Reflections on God of War III

A Bloody Legacy

I am the only gamer that I personally know who has played the God of War games.  As a huge fan of Greek mythology, God of War instantly appealed to me when it was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005.  But I didn’t pick it up right away.  I waited for the reviews, and when they were overwhelmingly positive, I picked up a copy on the cheap.  I knew it would be bloody.  I knew it would be cool.  I knew it would be awesome.

I didn’t know it would be that awesome.  The game remains one of my favourites of the previous console generation, and what I consider to be the best action-adventure game ever created.

Like Pigs to the Slaughter: Gameplay in God of War III

If you know nothing about the God of War series, you should know this: it’s Greek mythology at its absolute grittiest.  Kratos, our protagonist, will stop at nothing to get what he wants, whether it involves slaughtering people, monsters or gods.  He doesn’t give a flying leap who or what gets in his way.  As a gamer, it gives you an incredible feeling of power and control.  Kratos can stand as an ant next to a 20-storey hydra with five heads and decapitate them all without stubbing his toe.  He can launch himself from a catapult to gouge out the eyes of a colossus.  He can open Pandora’s Box and wield the power within it, as evil as it might be.  You move from point A to point B and if something gets in your way, you kill it.  It’s a simple yet addictive formula that works because it is both highly stylized and satisfyingly epic.

Off with his head!

God of War III takes the effective gameplay of the prior volumes and magnifies it to proportions that no other game will ever do.  Kratos literally takes down the titans, creatures who are easily 1000 times his own size.  This isn’t a boss fight: this is a level where you destroy a boss in small parts until, by the end, you’ve torn him in two.  The funnest part is that Kratos makes it look easy.  The gameplay of God of War III has never been cleaner (weapon switching in particular), meaner, or more satisfying, and that’s saying a lot when the preceding games were fantastic in their own right.  The monsters and environments are fantastically detailed, the puzzles clever without being frustrating, and the battles long and gruesome.  This is the best gameplay for an action-adventure game we’ll see in a very long time (or until the next entry in the series, hereafter known as the ‘cash cow’ :P).

One-word Dictionary: Story in God of War III

In the first two entries, we’re witness to an origin story to the rage-filled Kratos that allows an understanding of all the killing he’s about to do.  You know what it is that he has lost, and what it is that fuels him.  There is sympathy for the torment he endures.  But that sympathy falls away in the final chapter to the series.  Why?  Because the entirety of the story can be summed up in one word: revenge.  That means if you’ve completed God of War II, you know what the basis is for God of War III.  And because the origin story for Kratos has been exhausted from the first two entries, the story for God of War III falls flat: no twists, no turns.  It’s predictable from the outset, which means that you and Kratos do little more than go through all the motions in order to wrap up his story of revenge.  The game looks fancy while you’re doing it, but that’s all you do.

If you’ve played the first two games, you might ask: “Aren’t all of the games about revenge?”  While the answer is “Yes”, you never feel as though revenge is the sole determiner of everything that happens within the story of the first two games.  Kratos has a simple yet layered backstory that allows the gamer to emphasize with his guilt, his torment, his hesitation, and his errors.  Kratos isn’t perfect.  Heck, the series opens with the character trying to kill himself.  But there is more to Kratos in God of War I & II than there is in the latest installment.  Why is that?  Because the writers took care to craft a backstory that developed Kratos with depth, a backstory that gamers could become emotionally invested in.

This is my revenge face.

In God of War III, however, the emotional investment is gone.  Kratos is out to have his revenge (which you know he will obtain because the game tells you so within the first 10 seconds) and… that’s it.  Reflections on the past are stripped away in favour of Kratos’ bloodlust.  And much like bloodlust, Kratos and the gamer don’t get to experience much else.   It’s kill, kill, kill.  The emotional core of the first two games falls away.

In the end, then, the experience becomes robotic and hollow.  There’s no need to care for the characters any longer: you know everyone is going to die because the game constantly reminds you of it.

That isn’t to say that the story of God of War III doesn’t try to keep you invested, and for what it’s worth, it’s a noble attempt.  But the writing doesn’t shed any new ground; same old guilt, same old motivations.  There’s nothing new.  Even with the introduction of a dozen major Greek gods, the writers could do little more than make them into tiny hurdles for Kratos to jump over (or run through, more accurately).

There is Only Darkness

In the end, God of War III is a fun romp through one man’s arrogance and power but lacks a soul, something that the previous two games didn’t struggle with.

Thankfully, the conclusion of the game gives way to its most original and emotional moment: darkness.  That’s right: Kratos’ ruthless slaying of Hera, Helios, Poseidon, Hades, Zeus and the others leaves the world in complete ruin.  Mass genocide, no sun, no living things.  There’s NOTHING people.  A whole lotta NOTHING.

And yet it is quite possibly the strongest sentiment that the series could ever hope to send.  It is brilliant in its subtlety, and defies what gamers have come to expect from their years of dedication and fandom.  It is quite impressive to see a game that revels in its dystopian conclusions.

Would I tell others to play through the God of War series?  Absolutely.  You’re unlikely to find such original and fun gameplay ideas anywhere else (except maybe Infamous).  You’ll enjoy the wild ride, spectacular views from above (or inside), and the joy of wronging everyone who has wronged you whilst loving every second of it.  But it won’t make you feel warm and fuzzy, and by the end of the series, you might just forget why you started it in the first place.

But we can’t all be winners!  Unless we’re Final Fantasy VIII.  ;)

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