Godfall has lofty ambitions. Although it’s developed by the relatively small studio at Counterplay Games, it wants to entice you with the kind of visual spectacle big-budget video games excel at delivering. It also wants to be a tight, melee-combat action game, a reprieve from the endless tedium of open-world fetch quests. It also wants you to play it for dozens of hours looking for the perfect piece of loot. I can see all the things Godfall wants to do, and at times, these desires complement each other. But they clash much more often, leading to a cluttered mess that strains under the pressure to turn all its disparate ambitions into something greater.
Godfall’s setup is as grandiose as you can get, with nods to religious creation stories like Paradise Lost. After helping rid the world of gods called Archons who perpetuated endless wars to settle their petty conflicts, your player character, Orin, is betrayed by their brother, Macros, who plunges Orin into the ocean and leaves them for dead. Orin quickly picks themselves back up with the help of a sentient library called the Seventh Sanctum, hellbent on taking revenge on Macros and stopping him from performing the Rites of Ascension that would elevate him to godhood.
That high-concept premise lets Counterplay Games go wild on the art direction, leading to a game that loves to show off how good its tech is. Orin’s magical Valorplate armors (which affect whether Orin presents as feminine or masculine) are full of shiny overlapping plates, sharp angles, and bright linings meant to catch your eye. If you stop admiring your character, it’s hard not to look around and appreciate the fantastical forests, ornate temples, and colorful landscapes in Godfall as well. You’re rewarded for looking around, too, since an infinite horde of collectible resources, items, and chests are littered everywhere, with some chests asking that you look around further for nearby symbols to break before you can open them. At every turn, Godfall uses its impressive tech to flex just how powerful the hardware it’s running on is, which makes sense for a PlayStation 5 launch title. (I played it on a mid-range PC and still got a kick out of how good everything looks).
You also see that kind of expensive beauty at work as you start hacking away at the rats and soldiers you have to mow down on your way to Macros. Your attacks land with the weighty, satisfying thunderclap of colliding metal, and your movements look both tightly choreographed and fluid. Doing well feels good because of all the cool animations that play out, and getting hit feels bad, because of how enemy attacks will stagger you and slow you down. Leading your attacks, dodging the telegraphed swing of a warhammer, and parrying predictable moves with your shield all look cool, and you even have some interesting tactical decisions to make in combat; your slower heavy attacks aren’t an alternative to your faster strikes so much as a way to cash in on the bonus damage that your faster attacks build up, with the risk being that you might get hit.
For the first few hours, this shiny coat of polish does a great job of hiding how Godfall’s combat is full of holes. Attack ranges feel off; I lost track of how many times I tried to dodge out of the way of an opponent’s giant swing and got hit anyway (my bad), only to immediately recover as if I hadn’t gotten hit, letting me hit my opponent’s weak point as if I’d properly dodged. It helped me out, but it broke the illusion of the game’s “feel.” There’s also just enough of a delay between actions like attacking and using a healing item that I’d take damage, roll away, hit the healing button, and watch as nothing happened — I had to wait just a moment longer before pressing another button. The window is miniscule, but in a game that’s otherwise pretty responsive to your inputs, it’s excruciating. There’s little sense of actions flowing into each other logically, even if the animations behind them look impressive and nimble.
These kinds of issues pick away at the trust you need to have with a good action game; in order for unique enemies and bosses to subvert your expectations and test your understanding of combat, you have to trust that the rules are consistent. Once Godfall lost my trust, it never came back. So when I’d get pelted by a barrage of lasers that seemed unavoidable at first—a feeling I get a lot in action games—instead of trying to learn the “right way” to counter it, I started looking for ways to circumvent it, because I didn’t trust the fight to be fair. During a double boss fight, I lured one enemy away from the boss arena, picked him off alone and then beat up his friend. I only resorted to the tactic because I didn’t trust the fight to be fair otherwise.
Godfall tries to supplant depth with a veneer of complexity, introducing more combat options over the course of the game that end up making fights a mess of abilities and effects. You have two different Weapon Techniques that are sort of like super attacks; your shield has multiple maneuvers that all share a single cooldown; there’s a weak point system that lets you target specific areas on enemies; each equippable Valorplate comes witha different Archon’s Fury, a powered-up state that makes you invincible for a short while, which may as well be another super. There are banners, polarity attacks, breaches... you get it. Once I got most of these options down, combat (especially boss fights) became more about draining as many meters and unleashing as many moves as I could instead of enjoying the tactical challenge of predicting my opponents’ moves. It’s more effective to play that way, but also much less interesting.
And that’s all before you look at the equipment screen. Godfall is littered with stats, status effects, buffs, augments, and other percentages that define a lot of what’s going on while you’re fighting. Having a cohesive “build” will, again, make you a more effective Godfall player, but poring over a sea of numbers and jargon here isn’t fun; you have to memorize so many blessings, ailments, buffs, and other tiny numbers in order to get the most out of your items. It’s too much, and this is coming from someone who’s invested close to 4000 hours in finding weird new character builds in Dota 2 and over 1000 hours in figuring out the fastest ways to power-level in Destiny 2. I love min-maxing in games like this, but I get a little tired at the thought of comparing a 12% buff to Earth damage with a 13% bonus to weak point damage. Yes, these numbers do add up, and my endgame build had me gaining back so much health with my dual blades per hit that dodging didn’t feel nearly as crucial. But, again: my play was more effective, but less interesting.
Then, about three-fourths into my playthrough, I found a legendary warhammer with an unbelievably powerful perk. Whenever I used a Weapon Technique, it created an enormous bubble that slowed any enemy within it to a crawl. It didn’t rely on a trigger, ailment, debuff, a percentage, or anything. When it dropped, I read the description in bewilderment. Was this thing for real? It was so out of line with anything else the rest of the game had given me that I doubted it’d be useful. But it was. It made tough encounters a breeze. It destroyed bosses. The rest of the game went by in a flash. It was the most fun I’d had with Godfall, and I held on to that warhammer even after it was one of the weakest pieces of loot I had, just because of that one perk. I wish I’d found more items like it, because it was a welcome change of pace.
Also around that time, the story began coming into focus, and while it’s incredibly self-serious, it has some neat concepts underpinning it. You just have to read to find them. Hidden among all the stats, upgrades, and armors are a few short lore entries. The lore tab is one of the few places Godfall doesn’t take the maximalist approach and benefits from it. Entries include Orin and Macros’ recollections of their lives before the start of the game, as well as a few others that establish the larger world of Godfall. They offer a surprisingly strong narrative pillar that, unfortunately, only spotlights how trite the cutscenes are.
The lore entries present Orin’s journey in the game not as an exciting revenge tale, but as the simmering, disappointing end to a bitter conflict years in the making. The writing wavers between poignant (“He would say that every time one of his soldiers saluted him, he would anticipate their passing,”) to eye-rolling (“Silvermane was fast and strong and nearly invulnerable. Nearly invulnerable is not invulnerable, though”). It’s still worth taking in; I read about ideas becoming corrupted and ignoble after being given bodies; a goddess whose crystalized blood fuels an entire planet’s economy but mostly its war machine. There are great threads to pull on here, but Godfall doesn’t want you to linger on any of them for too long, as all of these text entries are remarkably short.
Now that I’ve finished the campaign, Godfall wants me to take on more Dreamstones, a series of encounters that spruce up older challenges and bosses before throwing new ones at me. It wants me to climb The Ascendant Tower of Trials, in which I’ll face an unlimited number of challenges until I fail, with the hope that I’ll find another piece of loot as good as that warhammer again. It wants me to tackle harder missions by inviting a few friends to join me, even though I played through the game on my own because there’s no online matchmaking to team up with randoms. It wants me to scour its gorgeous worlds for more of those collectibles, which respawn ad infinitum, so I can feed them back into my loot.
The end of Godfall promises the same loop of a lot of bigger, longer games. I’ve done that with a few games this year. It can be a fun loop. But as expensive as this game looks and as lofty as its ambitious might be, Godfall just didn’t manage to put its own enticing version of that loop together.
Godfall released Nov. 12 on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Gearbox. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.