The word “valkyrie” is derived from an Old Norse word that means “chooser of the slain.” The valkyries of God of War have chosen to slay me almost every single time we’ve fought. And that’s dozens of times, across multiple valkyries, with only a single victory so far. My record’s like 1-65 or something, which means I’m basically the anti-Mayweather of this particular kind of fight in this specific videogame. Just call me Glass Joe of Midgard.
The valkyries are tough. I keep coming back, though, as soon as I die, and time after time, for however long I can spend on the game before I have to go somewhere or do something else. The valkyries aren’t just demolishing Kratos and my sense of pride—they’re slicing and dicing into my sleep schedule, keeping me up way later than I like. I can’t stop fighting them, and I can’t stop losing to them. They’re easily the best thing about God of War.
When I reviewed the game I wrote that the combat is the game’s greatest strength. It’s a rhythmic duel between game and player, with fingers tapping between shoulder and face buttons, bouncing from one weapon to another, and with many skills and strikes to unlock and learn. Between all the various upgradable systems and abilities, combat is deeper than it first appears, and it takes practice and a clean head for me to remember how to whip out everything at my disposal in the heat of battle. That’s especially true when fighting a valkyrie.
The valkyries in God of War aren’t typical videogame bosses. They also aren’t hard for the sake of being hard. They’re optional battles in hidden areas that have to be discovered throughout the game, and they’re precisely calibrated to test the player’s mastery of the game’s combat systems. Each valkyrie has a limited roster of moves that are all clearly telegraphed in advance, so I usually know what I need to do to beat one after one or two fights. Knowing what to do isn’t the same as being able to do it, of course, and between the speed of the valkyries, the extreme damage they can dish out, and the relatively small amount of damage done by my attacks, defeating them is a tremendous challenge.
The valkyries might not be the game’s final boss, but they are the final test of my knowledge of God of War’s combat system. Before I enter their chamber I have to make sure I’ve equipped the best enchantments, talisman and runic attacks for the job. Once the fight starts I have to have pristine reflexes to block the valkyrie’s attacks, or roll out of the way of the ones that can’t be blocked. I have to remember to unload my runic attacks as soon as they’re available and when there’s an opening—wasting even one of them will probably lead to my defeat. I have to constantly mash the square button throughout so Atreus keeps up a steady stream of arrows, and hold it down for him to unleash his summons attacks when the cooldown meter lets him. During battle I’m constantly juggling between Kratos’s axe and his other primary weapon to use all four of my runic attacks, and keeping an eye on every possible cooldown meter so I can launch those powerful specials as soon as I can. And the whole time my eyes are locked on the valkyrie’s superhumanly fast motions, trying to avoid or dull as much damage as possible.
Knowing how to beat an enemy, but struggling to pull it off due to how powerful they are, is one of the chief signs of a great videogame fight. Saying that something in a game is hard but not “unfair” might be a cliché, but it does actually mean something, and it fits perfectly with these valkyrie fights. No matter how many times I’ve died, even the multiple times I’ve had a valkyrie down to a tiny sliver of health and only had to land one or two more hits to beat her, I haven’t felt like the game was unduly punishing me. Despite those many deaths, I’ve never felt frustrated with the game, but only with myself for once again coming up short. That’s how a well-designed game should make me feel when I die and die and die again at the same place.
These fights also support the game’s main story of Kratos’s slow redemption. I wasn’t sold on that part of the game (again, read my review!) but the valkyrie battles at least fit that theme. Kratos isn’t trying to kill them—he’s trying to rescue them from Odin, who’s corrupted them and held them captive in mystically sealed chambers. In previous God of War games Kratos would just murder the valkyries without a second thought—in fact, he’d probably rescue them from their corrupted forms, and then immediately kill them once they’re back to normal. Instead he’s actually helping them here. It’s the kind of character development that’s not fully earned by the game’s story, but at least the designers made sure to mesh these optional tests of technical prowess with the game’s narrative goals.
I’m not thinking about that during the battles, though. I’m solely focused on finally winning this time, every time, whichever time it may be. Is it my 15th attempt? My 20th? I don’t know. I just know what I have to do, how I have to do it, and that if I make even one mistake I probably won’t pull it off. And that when I die I’ll immediately jump in and try again.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.