For Sony Santa Monica, this year’s battle for the Game of the Year award should be familiar. When the studio's reimagining of Kratos took the top prize in 2018, it was facing stiff competition from Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. That race felt tight enough that the top trophy could have been split in two. Several great games are vying for the throne this year – like A Plague Tale: Requiem and Stray – but God of War: Ragnarok’s only true challenger this year is FromSoft’s Elden Ring.
With two such titans facing off, picking a victor is difficult. But let’s give Ragnarok (which came out much later in the year) its due before we make a prediction.
A THOROUGHLY SATISFYING CONCLUSION
Ragnarok. As the name suggests, the latest God of War is the concluding arc of Kratos and Atreus’s confrontation with the Norse pantheon. But would it live up to the outsized expectations?
How do you top your predecessor when it was so widely beloved and, in some cases, nearly perfect? Most people believed this would be a simple reiteration of the previous title, taking players through a similar experience that wrapped up the narrative loose ends. But Sony Santa Monica has gone above and beyond, improving on many aspects of the 2018 version, particularly the action experience. God of War’s combat felt impactful and interesting, and Ragnarok’s additions only serve to sweeten the experience, broadening its versatility through more styles. The standout element though must be the solo combat sections for Kratos’s son Atreus. The variety it provides to the system is delightful, and it paves the way for future changes to the usual God of War formula.
This refreshed and revitalised combat is introduced with a bang too. Within a half-hour of starting the game, Kratos is facing off against Norse heavyweight Thor. It is an epic encounter - The Ghost of Sparta facing off against the God of Thunder. The Leviathan Axe vs Mjolnir. The sense of scope and power is truly reminiscent of the mythology from which these games draw for their setting and narrative.
Ragnarok also expands on the first game in the way it expands the scope of the Norse lands, while also delving deeper into that mythology. Throughout their journey, Kratos and Atreus will delve into the steaming wetlands, mountains and mines of the Dwarven land of Svartalfheim, the elegant, crystalline architecture of the Elves’ Alfheim, and even the fiery rock and magma landscape of Muspelheim, bringing these age-old stories to vivid life.
If there was a complaint from the first entry, it would be the limitations to the exploration of these realms. The side-quests were a bit straightforward and failed to fully flesh out the open world. Ragnarok addresses those complaints, drawing on the Norse lore of the gods and the realms to create truly stand-out side quests. By improving upon these aspects, Ragnarok manages to craft a truly memorable experience.
Despite the frost and frigidity of the Norse setting, the game is also one of the warmest of the current generation, balancing blood-pumping action with nuanced characterisation and storytelling.
Ragnarok’s tale is grounded by the two elemental pillars of the story – the heroes and the villains. The character story remains focused on the bond between Kratos and Atreus, father and son. The impulsive young Atreus from the first game is now hungry for knowledge about his background and his place in the world but seeks those answers with reckless abandon. Kratos, having finally taken on the role of father properly in the last game, clashes with Atreus out of concern for his safety. Their relationship undergoes many ups and downs throughout their journey, but it reaches a truly satisfying conclusion as Atreus matures into the man he was meant to be and Kratos grows to respect the person he is. It truly does justice to the Ghost of Sparta’s development over the years.
The villains, meanwhile, are an exciting gallery of foes. Richard Schiff, of The West Wing fame, takes the lead as Odin, a conniving and clever patriarch who has swayed the realms to his desires. Thor, hulking and brutish, serves as his enforcer. As always, their arcs reveal the human side of these all-powerful deities, exposing their human follies and revealing the truth behind the glorified crime family that the pantheon has at its head.
In the end, God of War: Ragnarok feels like Sony Santa Monica’s love letter to fans of the first game. Few gaming experiences reach such heights. Refreshing the well-heeled franchise by shifting from the operatic stakes of Greek mythology to a more down-to-earth take on Viking mythos gave new life to the series. Through a combination of originality, consistency, and dedication, the duology delivered visceral mechanics, nuanced storytelling and a truly memorable experience.
But will it be enough to take the Game of the Year award?
CLASH OF THE TITANS
The Game Awards are decided by a mixture of audience reaction, critical acclaim and industry favour. In that sense, Ragnarok has stiff competition from Elden Ring.
Many of the biggest and most popular single-player games of the last decade have been open-world games. These games offer a massive swathe of content to sink hours and hours into. They are games with massive scope and scale, that allows the player to get lost in their worlds. However, the proliferation of these games over the past few years has led to a bit of fatigue setting in. In many cases, such as Ubisoft’s still extremely popular Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed games, there is a focus on quantity over quality. These games are often loose and a bit repetitive, failing to engage the audience and offering up standard and trope-heavy narratives and experiences.
That is why FromSoft’s Elden Ring is such a breath of fresh air. Known for the tight, difficult gameplay and elegant, evocative storytelling of the Souls games, From reached new heights with their first foray into the open-world genre this year. The game still features the slightly masochistic flavour of its previous titles – that deliciously addictive loop of smashing into a wall against a particularly devious trap or seemingly insurmountable boss enemy before emerging triumphant – but also expands into a world as mysterious and intriguing as any found in the video game medium. The breadth of the world put together by Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R R Martin of Game of Thrones fame allows players to not only take a little breather when a difficult hurdle seems too daunting but also uncover an entire universe of rich, haunting secrets.
By the time you’re done appreciating the detail and versatility (and have upgraded your character a bit), you’ll be ready to conquer that previous roadblock. The victory players achieve there not only feels earned but also personal. It is a true triumph of game flow. Once the player is hooked, the exciting and unique locations and the delightful enigmas around the world will not only make the thousands of deaths that it took to explore worth it, but actually compelling.
In 2018, God of War had a leg-up on Red Dead Redemption 2 at the Game Awards in terms of novelty. After all, it was completely reworking the tone, style and setting of a once-beloved series and taking it to new heights. Red Dead Redemption 2 was a step up from its predecessor in terms of immersion, but it still stuck with many of the same tropes of the Western genre.
Similarly, while Elden Ring is similar to the older Souls series of games, it is an ambitious expansion of them too, pushing the limits of the open-world RPG genre with a unique and captivating entry that will be a touchstone for game designers for years to come. It doesn’t hurt that it was, by far, the most successful of From’s games, reaching millions of new players unfamiliar with the Souls sub-genre.
Though Ragnarok is a significantly improved sequel to an already great game, I believe Elden Ring retains the upper hand. Similarly, the first Red Dead Redemption also won Game of the Year, as God of War did in 2018. Though FromSoft got its own Game of the Year with Sekiro, there is less overlap between those games in terms of flavour, setting and style.
In the end, I believe Elden Ring remains the favourite to take home this year’s crown. Ragnarok is a true achievement and an excellent example of the form, but it is still developing a familiar tune. Elden Ring is genre-defining and its quality and daring individuality deserve recognition.
But, regardless of who wins, the Game of the Year award will serve as a reminder of the excellent experiences gamers have been treated to this year.
This article is a preview of video games coverage at Stripe, bdnews24.com’s page for exciting, in-depth analysis of society and culture from a youth perspective. The page is set to launch soon.