Early on in God of War Ragnarok, Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir venture to the dwarven realm of Svartalfheim to rescue Tyr from a secret prison below the mines. As is often the case in Ragnarok, there’s plenty to see off the beaten path. Tyr’s been down there for centuries anyway, another hour won’t kill him, right? If you’re so inclined, Mimir has a favor to ask first. When you reach the open waters of the Bay of Bounty, he asks you to take a right turn and resolve one of the storyteller’s biggest regrets. I recommend that you do, because the detour leads to the best side mission in the entire game.
Each realm in Ragnarok tells the story of Odin’s misdeeds, but Svartalfheim is just as much a vision of Mimir’s malice as it is the All-Father’s. As Odin’s right hand, Mimir is the one who negotiated the mining agreement with the dwarves and trapped them in an inescapable cycle of wage slavery, not to mention poisoned their realm with the burning of fossil fuels. Ragnarok isn’t particularly subtle with its social commentary, for better or worse.
Scattered across the bay are mining rigs that perpetually belch black smoke into the clear blue sky, and if you have the time you can work your way from rig to rig dismantling them to help Mimir put his mind at ease. Unfortunately, that’s not the only mark he’s left on the realm. While destroying the rigs you’ll eventually find a key that unlocks a nearby gate. Behind it is a gong that Mimir is anxious to see you strike. When you do, a massive whale with an entire island on its back, called a Lyngbakr, will emerge from the water.
Mimir explains that he captured the Lyngbakr and chained it up here to earn Odin’s favor, but that he expected it to have escaped at some point throughout the years. When pressed, Mimir says they kept the beast to harvest its blubber, which he acknowledges was particularly cruel, now that he knows what it's like to be chained up for years. He asks you to climb the whale and destroy all of the locks holding it in place so that it can be free again.
The structure of Lyngbakr Island is fantastic. The way you navigate all of its one-way gates, climbing puzzles, and combat encounters makes it feel like a miniature Zelda dungeon. Destroying the locks is a simple matter of tossing your axe at them, but finding the right angles to access the locks requires some precise bomb-throwing and some degree of mental mapping. Each lock you break causes the whale to move around and break pieces of the island apart, creating new, interconnected areas to access. All the while, barnacle-covered draugr burst out of the walls to impede your progress.
While the level design is great, the mission wouldn’t be half as memorable if not for the strength of the storytelling. Mimir is a character we’ve grown intimately close to throughout 2018’s God of War, so we’re at once motivated to help him right his wrongs while also grappling with the understanding that someone that has been so kind to us has done something so terrible. Kratos is put off by this too, but if anyone understands the need to make amends for past sins, it's Kratos. This is story, design, and gameplay working together in perfect harmony.
One of my criticisms of Ragnarok is that it tends to oversimplify its themes, but that isn’t the case here. Upon breaking the Lyngbakr’s chains, Mimir tries to tell it that it can swim away now that it’s free. When it doesn’t move, Kratos explains that it has grown accustomed to its chains. Perhaps it no longer knows how to be free. Mimir is distraught – he wanted to release the creature and make things right. “There is no making things right,” Kratos says. “Only better than they were.” Atreus tells him that he can sense the Lyngbakr enjoys the feeling of wind on its face, but Mimir becomes angry. “That’s not enough!” he says. You’d think this lesson would be one Mimir could wrap his disembodied head around, but irony makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch.
There are some decent side quests later on, but none of them compare to the pathos you feel here. For being such a minor part of the adventure, it’s an incredibly dense scene that weighs heavily on all three characters, but in completely different ways. For Mimir it’s the inescapable consequences of his actions. For Kratos it's a traumatic reminder of the mark left behind by his own chains. And for Atreus, it’s a cold awakening to the real world – a lesson for him to learn, and a chance for him to be better than the men who raised him. He learns that he can’t make everything right, but he can make them better than they were before.
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