God of War is an interesting, complicated game that’s drawn a lot of attention over the past couple weeks. I didn’t enjoy it as much as some did, and that’s all because of one thing: those damned trolls.
The first time we see a troll in God of War, it’s the payoff to an emotional scene where the pantheon-killing Kratos teaches his young son Atreus how to kill an animal. It’s basic storytelling stuff in the first 15 minutes of the game, laying the groundwork for how Atreus might emotionally deal with murder, and the troll appears as a way of escalating Kratos’s teachable moment about killing. Just as the deer is slain, the troll grabs the corpse, and Kratos shows his kid what it’s really like to fight and kill.
This initial fight with a troll is exciting if only because it finally opens up what God of War’s fights are about. Now that Atreus has slain that deer, he’s a part of Kratos’s combat abilities, and you can have him shoot the troll at the same time as Kratos is wailing on it with an axe. As for the combat design, the troll has a nice set of attacks that are varied and telegraphed appropriately. You know when he’s going in for a smash with that obelisk he’s holding or when he’s going to charge you. It’s a clean and simple fight that is very appropriate for the opening of the game.
The problem is that they keep happening. Over the course of God of War I fought these trolls so many times that I genuinely became angry about it, and it makes me enjoy the game far less than other critics seem to be.
I am not adverse to reusing enemies. In fact, when it’s done well, it can really flesh out narrative and mechanical elements of a game. Fighting the Taurus Demon early in Dark Souls is a fraught and difficult experience for first-time players, and the most reliable way of defeating is literally leaping off a tower to stab it. Then, later in the game, half a dozen Taurus Demons can be found standing around in the Demon Ruins. The reuse of enemies in this example is about context. These creatures are singular and dangerous in the world above, and down here they are common. Therefore, down here is full of singular and dangerous creatures. This reuse of enemies works.
God of War’s reuse of trolls is nothing like what Dark Souls does. Instead, the trolls are used as miniboss filler that feel more like speed bumps to prevent you from barreling through areas too quickly than they do actual enemies with meaning in the world. They are fundamentally pockets of time, factoring more into my playthrough as things I had to hack on than things I had to skillfully maneuver around or think about too hard. And that’s a real bummer, because the moment-to-moment combat in mixed groups is infinitely more interesting than the inevitable one-on-one troll fight where additional enemies spawn in every now and again.
Late in the game, the trolls get the classic video game alterations. They get palette swapped into new colors, some sweet particle effects come into play, and they start being themed around fire and ice. Short of a couple new attacks, though, these fights are exactly the same. The rhythms are the same, the back and forth of attacking and defense is the same, and it all feels like a slog. Eventually the game pulls the real whammy and makes you fight an ice troll and a fire troll at the same time, plumbing the depths of figuring out things for the player to do.
The true head-shaker comes somewhere around the midpoint of the game. Kratos is forced to travel into the snowy wastes of Helheim to fetch the heart of the Bridge Keeper. It’s some real fantasy-ass stuff, right out of mythology, and this perilous journey is given extra narrative weight due to the fact that Kratos has to wield the Blades of Chaos, his iconic chain-bound swords from the previous God of War games. This entire section of the game is hammering on the player from all sides: Kratos has had to confront his past, he’s traveling into the underworld, and it’s a place where few ever return. This Bridge Keeper has to be completely badass, the kind of big boss that these games are known for. Is it going to be some kind of living bridge creature with a giant maw ready to chomp?
It’s a troll. It’s a troll with new attacks and some phases, but it’s still built off of the same basic pattern that you experience two dozen other times in the game. For me, there is no joy in fighting these trolls. I don’t find the new twists on the same old creatures to be compelling. Instead, I feel like they are just yet more samey enemies that I have to slowly slog through in my journey toward things that are new, compelling, and original.
And, look, I’m not knocking the practice of reusing these creatures. Game development is hard, it takes a long time, and this kind of escalating use of the same enemy to new ends is a tried and true method of resource efficiency and genuinely good game design. These trolls, in many games, would work. Yet here, in this game, they consistently make me want to put the controller down and never pick it up again.