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God of War: Ghost of Sparta Review

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While hardware sales have been disappointing, the PSP has quietly had a pretty good year on the software front. We’ve already had a chance to play SOCOM Fireteam Bravo 3, ModNation Racers, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Persona 3, Valkyria Chronicles II, and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

Of course, the announcement of God of War: Ghost of Sparta in May quickly catapulted it into one of the year’s most anticipated releases, regardless of platform. After so many quality releases, there we have every reason to be excited by the prospect of a new game in the series. By releasing the game smack-dab in the middle of the holiday release blitz, Sony is saying that the game can stand as the premier PSP game this year.

Will it be able to deliver on Sony’s lofty expectations? Read on, fair reader.

Story

Ghost of Sparta takes place right after the events of the original PS2 God of War, with Kratos still haunted with memories of his past. Here, however, the visions aren’t of his murdered wife and daughter, but of his long-lost brother Deimos — the brother that we briefly heard about in the special features of the 2005 release and heard nothing about ever since. Kratos catches wind that Deimos might sort of still be alive. We say “sort of” because he’s not in Hades, but being held in the Purgatory-like realm that is the domain of Thanatos, the god of death. Seeing as Kratos has been killed more than once only to come out better than ever, who really knows what you call Deimos’ situation.

Anyway, it shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with past games in the series to know that this news stirs Kratos into his usual murderous rage before he bolts off to find his brother. As the story unfolds we get glimpses of the two brothers’ relationship, learn how the two separated in the first place, and get a couple of neat mythological appearances, For the most part, though, the narrative is fairly predictable. It’s not a problem if only because it nails the most essential part of any God of War story, which is to give Kratos a reason to be really pissed at something before he brutalizes it.

Gameplay

Ghost of Sparta plays just as you would expect it to, throwing only a couple of new things your way. After four previous outings, one would fear that the series would begin to feel stagnant, but fans of the series (including us) have expressed that more of the same is perfectly fine when it has worked so well in the past — all of the brutal finishers, quick-time events, and massive boss fights you love are all here, great as ever.

There are a couple of different weapons you can switch between, as well as three magic abilities, which are all mapped to the directional pad. The two weapons are the iconic Blades of (insert context here; Athena, in this case), which at this point are as familiar as riding your bike, with the Arms of Sparta entering your arsenal halfway through the game. The Arms are a spear and shield; you can walk very slowly with the shield raised, and even strafe, while targeting faraway attackers by throwing the spear. It also allows for some mid-range combat as well, but for the most part felt clumsy to use and we only really used it when necessary.

Magic abilities include the standard electric attack – the Eye of Atlantis here – as well as a couple of others, but by far the most useful was Thera’s Bane. By holding the R button, it infuses the Blades of Athena with fire to vastly increase their power. This allows you to attack armored enemies and get past certain barriers as you progress through the game, and once you fully upgrade the Bane and the Blades you become quite the force. Obviously this isn’t limitless, as it uses a third meter that needs to recharge before you can use the ability again; players of God of War III should be quite familiar with this mechanic.

Of course the controls are much like the previous PSP entry, Chains of Olympus, and modified to make up for the lack of a second analog stick and two shoulder buttons. While a great job is done mapping the controls for the most part, there are a couple of instances where they get in your way. For instance, mapping Thera’s Bane to the R button, special moves and blocking to the L button, and the dodge maneuver to both buttons can cause you to do one thing when you meant to do another. There were more than a couple of instances where we either dodged when we tried to use the Bane with a special maneuver or vice versa. It was also a bit awkward to reach over to the d-pad while you were trying to move across a battlefield at the same time, leading us to rarely use magic except for especially tough battles – only once did we deplete our magic meter over the game’s course.

Another odd design choice is the total lack of difficult puzzles. Throughout the entire 10-12 hour adventure, there’s not one thing that can remotely be considered a head-scratcher. The game is pretty much one battle after the next. When the game plays as well as it does it can take a bit of the sting out, but it’s definitely weird to see considering that elaborate puzzles have been a key part of the series.

Speaking of those countless battles, the game rarely punishes you. Playing through the game on Normal, there were life and magic chests to be found immediately after most fights. It’s not until the last hour or so where the game starts making you pay for not being careful in battle, resulting in the final boss being the only battle we had to retry a few times.

Graphics/Sound

The same way God of War II blew us away for squeezing everything it could out of hardware that was over six years old, we found ourselves wondering how the hell the PSP could run this game at all. The term “tour de force” might be a cliché, but it’s hard to come up with a different term to describe Ghost of Sparta — it’s just that good.

Visually, the game barely breaks a sweat. Minus the odd framerate drop or screen tear, Ghost of Sparta is a constant barrage of some of the best visuals you’ll see on the PSP. While some of the environments are nothing you haven’t seen in past God of War games – Atlantis is much like any Greek city, a lava-flooded volcano, etc. – the vistas are gorgeous. The character models are all quite detailed, and that goes double for Kratos himself. Taking a page from God of War III, there are a couple of instances where you’ll have to squeeze through a crack in the wall, just for the camera to zoom right in to allow you to check out the detail for yourself.

And as good as the game looks as you’re sightseeing, it’s a real treat to see it during combat sequences; the contrasting red and blue of Thera’s Bane and the Eye of Atlantis are especially fun to watch. The single most impressive battle occurs at the very end of the game’s second act, where there are so many different things going on at once that it’s a minor miracle that smoke didn’t billow out of the PSP’s UMD drive.

As for the audio, we wholly recommend using a pair of decent headphones. While the soundtrack was typical of what you’ve heard in other God of War games, listening to it through a pair of Astro A40s allowed us to revel in every pounding drum and blaring horn. Just as satisfying was hearing Kratos’ blades slice through enemy flesh and clang against their armor and shields. It all adds up to something that the PSP’s tiny speakers don’t do proper justice.

Conclusion

So with so many games flooding the market this time of year, is Ghost of Sparta worth your time? Absolutely. While the controls can get in your way in tight spots, they work beautifully for the most part, and you won’t spend a single second over the game’s dozen or so hours being bored. The story isn’t revolutionary by any means, but it serves its purpose well and ends up being a welcome addition to the God of War mythos. Quite frankly, this is one of the best jobs we’ve seen of a developer taking full advantage of any hardware.

This is a game that stands tall and challenges “bigger” holiday console releases to be as balls-out fun as it is, and PSP owners owe it to themselves to check it out, whether or not they’re complaining about a (nonexistent) lack of software.

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