It's one of the most thrilling openings in all of video games. As warrior-turned-deity-killer Kratos, you climb the Titan Gaia, who functions as a colossal, moving level upon which you battle Poseidon, the god of the sea. Gaia herself is one of Kratos' few remaining allies; her cries of pain pierce the air as you swing your chained blades, launching ghoulish soldiers into the air and slicing away at Poseidon and his many-legged steed. It is all sound and fury, almost unparalleled in its sense of scale and its translation of a protagonist's anger into bloody, brutal interactions. When Kratos strikes his final blow, you see it not from his perspective, but from his victim's point of view, in the first person. It's a striking and vicious design choice that sets the tone for the game to follow. You are no longer conquering the Greek gods as an enraged antihero, but as a full-on villain.
The question, then, is this: How could God of War III hope to top this sensational introduction? It doesn't, though it certainly tries, and allows God of War II to retain its position at the peak of this beloved series in the process. That's not to say that the game isn't terrific fun, only that its unimaginative final encounter has nothing on the phenomenal opener. Gaia casts a long shadow over the hours that follow, and even a similar battle upon Cronos' massive body can't escape it, though it, too, remains a technical marvel in this remastered edition.
60 frames per second and 1080p resolution aren't game-changers for Kratos' adventure, though they are certainly nice attributes to have; God of War III Remastered is simply another chance to admire a game that we admired five years ago. At a $40 retail price, however, it doesn't make a strong enough argument for buying a game you've already bought, particularly when the lower-resolution pre-rendered cutscenes stand out all the more next to the in-game visuals. Character skins and arenas released as downloadable content make appearances, as does a new photo mode that allows you to capture sumptuous moments and share them with friends, enemies, and mythical beasts, but where remasters are concerned, this one belongs in the "barebones" column.
Taken on its own merits, however, God of War III maintains the high bar its predecessors set for combat. Kratos is responsive to every input, swinging the blades of Olympus and the claws of Hades with a slickness and strength befitting a protagonist whose muscles have muscles. Using light and heavy attacks, you hack away at a gorgon before flinging her into the air; once she is close to death, a prompt appears, and you perform a series of button presses while Kratos yanks her body towards him with his blades, pulls her head back, and decapitates her. Quick-time finishers cap each violent dance with a gruesome climax, and you then return to the mythical slaughter, all while the game finds new, gorgeous backdrops that remind you how enormous this world is, and how puny you are within it.
God of War III's greatness relies not just on its combat, however, but on the way it strings battles, puzzles, and traversal into an ever-varied chain of enjoyment. Sequences that might have felt like filler in a lesser game (see: Dante's Inferno) retain their sense of fun because you aren't just faced with another onslaught of warriors, minotaurs, and scorpions, but because clever level design, smart camera angles, and visual centerpieces hold monotony at bay. Pressing a stick forward to climb a lengthy chain is not, in and of itself, reason for celebration. But when the camera pulls back and a miniscule Kratos patiently scales upwards as you watch through an opening in the nearby cliffs, you feel awe. Each thrust upwards fills the cavern with metallic echoes; you both see and hear the chasm's enormity.
Even the seemingly straightforward combat benefits from playful presentation and mechanical diversity. Cauldrons filled with flammable bramble explode when you fire flaming arrows at them, much to the dismay of nearby foes. Snarling dogs attack as an elevator rises, making it hard--but not impossible--to appreciate the beauty of the temple in which you fight. Then there are the puzzles, best represented by an extensive one in which shifting perspectives enables you to climb staircases and cross walkways that would not seem connected. It's the most thoughtful section of a game that requires more intuition than it does intellect, notable not just in its wit, but in the way it requires you to use the limp body of Kratos' high-profile victim as a weight.
This isn't the first time you use a corpse in such a way in the God of War series, but it's more striking in God of War III because Kratos has no shred of mercy remaining within him--not at this stage. Previous games allowed Kratos his humanity, Chains of Olympus' Elysium Fields sequence being an excellent example. While Kratos has never been a hero in the usual sense of the term, we have seen the source of his torment, and watched Athena refuse to set him free from his nightmares. Here, Kratos is a one-note killing machine, and we are left only with what we know from previous games to provide context. The smidgen of mercy Kratos shows towards a daughter figure in the final hours, and the accompanying message of hope, is not earned given how little development the character shows in God of War III up to that point--and reminds us that for Kratos, women are whores, wives, daughters, or paperweights. Full-on cruelty was always in the cards, but it makes Kratos difficult to root for, particularly if this is your first God of War experience.
Then again, this is not a series known for its sophisticated storytelling. Kratos is the vessel for an instinctive kind of gameplay that is rarely this successful. Your rewards for following God of War III's linear trail are genre-defining combat, excellent pacing, and the innate joy of watching enemies spew forth clusters of glowing red orbs when they fall. It's the ever-compelling quest for shinies, accomplished by slamming your cestus into the ground, then gutting a centaur and watching its viscera spill onto the floor. Your reward is more power, which you use to earn more shinies and to see more entrails. That the game finds so many ways to stay consistently fresh within this traditional structure is a feat worthy of the gods.