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God of War Ragnarok’s exploration is so good I’ve barely started the story

There’s a lot to praise in 2018’s God of War, but one of its best features came from its semi-open world design. Players could traverse Midgar via boat to discover hidden areas, complete sidequests, and fight new enemies. The more players progressed, the more areas opened up for Kratos and Atreus to explore.

After playing about seven hours of God of War Ragnarök, the sequel to God of War, I can tell you that Santa Monica Studio has only doubled down on that aspect. In fact, I’ve done so much side exploration so far that I’ve barely even kicked off its story.

While much of God of War Ragnarök might feel familiar to returning players, exploration is where I’m noticing the most change so far. It gives me more freedom to tackle side objectives near the start of the journey, making it easier to soak in Kratos’ world before getting into the meat of his adventure.

God of puzzles

After some story scenes at the very beginning of God of War Ragnarök (which I won’t spoil), we find Kratos and Atreus traveling through the realm of Svartalfheim. Using a boat similar to the ones our protagonists used in the first game to navigate around Midgard, I began rowing across different parts of Svartalfheim, poking around for optional things to do.

And there’s a lot.

One of the sidequests I tackled involved shutting down three separate gantries scattered around Svartalfheim, which would lessen the pollution around the realm. Each of the three gantries incorporated hydraulic lifts into its variety of puzzles. Similar to the first game, Kratos would sometimes have to use his frozen Leviathan ax to keep gear in place with ice while he jumps across a large rock.

I experienced a new flavor of puzzle too, which had me freezing geysers so that the pressure would cause water to gush out of another geyser elsewhere. The resulting water would get the turbine underneath to move, opening up something like a gate to the next area.

God of War Ragnarok Atreus
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The puzzles I’ve run into so far are perfectly balanced: not too simple, not overly challenging. Admittedly, there were a few times when I got stuck, as it wasn’t always entirely clear what I needed to do to progress a certain puzzle. In one instance, I didn’t realize that my Leviathan ax could also freeze water gushing out of pipes too. Once I figured that part out, the rest of that particular puzzle clicked into place. Sometimes I had to just try random things like throwing my weapon at an object in order to activate Atreus’ dialogue hints, which would give me a bit of guidance on how to solve the puzzle.

Luckily, moments like that are helped along by the game’s suite of accessibility options. Building upon the excellent work that The Last of Us Part II and Horizon Forbidden West began, God of War Ragnarök has some great tools here. I absolutely love the option to have Kratos automatically pick up every single item off the ground, including health stones, resources, and loot outside of combat. It takes something I find tedious out of the game, and I get to make that decision for myself.

My favorite accessibility feature in Sony’s recent games is always the high-contrast mode, and that returns here. In God of War Ragnarök, you’re able to tweak different aspects to which you want to apply contrast. For me, I set the game’s interactable objects to the color blue. So whenever I get stuck on a puzzle, I’d be able to more easily figure out what I’m able to interact with in order to solve it.

Sail away

In God of War, boat banter was an integral part of the game. Kratos and Atreus would have casual conversations about events while sailing around. If you had interrupted them by docking at a shore, they would make a mental note to pick up the topic again once you arrived at the boat again. Excitingly, boat banter is back in Ragnarök and it’s just as enjoyable as before.

I loved getting to hear more chats between Kratos and Atreus, but Mimir is an early favorite. The God of Wisdom’s vast knowledge of Norse mythology made for some fascinating world-building conversations in the previous game while the crew was just sailing from place to place, and the same is true here. He’s with you from the start this time, and the conversations this time around are just as funny and entertaining as before.

One of my favorite interactions came when Mimir asked Kratos if he ever considered cooking food with his Blades of Chaos, given that they could be used for something like kitchen knives. Kratos says no as it would ruin the meat and Mimir further asks why. Kratos responds with “because of the blood on the blades,” to which Mimir simply replies along the lines of, “Ah OK, carry on then!”

It’s these little conversations during the downtime between combat and exploration that add a lot of personality to God of War Ragnarök. There were many points where I’d avoid docking my boat just so I could let the crew finish their current conversation.

God of War Ragnarok boat
Image used with permission by copyright holder

As for the story itself so far, it’s too early to determine how the fateful destruction of the world, Ragnarök, will play out. Atreus has always been inquisitive, and he’s even more so this time around. He wants to seek out how to prevent Ragnarök.

Atreus has grown up a bit now, as evidenced by the fact that his voice is noticeably deeper. It reminds me of the transition between Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II (Sora’s voice actor, Haley Joel Osment, underwent puberty during those first two games). Atreus also exhibits more maturity as he doesn’t seem to be as rash and hot-headed as he was in his first outing. Even so, he still has moments where he talks back to his father when they have a disagreement, but this time in a calmer, if a little bit impatient tone.

The prophecy of Ragnarök states that a major battle will take place that will cause many Norse gods to die — and Kratos and Atreus are at the center of it. There’s no telling where God of War Ragnarök’s story will go. I’ll need to stop my curious joyriding eventually if I want to find out.

I’m glad that God of War Ragnarök opened up its horizons earlier than its predecessor, as I’m already finding its exploration to be a bright spot. There are plenty of new puzzle elements, as well as familiar ones from the previous game, such as the Nornir chests where Kratos has to ring bells with his ax within a time limit to unlock them. Similarly, the combat also opens up early as Kratos gets access to both the Leviathan ax and Blades of Chaos near the start this time. The variety of options the game provides at the beginning already make it feel like a different beast than its predecessor – one I look forward to conquering.

God of War Ragnarök launches on November 9 for PS4 and PS5.

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George Yang
George Yang is a freelance games writer for Digital Trends. He has written for places such as IGN, GameSpot, The Washington…
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