It’s a familiar dilemma: You want to play a popular new video game, but you haven’t played the prequel (or prequels). If that’s how you’re feeling about “God of War Ragnarok,” one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2022, there’s good news — a rarity for a franchise about gods butchering other gods and, more recently, toxic masculinity.
2018′s “God of War” was a critical darling and a commercial success, and I’ll probably play it after finishing “Ragnarok.” But not having played that original game hasn’t impeded my enjoyment of “Ragnarok” thus far, just shy of eight hours in.
At a glance, “Ragnarok’s” onboarding for new players isn’t great. In the menu screen, “Ragnarok” offers an option titled “ ‘God of War’ recap.” Selecting that option plays a video that shows key scenes and snippets of dialogue from the first game, but with no context or connective tissue. It isn’t particularly helpful if you’re hoping to learn about the first game’s plot, because it’s intended for people who need a refresher — not players trying out a God of War game for the first time.
But as someone only ambiently aware of what happened in the previous game, “Ragnarok” did a fine job of explaining the key details in its first few hours. Characters say stuff like “I won’t forgive you for killing my son” and “I’m going to get you for killing my sons,” which gives you some clues about the tone of the first game and how key figures relate to one another.
I haven’t finished “Ragnarok” yet, and there is a chance that some narrative beats later in the game demand a deep understanding of the first game. There are also three older console games, as well as a few PlayStation Portable handheld games. So far, though, enough new story has accumulated for me to feel properly invested in what’s coming next, and with next-to-no confusion. And my colleagues who have played more have also assured me there’s nothing on the horizon that would absolutely stump me if I hadn’t played any of the past games.
That said, our reviewer, Gene Park, notes that “context makes for a richer experience,” so here’s a short summary (spoilers, obviously).
The first game features a somber quest in which Kratos and his son, Atreus, mourn the recent passing of their late wife/mother, Faye, and wrestle with their own relationship as father and son. As her last request, she asks the pair to scatter her ashes on the tallest peak in the nine realms. The request, seemingly harmless on its face, pulls Kratos and Atreus into a direct conflict with the Norse gods (which she may or may not have intended). In particular, they’re hounded by Magni and Modi (the sons of Thor) and Baldur (the son of Odin and Freya).
There’s tragedy here. Kratos — the god-killer — has tired of turning pantheons into mausoleums and just wishes to rest and set his son on a better, less blood-drenched path. In doing so, Kratos hides from Atreus the fact that he is, indeed, a god. When Kratos finally comes clean, Atreus enters into a kind of deific puberty, testing the boundaries of his powers and eventually getting his first taste of blood by killing Modi.
Kratos spends the rest of the game trying to rein in Atreus while fulfilling his wife’s dying wish. Ultimately, the father and son are confronted by a crazed Baldur; they kill him when he tries to murder Freya. This turns Freya, their one-time ally, against them and triggers the start of Ragnarok, a prophesied battle that is said to result in the deaths of many Norse deities. As Kratos and Atreus complete their journey to spread Faye’s ashes atop a mountain in Jotunheim, home of the giants, it is revealed that Faye was a giant, and that she had a different name for Atreus: Loki, the god that in mythology brings about the end of the Norse gods.
If you’d like to play the first game yourself, you have more options than players did in 2018. Earlier this year, Sony published a version of the game for PC, which is available on digital video game storefronts like Steam and the Epic Games Store. The first game is also available for purchase for on the PlayStation 4 and 5, or as part of the PlayStation Plus Extra subscription service.