I really wanted to love Dawn of Ragnarok. On paper its premise of delving into Norse mythology is a promise to truly investigate one of the most interesting loose ends left by Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s story that would give Eivor the power of the gods. In disappointing reality, it’s a mostly unchanged stretch of gameplay dressed up like a magical romp through the Nine Realms. Replacing European kings with giants and dwarves doesn’t change the fact that all of the moment-to-moment adventuring, looting, and combat is exactly the same as it has been in the roughly 150 hours of Valhalla that preceded it. How do you add a whole new set of supernatural abilities and without making anything feel new or different? Like the two DLC expansions before it, it’s not a letdown of Asgardian proportions, but it is a letdown nonetheless.
Dawn of Ragnarok, the third DLC expansion, channels Christopher Nolan’s Inception and goes deeper as Eivor – themselves a virtual reconstruction of an ancient viking – uses trippy drugs to relive the spiritual reconstruction of the life of their culture’s gods in order to sort out their own existential dread. This Assassin-ception idea was a clever metaphor during the main game, with Odin whispering increasingly paranoid advice into Eivor’s ear every time a new and more bizarre revelation is made about the truth of their world, but the story is far less poetic here. It’s more a straightforward tale of Havi’s (read: Odin’s) quest to save his son Baldur from the fire demon Surtur.
It’s a story that is largely standard fare for this series, and especially the Vahallaverse. The characters are well realized and nuanced. Surtur, his children, and his wife all stand as enemies in the way of your ultimate end, but they all have their own motivations and sometimes complicated relationships with one another that make them all seem more relatable than your bog-standard cackling bad guy. Svarfenheim’s original residents, the dwarves, are as varied in demeanor and opinion as should be expected from a group of people whose country is occupied by not one, but two factions of colonizing giants: some want to fight, some want to keep their heads down and survive. Everyone has their own opinion on what the presence of the All-Father means for them, and I found chatting up the locals to figure that out to be entertaining if nothing else.
Svarfenheim is filled to the brim with environments fit for ancient legend. Much of the land looks as verdant and beautiful as many locations in England, Norway, or Ireland. It almost has a Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings sort of vibe, where everything looks like a postcard of some natural landscapes that exist in the real world (ie New Zealand), with the occasional enormous dwarven statue or gigantic mountain made of solid gold. Things do get occasionally weirder when you start seeing enormous stones floating in the air or some burning tree root tentacle-thing crawling across the sky. The result is a serene but occasionally chaotic landscape that succeeds in feeling unique among the miles and miles of land Eivor has traveled to this point.
Disappointingly, you’ll be doing largely the same things you’ve been doing for a year and a half now (yes, Valhalla came out in November of 2020) across the regions of Svarfenheim. Checking off map objectives by finding treasure and mysterious landmarks are made no different by being the God of Gods. New light-based puzzles are few and far between. World Events return from the base game, but they remain bite-sized versions of side quests that are inconsistent in quality and in compensation for completion. There are new collectibles to find, new elites to hunt, too, but the process of completing those tasks is all the same as ever.
The biggest and best new feature of Dawn of Ragnarok is the new Hugr-Rip, a magical bracer that lets you steal powers from certain enemies and use them as your own. This includes giving yourself fire or frost giant powers for a limited period of time, making you resistant to specific elements and allowing you to take a dip in lava flows without burning to a crisp, for instance. It also allows you to disguise yourself as the enemy to infiltrate camps, but I found that novelty wore off rather quickly, as it is really only interesting when the campaign makes you do it, and largely more of a hassle then your normal threat-removal strategies. My favorite power came from a lowly raven, and it allows Eivor to transform into a bird themselves and fly across the world or to reach a tactically advantageous position without having to tiptoe among the enemy. This mostly just serves to cut out the traditional travel time, though.
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What was really underwhelming was the limitations of these powers. You can only have two active at any one time, and you can’t just select the ones you want from a list to have equipped. If you want to change your active abilities, you have to find an enemy in the world who has it and take it from them. For something like a disguise power they tend to be well placed and abundant, but all of the others feel sporadic and hard to rely on. So even though a power that revives slain enemies to fight for you is great fun to use, in practice I rarely found myself going out of my way to find a poor sap to slay for it in preparation for future challenges.
I use “challenges” lightly because you won’t find too many in Dawn of Ragnarok. Boss fights offer a bit of pushback which the normal rank-and-file enemies lack, but that’s mostly thanks to some special mechanic or pattern you have to adhere to. You see the depth of the new roster of enemy types pretty early in the 20 hours it takes to more or less exhaust this DLC’s reserves, and there aren’t many examples of campaign encounters that put all of their strengths to great use. They’re almost all just enemies you’ve seen before, but with blue and black skin. The few that are truly new, like Flamekeepers who can bring their fallen allies back to life, are pretty easy to dispatch. Around the end of your journey, Kara’s Arena will open up, that will provide battle encounters that will be the test that combat enthusiasts crave. Besides throwing waves on enemies both mundane and epic at you, you can turn up the heat by adding boasts – modifiers that add stipulations to the fight like making each consecutive melee attack do less damage unless you weave in ranged attacks. Too bad this all comes so late in the game.
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A new weapon type, the Atgeir, tries to spice combat up a bit, allowing you to piece your own short combos together by mixing light and heavy attacks to your heart’s content. The wide-arcing swipes are perfect for crowd control, but I didn’t feel like I was really expressing any creativity in mashing these buttons, in the way more sophisticated action titles like Devil May Cry might. It isn’t the offensive game-changer the scythe was in Siege of Paris, but it’s fun nonetheless. You can upgrade gear to a new Divine level as well, which allows you to slot a new type of rune in them, but as with all the other micromanaging you can do with the equipment in this game, you can go a whole playthrough without feeling their impact.