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Is God of War Ragnarok the catalyst that Sony needs?

Four years after a franchise reboot, God of War Ragnarok is Japanese gaming giant Sony’s hope for a blockbuster video game

Visitors walk past large pictograms of Sony PlayStation controller buttons on the opening day of the Paris Games Week video-game fair, after the cancellation of two editions due to the pandemic, with a banner of Nintendo's MarioKart Deluxe game in the background in Paris on November 2, 2022. (AFP)

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Sony Group Corp’s God of War Ragnarok debuted on Wednesday to positive early reviews, suggesting it could be the catalyst the Japanese gaming giant needs heading into the end of the year without a big hit.

Critics love God of War Ragnarok. The game has a 94 on the review aggregation website Metacritic, which makes it the second-best-scoring original game of the year, just below the transcendent Elden Ring. IGN’s reviewer called it “a complete work of art from top to bottom” and “an almighty achievement.”

After breaking records during the pandemic, the video game industry has slumped this year due to a lack of majortitles, console shortages and the economic downturn. So the stakes are high for God of War Ragnarok, one of the fall’s few blockbuster games and the the latest entry in one of Sony’s most important franchises.

God of War kicked off in 2005 with a trilogy of lewd but fun games about murdering Greek gods such as Zeus and Hades. In 2018, Sony rebooted the series with a new entry that ditched the crude sex scenes and reimagined series protagonist Kratos as a gruff but loving father. That game won accolades and was widely considered one of the year’s best. It went on to sell 23 million copies on PlayStation and PC. Four years later, a sequel has arrived, one that Sony hopes will reach or surpass the highs of the last version.

Playing God of War Ragnarok is beautiful and rhythmic, sort of like playing an instrument—except at the end of the song you get to decapitate a worm demon with a giant ax.

Set in Norse mythology, the game unfolds a few years after its predecessor during Fimbulwinter, the period of endless snow that’s said to presage the end of the world. At the conclusion of the last game, Kratos and his son Atreus discovered a prophecy with two key pieces of information. The first is that Atreus is really Loki, the Norse god of mischief and the second is that Kratos is destined to die. That sets some grand stakes for God of War Ragnarok, and as the game begins, Kratos and Atreus are already grappling with big questions about their relationship, their purpose and what Ragnarok may bring.

I’ve played around 15 hours of God of War Ragnarok and although I’m not finished just yet, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The combat is brilliant and deep, full of interesting choices and combos that let you rip demons and monsters apart with abandon. Fans criticized the last game for the monotony of its enemies, which were mostly variations of zombies, and the developers responded by packing God of War Ragnarok full of drastically different creatures to slay.

The battles are satisfying, highlighted once again by Kratos’ Leviathan Axe, which you can throw and summon back to your hand with the pleasant push of a button. You can customize gear and play around with different special abilities, using, for example, your frost weapon to chill an enemy and then swapping to your fire weapon to do extra damage. I’ve never tried meditation, but I imagine that the flow of combat in a game like this puts you in a similar state.

The designers at Sony Santa Monica, the studio behind the game, use all sorts of tricks to keep things engaging. There are meaningful side quests and plenty more great stories delivered by the talking head Mimir, the wisest of the Norse gods and a returning character from the previous game. There are various new twists on the gameplay that I won’t spoil but that make it clear after a few hours that God of War Ragnarok is trying to shake things up.

The story is also a highlight. God of War Ragnarok introduces villains that were only teased before, like the thunder god Thor, whose bitter demeanor is miles away from his Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart,and the malevolent sage Odin, played to perfection by Richard Schiff, best known as The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler. Odin is the best part of this game. Whenever he’s not on screen, I find myself wishing that he’d come back. One early section, in which he takes one of the main characters on a West Wing-style walk-and-talk throughout Asgard, is a particular treat.

Fans have worried that God of War Ragnarok might feel too much like its predecessor. In some ways, it does. You’re still traveling to realms like Midgard and Alfheim, still throwing your axto solve chain puzzles, still watching Kratos struggle to get past his stoicism and connect with his son. But Ragnarok is bigger, better and in some ways even more special than the 2018 game that won so much acclaim. It’s a triumphant experience that is well worth anyone’s time.The game is available on the PlayStation 5, which has been in short supply this year, and the older PlayStation 4. In its recent earnings results, Sony cut the forecast for its games segmentand said players are reducing the number of titles they buy due to “global macroeconomic conditions.” But the company also called out God of War Ragnarok as a driver to bring players back.

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