I enjoyed playing through God of War Ragnarok, until about the beginning of the third act. The whole game, you’re sort of waiting for it to get serious, to stop placing you and identical realms from the last game which themselves are almost identical, functionally and visually, to each other, beyond some variation in color and particle effects. In many ways, I spent the entire day of God of War Ragnarok waiting for it to start.
They were little signs, along the way of course, that I was perhaps headed in a disappointing direction.
The game’s bizarre choice to have some characters speaking in modern dialogue, dropping millennialisms like it’s a Marvel movie, only really becomes distracting once the story arbitrarily introduces six characters at once, as a kind of ersatz rebel alliance. Then it becomes overwhelming, especially as characters repeatedly melodramatically speak of war, even though the ultimate conflict in the game appears to be between about 40 people on both sides, taking place in one battle.
As you crest the second half of the game, the cracks become more obvious. It begins repeating melodramatic, over long emotional beats, reaffirming again and again that Kratos and his son love each other and trust each other, even to the point that it begins to deflate the dramatic tension of the story. The game‘s theme, which is spelled out repeatedly as “people can change and not be held back by the chains of the past“ starts to be played on a megaphone, with Mimir endlessly monologuing about what a bad guy he used to be, and other characters constantly shitting on him, until he inevitably reaffirmed that he will be better and put things right. The first time this happens it’s touching.
And then it starts to happen with almost every character you meet.
The Thor family drama is similarly painful to watch; they mix a weirdly sincere attempt at showing an alcoholic dad with a wildly fun barroom brawl, and Thors daughter, a chipper Saturday morning cartoon main character, gives him one of the most agonizing to listen to interventions perhaps in the entire history of fiction. Thors wife is by far the most underserved and underutilized, with her character arc being incoherent; she goes from in one scene urging Thor to kill Atreus, to in literally her next scene urging her daughter to team up with Atreus.
The over the shoulder camera technique, with no cuts, at first is immersive, but as the dialogue and emotional beats get thinner and thinner as the game progresses, it begins to become punishing. This is most agonizing during a prolonged sequence in which Kratos tells Atreus a bedtime story, then proceeds to have a dream with absolutely no new expository information. The sequence is like five minutes long and you can’t skip it. It’s a sign of what’s. to come.
The final portion of the game though, it descends into madness, and not the fun God of War 4 kind.
Characters like Freyr and Thor die not only with no plot significant consequences, in moments that are rushed through, but also entirely without being being mourned. Ragnarok, revealed to be a trope fire giant of the sort we’ve killed a dozen of in the God of war franchise, and nothing more epic or interesting, has almost no meaningful effects on the plot. Mjolnir, for all the cinematic focus it’s given, is literally left sitting on the ground.
The final sequence of events of the game, emotionally, feature Atreus, a character who has been killing with impunity, who has stabbed begging men in the neck with a knife, suddenly become horrified by the idea that occasionally innocent people die in war.
I repeat: the God of War video game, technically the sixth God of War video game, actually the seventh God of War video game, features a character who has been in a previous God of War video game who is shocked that people die in war.
A battle that has been foretold for centuries but goes on less than 10 minutes and immediately ends.
Weirder still: this all works out, and it’s barely an inconvenience. The dramatic weight present early in the game evaporates at the titular Ragnarok, the depth and complexity into that by the first act is skewed in favor of a fairly down the middle final sequence of events.
The boss of the original god of war was Ares, who transformed into a giant spider monster and made you fight hundreds of versions of yourself as they tried to murder hallucinations of your dead wife and daughter. Then you ascend to the throne of God of war and see that throughout all human history people worshiped Kratos.
The boss of the second God of war with Zeus, who grows to Godzilla size and then confronts you as a human sized enemy. When he shrinks down to human size, Kratos accidentally murders Athena, his only ally. Zeus escapes, and the game ends on one of the best known cliffhangers in video games, with Kratos leading the titans against Olympus.
God of War 3’s climax features a fight on top of Olympus with both Zeus and Gaia, eventually fighting Zeus inside of Gaia, at the end of a rampage that has essentially destroyed Kratos entire culture and possibly the entirety of the world.
In god of war Ragnarok you triple team an old man in a basement. He is a normal size old man who is *almost* as hard as some of the other bad guys who have fought in the game.
It is here that the game makes its most egregious crime against the audience. In the previous god of war, the most important new lore element introduced was the idea of multiple pantheons. Kratos having murdered all of the Greek gods was presented as now, a small part of a larger story, including not only the Norse gods but also implied to feature Egyptian gods, Chinese gods, and maybe even more. This lore element was connected to a character called Tyr, long missing. When marketing revealed that Tyr would be in God of War Ragnarok, it was not unreasonable to assume that he would bring with him this expanded law, and perhaps it was likely the game would even feature gods from other pantheons.
What is the game progresses, tear becomes less and less of an important element, and the mystery is instead centered around a glowing green mask held by Odin, through which one can see “the truth of creation.” What this means is never explored; the mask is revealed to be a MacGuffin and the entire storyline is revealed to have been a waste of time.
In what feels like a savage fuck you to the audience, Atreus tears apart the mystical mask, the only remaining point of interest in the plot. Then he defeats Odin by putting his soul in a marble, a piece of giant magic that is never explored, and the only time it is interfaces with elsewhere in the game involves a large snake that is never seen again.
At this point the game had already lost me, but then the actual saccharine, melodramatic, painfully on the nose stuff begins, as you walk through a Unstoppable sequence of characters giving you compliments and telling you you’re a good boy. You’ve spent so much time being told you’re a good boy that at this point it begins to feel like the creative team is purging some sort of demon in their relationship with their parents.
Do we really need to be told we are a good boy by every character in a row? Shouldn’t the decision to have torn the masking part been left up to the audience? The gamer, rather? Isn’t this whole game supposed to be about your choices defining who you are instead of your past? And then I reliably watch other characters make the most important decisions in the game?
It’s never fully clear what the meaning was of the contradictory prophecies, or the dire warning from the norns. Kratos just sort of doesn’t die, and instead the final battle is: surprise, button mashing on a human sized opponent in a fight less interesting and less complicated than any God fight ending sequence in any God of War game.
My last thought involves the giants and gods.
In Norse culture, the giant mythology was based primarily on the idea that at some point in the distant past, giant people existed. Whenever ancient Norse would see a large structure, usually something built by their own more technologically advanced and organized forbearers, they would presume wrongly that it had been built by giants.
However, since the structures often had people-sized elements to them, like doorways or windows, Norse mythology about how big the Giants actually were is extremely variable. God of War chooses to address this in the weirdest way possible, by using the word “giant“ as a catchall for everything it doesn’t want to explain. It leans into this too, refusing to elaborate, showing giants has 40 mile long snake monsters, 300 foot tall humans, 40 foot tall humans, normal sized humans, various animals, and also little balls.
It uses the giant mythology so elastically and so freely that one could assume that, since the Giants are part of an important prophecy in the game, this bizarre re-definition of “giants“ as “everything that isn’t a God but seems like one,” is going somewhere. Shirley this is all going to pay off somehow, right?
Spoiler: it isn’t.
Similarly, the Norse gods are, in the mechanics of the world of the game, a total question mark. There seem to be extremely few normal people living in this universe, most of them seemingly already dead. The gods themselves are here portrayed as just sort of… Rich people? Lords and Dukes with superhuman powers, and not much else, ruling over populations of less than five hundred people in a few very small towns.
It’s in investigating the giants and the gods that we realize how truly hollow the mythology of the recent games have been; especially when compared to the gods of the previous God of War games, whose deaths caused massive disasters all over the world.
There are no big twists. What should be the biggest twist of the game, the reveal that Tyr was Odin in disguise, is hollow. Odin achieves nothing by revealing this, the death of the ridiculous cartoon voiced cartoon looking blue dwarf is a thudding, hollow emotional moment, made worse by the fact that his brother, Sindri, the one mourning him, is one of the ugliest visual designs and worst voice acting characterizations in recent memory.
It is a game where very little happens. All of its big tricks seem to be leaving somewhere, but at the end, they aren’t. Nothing is leading anywhere. It’s a game where you run around identical empty feeling color swapped maps fighting legions of near identical color swapped. enemies until finally the thing in the title happens and it lasts 10 minutes.
God of War Ragnarok achieves the impossible: it makes God of War feel small. Not intimate, not focused, just small.