God of War Ragnarok’s puzzle-filled level design is a gift from the gods
In case you haven’t already heard, God of War Ragnarok is quite a masterpiece. It’s a huge improvement over its predecessor in many aspects, building on themes, characters and mechanics in fascinating ways. But while the story and script will always be the shining star of this new, narrative-focused era for the series, I’ve found that Ragnarok continues to add layers to what I believe to be God of War’s secret weapon: the gnarly, puzzle-filled levels. design. It’s a world that takes mathematical problems and asks you not to pull out your calculator, but instead throw a deadly weapon at high speed and ricochet it around impossible angles. It turns puzzles into power fantasies, and through that makes the pursuit of the Platinum trophy all the more alluring.
There’s rarely a wasted square inch of map in God of War, especially in its labyrinthine realms. Their routes, which climb and descend and wind their way around all kinds of beautiful landscapes and architecture, are full of challenges of varying magnitude. Often it is signaled by the glow of a treasure chest held out of reach by a single solved puzzle. Other times, it’s a locked route that requires a series of interconnected puzzles to be solved in order to progress. But even just moving forward requires a lot more thought than simply pushing an analog stick. Traveling from one destination to another is usually a gauntlet of micro-tasks; you can use an ability to open a path, then trace 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 Studios’ 2018 game, but Ragnarok builds on its predecessor’s level design foundation by including Kratos’ Blades of Chaos—introduced midway through the first game—from the start. Here they are used as a makeshift grappling hook, allowing the level design to include even more variety in micro-puzzles. Main roads are often interrupted by steep cliffs that can be grabbed onto, large objects that need to be pulled aside, and ravines that need to be swerved over.
Individually, these small tasks may seem invisible or even mundane, but together they link and build to create something priceless. While not exactly challenging, these micro-tasks contribute to a more “active” journey through the Nine Realms. Where many games will have you passively walking between locations, God of War’s approach to level design turns simple traversal into a truly engaging activity. And as the journey progresses, so do these microtasks. A mixture of ax and blade work is often required; for example, the anchor point for a swing often first has to be rotated into place by throwing the ax at the mechanism. This gradual building of complexity opens up avenues for significantly more satisfying and compelling puzzle design; you are equipped for the main tasks because of what you have learned in your travels between battles.
It is this design work that makes completing God of War Ragnarok 100% such an enjoyable process. Video game collectibles are often a boring, box-ticking exercise best used when a podcast is playing and your brain is semi-engaged. But God of War makes every mission feel like a real, handcrafted game. Simple fetches require small navigational problems to solve, while treasures are often defended by excellent puzzles. These usually rely on the templates first established in the first game – Nornir chests locked with three runes are still one of my favorites – but these are enhanced by Ragnarok’s new tiers. Using the new runic arrows to create chains of elemental blasts is an admittedly difficult process, but is nonetheless a welcome new wrinkle in unlocking the hidden secrets of the Nine Realms.
Of course, few people play God of War to the riddles. This is a game about hacking apart mythical creatures and deities with a magical axe. But Santa Monica Studio weaves that power fantasy into its puzzles. In the land of Alfheim, for example, there are gems that deflect Kratos’ axe, and so the puzzles in this realm are built around precision throws that ricochet the blade from one surface to another. On paper it’s a maths test, but in practice it’s throwing a lethal weapon at high speed at a trampoline. Now that’s how you turn a level puzzle into something worthy of a god of war.
This sense of strength can be found in every action Kratos takes. Moving puzzle pieces with the blades is done via animations that convey the protagonist’s incredible power, the links whipping as if they weigh little more than string to the man wielding them. Chests are opened as if they were made of paper. The ax collides with mechanisms with a thump 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 overall game design, that makes every part of God of War Ragnarok feel so acutely satisfying. For a game where combat is such an important component, it goes out of its way to make sure the exploration elements feel as good as slicing up a dragon or decapitating a draugr.
And that’s the secret behind God of War’s secret weapon. By making exploration and gathering so instantly satisfying, it’s hard not to be drawn off the beaten path and into its hidden nooks and crannies. When solving a puzzle feels not only mentally rewarding, but also satisfying, there is every reason to engage with even the smallest treasure chests. That drive to solve everything allows for the depth of Ragnarok’s level design; worlds where virtually every turn in the road has an interesting new challenge to solve, whether it’s a cave to break into or an elaborate lock to pry open. And that again makes Ragnarok’s Platinum trophy incredibly alluring. There isn’t a single difficult task on the list, because completing the optional objectives feels just as satisfying and engaging as the main missions. At a time when so many big games are packed with what feels like mere “content” – filler that simply gives you something to do, as seen filling 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, really marks it out as one of the very best.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK news and features editor.