Not every piece of God of War Ragnarok is a step up from its 2018 predecessor, but there’s one area where it’s an undeniable improvement: action. Like his last adventure, Kratos uses his heavy Leviathan Axe to chop up enemies and his Blades of Chaos to rain hellfire down. Both tools feel the same in the sequel but have been altered with the addition of elemental abilities that bring an extra set of moves and decisions to combat.
What stands out to me most about the game’s evolved combat though is something a little less flashy. God of War Ragnarok features a handful of skill trees that let players unlock more combos. That’s a bit run of the mill, as it’s become a staple of Sony’s first-party exclusives in recent years. However, Ragnarok‘s skill tree goes one step further than most games with a new customization system that encourages players to actually use those skills once they’ve been unlocked. The feature is so effective that I hope every character-based action game takes notes from it from here on out.
The skill trees in God of War Ragnarok function about the same as any game that includes them. Kratos earns experience points when he slays monsters and those points can be spent to unlock new skills. Both the Leviathan Axe and the Blades of Chaos have their own three-pronged skill tree, as does Atreus. Every time Kratos levels up a weapon using resources, more skills become available to purchase. By the end of the game, players have access to a fairly wide range of moves that’ll have them holding down buttons, comboing moves together, and more.
There’s an extra layer on top of that though, and that’s where Ragnarok is unique. Each move can actually be customized within the skill tree. For each move, there are three tiers that Kratos can reach by using them enough times. When that move hits gold tier, players get the option to augment the attack with one of three options. That might be as simple as giving a heavy slash more attack power or as nuanced as upping the amount of burn a Blades of Chaos combo inflicts on an enemy. It’s essentially a skill tree hidden underneath the skill tree.
The psychological effects of that were immediately apparent when I uncovered the system. Early on, I wasn’t thinking too much about my moves. Every time I’d unlock a new one, I’d skim over the description and figure I’d just stumble into it by accident eventually. My combat style was more basic, just relying on standard heavy and light attacks. Once I discovered the system, that radically changed. Soon, I saw the tier goals as mini-progression hooks, giving me a set of checklists to strive toward. I started using move skills more often as I tried to grind them to gold tier. By the time I got there, they had become a more important part of my arsenal, which made the choice to augment them feel like a tangible reward for my experimentation.
It solves a problem that character-based action games tend to face. Take Bayonetta 3, for instance. That game features more unlockable skills than I can count across its bevy of weapons. I unlocked what felt like 100 skills during my playthrough and simply couldn’t retain all those combos. Instead, I largely button-mashed my way through the adventure figuring I’d stumble into those skills along the way. To PlatinumGames’ credit, that is largely the experience in Bayonetta as the fluid combat system makes it easy to organically chain together attacks. But I’d be lying if I told you I was often making active decisions in every battle instead of bashing my controller and watching the results with glee.
Had Bayonetta 3 incentivized me to learn and use my attacks in the way God of War Ragnarok did, I imagine I would have had a much firmer sense of control by the end. Not only would I have learned how to execute each one, but I would have a better sense of its function in a fight — especially if I had direct control over what that move did.
Naturally, Ragnarok‘s approach to skills isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for any game. However, there’s a lot to glean from Santa Monica Studio’s ingenious approach to combat customization here. A great action game makes the player feel like a mastermind who can hack their way out of even the toughest situations thanks to their weapon mastery. By the end of God of War Ragnarok, I felt like an unstoppable machine who was operating more on brainpower than muscle memory.
God of War Ragnarok is out now on PS4 and PS5.