Autumn is usually the busiest time of the year for gaming, as cold evenings grow longer and fantasy worlds become ever more enticing. Accordingly, game companies often save their biggest releases for this season. Yet 2022 has so far been unexpectedly quiet, partly because of the effects of the pandemic on development, with big hits such as Starfield, Hogwarts Legacy and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom delayed to next year.
One new game, however, was always going to cause a splash. God of War: Ragnarök is Sony’s biggest release of the year. Where the series originated in gory, irreverent action games about slaying gods and monsters, the franchise was given a reboot redolent of prestige TV in 2018, recasting hero Kratos from bawdy warrior to a grieving widower embarking on a funeral procession alongside a son he struggles to understand.
While that game was revolutionary, the sequel aims for refinement and expansion. Kratos and his son Atreus travel across nine Nordic realms, all more open for exploration than ever before, solving environmental puzzles and eviscerating all manner of supernatural beasties. Combat feels tense and tactile, with increased options to customise your fighting style. Then there are the exhilarating boss fights in which you might rocket skywards through storm clouds before landing, spitting out a few teeth and jumping back into the fray.
This cinematic style carries through to the game’s lengthy narrative. Here is a rich stew of family drama and divine melodrama, with comic relief provided by Mimir, who is charming and chatty despite being a decapitated head. Kratos is almost comically laconic, so tough that he puts bears into headlocks, while his son has grown into a teen who can now strip a deer carcass all by himself, thank you very much. As Atreus realises the extent of his own supernatural powers, he draws away from his father. Despite the thrilling fights, their relationship is the heart of this game, the themes explored even more eternal than fate and divine retribution — growing up and letting go.
Troubled families are also at the heart of A Plague Tale: Requiem, the follow-up to 2019’s cult hit Innocence and a beneficiary of the relatively quiet autumn release schedule. Protagonist Amicia de Rune spent the last game trying to escape the evil Inquisition across plague-struck 14th-century France, all while trying to lift a curse from her little brother Hugo. We still see the pair’s affection in attentive animations, such as when Amicia holds Hugo’s hand as they walk through fields of lavender and bustling medieval markets.
But these beautiful locations give no hint of the gruesome imagery to come, which befits the game’s title. Piles of bodies are stacked up against stone walls and thousands of rats swarm into every shadow. You cannot fight these rodents. Meanwhile human enemies easily overpower you. This game makes you feel vulnerable, emphasising stealth rather than combat. You have to be smart, using Amicia’s sling and alchemical concoctions to progress. When you do kill, the game underlines the gravity of that brutality, posing difficult questions about the violence that can be committed in the name of justice. It is at its most compelling when these concerns fray the relationship between the young siblings, who have seen much suffering and only have each other left.
If that sounds a little heavy for escapism, Nintendo’s big release of the season takes the opposite approach. Bayonetta 3 eschews an emotional — or even comprehensible — story in favour of ultra-fluid, satisfying combat and spectacular action sequences. It’s the latest in a beloved series about a badass librarian witch who battles angels as well as demons. Her combat-couture outfits are made of her own hair, which lifts away from her body, exposing more flesh as her magic power increases, parodying, rather than pandering to, the male gaze. It is as ludicrous, camp and joyous as it sounds.
The game prizes style above all. You can imagine developer Platinum Games’s conference room, where any new idea only had to pass two bars: “Does it look cool?” and “Does it feel great?” This is most evident in the combat, which focuses on combos and offers thrills as supple and precise as ever, but also in the dramatic set pieces. You can crash a mega-yacht party, chase villains across Tokyo high-rises and even dive into unexpected gameplay shifts, where the game transforms into a rhythm-action challenge or 2D stealth sequence just for the hell of it. Whatever the case, Bayonetta seals the deal in sultry style by blowing a kiss after she’s turned the baddies to dust. There is something to get gamers through the lean winter months, whatever their taste.
‘God of War: Ragnarök’ is out now on PS4/5. ‘A Plague Tale: Requiem’ is out now on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC. ‘Bayonetta 3’ is out now on Nintendo Switch