In case you’ve not already heard, God of War Ragnarok is a bit of a masterpiece. It’s a tremendous advancement on its predecessor in many aspects, building on themes, characters, and mechanics in fascinating ways. But while its story and script will always be the shining star in this new narrative-focused era for the series, I’ve found Ragnarok continues to add layers to what I believe is God of War’s secret weapon: its knotty, puzzle-packed level design. It’s a world that takes mathematical problems and asks you not to pull out your calculator, but instead hurl a deadly weapon at high speed and ricochet it around impossible angles. It turns puzzles into power fantasies, and through that makes the quest for its Platinum trophy all the more alluring.
There’s rarely a wasted square inch of map in God of War, particularly in its labyrinthine realms. Their routes, which climb and descend and twist around all manner of beautiful landscapes and architecture, are littered with challenges of varying sizes. Often that’s signalled by the glow of a treasure chest that is kept out of reach by a simply solved conundrum. Other times it’s a locked route that demands a series of interlinked puzzles to be solved in order to progress onward. But even simply moving forward requires much more thought than just pushing on an analogue stick. Travelling from one objective to another is typically a gauntlet of micro puzzles; you might use an ability to open up a pathway, then track a route around an area to drop a climbing chain, and finally scale along and up a wall to your final destination.
Such notes are all true of Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 game, but Ragnarok builds upon its predecessor’s level design foundations by incorporating Kratos’ Blades of Chaos – introduced midway in the first game – from the get-go. Here they are used as a makeshift grappling hook, which allows the level design to feature even more micro puzzle variety. Main pathways are frequently interrupted by sheer cliffs to grapple up, large items to be pulled aside, and chasms that must be swung across.
Individually these small tasks may seem invisible or even mundane, but together they chain and build to create something invaluable. While not exactly challenging, these micro puzzles contribute to a more ‘active’ journey through the nine realms. Where many games will have you passively walk between locations, God of War’s approach to level design makes simple traversal a genuinely engaging activity. And as the journey progresses, so do those micro puzzles. A mix of axe and blade work is often required; for example, the anchor point for a swing frequently must first be rotated into place by throwing the axe at the mechanism. This gradual building of complexity opens up pathways into substantially more satisfying and compelling puzzle design; you’re equipped for the main puzzles because of what you have learned on your walks between battles.
It’s this design work that makes 100% completing God of War Ragnarok such an enjoyable process. Video game collectibles are often a tedious, box-ticking exercise best left to grind out with a podcast playing and your brain half engaged. But God of War ensures that each and every task feels like a genuine, hand-crafted piece of gameplay. Simple pick-ups require small navigation problems to be solved, while treasure is often defended by excellent puzzles. These usually rely on the templates first established in the first game – Nornir Chests locked by three runes remain one of my favourites – but these are enhanced by Ragnarok’s new layers. Using the new runic arrows to create chains of elemental explosions is an admittedly fiddly process, but is nonetheless a welcome new wrinkle in unlocking the nine realm’s hidden secrets.
Of course, few people are playing God of War for the puzzles. This is a game about hacking mythical creatures and deities apart with a magical axe, afterall. But Santa Monica Studio deftly weaves that power fantasy into its puzzles. In the land of Alfheim, for instance, there are gemstones that deflect Kratos’s axe, and so the puzzles in this realm are built up of precision throws that ricochet the blade from one surface to another. On paper it’s a mathematics test, but in practice it’s hurling a deadly weapon at high speed towards a trampoline. Now that’s how you turn a trajectory puzzle into something worthy of a god of war.
That sense of strength can be found in every action Kratos takes. Moving puzzle pieces with the blades is done so via animations that convey your protagonist’s incredible power, the chains whipping as if they weigh little more than twine to the man who wields them. Chests are punched open as if they were made of paper. The axe collides with mechanisms with a blow that suggests it was fired from a cannon rather than from the arm of a man. It’s this attention to detail, and how it’s combined with the game design at large, that makes every part of God of War Ragnarok feel so sharply satisfying. For a game in which combat is such a key component, it does everything it can to make sure the exploration elements feel just as good as carving open a dragon or beheading a draugr.
And that’s the secret to God of War’s secret weapon. By making exploration and collecting so immediately satisfying, it’s hard not to be drawn off the beaten path and into its hidden nooks. When it feels not just mentally rewarding but viscerally satisfying to solve a puzzle, there’s every reason to engage with even the smallest treasure chests. That drive to solve everything opens up the depth of Ragnarok’s level design; worlds where practically every twist and turn of the road holds an interesting new challenge to solve, be that a cave to break into or an elaborate lock to coax open. And that, in turn, makes Ragnarok’s Platinum trophy incredibly alluring. There’s not a single arduous task in its list, because completing its optional objectives feels as fulfilling and engaging as its mainline quests. In an era when so many big games are packed with what feels like just ‘content’ – filler that simply gives you something to do, as seen populating the maps of every Assassin’s Creed game as well as even prestige Sony first-party games like Horizon and Ghost of Tsushima – it’s a miracle that everything in God of War Ragnarok feels like it has so much purpose. This is Sony development at its very best, and the aspect of God of War Ragnarok that, while perhaps overlooked thanks to its powerful narrative, truly marks it as one of the very best.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.