Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta (Sony PSP)

God of War: Ghost of Sparta
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Ready at Dawn Studios
Genre: Action
Release Date: 11/02/2010

Shortly after releasing God of War: Chains of Olympus, developer Ready at Dawn stated that they were no longer going to be working on games for the PSP. Fans were distraught. The PSP was losing a top shelf developer even though their games were top sellers. It just didn’t make any sense.

It would appear RAD eventually figured that out too, as here we are with God of War: Ghost of Sparta, the second God of War game for the PSP and the second God of War game this year. This is such a nice present. I must have had some seriously good karma going my way.

Anyway, COO was a huge critical and commercial success. I gave it one of the highest scores I’ve ever given a game and it ran away with our award for PSP game of 2008 despite some stiff competition. With God of War III garnering similar praise for the PS3 already this year, does this game do enough to stand out on its own or will it get lost in the shadow of its much bigger brother?

Story/Modes

Ghost of Sparta takes place immediately after the first game. Kratos has assumed the title of God of War, but apparently doesn’t have the powers that come with it. Visions of his past still haunt him, but new ones start to creep their way in. However, Kratos quickly realizes that these visions are different. He quickly runs off despite the protests of Athena to find some answers.

We find out quickly that Kratos had a younger brother who was kidnapped and presumed killed years ago. Despite only being a boy at the time, Kratos blamed himself for the incident and these new visions give him hope that his brother is still alive and needs his help. In his way is the city of Atlantis, a huge sea monster by the name of Scylla, and the God of Death Thanatos. (He isn’t to be confused with Hades, the God of the Underworld. I know it can be a bit confusing if you aren’t up to snuff with Greek mythology, but a tiny bit of research should clear things up for you.)

The story as a whole is pretty straightforward, like all of the GOW games. Kratos sets a path for himself, follows it blindly to its conclusion, and manages to leave wanton destruction in his path. Seriously, you’d think people would have learned by now to just get out of his way. Still, the connection to Kratos’s past is intriguing. If you’ve played all of the other games in the series, it will definitely hold your attention from start to end. If you haven’t, you’ll still find it to be enjoyable thanks to some solid writing and clever twists. More than anything else, it is a game that explains why Kratos hates the gods as much as he does for the later games in the series. If you ever thought that what we got before wasn’t enough, this game will satisfy you.

As far as other modes go, the game has three. You have the mandatory challenge mode that offers a variety of tasks for you to complete. These range from clearing enemies quickly, to opening all of the chests in an arena with a pack of enemies trying their best to interrupt you. You also have an arena mode where you can set parameters such as health, magic, and the number of enemies. Not only will this provide good practice for harder difficulty settings, but you still earn experience orbs. Those orbs will come in handy when you enter the Temple of Zeus. Using spare orbs, you can purchase a number of extras such as new character skins, more challenges, and behind the scenes videos.

As an action game, Ghost of Sparta didn’t need to do anything but give us a decent story mode, but these bonuses are a nice addition that give you things to do after you’ve slain the final boss.

Graphics

Chains of Olympus set the bar for graphics on the PSP two years ago. Since then, a few games have met those standards while a couple have managed to beat them. This game, however, somehow finds a way to blow it out of the water.

Let’s start with the backgrounds. The last game featured impressive backdrops with a good amount of scale. It was impressive to say the least. Here, you’re rampaging through a sunken city with water poring in from all sides one minute and then traversing the insides of an active volcano the next. There were several moments where I stopped to appreciate what I was seeing. At one point I was battling on a mountaintop, and in the distance, I could see a volcano erupting with incredible force. The amount of detail was ridiculous. It was better than most PS2 games I’ve played. The water was easily the best I’ve seen on the platform, whether it was rushing or just drenching the Spartan’s skin.

The art design is still strong. Kratos never looks anything less than badass, mythological creatures come to life with a fantastic attention to detail, and the architecture is just great to look at. This is made all the better by great looking character models that animate exceptionally well. One of the coolest effects was how during long battles, Kratos would get absolutely covered in the blood of his enemies. Heck, at times this feature was more impressive than what they did with God of War III!

The effects are also top notch. My favorite enemies were the Cursed Remains. These were skeletons that would fall apart whenever you tried to grapple them. After a few moments, they’d pull themselves back together and resume the fight. I would intentionally charge at them just to see this effect. The only thing I didn’t find particularly impressive were the magic attacks. While these provided a decent light show I suppose, they weren’t up the level of the rest of the package. Plus, it was far more satisfying to rip a soldier in half or drive a sword into the eye of a cyclops.

I could go on and on. The game runs without framerate issues, the sense of brutality is palpable, and the cinematics best even those found in Square-Enix titles. Basically, this is the single best looking PSP game you can possibly find. I sincerely doubt it will be surpassed until we get a PSP2.

Audio

If I ever get tired of T.C. Carson’s guttural bellows, that will probably be the same day I give up on video games altogether. Both he and Linda Hunt reprise their roles as Kratos and Gaea respectively. Both do a bang up job as usual, but the rest of the cast is pretty darn fantastic as well. When that Atlantean screams in terror at the sight of the God of War, you truly feel the fear. After all, survival rates for those that encounter Kratos are less than one percent, and chances are that the coming death won’t be painless either. Anyways, this can compete with any game in terms of quality voice acting.

The music is another example of what makes these games feel so epic. The score is one that could be used in a big budget epic film, but here it is in a hand held video game. There are plenty of booming tracks to accompany you as you rip through legions of hapless monsters. Not only do these tracks add to the tense moments, but there are plenty of great softer tracks for downtime. Even still, these tunes leave you with the sense that danger is lurking around every corner. They truly help the game nail the atmosphere it is going for. If you have the ability, look these songs up and listen to them as you read the review. You’ll see what I mean.

What has always made this game hit home for me in terms of audio is how each sound is filled with power and menace. The blades of chaos swing with deadly intention, minotaurs roar with rage, and the sound of a gate crashing down behind you leaves you no hope that you can escape the coming battle. I had to play this game with headphones because I was afraid of missing a single moment of it. I suggest you do the same, because this is one of the very few PSP games that makes it worth your while to do so.

Gameplay

If you’ve played any God of War game before, you’ll be right at home with the controls in this game. Once again, the trademarked chain blades are Kratos’s primary method of dealing death to his enemies. You can string light and heavy attacks together to form combos, toss enemies into the air, and attempt to grab them for one hit kills or powerful throws. New to this game is Thera’s Bane. This ability allows you to set your blades ablaze to add some extra oomph to your attack. This is also the only way to get past the armor of some of the hardier enemies in the game. You have a special meter at the top of the screen that keeps track of this ability. It recharges over time and can be upgraded, making it an effective and awesome addition to your repertoire.

The new weapon this time is the Arms of Sparta. Basically, you get a sword and spear to use. This weapon has a multitude of uses. You can hold the block button to hold the shield in front of you. This blocks most attacks and projectiles, thus allowing you to move closer to enemies without the fear of getting assaulted. You can also toss the spear at enemies as a ranged attack. Unlike other games, you can do this infinitely, and you don’t have to worry about a recharging meter. However, the weapon is relatively slow and thus not particularly useful against groups of enemies. Overall, the weapon is nifty, but it has one major flaw: you can’t set the damn thing on fire. This means you’ll be using the blades whenever possible and only using the arms when the situation calls for it.

One of my pet peeves with Chains of Olympus was that it left out swimming and extended wall climbing sections. While seemingly unimportant, these instances served to add some variety to the gameplay and gave you a nice break from tense combat moments. I’m happy to report that these sections are back. In particular, the swimming sections are the best since the original God of War. There is a particularly great moment in the game where you have to get past a crushing mechanism whilst dealing with a particularly nasty current. I found the controls for these moments solid and they definitely added to the game.

One thing lacking is the puzzles. That’s not to say that there aren’t any this time around, however, the few that are present are straightforward to the point of being stupid. The most complex puzzle involved rotating a crane to drop a giant stone on a trapped individual so that I could then get to a raised platform. These are the easiest puzzles in the series. Personally, I’m not sure it it takes away too much from the game, but it certainly doesn’t do it any favors.

Something that does hurt the game is the boss fights. For whatever reason, they just don’t have that same epic feel that we’re used to. If anything, all but a couple felt like just a tougher regular enemy. I suppose this is in large part because of God of War III. You can’t go back to fighting an oversized lion when you’ve gotten used to battling god and scaling titans. They aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but they don’t wow you like you’d expect.

When it all comes down to it, this is the same God of War game that we’ve all come to know and love, though there are a few hiccups along the way. The camera can give you a bad perspective from time to time and the lack of puzzles may put off some. Still, the combat is brutal and satisfying, the pacing keeps you busy every second, and they got rid of those moments when you had to partially rotate the analog stick for a QTE. They just didn’t work with the PSP. If you’re looking for a solid gameplay experience, this will definitely fit the bill.

Replayability

One of the largest complaints against COO was that it was extremely short, clocking in at a little over four hours long. They promised that this game would be longer, and they delivered. Still, if you were expecting the game to be as long as its console brethren, you’re going to be disappointed. The game took me about five and half hours to beat on the normal setting. This may not seem like much, but the game definitely feels more fleshed out due to this length. It also still manages to be the right length for a game that you’re encouraged to play though multiple times.

All of those bonus modes I mentioned earlier are unlocked once you beat the game for first time. You can chose to tackle them, which will net you several hours of additional play, but the real replay value is in playing through the story again. If you up the difficulty, you’ll get a heftier challenge. If you decide to keep your difficulty setting, you can either chose a new skin or equip one of several special items you find throughout the game. Both the skins and items add various effects to the game. One skin significantly lowers your defense while upping your damage output. One item, which will prove invaluable to those looking to unlock everything in the temple of Zeus, increases your orb collection rate ten fold. While the basic game won’t change one bit, these offerings do add some legs to the game.

Still, if replaying the game doesn’t interesting you, you’re looking at a gameplay experience that will last somewhere between eight to ten hours. This is better than the last game, but it isn’t going to impress those who’re used to longer outings on the PSP. For instance, I got nearly eighty hours out of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, and I didn’t even manage to do everything in that game.

Balance

This is by far the easiest game in the series. For veterans, you MUST play the game on hard difficulty if you don’t want to breeze through it. This was the first time I was able to finish off the end boss without dying at least once. Heck, I never came close to be honest. It was disappointing. In particular, the bigger enemies become a joke once you’ve upgraded your weapons a bit. The best example is the automaton. The first time I fought one I had a heck of a time surviving his constant attacks. At the end, I took one out in a few seconds. These guys didn’t get tougher as the game went along.

That isn’t to say that you won’t die during the game. It is just that most of these deaths come from mistiming navigation sections. For instance, I mentioned a water obstacle earlier. In order to get by the crushing teeth, it took a few tries to get the timing right. There are other sections where you need to swing from a grappling hook and then jump onto a moving platform. These will no doubt get you once in a while, but they aren’t hard really. They just require you to react quickly or memorize patterns.

It is entirely possible that my experience with the franchise made it so I would naturally find the game easier than most, but this game truly felt like a pushover at times. For an action game, this just won’t do. Please, unless you completely suck at video games, start this game off on the hard difficulty setting.

Originality

There are several new features to this game that keep it from feeling like simply a clone of the other games. During sections where you traverse a rope hand over hand, there are moments when you’ll need to jump to another rope or a moving obstacle. No other game in the series does that. There was also an interesting section where you walk casually through the streets of Sparta. You don’t fight, so you get a chance to watch the locals during their every day life. I also found the new MMA style tackles to add effectively to your combat options. You can tackle an enemy, lay in various strikes, and even throw them at other enemies. I hope to see this mechanic in other games should the franchise continue.

While there are some new ideas for the series, the game is also extremely guilty of borrowing and even outright stealing ideas from the other games. There’s a bit where Kratos smashes a statue of Athena out of anger, and I swear it was stripped straight from God of War II. Another moment involved a battle with a minotaur, when out of nowhere, the Scylla smashes through the wall and grabs you. In Chains of Olympus, the exact same thing happened when you fought the Basilisk. Even in the story elements, the similarities are striking. The Scylla feels like another Hydra, the battle with Erinyus was painfully similar to one of the fates, and I’m not sure how many titans are left that can be reasonably be found helplessly chained underground.

This is a God of War game. The goal here is to give you a great playing experience. If I’m ever able to give a game in this series a perfect score for originality, I’ll eat one of my old shoes.

Addictiveness

The pacing and story of this game make it hard to put down. There’s always a new group of villains to dispatch and the promise of some new development is always around the corner. You’ll be hooked to this in the same way that a page turner does. Perhaps it never reaches the level of a Pop Cap game, but the level of addictiveness is exceptional for an action game.

The one thing going against this game being addicting is the difficulty. If you play this on normal or even (gasp!) easy, you’ll probably find one or two moments where it can get boring. The brutality of the combat does a good job of preventing this feeling for the most part, but it can’t fix everything.

If you’re looking for a game to sit in your PSP for weeks, this won’t be it. However, if you’re looking for a game that’s hard to put down, this can definitely fit the bill provided you put it on a challenging difficulty setting.

Appeal Factor

Chances are if you’re still buying PSP games, this is one you won’t want to miss. There simply aren’t very many marquee games on the system anymore. This sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to its unparalleled presentation and great gameplay. The only thing I could come up with to keep you from this game is a dislike of the series or an aversion to paying forty bucks for any PSP game, let alone God of War.

For fans, this is a must have, just like every other game in the series. The story of what happened between the first two games is one that helps answer a lot of questions as well provides some details regarding the relationship between Kratos and Poseidon. We wondered what his beef with the Spartan was, and finally we’ve got an answer.

If there’s one “must have” game for the PSP this year, this is it.

Miscellaneous

I mentioned before how you can spend orbs to unlock bonus content. This includes behind the scenes videos and image galleries. One thing that might upset some fans is that these things were usually given just for beating the game. However, there were always secrets that required you go the extra mile. These are just an extension of that. The bonuses are the typical things you find for games like this. They’re nice, but they won’t blow your mind.

As an overall game, Ghost of Sparta does a lot of things right. In fact, it is one of the best PSP games of all time. I should know, I have over a hundred. If there’s one thing going against it, it is that God of War III came out only eight months ago. There’s just no way this game could have competed with it. If it had come out a little bit later, I’m sure it could regain some of that “wow” factor. As it is, I guess it just might be impossible to top battling the god of the sea on top of a massive titan.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Unparalleled
Audio: Classic
Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Enjoyable
Balance: Decent
Originality: Very Bad
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Good
Final Score: Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

God of War: Ghost of Sparta had the nearly impossible task of one-upping Chains of Olympus while also managing to stand out on its own in the shadow of God of War III. For the most part, it succeeds. The graphics are the best on the system, the gameplay is as tight as ever, and the game is significantly longer than its predecessor. Still, the lack of originality in the series is starting to cause a little fatigue, and this game in particular doesn’t pack the challenge we’re used to. Still, you can’t possibly go wrong with this game. If you own a PSP, you need to grab it.

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