When it comes to the best of the best for 2022, as it stands Elden Ring is running away with the title. FromSoftware's latest creation seems to be unanimously the 'game of the year' so far, but there is hope that a challenger is out there. In a true heavyweight battle, Santa Monica Studios' God of War: Ragnarök is looking to throw its name in the ring for the award. As to whether it can not only achieve such a feat or even live up to its predecessor, well... after spending the last few weeks with the game, I can safely say it can do both.
Picking up a few years after the 2018 soft reboot of the series, both in a narrative and literal sense, in this title we see a more matured Kratos and Atreus continuing to survive in a harsh Midgard that has been overwhelmed by the chilling and frosty Fimbulwinter, a seemingly endless winter that started when the god Baldur was slain. The father and son duo are of course older, and as I mentioned in my recent preview, have a more defined and connected relationship. The pair understand each other better and work as a team more efficiently, and this can be seen in a plethora of ways, be it combat, exploration, or just how the two interact. Years of facing the frosty embrace of Midgard, the constant jabs from the goddess Freya - who is rageful and seeking revenge against Kratos for taking the life of her son - and the frequent attacks from raider parties have forced the two to become closer than ever, and in Kratos' sense, more protective of his son.
The prophecy discovered at the end of the 2018 game weighs on the old Spartan's mind, and piques the interest of the young Atreus (or Loki as the Giants and Asgardians refer to him), to the point where the pair, after a destructive visit from Odin and Thor at the beginning of the story, head out across the Nine Realms in search of answers. Needless to say, this takes the duo, and the collection of allies they amassed from the former journey (including the talking head of Mimir) to all kinds of new places, to meet new characters and to discover harrowing truths that will all lead to an all-out war coined and defined by the game's very title: Ragnarök.
Upon starting God of War: Ragnarök, you may notice that unlike the 2018 title that severely changed how we see a God of War game, this feels instantly familiar. And that's because it is. Santa Monica Studio has cut away at the core progression elements that made the first game, and allowed Kratos and Atreus to keep many of the upgrades and tools that they collected from prior adventures. The Leviathan Axe is of course back, the Blades of Chaos are available from the start, Mimir accompanies you and provides insightful tales and stories everywhere Kratos goes, and all the other tools you earned pop up as well, such as the Chisel to open certain door types. This all means that you can focus on honing your skills from minute one, instead of always expecting something new to be offered up to allow you to reach new areas. That's not say that this sort of thing doesn't happen, because it does, and whether it's Atreus being equipped with Sonic Arrows to shatter green metals, Kratos getting a new tool to help him face some new threats, or even Ghost of Sparta getting extra ways to use Spartan Rage, you're always presented with methods to expand gameplay options.
But it does feel like enhanced gameplay is taking a bit of a backseat in favour of narrative depth. That might sound like a negative factor, and for a lot of games it probably is, but for God of War: Ragnarök it never comes across like that. This is due to the fact that this tale that Santa Monica Studio is spinning is enthralling all the way through. Between the main plot thread that is all about subverting and overcoming Ragnarök itself, all the way to the side quests, and the tiniest tales that the characters tell each other when outside of combat encounters, it's all truly elite. You'll never want to step away from the game, as there's always some interesting and unique story that just works to highlight and elevate the profile of a character, be it learning about Freya and Odin's marriage, Tyr's adventures, the intricacies of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, from its caretaker Ratatoskr, or even Kratos' past for those who missed the original slate of games. It's a marvel of storytelling and narrative craftsmanship.
So while the gameplay does feel very similar - granted that's not necessarily a bad thing, as Santa Monica Studio are experts at creating top-notch brawling action gameplay - you can feel at every turn that the utmost care has been designated in building and bringing to life the world. And that seeps into the exploration elements, as each of the respective Realms encourage you to wander off the beaten path, to take on side quests, find collectibles, destroy luminous Odin's Ravens, and face hidden bosses and foes that will use every trick in the book to put you in your place. There is truly so much to do, and pretty much all of it feels rewarding and engaging, even if some of the combat scenarios are challenging and will likely see you having to replay them time and time again to learn the attack chains and to overcome the foes that stand in front of you. It's a test at times for sure, but just like with action-RPG games, when you do beat a tough adversary, the feeling of accomplishment is that much sweeter.
There are some areas that I'm less keen on. The customisation suite can feel a little too complex for its own good. Some of the minor improvements and upgrades that gear offers can feel so minute and difficult to fathom that it makes you question why a game of such narrative excellence needs to feature such a convoluted armour and weapon suite, especially when considering the skill trees, which are defined, clear, and incredibly easy to understand and master. I've often resorted to just choosing the gear with the best stats, because it feels like you need a Masters degree in statistics or a jam-packed spreadsheet to crunch the numbers to really determine what best suits your playstyle and what's worth upgrading. The game would just be that bit better if this element was toned down.
Otherwise, I have found some frustration in some of the exploration offerings. Namely the times when you'll come across a very high-level foe that the game clearly expects you to face at a later date, but still puts it in a position for you to tackle early on. It feels... unnecessary. And this isn't helped by the strange decision to continue to see Kratos unable to passively heal outside of combat, which often means it's more beneficial to die at the start of a fight to get any missing health back.
But as you can see these are generally minor problems in the grand scheme of things. God of War: Ragnarök excels in pretty much every aspect. The gameplay and combat is superbly fluid and intricately designed, all of which is bolstered by the PS5's ability to offer up firm 60 FPS gameplay, or even 120 FPS if you have the gear to support that. The visual offering is also fantastic and top-notch, with some of the most striking vistas and vibrant locations I've seen in a long time in gaming. Whether it's the fiery land of Muspelheim, the ancient deserts of Alfheim, the lush jungles of Vanaheim, everywhere you go feels unique and expertly crafted, and it all makes you want to get lost in the Realms, even if the dangers they foster tell you otherwise.
If it wasn't for the very clear, overlapping similarities with the incredible 2018 game, then I would probably dub this a true masterpiece. The quality of narrative is near unmatched, the combat and gameplay elements still excellent, the art design and visual offering remarkable. Santa Monica Studio has not disappointed again, and there's no denying that God of War: Ragnarök is one of the year's top games, perhaps even the very best.