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- God of War Valhalla is a TERRIBLE Roguelike, Here’s Why - December 26, 2023
When the God of War: Ragnarök Valhalla DLC was announced to have “elements inspired by the roguelike genre,” I was instantly intrigued as it is pretty rare for such a prominent developer to touch the intricate and specified nature of roguelikes. Roguelikes have almost completely taken form within the indie game sphere, with the most popular ones being expertly crafted from the ground up to meet the demands of this type of game. Thus, as I expected, the Valhalla DLC is not a competent roguelike, and even worse, it is very indicative of the problems with God of War: Ragnarök as a whole.
There are many ways to make a good roguelike, but compared to other gaming genres, it’s far more critical for the systems to work well together. It seems like the developers behind Valhalla understood the basic principles of roguelikes and went through the list to ensure Valhalla would be a roguelike by definition. However, there still is a fundamental failure to make everything work together. It gave me a moment of self-realization as the game begs you to believe it is indeed a roguelike, but just as Tinkerbell dies if you don’t believe in her, I found myself doubting if this really was a roguelike of note at all.
That being said, at the bare minimum, this DLC continues the fantastic story we have come to expect from this franchise. Great acting performances are there for all to enjoy, and a story that ties into the original trilogy glued me to my couch, even when the repetition of combat made me want to walk away. Additionally, the DLC is a free add-on to the game, which should be applauded in the current state of the gaming industry and hopefully will encourage other developers to do similar experiments.
However, despite its bright spots, Valhalla is a terrible roguelike, and I’d like to explain why.
God of War: RagnaRogue – How is it a Roguelike?
Valhalla’s structure is very similar to modern indie roguelikes. The story quickly establishes that you must prove yourself to the mystical land of Valhalla, which means you’re going to press circle to go through dozens of doors repeatedly. With the hope that you’ll progress further into Valhalla and get better each time.
Like roguelikes, you reset to the very start at the shore if you die. From the shore, you can upgrade skills permanently with rewards earned inside Valhalla, but the next time you enter Valhalla, you have to go once again from the very start. As you progress through each attempt, you choose temporary skills that only last for that run.
Between some encounters, there’s a safe area with a shop and multiple doors with designated symbols that lead to different rewards. You must complete a certain number of rooms to reach boss encounters, and you have to fight slowly to get to the end of Valhalla. The story segments only progress when you finish a run or die and are sent back to the shore. Luckily, within the often long runs, the quippy dialogue between Kratos and Mimir is fantastic, unless you’re terrible like me and die so often that they run out of things to say.
Almost all content, such as the characters and combat, is recycled directly from the base game but placed in this very different gameplay loop. This sounds amazing until you attempt a thorough run-through and realize why the DLC is only described as being “inspired” by the Rogelike genre. It reminds me of when I’m excited to take a sip of a fruity soda, only to find out I accidentally lifted a fruit-flavored sparkling water. Who the hell drinks this angry water anyway?
Not Entirely a Roguelike
Even with these systems, you are not meant to play through this game like a roguelike. It doesn’t feel like you are meant to die over and over unless you’re a masochist, and it doesn’t feel like you’re meant to treat the game as a competent roguelike in the slightest.
I’ll concede that the first hour or so feels great because everything feels novel and brand new. However, eventually, you hit the end of the run, are given some story content, and then are automatically reset to the start. You then have to replay through the same patch of content, with virtually no significant differences or chances because of the mediocre random-level generation I’ll touch on later.
This then begins a series of 30-minute endurance runs in a bid to reach the true ending. It made my blood boil when I died a handful of times, only to get to the end and be told to do it all over again with no meaningful changes. It was as if I had run a marathon, passed through the finish line and was then promptly told that the adjudicator had failed to start the stopwatch. Sure, I was happy to get through the run, but the prospect of needing to do it again loomed large, and it wasn’t exactly an inviting prospect.
This forced repetition was something that the developers were acutely aware of, as they would then make concessions like adding doors to skip huge portions of the beginnings of runs, which not only shows how little they valued their own roguelike formula, but also made late-run sections needlessly difficult as you wouldn’t be able to acquire suitable equipment and buffs unless you went through the sections they had deemed not worth anyone’s time. It’s a concession that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a roguelike, certainly not a good one. And it’s one I hope not to see ever again.
Oh, Kratos, You’re So random!
In other roguelikes, you’re forced to restart repeatedly. That’s the whole gig, and quite frankly, if you like Roguelikes, that’s exactly what you want. A strong and repetitive gameplay loop. This is usually achieved by an ever-changing scenario each loop, and a whole heap of procedural generation. It’s just a shame that Valhalla’s ‘Random Generation’ is a bit of a fallacy.
Valhalla’s random content generation, a key feature of other roguelikes, is only somewhat random. All of the arenas are premade, and the only random aspect of this is which one you are assigned when you bound through each door. This isn’t surprising because levels as detailed as those in Valhalla have to be handmade by specialists. Still, nonetheless, this means even if you don’t die a single time through the course of the DLC, you will still repeat the same arenas over and over again. This begs the question, did we really need these handcrafted areas when basic but bespoke arenas would have sufficed?
Furthermore, a few arenas can only have specific groupings of enemies. Although many enemy placements are random, occasionally, you’ll revisit an area and find it always has the same enemies. It doesn’t feel like a roguelike; it feels like Groundhog Day. Which, while a great movie, makes for a pretty underwhelming gaming experience. Unless we are talking Timeloop games, but don’t get me started on those!
That diversion aside, one of the most integral parts of roguelikes is the thrill of constant change and adapting to the scenario before you, with every replay being vastly different. Valhalla fails to provide this feeling, which is a huge reason why it is a terrible attempt at a roguelike.
Building On Top of Broken Combat
The combat inside the base game of God of War Ragnarök isn’t terrible, yet it still has many obvious flaws described in Callum Marshall’s review of God of War Ragnarök. However, these cracks were often smoothed over with the consistent narrative set pieces, puzzle sections, and ebbs and flows in the action. So, it makes it all the more surprising and bewildering that Santa Monica would decide to make a roguelike to test the tensile strength of their weakest gameplay asset.
Weirdly, the enemy AI is pretty good in GOW, and does more than just rush your position blindly. Yet if an enemy is behind you and outside your field of vision or just blocked behind other enemies, it’s almost as though a switch is toggled, and they instantly become a mindless hollow from dark souls, swinging their sword at a brick wall in the corner.
This is a clever bandaid for a system that desperately wants to hide that it’s not good at having the player fight multiple enemies at once, but when combat is all the player has to engage with, and enemies are aplenty, the cracks begin to show.
Well-built roguelikes like Hades or The Binding of Issac have incredibly tight combat systems that Valhalla cannot match for depth, gameplay variety, and quality. Not only is every attack on-screen well-telegraphed in these indie games, but your moves and their mechanics, such as invisibility frames and recovery animations, are clear and deliberate. Whereas Valhalla offers fodder enemies in bulk, which never test the player, never change their approach to combat, and yet, through poorly suited systems, can end up getting cheap shots on players and overwhelming you simply because you aren’t given the tools to deal with swarms of enemies at once.
It’s a problem that could have been easily avoided if the enemy waves were swapped out for a boss gauntlet run of sorts, not unlike a wonderful little indie called Furi. We could have had ended up enduring a series of fights not unlike the Valkyries, which not only solves the combat issue, but makes each run more testing and engaging, but hey, it’s only a perfect solution to an obvious problem; what do I know?
The Difficulty With Difficulty
Among many issues with Valhalla, one of the most instant realizations I had while playing was when I was forced to choose a difficulty setting before stepping into the game. I’m not necessarily surprised because a game series with such a broad audience as God of War would allow people of all skill levels to play, but when creating a roguelike, difficulty is a crucial thing to get right.
First of all, most roguelikes tend to have a set difficulty setting. This allows naturally good players or veteran return players to ace the hard difficulty preset, and then allows less equipped players to learn how the loop works, build their stats to a point where the content feels comfortable, and then proceed to blitz through the content themselves. It’s not about picking a difficulty preset; it’s more about using in-game concessions to find your level. A fact that GOW completely ignores.
The incentive for each difficulty is that you’ll get better rewards for your efforts, which, with no knowledge of the game going in, sounds fine. But when you realize that the content is a never-changing, ever-repeating slog where the drop bonuses are as pointless as the storyline in a porno, you’ll then realize that Valhalla really misses the boat altogether.
Compare this to Hades, one of the most prevalent roguelikes of the past few years, which ironically is similarly inspired by Greek mythology. In Hades, you will almost definitely die many times and then pick yourself back up and try again. Where is the difficulty option in Hades? There’s an option when making a new save file to play on a harder difficulty, and also buried within the settings, there is an option to make the game easier. It means that the option for Hard and Easy difficulty is there for those that want it, but in actuality, hardly anyone ever will because the base systems are so damn strong.
This is why the fact that they added the phrase, “You are encouraged to change difficulties during your experience,” is so interesting to me. The difficulty slider is essentially a crutch this game uses to excuse its own balancing and pacing issues. Is the game too hard? Well, that must be your fault. That’s the narrative the game will try to push on you, but don’t be fooled; you aren’t the problem.
The Guiding Story
So, as a roguelike from a gameplay perspective, it’s a big swing and a miss for me. However, the most significant commendation I must give this DLC is how it develops Kratos’s story. I consider myself very well-versed in the lore for the God of War series, and Valhalla did something that was arguably outright ignored by Ragnarök and God of War 2018 to help create a softer version of Kratos.
It very closely ties the new story with the original trilogy. Valhalla uses the lore and characters of the previous games to shape the Kratos we now guide. As he goes through Valhalla, he comes to terms with his past and finds how to be a better person in the present.
Even though Valhalla fails as a roguelike, at least if you’re a massive fan of the series and the story so far in Ragnarök, that’s likely reason enough to play through this free DLC. Don’t feel bad if you get fed up with the gameplay and turn down the difficulty a bit; this story is worth seeing.
At Least It’s Free
All this criticism is, in my eyes, at least, completely fair and warranted. However, I do have to give credit where it’s due and further soften the blow right at the end of this rant to say, kudos to Santa Monica for making this a free DLC. To me, one of the most impressive aspects of this DLC is its price tag of $0.00. It’s rare for a development team to experiment as vastly as they have with Valhalla, but it’s impressive that it was put out to audiences for this price.
I could see them marketing this as a $10-$20 addition to the core experience, especially considering its ties to Kratos’s backstory in the previous games. Even though gamers love great deals, it’s impossible to escape how expensive it is to keep up with the latest experiences. With many new titles now costing $70 and backlogs forever growing, it’s so beautiful to have something new for free.
The one thing I hope gaming companies take from Valhalla is that it’s important to experiment with different ideas from time to time, but more importantly, it’s important to give back to the fans and add value to your games without lining your pockets.
An Interesting Experiment
So after exploring the good and bad of this free DLC, I still find myself nodding in approval of my own thoughts, as this game is a terrible roguelike. That being said, though, God of War: Ragnarök Valhalla is an exciting game design experiment.
You can’t say it’s just thrown together, but it often feels like elements were put in so it could imitate a roguelike rather than serve as one in its own right. As much as I was initially intrigued by the concept of a God of War roguelike, mashing together these two separate concepts seems to have only highlighted the worst parts of the modern GOW experience. God of War’s combat was not created for this gameplay loop, and vice versa; Roguelike systems excel with well-telegraphed and tight combat systems, which God of War doesn’t have.
One of the possible saving graces of the experience would have been if the random generation of content made every single run unique from the previous. Yet, instead, every run-through is virtually indifferent from the first. In the last few run-throughs of the game, since you’re forced to reach the end multiple times to get the true ending, the only actual changes made are story-related, yet because the gameplay loop is mostly combat, it makes the ultimate goal bland and uninspired.
Unlike any other roguelike I’ve played, it becomes almost insufferable in later runs through the gauntlet, and not only is Valhalla a terrible roguelike, but it’s a telltale description of what not to do when experimenting with game design.
If you were already going to play Valhalla because you enjoyed Ragnarök, I’d say go for it; otherwise, don’t feel bad steering clear of this experience.
Question: Do I need to play through God of War: Ragnarok to experience Valhalla?
Answer: You technically can jump into Valhalla before completing Ragnarok’s primary campaign, yet it takes place after the main story’s plot, so it’s recommended you complete the base game first.
Question: How difficult is God of War: Ragnarok’s Valhalla DLC?
Answer: Even though Valhalla can be difficult, a wide variety of difficulty settings means players of all skill levels can play the game.
Question: How long does beating God of War: Ragnarok’s Valhalla DLC take?
Answer: Depending on how many times you die and what objective you choose to pursue, Valhalla should take you anywhere between 5 and 8 hours to complete.