"God of War 5" Needs a Director's Cut to do Ragnarok Justice
Rushed Storytelling and Other Issues Compromise the Latest Sequel
For four years after finishing the amazing God of War (GOW 2018), arguably one of the greatest action games ever made, I’d been eagerly anticipating its sequel, God of War: Ragnarok (GOWR). When it came out last November, I wanted to finish almost every single side adventure and make my character as powerful as possible before the end, which is why it took me two months to get to its final mainline story quest.
But after GOWR concluded, I had somewhat mixed feelings. This was a huge, at times legitimately amazing title, and there is a lot about it that I loved, including its epic scope, visuals, and bombastic action. And yet, there were some areas where it felt strangely incomplete, as though corners were cut and potential features went missing.
Having had some more time to think about it, I’ve come to believe that GOWR could really use a “director’s cut,” in the vein of Ghost of Tsushima and Death Stranding, both of which received revised versions that added a considerable amount of features and content following initial release.
In this article, I want to talk about why it could use such a revision and what it could improve upon both in terms of story and gameplay. I will also discuss why I don’t think GOWR should’ve been made as or split into two games.
GOWR is a very ambitious and narratively complex title. It easily has the longest, most elaborate and detailed plot in the God of War series, which depicts how the demigod Kratos and his son Atreus get involved in a war with the Aesir Gods of Norse Mythology led by Odin. Its mainline quest is divided into 17 Story Chapters, which culminate in the event known as ‘Ragnarok,’ the prophesied apocalypse that will destroy Asgard - and, potentially, all the other realms in existence.
For its first 13 chapters, GOWR is a very well-paced game when it comes to story. It takes the time to introduce numerous characters and develop various subplots, all of which are laying the groundwork for the big event of the game’s title. A number of threads come to a head in the excellent “Creatures of Prophecy,” which concludes with Kratos killing the Norse God Heimdall.
But then, the game starts rushing through plot.
The accelerated pacing of Chapters 14-16 maybe isn’t that big of an issue, though one can certainly sense that each should likely be about 1.5 times longer.* However, once you get to the end of “The Summoning,” on top of those issues, it feels like 2-3 chapters of story and gameplay take place entirely off-screen.
*Among other things, a mysterious character named Forsetti has a key role in the story, yet never actually appears onscreen.
In theory, the idea is sound — the main characters break up into different groups, each seeking to recruit allies to join their war against Asgard. Kratos and Atreus approach the Fire Giant Surtur, while their colleagues Freya, Sindri, and others recruit Valkyries, Elves, Dwarves, and anyone else that might aid them.
But because of the game’s strict adherence to showing only events that occur from either Kratos’ or Atreus’ POV, the audience is never privy to just how exactly the others succeed in their respective quests.
The developers could’ve incorporated Kratos and Atreus into these side stories, making them fully playable chapters, so as to show us step-by-step the process by which they build their own army to counteract Odin’s. Instead, they took some rather obvious shortcuts that prevent the story from living up to its full potential.
But all of that pales in comparison to the crushing disappointment of “Realms at War,” the climactic chapter of the game that has you participate in the titular “Ragnarok” event, which drops Kratos and Atreus into the middle of a full-blown war zone, with your army taking on Odin’s. There is a whole lot of eye popping imagery happening all around you as you make your way to the Great Lodge of Asgard, the home of Odin and his fellow Aesir. The playable characters keep breaking up into different groups as you have to overcome various obstacles. It’s a real team effort, depicting the conflict from multiple viewpoints.
But while a lot of stuff happens, little of it gets the time and space it needs to feel like it truly matters. There are clear signs that this was intended to be a much longer, multi-tiered campaign, where you’d have to accomplish various sub-objectives in the gameplay to keep advancing forward, such as preventing the Asgardians from destroying a number of towers, so you can summon more of your forces and/or help them push through the enemy’s defenses.*
*You can get a sense of this by looking at this video by Video Game Sophistry.
The final boss fights against Thor and Odin are pretty good, and the game absolutely delivers on the resolutions to their stories. But the way you get there feels insubstantial and lacking in connective tissue. So, instead of an epic chapter that makes you truly feel like you’re taking part in the battle to end all battles, “Realms at War” feels like a short and linear gauntlet of fights that is over before you realize it.
Look, I don’t know what happened. Maybe the team ran out of money for this last stretch of the game, forcing them to make some substantial cuts. Maybe they would’ve needed another year of development to truly realize their vision, and the game had to come out in 2022 before next gen consoles had diminished the market for transitional titles like GOWR (eg. PS5 crowding out the PS4).
But when you spend years teasing and building up the hype for “Ragnarok,” you are expected to deliver on your promises rather than turn in a cliff-notes version of the event. This is, after all, supposed to be the big payoff to the entire Norse Arc in the God of War series, the point that it has been building to since 2018.
And, I’m sad to say, the developers fudged it. So, if there’s a legitimately good reason to produce a director’s cut of this game, it’s to make sure the final chapters of the game live up to their potential and don’t sour players on the work as a whole.
Stun finisher Issues
Not counting the gameplay-related issues of the rushed storytelling, GOWR has one other area where it feels like something’s missing: stun finishers. These attacks allow you to quickly dispose of enemies (or at least perform massive damage) after stunning them, which is typically achieved by using the “barehanded combat” style.
An innovative feature first introduced in God of War (2018), the barehanded style has Kratos put down his weapons and instead resort to using his fists, kicks, and shield to attack an opponent. Performing finishers felt like a natural extension of barehanded fighting, in that Kratos would typically resort to using his hands to rip monsters apart or his feet to smash their heads in.
This means you could almost seamlessly move from a barehanded combo to a finisher animation, making the style highly immersive, attractive and fun.
This is often not the case with the sequel, which has revamped the stun finisher system in such a way that it feels like a downgrade, at least in the early going. The big change is that stun finishers are now closely tied to your weapons: the Leviathan Axe, the Blades of Chaos and the Draupnir Spear. Depending on what weapon you’re using, you’ll get a different kind of finisher animation, about two (rather similar) variations per weapon. The problem is, this tends to come at the expense of the first game’s barehanded finishers, which at the beginning of GOWR are nowhere to be seen.
In fact, even if you are fighting barehanded, the default finisher animation is still that of the Axe. So, let’s say you fight a common footsoldier enemy barehanded, quickly build up stun damage with a combo and then go in for a finisher while the enemy is in Stun Lock. Suddenly, the Leviathan Axe magically shows up in Kratos’ hands, and so rather than tear him apart, he instead chops his head off.
The barehanded combat is thus nowhere near as immersive and seamless as it was in the first game. And the fact that only the weapons have finisher animations removes incentive from fighting barehanded in the first place.
Now, I should note that this doesn’t apply to all types of enemies. Small beasts and higher tier monsters have unique stun attacks and finishers of the kind we got in GOW 2018. Thus, as the game diversifies its enemy roster, the stun finisher animations are also diversified. The problem is that the most common types of enemies you face in the game are the bipedal humanoid ‘footsoldier’ types.
The opening three chapters, in fact, have pretty much nothing but such footsoldiers (this includes the “Grim,” who are human-sized bipedal lizards). Consequently, your finisher attacks during this period are basically limited to two main animations (one with the Axe, the other with the Blades) that are repeated over and over (with slight variations here and there). As a result, the combat is considerably less interesting and fun at this point, making it a chore to get through the early levels.
By the time you get to Alfheim, this redundancy gets downright annoying, especially when you consider the fact that GOW 2018 provided two cool unique finisher attacks for the Dark Elves: in one, Kratos grabs a Dark Elf lance and flings it back at him, knocking him and potentially other surrounding enemies back; in another, he knocks the Dark Elf to the ground before impaling the lance into his back. You can see both of those in this clip by user Might - specifically the first and third finishers.
In GOWR, by contrast, Kratos finishes off a Dark Elf the exact same way he would a Raider, or Draugr, as you can see from the opening minute of this video by YT user Dark Lord. The developers basically turned a special attack called from the first game into the default axe stun finisher, yet removed the unique Dark Elf animations, making combat with them far less exciting and engaging.
There are two ways a director’s cut could address these issues.
For one thing, it could return classic GOW finishers for the humanoid enemies and map them onto barehanded combat style, while adding them to the roster of weapon-based finishers already present. This way, when Kratos attempts to finish off a stunned enemy barehanded, the finisher will correspond to it.*
*At least two classic finisher move animations (a throw attack and a stomp attack) from GOW 2018 were repurposed in Ragnarok as Spartan Rage stance attacks. I strongly believe it would be for the best if these were reinstated as stun finishers.
Second, it could create some new, unique finisher animations in the previous game’s style for new enemies introduced in Ragnarok, such as the Light Elves. In addition to increasing stun finisher move variety, these measures will improve overall immersion and enjoyment, as well as bring back incentive to utilize barehanded combat.
Employing such changes would likely require a larger rebalancing of the game’s enemy and combat mechanics but I believe such changes would be worth it to generate interest and value in the revised edition as a whole.
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Other potential revisions
Larger armor perk variety: In the first game, belts and bracers in one armor set tended to have different effects or perks. By contrast, in the second game, belts and braces have identical perks every single time, it’s just that equipping them together increases the overall effect. This, imo, makes belts and bracers virtually interchangeable. A director’s cut could possibly create new effects to distinguish the two armor pieces from one another, creating greater armor effect variety and lowering redundancies.
Atreus’ transformation: Early into the game, Atreus gains the ability to transform into a powerful bear when enraged, but players are never actually able to unlock and, with the exception of one in-game towards the very end, cannot utilize this ability in the course of actual gameplay. This is rather disappointing, especially given the form’s prominence in cinematics. A director’s cut could address this by making it a regular unlockable and upgradable ability.
Against the trilogy argument
Ultimately, the reason Ragnarok would benefit from a director’s cut is that it simply should’ve been a longer game to begin with. The current version, as is, simply does not manage to fully realize its potential and do Ragnarok itself justice.
Now, having said all that, I am not a proponent of another potential solution to the issues I’d outlined previously, which was to split Ragnarok into two games and/or parts. So, here, I want to talk about why I think it’s actually good that the Norse story arc was resolved in two games, rather than three.
Without a doubt, the story told and the amount of gameplay content in Ragnarok could have supported two games. It’s almost twice as big as GOW 2018 in terms of memory, and the developers have openly spoken about the fact that they debated whether or not to make it as two more games before settling on a one-and-done approach. Spreading out the plot of Ragnarok over two games would’ve certainly allowed them to do the entire arc justice and resulted in a Norse God of War trilogy.
But at the same time, developing a hypothetical Part 1 and Part 2 of GOWR would pose a lot of problems. For one thing, despite containing many changes from its predecessor, GOWR still has a lot of overlaps and redundancies with GOW 2018, especially when it comes to its combat.
70-80 percent of the skills and abilities you learn with the Axe, the Blades, etc. were present in the last game. So, by the time we’d get to Ragnarok Part 2, there wouldn’t be a lot of new ground for the developers to cover with its returning weapons and elements.* Even if the developers introduced some other major new weapon or component to refresh the combat system, that would still mean a LOT of repetition.
*This is an issue that was evident with previous sequels - each new sequel in the PS2-PS3 era changed things up but only slightly, with the core mechanics remaining the same. GOW 3 (2010) was already feeling somewhat stale gameplay-wise, with most of Kratos weapons being a retread of his initial primary weapon which was already featured in the previous titles.
Same thing goes for the various ‘realms’ that you get to visit in the course of the two titles. GOW 2018 already allowed players to explore 6 of the 9 realms composing the world of Norse mythology. GOWR only introduces 3 previously unseen realms, so a Part 2 would likely be unable to have much novelty in this regard. So, when it comes to the levels, there’s again a lot of overlap and redundancy.
But more than that, a third Norse GOW game would have to resort to nerfing Kratos in order to work, setting back the progression we have made in the course of Part 1.
What do I mean by ‘nerfing’?
‘Nerfing’ is a neologism that originated in the context of online gaming to denote the act of making a certain video game element weaker, be it a certain weapon, a specific character, etc. This is typically done for the purpose of attaining an overall sense of balance in a game by preventing specific elements from being overpowered (OP) and so maximizing its enjoyment by audiences. Ostensibly, the term came out of Ultima Online, when the developers weakened overly powerful swords to the extent that players compared them to “Nerf” weapons, in reference to Hasbro Rubber Foam toys.
Now, it’s important to note that nerfing does not occur solely to online or multiplayer games. Any videogame that has action-adventure elements, such as a fighter, shooter, beat-em-up, hack-and-slash or JRPG, is susceptible to nerfing, as developers pay attention to how the game is played and use the audience feedback to make ongoing adjustments. Maybe one of the bosses is far too difficult for players to enjoy, or conversely, too easy. Either way, changes are deemed necessary for the game to properly function or work as a whole.
“Buffing is when a character or item is underpowered, and the developers do something to make it stronger. Nerfing is when a character or item is overpowered, and the developers do something to make it weaker. When these patches occur, the power dynamics change overnight in the game, leading to a lot of players trying new characters to see who they can gain an advantage with. This also can extend a game’s lifetime because it forces people to try new things in the game.”
Overall then, ‘nerfing’ generally refers to the process or technique of deliberately weakening and downgrading something or someone in a video game to ensure that audiences have reason or incentive to keep playing it, sustaining the game itself. It is thus synonymous with the “resetting” that occurs when developers make sequels to games, where characters gradually accumulate various abilities and grow more powerful over the course of a player’s progression.
And it can therefore be considered a natural byproduct of video-game sequelization.
Sequel resets are a regular and often necessary move, because a character that starts off at full power would have no room to grow and little to no challenge to overcome, which is fundamental to game design and play. The characters need to lose the skills, powers, etc. that they had gained in the previous game, so that the players can build them up in the new one. The player has to start at Level 1 and make his way up regardless of what happened in the last game. Otherwise, the progression would be too easy and the game would not be interesting.
That’s the rule.
That is why Kratos in the God of War sequels always ends up losing his various divine powers, magic abilities, weapons or skills at the outset. The new game essentially has to nerf the returning characters, so they will not be OP and players will have incentive to play as them once more.
This is exactly what happens in GOWR - rather than allow you to carry over all the gear and abilities you had ended GOW 2018 with, the game forces you to start off once more with almost nothing. The armors and talismans are all gone, while the Axe and the Blades are back to Level 1, so you have to re-upgrade them and re-learn many of the skills and abilities you had already unlocked the last time around.
Nerfing and Story
Now, it is important to note that in many such action-adventure games, characters’ gaining different powers isn’t limited strictly to the gameplay level, meaning it occurs within the narrative diegesis as well. In turn, the nerfing/loss of those powers can be reflected on the level of the story as well. Arguably, this occurs in part because game developers recognize that stories also require stakes, that it’s virtually impossible to construct a credible, coherent, and engaging plot when one’s protagonists are so powerful that nothing can challenge them, and every problem can be solved with a waive of the hand. The nerfing is thus key to the storytelling.
From this perspective, in addition to being a game development technique, it can also constitute a storytelling technique that makes it possible to continue telling the story when its protagonist has become overpowered, threatening the narrative’s coherence and believability. The problem is that nerfing can become overused, forcing incredible contrivances onto a story and destroying its momentum through repetition.
God of War 2 (2007), for example, has Kratos losing his God-like powers in the opening chapter, across both cinematics and gameplay. He shrinks from giant to human size, and his health bar and magic bar correspondingly diminish. When you regain control, you must level up your health and magic again. Correspondingly, the plot has Kratos obtain new divine powers and artifacts that would allow him to challenge the Gods.
GOWR, meanwhile, establishes that Kratos and his son have lost a lot of their powers during the three-year gap between games due to Filmbulwinter, a mystic 3-year winter said to precede the beginning of Ragnarok, that apparently somehow drained them of their magic powers. Why did the winter drain them exactly? What for?
The game never really bothers to answer these questions. Rather, it’s just a thin narrative excuse for having to rebuild your characters after they’ve inexplicably lost their mojo due to the necessities of gameplay.*
* Some of this drained magic later pops up in the form of elemental boss enemies that you can fight but otherwise it’s not really mentioned or delved into again.
GOWR Part 2 would have to contrive a similar narrative excuse for de-powering Kratos and forcing players to build him back up, distending the macro-story of the Norse Arc. Imagine picking up Part 2 with the intention to continue from where the cliffhanger ending of Part 1 had left off, only for the momentum to get derailed due to Kratos getting nerfed and needing some considerable story and gameplay time to recover. By condensing the plot to only one game, the developers were able to avoid such issues and so make better, more economical use of the elements already at their disposal. At the same time, they were able to distinguish this title gameplay-wise enough from its predecessor so that it doesn’t feel like a rehash.
Because of this, I am happy GOWR brings the Norse story arc to a conclusion. I just wish it had the time and space to really do justice to the story it wants to tell.
All in all, I find GOWR is a good game with the potential to become a great one. To do that, however, it needs a director’s cut/special edition/whatever you wanna call it that addresses its various issues. Because it should be a larger and longer game.
And given how well the initially released versions have sold so far, a revised edition would be well worth the investment.
Maybe it could be a special, exclusive edition only for the next generation of consoles (eg. Playstation 5). Maybe it could arrive as a downloadable expansion pack for those who have already purchased one of the currently available editions. Whatever the case is, I hope Santa Monica gives us the real Ragnarok at some point in the future.
But what do you think? Have you played God of War: Ragnarok? Did it deliver on its promises for you or was it a disappointment? Would you prefer a revised and improved edition, or perhaps DLC? Does it work well as one game or do you think it should've indeed been two?
Please leave a comment! (Or perhaps a note!)
Excellent analysis. I found the second game to be quite long, so with the last chapters, I wanted to finish it already. But you're probably right, the Ragnarok could have been more epic. One other annoyance for me was being told what to do right away when it came to environmental puzzles. Otherwise, the story is compelling, the relationship between Kratos and Atreus powerful, the way they showed their growth too.
I know nothing about this but found your look at the narrative structure fascinating!
Also like the nerfing explanation.
Thanks for such a well documented analysis.