God of War Ragnarok opens in a similar fashion to its predecessor. We get some focussed scenes between Kratos and Atreus, a general hint at the tone and narrative, all disrupted by a thunderous arrival and a cinematic boss battle. In the 2018 game it was Baldur, then just identified as ‘The Stranger’. In 2022, we face Thor. This difference in presentation underlines the two clashes, and right now, Ragnarok is lagging behind.
With Baldur, everything is mysterious. Just calling him The Stranger is enough to pique our interests – even if this was your first God of War game, Kratos’ immense power is well known. That Baldur can not only match, but better him, draws us in. Who is this shadowy figure appearing from the wilderness, how can he take on Kratos and win? We’re learning the controls as we go, and the Baldur battle facilitates this superbly, offering the narrative justification of a rusty Kratos rediscovering the will for the fight. There are thematic undertones here too, with the cold and stoic Kratos turned loyal protector for his son. He might not know how to be a father yet. But he knows how to keep Atreus safe.
The Baldur fight was always going to be difficult to overcome. For me, it’s God of War’s best moment and one of the most ingenious boss battles ever conceived. It is both tutorial and narrative, while also setting out the game’s themes and tone. Beneath all that, on a raw gameplay level, it’s magnificent too, constantly offering fresh ways to approach it and surprising you both in Baldur’s attack patterns and in the story beneath it all. You wouldn’t have blamed Ragnarok for wanting to ditch the comparison entirely – it has enough credit in the bank from the last game to risk a very different, slow burn of an opening. But we get bombast again, and despite the arrival of the God of Thunder, lightning doesn’t strike twice.
It’s clear our first fight with Thor is supposed to parallel our clash with Baldur. We fly through the roof, then battle within ourselves as Kratos holds back and slowly unleashes more of his power. Much like Baldur, Thor taunts us, trying to draw the real Kratos out. He wants, as Baldur did, a worthy foe. It also mixes actual fighting with cinematics seamlessly, narrative and gameplay flowing together like conjoined streams meeting in the mountains. It ends with a sense of unfinished business too. Thor flees with a derisive comment at the battle’s conclusion and, like Baldur, it’s clear we’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when, but we’ll meet again.
The problem is, in staying so loyal, it’s constantly overshadowed. There’s no mystery with Thor. We know exactly why he’s there, so when he taunts Kratos, it feels less like it’s offering rich narrative themes and more like it’s a catch up for the player. Why’s Thor mad at Kratos again? Oh right, the whole killing his sons thing. Yeah yeah, I remember now. Oh, he just threw the hammer! That’s cool!
There’s just an air of trying too hard. At one point, Thor ‘kills’ you, and the game over screen loads, followed by Thor breaking the fourth wall (maybe?) by telling you you can’t get away that easily, and defibrillating you with a jolt from Mjolnir. It feels like an attempt to one-up the way Baldur plays with interactivity, but it flatlines. The game over screen didn’t load properly for me (no tips or other formatting), and the game rushed past the gimmick too quickly for it to matter. If you haven’t died at that point (likely, given how early it comes), you won’t even appreciate what’s going on. Not to mention it’s cribbed from Batman: Arkham Asylum, which did it better over a decade ago.
As for the battle itself, it’s just not as enjoyable as Baldur. Where the original used its mystery to weave into the fight, with Baldur constantly surprising you and emerging from defeat, Thor’s fight trades on hype. There are some intense cinematic moments, but when you’re controlling Kratos it’s all a little simplistic, offering a stop-start time and never giving you an inch. Phases end arbitrarily and awkwardly contort into cinematics because the whole arena needs to change. The whole thing smacks of effort, man.
God of War Ragnarok has been interesting so far. I’m nowhere near far enough through to judge it entirely yet, and it seems to have kept the same introspective tone that aided 2018’s version so well. But the first time the game shows its full might is with Thor. Right now, it feels like Ragnarok is slipping behind, and it needs to get its head back in the game.
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