In 2018, Sony Santa Monica Studio created one of the best mixes of combat and storytelling ever made: God of War. God of War Ragnarok has a lot to live up to and so far I’m happy to say that I’m loving the opening moments. I’ve had the opportunity to play through the first 5 or so hours and it has delivered an engaging, emotional story with portions of Kratos violently ripping things in half sprinkled in during the touching opening moments.

If you’re unfamiliar with what took place in the 2018 God of War or just want a refresher, there’s a bite-sized recap available at the main menu. This has become a tradition for PlayStation games that I hope continues. I prefer blocking out a long period of time to dive into a new game I’m excited for (like God of War Ragnarok) and having that synopsis gives us a reminder of the tone the original left off with as I start this new adventure.

And that tone, for Kratos and Atreus, is one of understanding and care between them. Today they have a common goal of survival and are working to stay safe during the 3 year long Fimbulwinter. During the opening scenes of Ragnarok, it’s clear that Atreus is a very different person than his father. He takes more time to interact with animals they encounter, like the wolves who pull their sled, or an octopus that sends him off with a gift. He even chooses to approach a situation that his father clearly had other ideas about in his own way as Kratos tries to advise him, using his past experiences as a lesson. Atreus has matured a lot in Ragnarok and you’ll literally hear that maturation from the first time he speaks.

The differences in personalities strike a wonderful balance between Atreus and Kratos. Atreus wants to explore and uncover the mysteries of the world, whereas Kratos seems content keeping his head down, and more importantly, keeping his son safe. He struggles to admit that maybe he could learn a thing or two from his son, and it also seems he’ll need to learn to trust Atreus’ instincts on their journey together.

Atrus is getting older and with that age he is becoming more independent. You can tell he respects his father, but doesn’t always agree with how he approaches things. It feels like their relationship has been solidified in the time since the 2018 God of War, but hiding away in a snowy space protected by magic trees is enough to make anyone want to get out and explore. The primary danger they have looming at the start of Ragnarok is Freya. She’s still mourning the death of Baldur and seems inconsolable while also understandably furious about the death of her son. It becomes clear that the safe haven this father and son have created won’t remain so for much longer.

To tell the story of this duo, the entire playthrough of Ragnarok again brings back the continuous camera shot. We are told by God of War Ragnarok’s Animation Director Bruno Velasquez that this is “so that the player feels that they’re going along on that journey with Kratos and Atreus and you never leave their side.” I’s tremendously successful at doing exactly that. Not only are you invested in each moment but a shouted “lookout” or “shield bash now” during combat can be the difference between life and death.

Velasquez tells us “We try to approach God of War Ragnarok with ‘the story never really ends.’ So you’re always being told a story even through combat, even throughout the encounters, dialogue that happens between the characters outside of combat and the cinematics while you’re exploring. So we just always think the story should never really end. There shouldn’t be a clear divide. So by having that approach it helps us to sort of blend or string the two together.”

And as expected they’ve succeeded in that goal. It really does begin to feel like you’re on this journey together as the trio almost break the fourth wall by giving you tips on how to pass a particularly difficult fight with their warnings, or tell Norse stories as you paddle around the Aurvangar Wetlands of Svartalfheim.

Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir do explore new areas like the warmer European climate found in the wetlands, and the Jarnsmida Pitmines as they search for Tyr. The Wetlands are the first time Ragnarok really opens up and allows you to look around. You’re able to go directly to the next story beat as clearly indicated by a large yellow icon beckoning you to continue, or get lost on various side tasks as indicated by bright blue icons across the map. There are collectibles to find like the Eyes of Odin Ravens which make a return, combat-focused Dragur Holes to close, lore, apples, and legendary chests to open that will require some searching to plunder. Oh, and of course plenty of pots to smash for a little extra hacksilver here and there. I admit I also smashed many pumpkins I found in the wetlands, but mostly just because they make a cool squishy sound when destroyed.

You know what else makes a cool squishy sound? A new Draugr mini-boss is known as the Hateful as I dismembered its carcass after a battle. And thankfully that won’t always mean Kratos is using his hands or Blades to do said dismembering because the team has now added weapon-specific finishers.

“That’s one of the biggest pieces of feedback we got from the previous game.” Bruno tells us. “So for the first time ever in a God of War game, we were able to have weapon-specific kills. So in the previous games, you would always default back to the Blades of Chaos, or Kratos would just use his hands. But this time around if you have the Axe equipped, or if you have the Blades equipped you’re going to get a different kill. And we added a few different types for each of the enemy varieties as well.”

And the Hateful is just one of the new mini-bosses you’ll find at those Dragur holes. These can be discovered if you like to go off the beaten path like I do. If I know there’s a story beat coming you’d better believe I’m going the opposite way to get every little item I can find first. And because I opted to play on the hardest difficulty this has already gotten me into trouble with tougher enemies from time to time.

Playing through on the Give Me God of War setting is not for the faint of heart. Any mistake was met with a massive chunk of health evaporating, or a meeting from my old friend, the “try again” screen. However, it also forces you to take your time, consider how every encounter unfolds, what armor you select, and what shield will work best when perfecting your parries. Getting through an island unscathed is exhilarating. If you’re going to jump in on this difficulty like I did, Bruno had a few combat tips to share.

“In God of War Ragnarok, now we have a lot more traversal and mobility that can be used in combat as well. So you can grapple up to ledges and pull yourself up which adds more verticality to the combat. And that obviously is an inspiration from the previous games where Kratos could do that before. We wanted to draw inspiration from those old games and see how we can bring back some of those fan-favorite moves.”

One blessing that made this difficulty setting a bit more bearable was the midpoint boss battle checkpoints that show you mercy if you’re able to get to the second or third phase of a fight. Additionally, if you’ve managed to clear a checkpoint and are low on health, Kratos will be gifted with just enough to stop the rapid heartbeat noise of near death and allow you some time to find health scattered on the ground.

And in just this short time alone we faced off against several bosses including a very large, very angry Bear, a ferociously large Lizard that spews area of effect lighting attacks at you, the Hateful mini-bosses who utilize fire and will burn through your lifebar in a blink, and none other than an Odinson himself – Thor.

The Thor fight was amazing. From his bravado throughout the entire encounter, to the way he taunts Kratos the fight was a highlight and did not disappoint. To keep it somewhat spoiler free by focusing on the attacks I’ll say that it wasn’t too tough to get past, that the moves with the hammer were a lot of fun to dodge, and the thunderous slaps were a lot of fun to parry and follow up with a heavy attack to Thor’s noggin.

Every fight presents its own challenge, but my reward is getting the timing right and figuring out how to conquer each boss’s unique moveset. Part of that planning includes choosing the best skills to help you along the way. The new skill menu has you unlocking abilities for the Leviathan Axe, Blades of Chaos and Atreus with the XP you’ve gained along the way. These will increase your effectiveness in combat and one fun addition is that these abilities level up the more time you use them. For example my Freezing Throw is silver for the Leviathan Axe, but my Frost Rush attack is still bronze. And one thing I love to see is the option to disable skills if they are causing you grief by messing up your flow in combat. Pro tip: Do not sleep on leveling up Atreus. His Sonic arrows are legendary as they’ll stop enemies dead in their tracks or prevent them from powering up to the next difficulty tier.

Another part of the combat planning puzzle is what you choose to wield as Kratos and what you don’t when it comes to your weapons. For example, the Leviathan Axe has attachments you can choose like the Furious Maul that adds a Luck stat which will grant the gift of strength on any Axe Kill. The Blades of Chaos have Deadly Obsidian Handles that have a Low Luck chance to grant a rage burst on any blade kill. And those are just two of the options that we’ve found so far for the weapons. There are also different shields to choose that react much differently in combat and do a great job of lending to your playstyle.

The Dauntless Shield, my personal favorite, is considered high-risk high reward as you’ll need to perfect your parry timing, but if you do so you’ll be able to double tap the parry button and return that energy to your foe for a massive hit of stun damage. Inversely there’s the Stone Wall Shield that will absorb attacks if you use the regular block as opposed to the parry, and once charged up will return those strikes as a blast of damage to enemies nearby.

And finally let’s not forget the fashion game. For Chest Armor Kratos had the Fortified Husk Cuirass that made it so Blocks and Parries had a moderate Luck chance to empower Kratos’ next attack to strike with a damaging explosion. A big hit at the Draugr hole shutting party let me tell you. There was also Vidar’s Pauldron of Might that gave Combo Finishers a High Luck chance to increase Kratos’ Strength and Stagger Resistance for a set duration of time.

On the wrist I had found the Fortified Husk Arm Guards that reduced damage from unblockable attacks and attacks from behind while blocking. Vidar’s Bracers of Might again did increased damage on combo finishers. On the waist we had a Fortified Husk Girdle that reduced damage from unblockable attacks and attacks from behind while blocking. Vidar’s Belt of Might that also did increased damage on combo finishers. Just by taking a look at these armor and weapon stats you can start to imagine that there are a lot of ways to approach your build. Do you go for more damage or play it safe and wear something that helps empower your more defensive blocks and parries? It’s just the right amount of RPG without being too overwhelming. And all of the garb you wear is important as it also helps you build toward your playstyle and each piece has its own strength or defense stats to consider as you level them up.

There are important options to consider for combat. You can build toward damage, stun attacks, runic attacks, or defense, and these are pivotal decisions you’ll need to make as you manage the resources. I have been building toward parries and stuns which Velasquez points out is a great option for a player.

“You can actually finish enemies much faster if you stun them and then get to the finisher quicker. So again it’s offering more options to the player. Some things will allow you to do more damage, some will allow you to do more stun. So it’ll be fun for the players to see what playstyle they pick and what they gravitate towards.”

While it’s not for everyone, I love playing God of War this way. The combat continues to be masterful in Ragnarok and using all the abilities at your disposal is the difference between life and death. Shoot arrows from Atreus to stop bosses from leveling up, be sure to swap from your axe to the blades for effective area of effect flame damage, and leverage the new option of climbing vertically when an annoying acid-spitting Grim or Nightmare won’t get off your case. Grim’s are a new projectile-spewing toad-like enemy that I particularly enjoyed watching Kratos dispatch in new and gory ways.

One of the key elements to my build though, is Atreus. His arrows do a lot more than just stack stun damage as I had unlocked several abilities for him that made him a much stronger ally in a fight. Sonic Arrows will create a vortex that causes opponents to float in mid-air leaving them more vulnerable to stun. In battle Atreus is not afraid to throw a punch or two of his own either.

“This time we wanted to expand his repertoire and show that he’s more of a seasoned fighter now that he’s been training with Kratos for 3 years during Fimbulwinter. So we actually added a lot of melee moves for him as well. So that when you’re near the enemy it doesn’t feel like he’s only relying on his arrows. So then we have a lot of cool melee moves. He still jumps on the enemies and holds them like in 2018, and there are options there where we allow Kratos to even command him a little bit more than he did in 2018. So I think just the fact that he has both range and close-up melee, it allows us to sort of make it feel more natural that he’s collaborating and helping Kratos during the fights.”

As I reach the end of my preview window I’m left eager to continue my journey with Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir. I’m incredibly excited by what lies in store for the team on the road ahead. I hope I’ve left you eager to hear more and you will on Thursday, November 3 at 9:00AM PDT / 12:00PM EDT / 4:00PM GMT / 5:00PM CEST when our reviewer posts his thoughts here on IGN. In the meantime, I’ve got a few more enemies to dismember with glee.

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