I loved the original God of War. I was pleased to discover that God of War III begins with an inspired montage depicting Kratos’s tormented life thus far. With grandiose symphony and fiery passion, Sony’s declaration is clear: this is an epic the likes of which the world may never see again. The game’s opening moments plunge the hearts of those who’ve forgotten such fanciful dreams into a world of brazen ambition. A host of titans wage war against the gods of Olympus, and the chaotic path along which players guide Kratos is truly unnerving. The ground itself shakes, for that ground is the back of the titan Gaia. Parasitic serpents burst from Gaia’s flesh to bar the Spartan’s path; when the titan of Earth stumbles from the pain, Kratos hangs precariously with one hand but still must fight. His soul is only at peace during battle.
If only the game were as important as it pretends to be.
After the god of war died in the first game, Sony found themselves in a difficult situation. They just killed the god of war. How could there possibly be another God of War game? Sony needed to manufacture a new grudge to sell more sequels. The resulting enmity between Kratos and Zeus felt flimsy. It felt more like an excuse to extend the series than as a legitimate storytelling effort. The first episode captured Kratos at the most important moment of his life; the second episode was a fun but unnecessary extension, and this “finale”, while glamorous, feels anti-climactic.
Running wild over the entire pantheon of Olympus is a gripping concept, but of all the gods, Zeus alone poses a challenge to match the original God of War‘s impossible battle against the . . . god of war. Ares was a monster. The original game erected a worthy challenge: a mortal standing toe-to-toe with a god. The grudge borne by Kratos towards his war-loving “savior” is the stuff of legend, and the path by which he ended that grudge deserves its own place in mythology. This time, Kratos kills so-called immortals by snapping their necks, cutting them with sharp blades, or punching them in the face. He kills them because they’re there. Some of Kratos’s mortal opponents are tougher. If victory over gods were so straightforward, why did Kratos need Pandora’s Box to defeat Ares? If Kratos were dominant, why did Sony take such lengths to establish his underdog hatred for Ares?
Those questions don’t matter if one simply asks for new fights and cool scenery. God of War III certainly seems cool. When Kratos reaches a wounded foe, nearby soldiers quickly form a phalanx to protect their fallen master. Atop the broken buildings of Olympus, Kratos beheads demon dogs as the sun god fights a titan in the background. This is the kind of stuff I dreamed of as a child. It’s the same kind of stuff we’ve seen in the prior episodes, but much prettier. God of War III is not just bold with its beauty, but magical in its details; serpentine gorgons now glisten with slimy luster as they squeeze their prey to death.
It’s dangerously easy to be swept up by the gloss. It’s dangerously easy to forget that once upon a time, all of this actually meant something. Now it’s simply “cool”. Something truly powerful has been reduced to “cool”.
Forget all of that. Imagine for a moment that the previous games never happened. From that perspective, God of War III presents an exciting and balanced adventure. It’s progressively challenging but fair. After disemboweling centaurs and overcoming platforming puzzles, you’ll find yourself trading sickle-chain blows with Hades. Perish and you’ll begin at the boss fight, as checkpoints are frequent. Win and you’ll earn a new weapon, soon followed by a small group of monsters upon which to test that weapon. Repeat with new scenery, progressively tougher puzzles, and a progressively tougher boss. God of War III follows a sound and safe pattern of game design. It’s very safe. Too safe, in a sense; this is a battle against the frickin’ OLYMPIAN GODS, but it’s tame compared to the wild shenanigans of Bayonetta.
After weakening enemies with pelting blows from chains, arrows, or whips, most fiends are vanquished via “quick time event” (QTE) sequences. Instead of flashing symbols in the screen’s center, button cues are now relegated to the edges of your TV. This makes it easier to admire the action, but more importantly, the position of the cues matches the position of the controller buttons. If a cue appears at the right-hand side of the screen, you know it’s a circle. If it appears at the left, you know it’s a square. The QTE system is both fair and easy to follow.
Now it’s time to remember that God of War and God of War II did happen. As mentioned above, the third episode is a fair and balanced game for newcomers. In other words, veterans won’t break a sweat for the first few hours . . . and the aforementioned repositioning of QTE button cues is the game’s most prominent innovation. After the gripping opening, God of War III stops feeling fresh; it settles into a familiar and easy pattern. That’s the dilemma of a sequel: how does one build on the original while maintaining accessibility?
God of War III doesn’t. Series fans may be bored by the initial lack of challenge, especially during the early “puzzle” sequences. Series newcomers won’t understand why any of these things are happening. And I’m disappointed because I loved the original too damn much.