Two of PlayStation’s big hitters have recently dipped their toes into the roguelike waters, albeit with different philosophies driving them. The Last of Us Part 2 Remastered’s No Return plants its feet firmly in the camp of “gameplay is king”, offering a showcase for its tense stealth combat with no narrative dressing. God of War Ragnarok: Valhalla, on the other hand, is a much more story-focused experience, and one that I gained a lot more satisfaction from as a result. That’s not to say Naughty Dog’s attempts are by any means bad – I’ve enjoyed a good few hours playing No Return – but for me, there’s only one clear winner here, and he has a big beard and a massive axe.
Both modes are love letters to the characters and worlds established by their parent games with clear fan service paid throughout, whether that be the sights and sounds of Kratos’ Spartan roots resurfacing or the chance to finally play as some fan favourites from The Last of Us Part 2. But only Sony Santa Monica pushes the boat out on what to expect from a roguelike spin-off mode.
Fundamentally, God of War’s gameplay is just much better suited to the roguelike genre, thanks to its many different runic abilities, accompanying skill trees, and a greater variety of enemy types. That much larger set of varying factors can only benefit a mode where randomisation plays such a huge part, especially in comparison to The Last of Us’ limited arsenal and handful of enemies. Each run of Valhalla feels distinctly more fresh than anything No Return can muster, and it regularly treats us to new arenas to fight in, as opposed to No Return’s recycled venues from Part 2’s story. While mods to these levels can genuinely affect the way you need to approach an encounter, whether that be heavy fog shrouding Scars and Clickers or enemies dropping explosives upon death, No Return simply doesn’t have the underlying design structure that can make the most of the roguelike ethos.
In terms of pure combat, both systems are well-tuned to being a roguelike. There’s something deeply satisfying about the systemic puzzle box nature of The Last of Us’ stealth action as you skulk through long grass picking off your prey. The lack of variety restricts the randomness, and on the upside, this makes for a more methodical experience that allows you to set your strategies in concrete. But for me, the song of ice and fire that Kratos’ axe and blades create makes my heart sing. It’s a brutal rhythm that lets you slice through enemies and the pot-luck approach to new upgrades and runic abilities makes each run of Valhalla feel genuinely different to play as you choose which weapon to specialise in and which destructive rage mode to unleash.
But while Valhalla makes excellent use of God of War’s gameplay fundamentals, it’s not the thing that makes it special. That’s found in its use of the modern PlayStation’s mantra, which has moulded itself into a seamless hybrid of cinematic spectacle and layered storytelling. Narrative is what drives both The Last of Us and God of War series and every run of Valhalla adds new, intimate layers to Kratos’ story. But in No Return there is no such dedication to story. For Naughty Dog to strip its best-known quality out of the mode completely is a bold move, and one that I don’t think pays off.
Although glimpses of extra story can be seen in The Last of Us Part 2 Remastered’s Lost Levels – a collection of cut sequences that offer insight into a previous draft of Part 2 – I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be playing through a new chapter of Abby or Ellie’s story, akin to something like the original’s fantastic Left Behind DLC. But No Return has no such ambitions. It’s perhaps a little unfair to expect such a thing when Naughty Dog’s version of a roguelike is so clearly based around the thrill of combat as opposed to the thrills the studio regularly treats us to. But still, the mode can’t help but create a philosophical dissonance between the core themes and message of The Last of Us Part 2 and its meditations on the cyclical impact of violence. Even if the mode is undeniably fun, its existence feels at odds with its story.
No Return asks you to detach from the story, whereas Valhalla invites you to dive deeper in. No Return reduces its nuanced characters to killing machines, whereas God Of War asks further questions as to why violence follows Kratos at every step.
This is the key factor as to why Valhalla is the much more successful experiment – it never once feels at odds with what has come before it, instead serving as an epilogue to Ragnarok and an essential chapter of Kratos’ evolution. And that’s even before treating old-school fans to some truly spine-tingling moments that feature familiar faces and places from earlier in Kratos’ journey. It smartly uses the live-die-repeat nature of a roguelike to steadily tell its story in a way that perfectly reflects the pages of Norse mythology.
Even upon death, you’re rewarded with new dialogue and details from the likes of Freya and Mimir as you move further on your quest of uncovering the secrets of Valhalla, all while reframing Kratos’ past and hinting at his future. Of course, God of War isn’t the first game to do this and the mode appears to be heavily influenced by the Gods of a shared pantheon in Supergiant’s phenomenal Hades, which previously mastered marrying storytelling with roguelike mechanics. The genre lends itself to these fantasy or sci-fi settings, such as those seen in Returnal or Deathloop, in which it’s easier for us to suspend belief and allow for linear narratives to progress despite time seemingly repeating itself.
God of War Ragnarok: Valhalla
The firmly grounded nature of The Last of Us inherently doesn’t lend itself to such storytelling techniques and so Naughty Dog smartly doesn’t attempt such a thing. But that lack of a story sets it apart from God of War’s take, and is where it unfortunately pales in comparison. The Last of Us Part 2’s stealth combat is fantastic and is up there as some of the best since sneaking around as Snake in The Phantom Pain, but it was never what carried me through its story.
Ellie’s journey and what thrilling moment lies around the next corner is what makes that game so special, and without it, No Return is “just” a very good action-orientated mode that rewards your efforts with new character and weapon skin unlocks. Valhalla, on the other hand, is the complete package, and could reasonably be considered its own game – which makes it even more impressive considering we got it for free.
Valhalla dropped out of nowhere and the true extent of its ambition was pretty much undersold as it arrived to a relatively quiet fanfare. No Return on the other hand has gone through the traditional hype cycle of multiple trailers and hands-on preview beats, leading it to be much more anticipated than its effectively shadow-dropped cousin. In some ways, then, it’s unfortunate that Valhalla launched before Naughty Dog had the chance to release No Return, as Santa Monica’s stab at the roguelike genre is an altogether different beast and one that may have set unreasonable expectations for its Sony stablemate.
Evidently, God of War had more story to tell when The Last of Us isn’t quite yet ready to move onto its next chapter. It’s understandable that Naughty Dog wouldn’t force an epilogue of sorts in for the sake of it, and a roguelike mode wouldn’t necessarily be the best lens to see a new Abby or Ellie chapter through. But that lack of storytelling means that when placing these two experiences side-by-side No Return ends up feeling slim and safe next to the comparatively complete Valhalla. Both are great fun in their own right, but in this round of the battle of PlayStation heavyweights, Kratos comes out on top.
Simon Cardy thinks Ellie wouldn’t last two minutes in Valhalla. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.