God of War Ragnarok Shows the Power and Limits of the “Bigger” Sequel

God of War: Ragnarok is a testament to the unique power of the biggest Triple-A games. In some ways, though, the game will make you wonder how sequels continue to go "bigger" from here.

God of War Ragnarok
Photo: PlayStation Studios

God of War: Ragnarok will almost certainly go down as one of the best games of 2022, one of the best games in the God of War franchise, and one of PlayStation’s best exclusives in an increasingly impressive library of exclusives. It’s that rare game that both lives up to many expectations and wonderfully defies others.

While there are so many ways that Ragnarok demonstrates why Triple-A sequels are typically among the most anticipated games in a given year, there are other ways that the game exposes the complicated state of the sequel industry.

After all, we’ve expected sequels to be bigger than the original for roughly as long as sequels have existed. That expectation isn’t going anywhere, but even a sequel as brilliant as God of War: Ragnarok shows that the current popular expectations for bigger gaming sequels may be hindering their ability to eventually offer so much more than just “more.”

God of War: Ragnarok Shows Why There Is Sometimes No Substitute For a Truly Beautiful Triple-A Game

We don’t know God of War: Ragnarok’s final budget (yet), but the history of sequels tells us that it probably cost more than its predecessor. Regardless of the final figure, Ragnarok’s exceptional visual design and nearly unrivaled presentation qualities constantly showcase where every dollar went.

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I was worried that Ragnarok’s visuals and performance would suffer slightly from the fact the game still needed to be playable on PS4. While Ragnarok would have obviously been more visually impressive if it was a PS5 exclusive, I’m stunned by just how good this game looks regardless of the platform you pay it on. It’s not only the best-looking PS4 game by some distance; it’s also somehow one of the best-looking PS5 games released so far. 

More importantly, those exceptional technical graphics contribute to some of the best art direction and visual design concepts that you’ll ever be lucky enough to lay your eyes on. That praise obviously extends to “big things” like the way each of Ragnarok’s various realms and many bosses boast distinct (yet equally stunning) design personalities, but this game’s true beauty can be found in its many little things. Every piece of armor, every weapon, every character, and every out-of-the-way place you spend even just a few minutes in feels lovingly crafted by expert hands. 

As we’ve previously discussed, various factors have contributed to the next generation of gaming getting off to a historically slow start. Such times remind us that Triple-A games have the unique ability to demonstrate both the technical wonders of the medium as well as gaming’s artistic potential in ways that even the best smaller titles can’t replicate. Well, Ragnarok is that rare kind of modern Triple-A game that both makes you happy that you invested in that new TV and that more powerful console and allows you to appreciate the evolution of gaming as an art form. 

It’s easy to get a little too hung up on video game graphics from time to time, but a game like God of War: Ragnarok reminds us that truly beautiful games of lesser technical merit can’t quite replicate.

God of War: Ragnarok Is an Intimate Adventure On An Epic Scale

The original God of War trilogy was practically sold on the idea that each game would be significantly larger in scope and more “epic” than the last. 2018’s God of War dialed things back a bit by offering a comparatively intimate adventure that focused more on the personal journeys of its primary characters (though the game was still pretty epic in its own ways). 

Some fans went into Ragnarok wondering if the sequel could possibly find a way to be bigger than the last game while still regaining that slightly more intimate style of storytelling that made its predecessor such a revelation. Against some considerable odds, Ragnarok manages to do just that with relatively few compromises. 

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Ragnarok picks up pretty much where its predecessor left off, which (from the outset) is actually a blessing and a curse. The advantage of that setup is that we get to hop right into the thick of the plot. The potential disadvantage of that setup is the fact that we don’t get as much “ramp-up” time that allows us to slowly emotionally invest in those characters and their situations. There’s a degree to which Ragnarok relies on the idea that we’re already emotionally invested in those things because of the previous games.

While there are times when that disadvantage manifests itself (more on that later), Ragnarok’s writers expertly navigated that complicated storytelling scenario by embracing a slightly more complex and untraditional structure.

Rather than start small and build from there, Ragnarok starts big, continues big, and ends big. That set-up leads to the kinds of epic setpiece moments you’d expect to see in a game like this, but what’s truly impressive are the many ways that Ragnarok’s creative team managed to squeeze so many smaller character moments into the bigger adventure without them feeling forced or interrupting the flow of the game.

Yes, that means we’re treated to a number of incredible interactions between Ragnarok’s characters that help advance their personal arcs and interpersonal relationships, but it’s the way the game utilizes even smaller moments than those that impressed me most. In Ragnarok, incredible little character moments can come in the middle of battle, between missions, and even during hands-off sequences that could have easily been treated as forgettable necessities. The best example of that last category may just be this scene of Atreus trying to open a treasure chest on his own:

Those who go into Ragnarok expecting epic scenes of gods clashing over the fate of many realms will not be disappointed by this game’s biggest moments. I really don’t mean to discredit the impact or craft of those setpiece scenes by so quickly brushing them aside. They’re among the best you’ll find in modern gaming, and they will rightfully be the first things people talk about when they rush to praise this game’s storytelling. 

However, Ragnarok is ultimately the tale of a group of people trying to discover their humanity and purpose in the midst of world-changing events that feel wildly out of their control yet still manage to impact nearly every aspect of their lives. That’s something that I think we can all relate to these days, and those who find a little piece of themselves in one of (or several of) the game’s characters will be hit even harder by their adventures.

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For as great as Ragnarok’s storytelling is, though, those who try to see every bit of narrative this game has to offer may bump up against one of the biggest drawbacks of the sequel’s size…

God of War: Ragnarok’s Gameplay Bloat Can Be an Unfortunate Byproduct of Its Ambition

As we’ve previously discussed, God of War: Ragnarok is not an open-world game. Yet, in the grand tradition of the bigger sequel, it does offer more gameplay distractions and opportunities than its predecessor did. Ragnarok not only features more side missions, more collectibles, and more world navigation sequences than 2018’s God of War, but it allows you to access so many of those activities pretty much out of the gate. 

That’s the biggest problem with Ragnarok’s size and running start. 2018’s God of War did an excellent job of gradually expanding the scope of the game as you played it. Deeper mechanics and new challenges were (mostly) introduced at pivotal moments that made them feel more closely connected to the main story. Because so many of those deeper gameplay mechanics (skill trees, equipment, side quests, etc.) were introduced at appropriate points in the story, they generally felt more significant and it was easier to feel more invested in the time you spent exploring them.

Because Ragnarok gives you so much more to do so much earlier in the game, some of those side activities can sometimes feel more like obligations than adventures you organically feel compelled to embark upon. Yes, many of those adventures are ultimately worth seeking out (some of this game’s side missions are some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory), but the early and middle parts of Ragnarok suffer from that bloat that you get with modern open-world games (even though the game doesn’t quite embrace that exact format).

That lingering obligation to complete yet another in a line of minor mini-map objectives is never as bad as it is in something like an Assassin’s Creed game, but compared to 2018’s God of War, Ragnarok sometimes tries a bit too hard to push and pull you in different directions when you really want to focus on the main narrative. At higher difficulty levels, you may even eventually find it necessary to pursue some of that side content in order to unlock the skills and gear needed to help overcome some of the tougher main story challenges.

That’s a design problem that plagues so many Triple-A games. With higher price tags and bigger budgets comes the general expectation of more content. Ideally, that content would simply give those who wish to get more out of the core adventure the opportunity to stay in this world a little longer. Yet, that side content is sometimes so tightly wrapped around the core adventure that even those who would prefer to ignore it will ultimately find themselves bumping up against it more than they may care to. 

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Even those who welcome the chance to incorporate so many side activities into their playthrough may soon find that Ragnarok sometimes struggles to make the most out of its own ambitions.

God of War: Ragnarok’s Menus Struggle to Support Its RPG Elements

Like so many modern Triple-A games, God of War: Ragnarok features an array of RPG-like mechanics. Skill trees, gear upgrades, enhancements, attachments, crafting materials…Ragnarok is filled with opportunities to grow your character and make them more powerful. Again, those playing on higher difficulties may find that some of those opportunities are closer to a necessity. 

The problem is that so many of those RPG-like mechanics feel at odds with the heart of what makes Ragnarok so special compared to nearly everything else out there. In its best moments, the game offers that aforementioned epically intimate narrative that is often presented via seamless storytelling techniques that keep you in the action. However, that experience is too often interrupted by the need to dive into the game’s menus to pick new skills, swap gear, check a recently discovered item, or even simply consult the game’s map. 

While Ragnarok’s best moments offer nearly unrivaled immersion, those far-too-frequent trips into the games menus and submenus often break that immersion.

Granted, it doesn’t help that the menus themselves are pretty bad. They’re clunky, slow, and they become even more cumbersome as you dive deeper into the aspects of the game those menus are seemingly designed to support. Every new skill, piece of gear, or unearthed piece of lore adds yet another element to an overburdened UI that already conflicts with the heart of the game. 

That same problem affected 2018’s God of War, but those menu struggles and RPG mechanic issues are all the more obvious in this bigger sequel that ultimately relies on them more than its predecessor did. It’s one of those issues that makes you wonder if the Ragnarok team felt more of an obligation to go bigger with this sequel in a more traditional way than a strong creative drive to push this game more in that direction. 

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Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the developers didn’t care about that part of the game or phoned it in. If anything, their considerable creative efforts across the board expose the complicated state of the bigger gaming sequel and where such sequels go from here.

God of War: Ragnarok Is an Incredible Game That May Represent the Limits of the Modern Video Game Sequel

I can’t help but think of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City when I think about God of War 2018 and God of War: Ragnarok. In so many ways, Arkham City and Ragnarok are truly exceptional games. More importantly, they’re great games that expand upon some of the key things that their predecessors did so well. 

Yet, both games lose something in their pursuit of bigger experiences. Arkham City had to abandon or modify aspects of Arkham Asylum’s refreshing Metroidvania-like level design in order to incorporate a modified open-world structure. Ragnarok gives you so much more to do and see out of the gate rather than try to slowly try to build towards such an experience as God of War 2018 did. Neither decision is inherently bad, but those who found themselves drawn to Arkham Asylum and God of War 2018 due to those aspects its sequels abandon, modify, or downplay may occasionally find themselves wondering “Is this really more of the game I love?”

Ultimately, I think that God of War: Ragnarok is an incredible example of a sequel that invests our built-in emotions and turns that investment into a big narrative pay-off. Those who hoped that this game would deliver a satisfying conclusion to the story, worlds, and characters they previously fell in love with will not be disappointed by this game. In so many ways, Ragnarok is that rare sequel that delivers everything we expect from a truly great sequel. It expertly continues an existing story while standing tall enough on its own. There’s not much more we can ask for from a sequel than that.

Yet, as Triple-A games and their sequels continue to grow larger, I hope that developers will find new ways to expand them that go beyond that same series of vague open-world-ish and RPG-like mechanics that so many developers turn to. Ragnarok is often an exceptional example of such a game, but it also shows that we’re at this strange point in gaming where even great games and incredible developers can be limited by the constraints of this increasingly familiar formula that is supposed to allow them to “go bigger.”