With the news in June 2021 that the release of God of War: Ragnarok would be pushed back to later this year and will be available on the PS4, this seems like a great opportunity to revisit God of War (2018).
Sony’s God of War takes place more than a decade after its predecessor. In the wake of his personal war on the gods of Olympus, Kratos has moved to Midgard, a land in Norse mythology. He has had a son, Atreus, and he has been trying to break with his past. But when his wife dies, Kratos is suddenly attacked at his home by a mysterious, seemingly immortal stranger. To honor his wife’s last wish and in response to the fact that somebody bad has found out where he lives, he takes Atreus with him to spread her ashes on the “highest mountain in all the realms.”
In keeping with the other games in the series, you’d expect Kratos to fight myriad godly foes, hacking and chopping his way through the Norse pantheon. Instead, players are given a beautiful slice of Midgard to explore, incredibly charming allies (yes, I regard Brok as charming), and a brilliant story.
Despite the hostility to Kratos of at least one of the Norse gods, the story is primarily about the relationship between Kratos and his son, and it’s very multifaceted. We deal with the conflict between Kratos’s stoic, Spartan reaction to his wife’s death and the more emotional reaction of his son; Kratos’s attempts to learn from his own past and prevent his son from making the same mistakes that he did; and the responsibility of the gods to understand and empathize with humans.
The game does have incredible fights with big scary monsters, but you have only one god to kill. By the end, it feels as if the focus has been not on having you smash your way through enemies but on telling a great story that just happens to feature a man who is really good at smashing through enemies.
Yet that very conflict also results in some interesting design decisions. Although the studio wants to tell a powerful story, it also wants to appeal to those who just want to be a burly god voiced by Christopher Judge and cave in heads with an axe—all while balancing the side-quests spread throughout the game’s quasi-open world, the massive but restricted terrain of which recalls the pre-Breath-of-the-Wild Legend of Zelda games.
So what do you do when you need to balance a gripping, emotional story with a wealth of side-quests, allowing players to enjoy a beautiful world and stellar gameplay?
Good: Letting Players Know When to Explore
One of the most frustrating aspects of playing a game with a great story and lots of exploration is the necessity of trying to figure out when you should explore and when you should not—especially since certain quests and secrets become available only at certain points in the story. It can be irritating to have to wonder whether, having just beaten a story boss, now is the time to explore the doors you saw a little earlier and see whether any of them open.
The solution used by God of War may seem trivially simple, but it is one often overlooked in games: invite the player to explore.
After some major story events and especially after you have gotten new abilities, Atreus will ask Kratos if they should do some exploring. Or he simply suggests that they explore.
The game also uses the tried-and-true tactic of letting you see devices along your route that you can’t access with your current abilities, hinting that you should head back once you do get a skill that interacts with those items. In addition, major story events tend to by accompanied by visible changes in the world, most notably a change in the water level of the Lake of the Nine that reveals new shores and other areas.
Such methods do much to prevent any anxiety that a more completionist player might have felt otherwise, and they help prevent a player from skipping quests that would become trivial if delayed until later.
Bad: Not Balancing for Exploration
There is an awful lot to do in the game. The website How Long to Beat estimates that God of War takes a little more than 20 hours to complete the main story. A completionist run would take 51 and a half hours. That is a lot of content.
In some respects, this is good. A lot of content means more chances to learn about the world, more chances to play with the mechanics of a very fun game, more reasons to become attached to the characters. But it also slows down the pace of the main story. The game seems to go by fast, but it takes a lot longer than it feels.
The length also skews character progression. If you take even a little time to explore, you are quickly overleveled. Around midgame, you may find yourself with a surplus of skill points and resources and nothing to use them on. Pick the right side-quests, and you gain powerful armor and skills that feel as if you pulled stuff from the endgame, capability that can be wielded only against enemies too weak to deal with it.
By the end of the game, it becomes clear that choosing to explore every time Atreus invites you to explore results in mostly trivial challenges—not counting those posed by a few key bosses, like the final Valkyrie. This dearth of side-quest challenge suggests that the game’s scaling and leveling were not designed to accommodate players who go on side-quests; they were designed to accommodate players who stick to the main story.
If you explore at every opportunity, by the time you reach the final boss you’ve already completed almost everything the game has to offer. The developers seem to be aware of the imbalance: one small side-quest involves lighting all the fires in front of the realm doors, which isn’t possible until the very end of the game.
If you’ve kept up with all the side-quests, you’ve probably killed the Valkyries by the time you get there. Yet your reward for lighting that last fire is an item that gives you a bonus to use against . . . Valkyries. Atreus responds by chuckling and saying, “Well, that probably would’ve been great to have earlier.” Thanks, Atreus.
The encouragement to pursue side-quests also affects the storytelling. The game has great bits of post-game ambient dialogue that hint at what to expect from God of War: Ragnarok. But these revelations are delivered unto you only if you’re running around pursuing side-quest after you finish the game. And if you’ve already completed all the side-quests, why would you be running around doing them again? If anything, you’re probably just playing around in Muspelheim or Niflheim. Since there isn’t much ambient dialogue in these places, you miss the lore.
A Goal For Ragnarok: Improve Balance
I love the fact that the game encourages me to explore. At least, I do until I reach the endgame, at which point I’ve completed almost everything, am overpowered, have 100,000 skill points and nothing to spend them on, and have no reason to stick around to catch all the ambient dialogue. Until now, the brilliant design of the game has taken a huge weight off my shoulders and just made the whole thing more fun.
I hope that the developers balance the mechanics of Ragnarok better. I want to feel the rush and panic of fighting a god that I haven’t overleveled, and, especially in light of the strong characters and dialogue, I want some good post-game reasons to stick around to see how I’ve changed the world.
But every project is a lesson. Given how many lessons the developers have learned from earlier games in the series, I’m confident that Ragnarok won’t disappoint.