For those who haven’t heard it yet, God of War Ragnarok is something of a masterpiece. It builds on its themes, characters, and mechanics in a compelling way, and in many ways it’s a huge leap forward from its predecessor. But while its story and script will remain the bright star of this new narrative-focused era in the series, Ragnarok is layered on what I believe to be God of War’s secret weapon. I discovered that they keep adding: Its knotty, puzzle-filled level design. It’s a world that deals with math problems and doesn’t take out calculators, it throws deadly weapons at high speeds and bounces them off at impossible angles. Turning puzzles into power fantasy, Platinum makes his trophy quest even more engaging.
God of War rarely has a single square inch of wasted map, especially in its labyrinthine realms. Up and down, winding through all sorts of beautiful landscapes and architecture, their route is littered with challenges of varying sizes. Often it is indicated by the glow of a treasure chest that is simply out of reach by a conundrum solved. Other times it’s a locked route where you have to solve a series of interlinked puzzles to progress. But simply moving forward requires a lot more thinking than pushing the analog stick. Moving from one objective to another is usually a micro-puzzle ordeal. You might use the ability to open a pathway, track a route around an area to drop a climbing chain, and finally scale along a wall to your final destination.
All such notes apply to Santa Monica Studios’ 2018 game, but Ragnarok builds on the foundation of its predecessor’s level design by incorporating from the very beginning Kratos’ Blades of Chaos, introduced halfway through the first game. Built. Here, they’re used as makeshift grappling hooks, allowing the level design to have even more micro-puzzle variety. The main passages are frequently interrupted by sheer cliffs to confront, large items that must be pulled aside, and chasms that must be swung around.
These small tasks may seem invisible or even mundane individually, but they are chained together to create something irreplaceable. While not strictly difficult, these micro-puzzles lend themselves to a more “active” journey through the nine realms. While many games require passive movement between locations, God of War’s approach to level design makes simple traversal a truly engaging activity. And as the journey progresses, so do those micro-puzzles. For example, the swing anchor point must first be rotated into place by throwing an ax into the mechanism. This incremental complexity construction paves the way for more satisfying and engaging puzzle design. What I learned on my walks between battles set me up for a major puzzle.
It’s this design work that makes the process of completing God of War Ragnarok 100% so much fun. Video game goodies are often a tedious, box-ticking exercise that’s best played with a podcast and the grind with your brain half-worked. But God of War makes every task feel like authentic, handcrafted gameplay. Simple pickups require solving minor navigation problems, but treasures are often guarded by good puzzles. These generally rely on the template first established in the first game, with the Nornir Chest locked with three runes being one of my favorites, but enhanced by the new layers of Ragnarok. Using runic arrows to create chains of elemental blasts is admittedly a laborious process, but it’s still a welcome new wrinkle to unlocking the hidden secrets of the Nine Realms.
Of course, very few people play God of War for puzzle. After all, this is a game about tearing apart mythical creatures and gods with a magic axe. But Santa Monica Studio expertly weaves that power fantasy into the puzzle. For example, in the land of Alfheim there is a gem that deflects Kratos’ axe, so puzzles in this realm consist of precision throws that bounce blades from one surface to another. But it’s actually throwing a fast, deadly weapon at a trampoline. This is how you turn an orbital puzzle into something worthy of a god of war.
That strength is reflected in everything Kratos does. Moving puzzle pieces with the blade is done via animations that convey the hero’s incredible powers. Chests are punched open as if they were made of paper. The ax collides with the machine, delivering a blow suggesting it was fired from a cannon rather than from a human arm. It’s this attention to detail and how it’s combined with the overall game design that makes every part of God of War Ragnarok so satisfying. For a game where combat is such an important element, we do everything we can to make sure the exploration elements feel as comfortable as carving dragons or beheading draugr.
And that’s the secret behind God of War’s secret weapon. It’s hard not to be drawn off the beaten path into its hidden nooks by making exploration and collecting instantly gratifying. If you’re instinctively satisfied with things, there’s reason to try even the smallest treasure chests. That willingness to solve everything opens the depths of Ragnarok’s level design. In a world where virtually every twist has an intriguing new challenge to solve, you can break into caves or unlock elaborate locks. And that’s what makes his Platinum Ragnarok trophy incredibly appealing. Completing that optional objective feels just as fulfilling and engaging as the mainline quest, so there isn’t a single difficult task on the list. In an age packed with things to feel, the maps of every Assassin’s Creed game, and even the famous Sony first-party games like Horizon, are simply It’s a filler for doing something. And it’s a miracle that all of Ghost of Tsushima – God of War Ragnarok feels like it has so many purposes. It may be overlooked thanks to its strong narrative, but it is truly marked as one of the best.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.