God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla uses an old genre to tell a new story

A screenshot from God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla.

As I battled my way through God of War Ragnarök’s new roguelike expansion, Valhalla, I was dying to learn the next part of Kratos’ story — and that story is what’s made me push through even when the game got tough.

God of War’s recent entries — the 2018 reboot and Ragnarök — are renowned for their cinematic storytelling. The tight camera makes you feel like a direct observer to Kratos’ every move, and the excellent motion capture, writing, and voice acting make the characters of myth in the games seem like actual living beings. But Valhalla takes things one step further by using the structure of a roguelike — where you make attempt after attempt to overcome increasingly difficult challenges to beat the game — as a narrative tool to let Kratos grapple and come to terms with some of the worst parts of his past.

It’s a clever conceit. The roguelike trappings are all fairly standard: you’ll work through areas filled with monsters, collecting buffs and upgrades along the way, eventually reaching a final boss, and if you die, you start the whole thing over. However, as you make trips through Valhalla, Kratos and Mimir (and other characters) have deep, open discussions about Kratos’ past and what it means to live with some of the bad things that he has done.

A screenshot from God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla.

A screenshot from God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla.

If that all sounds like God of War: Therapy, you’re right! And as Kratos got a better grasp on his mind, I got a better grasp on playing the game. It all created a virtuous cycle that makes each run feel more meaningful than just chasing a high score. I also loved the dialogue that’s designed to keep Kratos (and you as the player) motivated. I’ve never had to face anyone in a battle to the death, but I’ve needed to explore the depths of my soul a few times to find motivation on marathon runs, so I’ve already noted a few of Valhalla’s snappy one-liners for the next time I hit the wall. One character literally tells Kratos to trust the process, and when they did, I broke out into a huge grin.

Sometimes I needed the extra motivation to play a mode that’s so focused on God of War’s complex combat. With things like three main weapons to manage, multiple types of shields, different “runics” (special powers) to pick from, a “rage” meter to keep an eye on, and dodges and parries to worry about, my brain sometimes short circuited to the point where I just started mashing buttons, which can mean a swift death. In most roguelikes, that would be enough for me to give up, but in Valhalla, the story provided the motivation I needed to keep going. (There are five difficulty modes you can pick from; I was on the second easiest, which is the game’s recommended option to start.)

However, sometimes, Valhalla uses the roguelike structure to gate your progress, which can make narrative sense but occasionally feels like a forced limit to give you something to strive for in another run. I am fine with the game’s justification as to why you need to fight the end boss more than once, as each completion moves Kratos further on his path toward healing and understanding. But some of the smaller stories you hear throughout — especially those from the valkyries who wait outside the gates of Valhalla — are very obviously broken up into chunks so that you have things to listen to over the course of the game. The breaks can feel video game-y in the way some Grand Theft Auto conversations just so happen to conclude right when you pull up to the next mission.

Recursive stories have become a trend in video games as of late. Hades, like God of War, pulls from mythology to tell stories about gods. Returnal uses its loops to explore the psyche of the main character. But it’s not just roguelikes; Outer Wilds’ loops let you explore an entire galaxy. Games of all types have embraced recursive storytelling as a narrative tool.

Valhalla is perhaps the biggest game to adopt the structure, and, like most roguelikes, playing it isn’t really about getting to the end. Instead, it’s about accepting that you can change yourself one step at a time. You just have to trust the process.

God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla is available now for free for PS4 and PS5.


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