Boss battles are part of the underlying foundation of video games. Not all games have one, but every single player has that one boss battle that sticks with them. Maybe it’s a Nintendo classic like Bowser or Ganondorf, reinvented time and time again. Maybe it’s a platformer battle with gimmicks and a health bar, like Ripto. Maybe it’s a big hitter like Psycho Mantis or Lady Butterfly. Maybe it’s Maybelline. But when it comes to the very best, The Stranger from God of War stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The game only came out in 2018, so there’s no childhood nostalgia here – the definitive battle for me personally would be N.Gin in Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, but I don’t think it’s all that great, it just means a lot to me. I loved The Stranger’s boss battle the first time, but I’ve been replaying God of War recently in the hopes of summoning a Ragnarok release date from the aether, and the second time around I realised just how good this battle is. Actively, narratively, thematically, dramatically… The Stranger ticks off every box.
I’m calling him The Stranger rather than Baldur, because we don’t actually learn his name until much later, and this is a key part of what makes the battle so fascinating. Longtime God of War players understand how powerful Kratos is from his escapades in the previous games, and even newcomers instantly recognize his immense strength from the way he lifts a tree trunk with ease, the way he bulges with muscles, and the fact he is, you know, the God of War. We expect this guy to be tough as nails. And The Stranger lays the smackdown on him.
In the first little skirmish of the opening battle – it never feels like choreographed phases like in Soulslike games – The Stranger is a worthy adversary, but soon enough you get his health bar down. It feels, the way opening boss battles usually do, like a tutorial. You learn how you use your axe, the different attack types, basic combos, the works. The Stranger is just a bit of a punching bag. He can withstand Kratos’ hits better than any enemy so far, but at the moment, he’s nothing special – until he gets back up.
He throws Kratos into the air like he’s made of rags, then slams him down on the roof of his own house. He is literally disturbing Kratos’ peaceful homelife. Later on, he punches Kratos so hard he ends up wedged inside a cliff. It’s a battle for the ages – the game puts you in the body of one of the most powerful beings ever, then almost immediately after the game starts, you meet your match. If you think embodying the God of War just means killing things with impunity, guess again.
It’s at this point, when Kratos is wedged in the rocks, that you get Spartan Rage for the first time. A less thoughtfully designed game would simply have this be the tutorial for Kratos’ power-up, but because it’s woven so well into the story, it feels less like we as players are learning what Kratos can do and more like Kratos himself is relearning it after trying to live a different life. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.
This is where the narrative part of The Stranger’s fight comes into play. Just having a character go by The Stranger is intriguing, but the game has to actually make us care in order for it not to feel like a cheap set-up. In God of War, the technique is wonderfully layered. The Stranger clearly knows Kratos – he says things like “I thought you’d be taller,” and is disappointed when even Kratos can’t inflict lasting pain on him. Kratos doesn’t seem to know The Stranger in return, but when he plays his cards so close to his enormously ripped chest, who can even tell?
Kratos ‘defeats’ The Stranger a few times in the battle, but he always gets back up. It ultimately ends when Kratos strangles the flailing Stranger until he passes out, then snaps his neck and throws him down a ravine. Because he enters the game so suddenly and sets up the story so masterfully despite never revealing any actual details, we’re not quite sure if this is the end. Usually, when you fight the biggest big bad first, you know they’re coming back – or else the game starts with fodder you know you’re never going to see again. The Stranger keeps us guessing, though. Learning that he’s Baldur gives the game away, so we’re deliberately kept in the dark.
He might know of Kratos, but he clearly doesn’t have the full picture – he has no idea about Atreus’ existence, and is puzzled by the two beds in Kratos’ hut. This is where the combination of narrative and gameplay really comes into its own. When Kratos activates his Spartan Rage, it’s not because the game wants to teach us the technique, or even because he’s stuck in the rocks – it’s because The Stranger says he’s going to investigate the house to find out who the other bed belongs to. It’s easy for players to read Kratos’ frosty relationship with Atreus as dislike, even resentment that he’s been saddled with the boy since the death of his wife. But this scene shows him as fiercely protective, and instantly adds layers, all through giving Kratos more powerful punches.
Even just looking at the gameplay and taking everything else out of it, the fight is genius. Everything feels so fast and powerful, the close up camera angles sell the violent intimacy of it all, and each hit given and received is unique and personal. I’m actually glad the PS5 upgrade is just graphics and not DualSense, because I think I would have been overstimulated if the fight felt any more tangible. Like a kid eating nothing but flying saucers and washing them down with energy drinks.
Boss battles are usually the climax of the story; you’re done with this part, so here’s a big fight to bookend your progress and move you on to the next stage. The Stranger’s fight weaves storytelling into every punch, and feels incredible to play through even if you just want to switch your brain off. It’s the best boss fight because it smashes every single category out of the park – Ragnarok has a lot to live up to.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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