In case you don’t already know, God of War: Ragnarok is a fantastic game. It is a tremendous step up from its predecessor in many ways, as it develops themes, characters, and mechanics in fascinating ways. But while its story and script will always be the brightest star of this new narrative-focused era of the saga, I have found that Ragnarok continues to add layers to what I believe to be God of War’s secret weapon: its level design, full of puzzles. It’s a world that takes math problems and asks you not to pull out your calculator, but to throw a deadly weapon at high speed and bounce it off at impossible angles. He turns puzzles into power fantasies, and that makes the hunt for his platinum trophy all the more enticing.
There’s rarely a square inch of map wasted in God of War, especially in its labyrinthine realms. Up and down and twisting around all kinds of beautiful landscapes and architecture, its routes are filled with challenges of various sizes. Often that is signaled by the glow of a treasure chest kept out of reach by a simply solved riddle. Other times it is a blocked path that requires solving a series of interconnected puzzles in order to progress. but even simply moving forward requires much more thought than simply pressing an analog stick. Traveling from one objective to another is usually a gauntlet of micro-puzzles; you can use an ability to open a path, then follow a route around an area to drop a climbing chain, and finally climb the length and width of a wall to your final destination.
All of these claims are true of Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 game, but God of War: Ragnarok builds on its predecessor’s level design fundamentals by incorporating Kratos’ Blades of Chaos (introduced midway through the first game) from the beginning. Here they are used as a makeshift hook, allowing the level design to include even more variety of micro-puzzles. The main paths are frequently interrupted by cliffs to be scaled, large objects to be pushed aside, and chasms to be crossed.
Separately, these small tasks may seem invisible or even mundane, but together they tie together and create something invaluable. Although not exactly challenging, these micro-puzzles contribute to a more “active” journey through the nine realms. While many games have you passively walking between locations, God of War’s focus on level design makes the simple tour is a really attractive activity. And as the journey progresses, so do the micro-puzzles. A mix of ax and sword work is often required; for example, the anchor point for a swing often must first be rotated into place by throwing the ax into the mechanism. This gradual build in complexity opens the way to substantially more satisfying and compelling puzzle design; you are equipped for the main puzzles thanks to what you have learned in your walks between battles.
It is this design work that makes 100% completion of God of War: Ragnarok is such an enjoyable process. Video game collectibles are often a tedious box-ticking exercise best passed off with a podcast going and your half-brain busy. But God of War makes sure that each and every task feels like a genuine, handcrafted piece of the game. Simple pickups require solving minor navigation problems, while treasures are often defended with excellent puzzles. These are usually based on the templates first set in the first game (the three-rune locked Norn chests are still one of my favourites), but have been enhanced with the new Ragnarok capes. Using the new runic arrows to create chains of elemental blasts is certainly a complicated process, but it’s still a welcome new way to unlock the hidden secrets of the Nine Realms.
Of course, few people play God of War for the puzzles. After all, this is a game that consists of smashing mythical creatures and deities with a magical axe. But Santa Monica Studio has skillfully weaved that fantasy of power into its puzzles. In the land of Alfheim, for example, there are precious stones that deflect Kratos’ ax, so the puzzles in this realm are built with precision throws that bounce the blade from one surface to another. On paper it’s a mathematical proof, but in practice it’s throwing a deadly weapon at high speed onto a diving board. This is how you turn a trajectory puzzle into something fit for a god of war.
That feeling of strength is found in every action Kratos takes.. Moving the puzzle pieces with the swords is done through animations that convey the incredible power of its protagonist, the chains lashing as if they weighed little more than a string to the man who wields them. Chests are punched open as if they were made of paper. The ax collides with the mechanisms with a thump that suggests it was fired from a cannon and not from a man’s arm. It’s this attention to detail, and the way it meshes with the overall game design, that makes every part of God of War Ragnarok so satisfying. For a game where combat is a key component, it goes to great lengths to make sure the exploration elements feel as good as ripping open a dragon or decapitating a draugr.
And that is the secret of God of War’s secret weapon. By making exploring and collecting so immediately satisfying, it’s hard not to be drawn to the back roads and hidden corners. When solving a puzzle is not only rewarding mentally, but also viscerally, there are plenty of reasons to dedicate yourself to even the smallest chests. That eagerness to figure it all out opens up the depth of Ragnarok’s level design; worlds where virtually every turn of the road presents an exciting new challenge to solve, be it a cave to enter or an elaborate lock to pick. And that, in turn, makes Ragnarok’s platinum trophy incredibly attractive. There isn’t a single arduous task on your list, because completing your optional objectives is just as satisfying and engaging as your main quests. In an age where so many great games are packed with what seems to be just “content” (filler that simply gives you something to do, as seen on the maps of all Assassin’s Creed games and even first-party games). from Sony such as Horizon and Ghost of Tsushima) It’s a miracle that everything in God of War Ragnarok seems to have so much purpose.. This is Sony’s best development ever, and the aspect of God of War Ragnarok that, while perhaps overlooked thanks to its powerful storytelling, makes it one of their best.