To call 2018’s God of War a sequel is almost a disservice. Yes, it was a continuation of Kratos’ original multi-game journey, but it placed him and a new family on a foreign world to reflect on his past and try to secure his future. Kratos’ journey to connect with his son while battling a new army of unfaithful gods was a revelation in both video game storytelling and action, setting the bar high for the inevitable sequel. Ragnarök may not have the unique impact of previous games, but everything that worked so well the first time comes forward, with a story that truly defines the word epic.

Ragnarök basically picks up where the previous one left off in terms of narrative. Atreus is a bit older and has ditched the ‘boy’ nickname altogether. In the tradition established at the beginning of the God of War series, the opening hours are stellar. The action begins immediately, creating new enemies and old friends, but between all the explosive set pieces there are quieter moments of compelling performance. The characters of the fledgling Odin and the returning disgraced mother Freya are particularly fantastic, but the weakest performances in Ragnarök make typical video game performances pale in comparison.

Excellent writing from moment to moment rather than fantastic dialogue ahead of the 2018 game. Ragnarok is, surprisingly, the funniest god of war to date. Kratos is the roughest, straight man in all of the nine realms and has portrayed himself as a rude dwarf, a wisecracking head, a sometimes overconfident teenager, and more. I often laughed when Kratos said things like “I don’t need a snack” when he shared a dismissive grunt when Sindri offered him something to eat or when the characters made fun of him for only offering dismissive grunts.

As important as story has become to this new era of God of War, combat remains an equally important element. The most negative thing about fighting the various enemies of the nine realms is that it isn’t completely different or changed from the previous game. You’ll start out using more weapons this time, but the core combos are mostly the same. The library of special attacks you can pull off is huge, but I admit I found my favorites early on and didn’t feel particularly compelled to experiment.

Conversely, the types of enemies you fight have expanded greatly. The mini-bosses are numerous, and when they repeat, a new wrinkle is added, or it’s an entirely optional quest. The optional content makes up a large percentage of the already massive game, with far more episodes than the extra boss fights. Along with side quests to pursue beyond the main route, there are also large open areas to explore at your leisure with sled dogs that offer rewarding moments of character development and tangible rewards. In some cases, I completed side stories with big, important moments and then realized they were optional.

Ragnarök, despite its fantastical setting, features a grounded tone thanks to its excellent performances and fully realized characters, but it’s not afraid to be a fun video game. I was constantly impressed by how the puzzles expertly blend in with the combat encounters, and how the story context always seemed to engage the video game segments. While neglecting the main task of finding treasure chests, for example, Atreus always takes the time to explain to new characters that his father loves loot. Despite the urgency of the story, Mimir often makes sure we can take our time and explore if we want. These small moments and bits of dialogue perfectly understand how Sony Santa Monica wants to communicate with its game, and I’ve always been grateful for that understanding.

Thinking of the player at every moment extends to exceptional level design, as well. Whether visiting new versions of old locations or new areas entirely, each area wraps around itself to reveal shortcuts or avoid the need to backtrack. There are many levels to fight in well-designed battle arenas and environmental attack options, such as grabbing a giant rock to run over that particularly pesky lizard. The way the player moves the camera to hint at optional chests or tease new paths is also effective and consistent. The direction of the players is always considered.

God of War Ragnarök feels a lot like God of War (2018), which is commendable considering how fantastic the game is. Sony Santa Monica was right not to break what wasn’t broken, and expertly continued the story threads left hanging from the previous game. Any complaints about the overall experience (familiar combat, equipment gathering and leveling aren’t particularly interesting) are quickly forgotten in the face of a compelling story, believable character relationships, and incredible visuals and animation. Since its early PlayStation 2 days, the God of War series has always set a high, quality bar for itself, and with few exceptions, it manages to leap above that bar. God of War Ragnarök is no different.