart to protect him against the world.
“Close your heart to their suffering” echoed Kratos throughout the 2018 entry. He wished to shield Atreus from the fate of becoming a monster god, one where the path would lead you to either becoming a twisted egomaniacal god or, like Kratos, a vengeful war god. The end of that game saw Kratos finally entrusting Atreus with his dark past and trusting him to become a better person—a better god. Atreus learned of his identity as Loki and the role he was about to play in Ragnarök; of being the Champion of Jotunheim — the abandoned realm of the Giants — and heralding the Norse apocalypse.
Fimbulwinter is Here
Ragnarök has some of the most thrilling openings I have ever seen in a video game in recent memory. After returning home from hunting a deer, Kratos (Christopher Judge) and Atreus — or Loki — (Sunny Suljic) are ambushed by the now vengeful goddess of war Freya (Daniella Bisutti), still reeling from the death of her son Baldur due to Kratos. They arrived home safely, and Atreus shared a sentimental moment with his wolf Fenrir as the soul in their eyes are whisked away into a gentle rest, a moment I did not expect to make me so emotional so early in the game. Far from his brief stint as an arrogant godling in the previous game — especially his cold murder of Modi, the son of Thor — Atreus has grown to be a gentle, empathetic soul. Indeed, throughout the game, his hormonal teenage rebellion is not portrayed through juvenile tropes, but rather a naïve, kind and intelligent persona that only opposes Kratos under his own sense and belief of the right path. Atreus even humorously mocks Kratos’s inability to trust him with even the most basic of agency due to his overprotective nature when Atreus has moments of sneaking away alone.
One of the game’s main themes, in this sense, is letting go. Kratos is still unable to let Atreus fulfil his destiny as Loki, to venture out alone and brave dangers himself. Atreus is still an extension of Kratos, his final tie and promise to his late wife Faye. The umbilical cord is still not severed. This allegory to Fatherhood is not new to God of War. Most obviously, the Greek Saga briefly saw Kratos as a father, with the grey ash enveloping his body being the remains of his dead wife and daughter. The 2018 soft reboot was also largely influenced by director Cory Balrog’s experience of raising his own son, of not wanting the mistakes you’ve made to define your child. The climactic resolution to the 2018 game was Kratos entrusting Atreus with Faye’s ashes, calling him ‘son’ for the first time, and essentially acknowledging Atreus’s place by his side. Ragnarök, then, is Kratos’s struggle with accepting Atreus’s independence, but at the same time, knowing that it is inevitable.
This family dynamic of father and son, brothers and sisters, whether healthy or toxic, exist throughout the many characters of Ragnarök. Aside from Kratos and Atreus, we have “All-Father” Odin and Thor, Thor with his dead sons Magni and Modi, Thor and his remaining daughter Thrud and wife Sif, Brok and Sindri, Freya and her dead son Baldur, Angrboda and her grandmother Gryla. The game explores one’s family of origin — those crafted by blood relations — and the concept of ‘found family’, moulded through deep bonds and choice. Kratos and Mimir constantly refer to themselves as “brothers”, and in one of the game’s journals, Kratos acknowledge this fact as well, noting the very few people throughout his tough life that he would refer to as such.
The game’s opening also introduced the antagonists of the game masterfully. The Norse gods whom one would thought to await Kratos in Asgard scheming simply knocked on Kratos’s humble hut and politely asked for an audience. This depiction of Thor — brilliantly played by Ryan Hurst — is perhaps one of the best depictions of the god of thunder. He is large, and heavy, his eyes tired and his brunette hair dishevelled. Nowhere is the noble and adventurous Thor from other media, this Thor is a self-described destroyer; a trait that he himself also sees in Kratos. Behind his seemingly uncaring veneer, an enormous fire of guilt rages: the guilt of losing his sons, of being a deadbeat drunk to his daughter Thrud and wife Sif. Being part-Giant himself, he was one of the main gods that were responsible for the deaths of many Giants of Jotunheim. And although he claims to revel in this massacre, one could not help but wonder if he truly feels no remorse, or if most of his line of thinking was moulded by the All-Father’s manipulation.
The Aesir of Asgard, despite depictions of their imperialism and monstrosity, is not portrayed as one-dimensional megalomaniac villains. Instead, they are destroyers partially through Odin’s sociopathic manipulation. The Aesirs are “humanized”, an oxymoronic word to describe them when you consider them gods. They only seek what is best for them, a notion that Odin propagandized to mean the subjugation of all races and the nine realms and their supremacy over others. I am reminded of Erich Fromm’s concept of ‘automaton conformity’ where individuals conform to the roles assigned to them and resulting in the loss of the self. Fromm belongs to the Frankfurt School of critical theorists who experienced the interwar period of Germany and the rise of Nazi Germany pre-WWII. Such studies also touch on the role of charismatic leaders like Hitler and the masses’ unifying belief in him and their reluctance to go against the grain for they risk exclusion from their community. Odin has instilled such a belief in not only the Aesir but also the people he subjugated like the dwarves, where his creation of a surveillance state and destruction of the previous rebellion have made the dwarves lose their spirits and sense of self. Thor’s role as Odin’s enforcer and the constant psychological abuse he endures from his father has made him drown his repressed rebellion in alcohol. And even the only light of his life — that being his family — he still feels like a failure precisely because he sees himself abusing his children the same way his father did. The demise of Magni and Modi is proof of this generational trauma, and Thrud is his last chance to be a good father.
Richard Schiff’s portrayal of the All-Father Odin, the ruler of Asgard is fascinating. Instead of a wise, authoritarian ruler, he merely emulates those traits while pretending to be endearing and reasonable. His appearance in the opening’s negotiation for a peaceful truce with Kratos almost makes it seems like he is a mob boss, a cunning manipulator that would have you still questioning his character even after hearing all of his atrocities from the likes of Mimir and Freya, people whom he has wronged irreparably. Perhaps there was some sort of misunderstanding and he was simply being a leader who makes hard, often immoral decisions for the sake of his people’s best interests? I briefly thought to myself at some parts of the story, which speaks to the quality of the performance. It is then revealed that he has been disguised as Tyr all along — something that I personally have mixed feelings about — but does prove his utter grasp on everything that was going on, everything that was planned, and strengthens his “All-Father” moniker. I personally would have wished the real Tyr and Odin’s subterfuge to coexist. As the game builds up Tyr’s presence since the last instalment, meeting the real Tyr and then having him swapped mid-way and having players start to catch on might have been a much more cohesive path. Instead, the real Tyr is a figure one could only find post-ending in a Niflheim prison, making this major Norse figure a minor character with little development.
Odin’s presence represents both the strongest parts of Ragnarök but also its weakest link. After Atreus/Loki decides to take matters into his own hands and accept Odin’s invitation to Asgard, it is revealed that the All-Father may not put Ragnarök and the destruction of Asgard in his list of concerns (a distracting half-truth/lie). Instead, he is consumed with this arcane and ancient mask that will allow him to safely see the mysterious rift in his basement that called out to him. He reveals to Loki that the rift may reveal the answer to what lies beyond the afterlife for the gods. If mortals go to Helheim or Valhalla, Odin is maddened by the cosmic horror of the unknown beyond for deities like him, for they are not omnipotent nor incapable of death. And yet, the manner in which that part of the story unfolds still left me wanting. I understand that they established that promises of the answer to everything comes at a cost, and the quest for such things is a folly that maddens a person. And while its anticlimactic nature is by design, there are still pieces that feel missing.
In this sense, God of War: Ragnarök suffers the same faith as Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, the latest expansion to the Massively Online Roleplaying Game (MMO). Final Fantasy XIV’s main story arc was ten years in the making. From the base game and all the expansions until Endwalker, we have been following the same overarching narrative, the so-called Hydaleyn and Zodiark saga. The original plan for the end of this saga was two expansions, a penultimate expansion and then a climactic final expansion. However, the team at Square Enix led by Naoki Yoshida (who is also working on Final Fantasy XVI) and writer Natsuko Ishikawa elected to combine those two expansions into one. Endwalker is a triumph, and its narrative still holds a special place in my heart. Final Fantasy XIV as a whole remains one of the best video games I have ever played. However, playing through Endwalker you would be able to instinctually tell where the two expansions were glued together. Some parts of the story, characters and world would have benefitted from more screen time and exposition. While creatively it is true that sometimes overstaying your welcome would lead to a further downturn in the story, cutting back overarching nuanced details also have its disadvantages. God of War Ragnarök is the same with its decision to end not end the Norse saga in a trilogy. In the longer term, this works well and especially with the consideration that God of War is a franchise that takes you to other pantheons; making a trilogy for all of them might not seem feasible. It still remains true, however, that viewing, God of War Ragnarök in this standalone bubble, some things do suffer because of it.
Circling back to our focus on narrative and characters, despite some of the drawbacks that I just mentioned, God of War Ragnarök still delivers an engaging and nuanced story which is further supported by the excellent development of all its characters. Touching on Kratos and Atreus one more time, Kratos’s inability to let Atreus go on his own also stems from the parental worry of whether as a father Kratos has prepared Atreus to face everything that life has to offer. In one of the dialogues between Kratos and Mimir after the ending of the game and Atreus’s departure, Kratos laments if he has done enough to prepare Atreus in not only combat and survival, but love. They discuss the possibility of Atreus’s attraction to Angrboda and Mimir chimes in to add that he would be a better advisor for such things. Over the course of the game, Kratos learns to let go of his son to find how to own path, to be his own person and flies away from the nest. This is also presented in the game’s score (composed by Bear McCreary), where Atreus finally receives his own musical theme. Far from the main God of War theme which represents the foreboding nature of Kratos — his past sins and his might as a god — Atreus’s “A Son’s Path” depicts a more adventurous, youthful motif that establishes Atreus as a young man destined for an odyssey of his own. Kratos realizes that he does not want Atreus to wield a strong, fragile exterior and close his heart. Instead, he wishes for Atreus to open his heart, empathise, love, and be better.
And indeed as we mention the topic of destiny, one of the main themes of the game is to not be tied down by it. However, it is not simply that, for Kratos has defied destiny before in the past, and perhaps while it ended with his victory, an entire realm was destroyed along with anything that he ever held dear. Instead, Kratos wishes for a different path for Atreus, that being staying on your path regardless of any prophecy that is being laid out before you even if it means fulfilling some parts of the prophecy. Kratos and Atreus return the moon to Sköll and Hati not because it would kickstart Ragnarök, but simply because it is the right thing to do. On the contrary, the narrative seems to imply that actively attempting to subvert a prophecy would lead you down a path that paradoxically fulfils what was foretold, such was the case with Freya putting a curse on Baldur so that he does not feel anything and unable to die, but the vengeful wrath that Baldur ended up harbouring towards Freya lead to Baldur perishing all the same. Thus, forging one’s own path — to not let any prophecy dictate your next step — whether for or against but rather steel one’s conviction in taking the next step is the best thing you can hope to do. Indeed, the result of this decision was Ragnarök and the destruction of Asgard still ends up happening but the rest of the details are different in some ways from the prophecy. While this might lead the audience’s thirst for bloodshed and action to not be fully quenched, it serves the theme that they set laid in stone.
This game’s memorable characters and relationships shine and help to overshadow some of the larger overarching problems I have mentioned before. Freya’s journey of grief and forgiveness towards Kratos for the murder of her son Baldur as she learns of Kratos’s good intentions and the larger threat of Odin might seem shaky at first but establishes itself firmly as the game progresses. She finds much to live for and redirects her vengeance to Odin instead of Kratos for being the true puppet master behind all of the sufferings that everyone in the nine realms is going through. Mimir (Alastair Duncan) is Kratos’s brother and advisor, but he too sees his darker past revealed with the Lyngbakr storyline, a creature he enslaves, to be used for oil for Odin’s lantern. His betrayal against the dwarves and overall misdeeds under Odin’s leadership yet haunt him and he tries to make amends. A highlight of the game in terms of performance is Sindri (Adam John Harrington) and Brok (Robert Craighead), the Dwarven blacksmith brothers who seemed more like comic reliefs and sidekicks in the previous game; stereotypical dwarves following dwarven tropes that only served as the game’s shops and helpers. And thus I applaud Ragnarök for making them more central to the game’s narrative. Sindri has kept a dark secret, that Brok’s workshop accident was no mere accident but rather Brok did indeed die and Sindri revived him through elven means that left his soul incomplete. After finally reconciling this secret with one another, Brok dies under the hand of Odin disguised as Tyr. Sindri is broken beyond belief, his grief causes him to not care anymore about his germophobe tendencies, and berates Atreus for taking everything away from him. At the end of the game, Sindri is damaged and downright terrifying. His actions seem unpredictable and dangerous, and it is still left open to interpretation whether he would arise once more as an ally or a foe in future instalments.
The Nine Realms Realized
As we start to discuss the gameplay experience of God of War Ragnarök and the world that Sony Santa Monica has crafted, the summary would simply be that it improves everything from the previous game in all aspects and add even more. It is a tremendous achievement in design and how it feels to play. We at Broadly Specific tend to focus more on the narrative aspect of games as we have traditionally covered storytelling in cinema, but the gameplay and the world itself serve the narrative of this game and thus can be talked about alongside one another. Indeed, if we consider Alfred Hitchcock’s belief in the concept of ‘pure cinema’ —the notion of quintessentially unique features of cinema due to the medium’s raw materials and worship of visual storytelling — we should consider features unique to video game storytelling as well. Of course, any notion of purity would be accompanied by impurities; theatrical and novelistic approaches to cinema are still utilized in combination with purely visual storytelling (in which the extreme end of the scale is something like silent films). Cutscenes in video games employ this cinematic approach to storytelling, providing a fixed camera through a lens controlled by a director, with characters played by voice actors in a scene with elements of Mise-en-scène and actor blocking still at play. On the other end of the scale, we have From Software’s Souls games, which mostly purely rely on worldbuilding and environmental storytelling to tell a narrative. God of War Ragnarök lies somewhere in between, but also employs other manners of storytelling in the gameplay and world. In essence, I wrote this paragraph to establish that since this is our first-ever video game review and essay, we will approach gameplay in conjunction with storytelling, albeit it doesn’t discount discussing gameplay from a purely intuitive approach; we simply think there are better reviewers and outlets that do a much better job at that, and our manner of writing video games is different.
One could say there is no God of War without its fast, adrenaline-infused combat. God of War Ragnarök improves virtually every aspect of the previous game’s combat, reusing most of its core combat loop while adding new ways of engaging with your tools of destruction. The weapons feel alive, an extension of Kratos. With each stab and slash, I feel the weight of the weapons going through the enemy’s flesh and extinguishing their existence. I completed the game at the second-highest difficulty (Give Me No Mercy) and while it was challenging, the satisfying nature of the combat is too addicting for any death to dissuade me from besting my foes. The much-improved enemy variety also forces me to never adapt too quickly to a single type of enemy. Each encounter feels tailored to the given environment and scenarios. The boss fights also pose a real challenge and require real feats to conquer; the Berserkers that exist throughout the nine realms act as benchmarks for to what extent the players master the combat. The companions — namely Atreus and Freya — also provide not only support but an additional layer of combos one could pull off, and their area-of-effect skills also act as escape buttons for when you are surrounded or close to death. A complaint I have heard about these companions is how they never shut up, even during combat. They will warn you about enemies attacking you or if you have any status effects afflicting you. I personally tend to not notice these dialogues during combat, and I see no real problem story-wise if these characters do not turn into mindless game AIs the second combat is triggered, but rather react to the situation.
Indeed, such is the case that the overall negative discourse about the game is the occasionally overbearing nature of the NPC dialogue during combat or puzzles. As I mentioned before, I tend to not mind it as I am a gamer that revels in the story, perhaps from my background as a film enthusiast first. However, I would like to make the argument that with the push towards accessibility in gaming, and with how companies are essentially bidding for your attention and time in a period where you could be doing something else, big expansive games might have mechanics that help push you along and make sure you complete the game. God of War Ragnarök currently sits at a 24.8% completion rate amongst its player base, a rather high figure in a game of its nature. But I realise this is essentially a corporate, marketing argument. Creatively, I understand why such a push against games that hold the hands of their players less exists. A solution should exist in the availability of options and indeed, unlike a film where there is only one method to experience the medium and that is to watch them (unless you are visually impaired, in that case through the audio), video games offer the possibility of tailoring one’s own experience to suit different needs. While I argue this did not detract from the experience at all and puzzles are not really what I seek in a God of War game, I understand people’s preference for a purer cognitive experience. There is much to discuss in this field, and the reason why it has been in the discourse so much is the fatigue of so-called “Western” game design, but a deeper dive here would detract from this review and we may get into that some other time.
The glorious ancient vistas of the nine realms are finally laid bare in this game. With many of the realms locked in the previous game, we can finally visit all nine realms — albeit some with more exploration than others — and truly explore these large, essentially open-world zones that will keep you distracted during the main story and preoccupied after the ending of the game. There are entire large zones that are optional and missable if you do not seek them out; zones with their own enemies, quests and story. Although the zones do feel like miniaturized theme park versions of the realms, they still offer many activities, sometimes to a fault. Some of my most hated features in any game are collectables that require backtracking and mindless reading of guides. And such is the case with Odin’s ravens, making a return from the previous game along with other new forms of collectables. Nevertheless, if one is not a completionist then it is something one can choose to not concern themselves with. Other things will consume your attention, for instance, the beautiful art direction of the world is truly a sight to behold. Stories and cultures; of conflicts and Odin’s imperialism are etched in poetry, carvings and architecture. While I would have wished to see these realms at their most populous and prosperous, the derelict sights offer sentimental empathy for the plights of the people and further motivation to defeat Odin.
The exploration of the game is accompanied by tales and dialogue between Kratos, Mimir and any other accompanying characters. I would argue some of the game’s pivotal points of character development occur during these “boat rides”. Kratos and Freya’s journey of reconciliation occurs mostly in these gameplay dialogues. Atreus’s relationship with his father Kratos is also at its most lighthearted and perhaps even nuanced when he asks Kratos about tales from his pasts, of the things he has learned that can be passed on. A parent-child relationship should not purely be portrayed in cutscenes and set pieces, after all, the curiosity of the son and the wisdom of Kratos (and uncle Mimir) ought to be displayed in non-consequential conversations and tales spun when they are at ease, away from the conflict. In this sense, one of video games’ unique features in storytelling comes to light. As games are not limited to moments of narrative importance but rather allow the mundane to shine, and for interactivity to accompany storytelling. In these moments, the players may feel not like a reader, but like another person sitting alongside these characters listening to these stories. There are other examples like this, and it truly does feel like there is not a single moment where you do not experience some sort of storytelling in some way in this game.
God of War Ragnarök is a game that will be remembered for decades to come, a blockbuster that stands at the precipice of a classic and an essential example of video games as art. Despite its shortcomings in falling into game design tropes that take away agency or fluidity, as well as overarching narrative imperfections, this game is a momentous achievement in large-scale game development and video game as a storytelling medium.
God of War Ragnarök: Open Your Heart – A Deep Dive Review
God of War: Ragnarök is a momentous achievement in gaming, with gameplay that improves on all aspects of the 2018 soft reboot and a fully-realized nine realms that are teeming with culture, history and exploration. Despite drawbacks in the manner in which the game presents its overarching narrative — partially due to its conviction in ending the Norse saga with this game — Ragnarök offers a sentimental, nuanced and poignant story that allows some of the best character developments seen in gaming.
A nuanced story with memorable, lovable characters
A fully realized nine realms teeming with history and worldbuilding
Engaging combat that improves on existing franchise fundamentals
Beautifully-directed cutscenes and a mastery of the continuous one take camera
Fetch side quests and mindless collectables that would inevitably require external guides
Story threads that are either left up in the air or some elements still leaves me wanting