God of War Ragnarok: Valhalla is much better and much more substantial than you think it is. Amidst rumours of a new story-driven expansion, at The Game Awards, when Sony Santa Monica Studio announced a free roguelite DLC for the action-adventure game, I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated, not only because I realized I wouldn’t be getting the series’ next narrative chapter I had wanted, but also because, plain and simple, I’m not usually one for roguelikes.
Since this is still God of War – a franchise that has been among my favourites for as long as it has existed – I did obviously jump into Valhalla as soon as it became available, but I did so with fairly low expectations, and assuming that I would bounce off pretty quickly. It didn’t take me too long, however, to realize that this free roguelite mode that Sony Santa Monica had released for a game over a year on from its launch actually had much, much more going on than had been suggested.
"The most surprising thing about Valhalla is how narrative-driven it is."
The most surprising thing about Valhalla is how narrative-driven it is. That’s not something that you usually associate with roguelites and roguelikes, though taking more than a few learnings from the lessons of Supergiant Games’ incredible Hades, God of War Ragnarok’s roguelite DLC makes its story an integral part of the experience, and integrates it into its structure in spectacular fashion. New narrative tidbits and story progression are just as important as rewards for making progress within and across runs as mechanical, gameplay-oriented upgrades are, which makes it a surprisingly attracting part of the game even to those who usually favour story over mechanics- as I imagine many God of War fans in this day and age would.
Valhalla serves as an epilogue to God of War Ragnarok. In the aftermath of Odin’s defeat, with the realms working together on recovering and regrouping, Freya has asked Kratos to be the new God of War of the new Norse era, but that, of course, is a title that Kratos has a very bloody and destructive history with, which automatically makes him more than a little reluctant to take on that mantle again. Against this backdrop, he has also received a mysterious invitation to Valhalla, a place that can help him master himself, not just as a combatant, but also by helping him come to terms with his past, if he is so willing.
That serves as Valhalla’s narrative foundation, and allows the DLC to craft a narrative much more zoomed in and intimate than anything the series has done before. God of War has, of course, grown increasingly character-driven with time, but even in the last two games, that character-driven storytelling has been intrinsically linked to the more epic and bombastic elements of the overarching narrative. Valhalla, one the other hand, is purely and exclusively about introspection and self-reflection, a deep dive into Kratos’ psyche, a long and repeatable therapy session where he plunges into himself and tries to figure out if he trusts himself enough to become a God of War again.
"For longtime God of War fans, especially those who have been asking for stronger connections to the series’ past, Valhalla is unmissable."
Given how effectively it does all that, Valhalla’s storytelling would have been worth experiencing as it is, but that premise also leads to another of the DLC’s biggest strengths- which is just how strongly it links back to the older, Greek era God of War games. The Norse saga has obviously been built upon the series’ older games and the stories they told, but though it hasn’t completely broken itself away from that era, it’s still been pretty divorced from it. Thanks to its premise of self-reflection, however, Valhalla frequently interfaces with the Greek era God of War games in significantly more tangible and overt fashion.
A lot of that is obviously best left unspoiled, but from locations to conversations between characters to even some surprising appearances, the roguelite DLC makes Kratos’ Greek past a significantly more vital part of its fabric that God of War (2018) or God of War Ragnarok did. Beyond those narrative beats, it does so in other ways as well, with music pulled from the older games, Greek era enemies to take on in combat, puzzles and gameplay sections directly calling back to the older instalments, and more. For longtime God of War fans, especially those who have been asking for stronger connections to the series’ past, Valhalla is unmissable.
But of course, it’s not all about story. This is a roguelite mode, at the end of the day, which means the actual moment-to-moment gameplay and overarching loop are crucial to the experience. It’s a good thing, then, that the mechanical bones of God of War Ragnarok are as excellent as they are, because Valhalla is an absolute blast to play through. The combat is as punchy, aggressive, and brutal as ever, if not even more so, thanks to how heavily Valhalla emphasizes and encourages experimentation. Each run randomly assigns specific weapons and shields that will yield additional bonuses and rewards, while random elements like Relics, Glyphs, and more also switch up the combat in small but noticeable ways from run to run.
There’s a solid balance here between permanent and temporary upgrades – which is why Valhalla is way more roguelite than roguelike – which, combined with the option to choose between five difficulty levels, makes it a much more accessible and approachable experience than most roguelites and roguelikes tend to be. If you’re someone who is drawn to Valhalla first and foremost for the story, the DLC lets you experience it that way- but once you’re in, you quickly realize how consistently fun and addictive the core loop is.
"If you’re someone who is drawn to Valhalla first and foremost for the story, the DLC lets you experience it that way- but once you’re in, you quickly realize how consistently fun and addictive the core loop is."
If there’s one area where I think Valhalla falters a little bit, it’s how quickly its environments can get repetitive. The pool of assets and areas from which the DLC pulls at random from run to run seems fairly limited, which means the frequency at which you see new things and areas lowers exponentially as you play more. Thankfully, narrative discoveries and gameplay rewards do offset some of those issues somewhat, but the environmental repetition is still a bit of a disappointment. Then again, Valhalla is an addendum to an existing AAA behemoth rather than a standalone, dedicated roguelite game, which means it was probably never going to have the level of variation that’s needed to sustain dozens upon dozens of hours of gameplay.
In the end, I’ve been hugely surprised by God of War Ragnarok: Valhalla. It’s a much meatier piece of content than I had expected, and in more ways than one. Not only is it a smartly balanced and cleverly mode roguelite experience that’s consistently fun to play, it’s also way more focused on story and storytelling than you would expect, and it combines those two elements in spectacular fashion. And for veteran God of War fans in particular, it’s an absolute treat. Oh, and it’s free. I still can’t get my head around how something this good and this meaty was released for free.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Surprisingly story-heavy; Perfectly integrates its storytelling with its roguelite structure; Strong, rewarding connections to the Greek era games; Combat is as fun and brutal as ever; Addictive core loop; Solid balance between permanent and temporary upgrades; It's free.
Too much environmental repetition.