Aug 9, 2010 – Kratos’ journey of revenge, which began back in 2005 on the Playstation 2, final comes to a bloody end on the Playstation 3. The complete story arc has taken five years to come to its conclusion, and the distance between the second and third entries are telling. God of War III is a technical marvel, with fantastic graphics, polished combat and impressive scale, showing every possible advantage that time has given the team at Sony Santa Monica. But the game also shows the weaknesses of that time difference in its story. God of War III, while full of epic set-pieces, has a story that largely feels like God of War II.V (ha, a roman numeral joke!) while simultaneously separating the player from the main character, making Kratos a largely unlikable, unsympathetic protagonist.
God of War II left off at a cliffhanger (literally,) forcing God of War III to pick up immediately afterward as the Titans ascend the face of Mount Olympus with Kratos riding shotgun on top of Gaia. While this sort of beginning jump-starts the action and introduces the player to God of War’s massive fantasy world, it also ensures that God of War III will have to struggle to find its own identity, as it rides entirely on the wave of God of War II. The second game left the players wanting more, but the wait has been long and the connection required to care about the story has dissipated. Any player wondering if they should play God of War II again right before starting the third game, wonder no more. It is a must if you want to get anything else out of it.
The game manages to find its identity, not through interesting storytelling, but through its sense of scale, which dwarfs the previous games’ already considerable weight in this area. Kratos feels like an ant crawling across the arms of giants, and it is awe inspiring. However it is also shallow, and after the impressive visuals wear off, there is little real story telling to back it up and make it memorable.
Part of what made Kratos an interesting protagonist in the first two games was how the player felt sorry for the guy, what with being betrayed at every step and all he’s lost. God of War III’s storytelling lets the player forget that element of the character until near the very end. By that time, you’ve been carving up the gods for blood sport and the connection between player and Kratos is all but lost, as you witness him do horrible things in the name of his revenge. Even as the world crumbles around him, he never stops to think about the consequences of what he is doing. If his family’s spirits are (presumably, based on Chains of Olympus for the PSP,) in Elysium, then what happens to them when he causes the Underworld to collapse so thoroughly? These are the kinds of things he never thinks about.
That’s not to say there aren’t interesting story elements going on. The parallels between Hephaestus and Kratos are interesting and tragic. Kratos’ protectiveness of Pandora is understandable, though it feels out of character. The end sequence especially focuses on storytelling, and while it does so admirably (it is my favorite sequence in the whole game) it feels out of place in the jagged and broken character arc of Kratos.
The story of Kratos (theoretically) has come to its end (you know, aside from prequels and stuff.) Like a classic Greek tale, this is a story about tragedy, more bitter than sweet. The final stretch of the game is a marvelous bit of storytelling, full of symbolism and mystical imagery fitting of the Grecian roots of the game’s narrative. At least, up until the very end, when there is a twist of thematic messages that doesn’t sit right with my sense of what was happening. While it ties together certain elements of the overall story, the ending revelations are clichéd and almost moralizing which clashes spectacularly with the rest of the narrative.
But aside from the story let-down, the game is masterful at what it does, which is to say unbridled violent action. Nothing is quite as cathartic as carving through a horde of skeleton warriors; a truth which has only proven more so since the first God of War did it so well half a decade ago. The combat is incredibly smooth, much more so than its predecessors, and there was never a moment when I felt like I didn’t have options in battle. The distance grab is an absolute game changer, and charging while using an opponent as a battering ram gives Kratos more mobility on the field of battle than he ever had before. Being able to cancel out of almost any attack to block or dodge is a great help, but just as important is the new item bar below the health and magic bars. The fact that objects like Apollo’s bow, Helios’ head, and Hermes’s Boots don’t rely on the magic meter, and quickly recharge, is a god send. I found myself using many more items and weapons in this God of War game than all the others.
Speaking of weapons, this is the first collection of optional weaponry (outside of the Gauntlet of Zeus on the PSP) to feel useful. I would find myself switching weapons depending on which enemies I was fighting because some were better suited to the task than others. The Nemesis Whip proves effective against the annoying Satyrs, the Namean Cestus (while not as good as the Gauntlet) prove to be devastating against large forces and some of the otherwise stronger foes. Still, Kratos’ classic blades (called the Blades of Exile this time around) are the best for most situations and you will find yourself returning to them when you want to make sure things get done right.
Magic seems to take a bit of a back seat this time around, but that may simply be because the various abilities aren’t much use outside of the Army of Sparta. Not to mention having to switch weapons to use whichever spell you want feels clumsy. The Quick Time Events, on the other hand, are handled much better by assigning each button press to the side of the screen that matches its placement on the game pad. Square to the left, X on the bottom, O on the right and Triangle at the top. This allows the player to watch what’s going on on screen more easily, and be much more likely to succeed, but I do wish they had made the images of the buttons larger.
The light puzzles that have always been a part of God of War are mostly well done here, with the one real standout being Hera’s Garden which is M.C. Escher-like in the way it warps reality. There is a music rhythm game, however, (no I’m not kidding) that feels out of place. Not so much because it’s a music rhythm game (though it isn’t everything it could be either,) but because it incorporates the Playstation face buttons into the world itself. The end result is very fourth-wall breaking and a detraction overall from the experience. While the puzzles are generally still not as good as previous games, they don’t truly disappoint either.
There’s not much to say about the graphics outside of the fact that they are gorgeous. Kratos is one of the most detailed character models I’ve seen in a game, and the enemies are also well made and gruesome. Little things, like the guts spilling out of a centaur’s belly and the dangly bits from the head of Helios, sell the game world as realistic as can be at this point in console graphics. The score is as epic and mood setting as it has ever been in the series and the menu theme still echoes in my mind whenever I think about the game.
God of War III is a fantastic game in many respects. There simply aren’t many action games that come anywhere near this caliber of combat, graphical prowess and design. If all you are looking for is an excellent action game with lots of production values, then there is no question you should buy this game, and you should bump my score below up by half a star. If, however, you were looking for a satisfying story to conclude Kratos’ tale of revenge, this game only partially delivers, distancing the player from Kratos until the end, and what comes is, while excellent, too little too late. I recommend you seat this game in your Parthenon, but keep your expectations in check. God of War III still sits on the throne of action games, no question. But when compared to the satisfying narratives of other games it is a lesser god.
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a new segment for you that I’m debuting here called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment that will appear periodically after certain reviews (of any type, be it film, game or book) in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story that is too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
When it comes to God of War you know you’re going to be doing a lot of killing. It kinda comes with the territory. And we know that Kratos is kind of a dick. We knew that ever since he sacrificed that guy in a cage to the flames back in God of War I. But the level of blood letting in GoW III is crazy. There isn’t a person you meet whom you don’t kill at some point in the game. Well, except Athena because, oops, you already killed her last time. Kratos even kills the person he suddenly decides he doesn’t want to kill, Pandora. Yeah, she reminds him of Calliope, but I don’t think that would stop him for too long, especially with her insistence on giving her life up and Zeus being a clear and present danger to both of them.
It’s this element of the story that really bugs me about the revelation at the end of the game, that Kratos is the vessel for “Hope.” He’s a vessel for slaughter, revenge, mercilessness and hatred. The idea that Hope is the power that he’s been running on for so long is silly in context. Hope for what? Hope that he would kill Zeus? I guess. But that’s a poor connection. He sure doesn’t exhibit hope of bringing his family back from the grave, or makin the world a better place or anything else.
The whole idea of Hope being a weapon sealed away with evil in Pandora’s Box strikes me as ridiculous and clichéd. It’s nearly M. Night Shyamalan in its moralizing wackiness. And then the fact that Kratos’ death gives that “Hope” to all humanity to use as they will is just as clichéd. It’s another story explaining the death of mysticism and fantasy and the rise of science, reason and Western Civilization. Blah. It’s been told better elsewhere. It’s not that God of War couldn’t have done it, but they would have had to portray Kratos differently throughout the story. They simply didn’t support their conclusion with any kind of character build up or arc.
If the whole “Hope” silliness had been removed, it would have been a great Grecian tragedy. The scenes leading up to the end are all fantastic, with the scenes where Kratos is running in near darkness with only his lantern to guide him are extremely well done and artistically striking. I don’t think I’ve yet played a game that explores the character’s mind in such an iconic fashion, using color, sound and general art design to wonderful use. If the game had featured more sections like this, especially near the beginning of the game (right after falling back into Hades would have been an excellent spot,) I would likely have remained somewhat sympathetic and connected to Kratos, even as he ruins the world around him.
The other revelation at the end I wasn’t too keen on was Athena’s switcheroo to manipulative bitch. A part of me suspected it, and hoped it wasn’t Athena but something posing as her, but in the end my suspicions were proven true. This invalidates a lot of the past few games and takes away one of the last sympathetic characters of the God of War world.
My last qualm with the game’s story was the sequence after the credits where it is strongly hinted at that Kratos is still alive. Not only is this wildly inconsistent with his massive chest hole and mortality, but also with the tragic themes. He should stay dead to lend weight to the events of the games. Maybe if it was later reveal that his dead body was dragged away by something or someone else… well, that might prove interesting.
Ultimately I was left unsatisfied by the storytelling, but that is not to say there weren’t some things about it I liked. It just isn’t as good as God of War I and II. A better game? Yeah. A better story? No. Of the three, this one has the weakest story.
– Edward L. Cheever II