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Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta

I think, in a way, the collective gaming community is just waiting for the developers of the God of War series to slip up.  When the first PSP rendition was released a few years ago, it came from a new studio, and many thought, Well this is probably it, take the reigns away from Santa Monica Studios and youll definitely have a flop.  Fortunately for fans, Ready at Dawn was already an established development studio with former members of both Blizzard and Naughty Dog, and not only did they churn out a stellar God of War game, but they crafted the highest rated PSP game of all time.  At least, until now.  Ghost of Sparta capitalizes on everything that made Chains of Olympus great, but tells a more epic story, looks even better than its predecessor, and adds nearly triple the amount of gameplay and collectibles.  If these are the final days of the PSP, then God of War: Ghost of Sparta is the swansong to send this little system to the fields of Elysium where it can languor in decadence for all eternity.

Story

How do you follow up the supposed death of Kratos from God of War III?  You develop a prequel, set it in the time between the first two God of War games, and use it to dispel any rumors about a God of War IVGhost of Sparta picks up after the death of Ares, before Kratos has been given the mantle of God of War.  The vehicle for this latest journey comes when Kratos finds his mother, supposedly long-lost, who tells him that he must find and rescue his brother Deimos from the realm of death, a place in between the realm of the living and the Underworld (think Purgatory).  Deimos is a figure not often mentioned in the series, as he was torn from Kratos life at a young age.  In fact, only those who really delved into the first game and watched some of the unlockable video sequences would even know of his existence.  Ghost of Sparta tells his tale in a series of vivid flashbacks depicting Kratos and his brother as children, training and growing in the warrior-city of Sparta itself.  These flashbacks also relate the moment of Deimos abduction by some familiar gods, and begin the tale of the downfall of Olympus.  The use of Thanatos, the god of death, as an antagonist is an odd choice given his relatively minor importance to Greek mythology, but it works in the story, and Kratos journey into his realm is described as a walk through a place feared even by the gods.

The exposition is great for fans of the story itself, and the entire journey culminates in some of the most exciting end-game content Ive seen in any God of War game.  This series in general has a knack for ending each game with a mind-shattering bang, and Ghost of Sparta is no exception.  The last fight and subsequent movies, both pre- and post-credit, had me jonesing for more God of War, more story, and more Kratos.

The addition of some new locales also adds to the exploration of Ancient Greece.  Atlantis is visited several times, and while we never really see the city proper, there is some fantastic imagery depicted in the sequences involving the Lost City.  Kratos also makes his way home, venturing to Sparta itself where he is hailed as the God of War and lavished with women and weapons.  Yes, there is a sex minigame.  Its very reminiscent of the one from God of War III, but withahemmore participants.

Gameplay

Theres relatively little that is new gameplay-wise in Ghost of Sparta.  Players still roam expertly-designed levels that often twist back on themselves in unexpected ways, and that require you to backtrack without actually traversing the same ground.  Kratos opens chests and doors the same way, flings himself across gaps, sinks his blades into rock faces to traverse cliffs, etc.  There are a few additions to some of the underwater navigation in the game, but nothing that will feel wildly different.  This late in the Kratos saga, to change anything gameplay-wise would be an invitation to disaster.

One thing that Ghost of Sparta does add that its PSP predecessor lacked are extras.  Chains of Olympus took a deviation from its console brethren by not integrating new costumes or artifacts for use in subsequent playthroughs of the game.  This isnt something that I would look down on a developer for not including (lets face it, most people dont even play through games a second or third time anyway), but its addition into Ghost of Sparta feels like fan-service of the best kind.  Ghost of Sparta not only offers a range of new costumes to play with, but also adds artifacts for use in follow-up playthroughs on the same difficulty (or lower).  And unlike God of War III, which screwed players over by not allowing them access to all the upgrades and weapons when starting a new game at the same difficulty, Ghost of Sparta does things right by opening up the entire kit right at the start of a new game.

Combat

Combat remains quite familiar as well.  Kratos begins the game with the Blades of Athena given to him at the end of God of War, and as usual those will be the bread and butter that he uses to carve his way through the realms of mythology.  One new addition, however, is one that I found myself using an extraordinary amount.  A combination of block and circle sends Kratos charging headfirst into any enemy man-sized or smaller, tackling them with a ferocity that would make any linebacker cringe, and taking them to the ground where he slams them.  The force of the attack creates a shockwave that knocks down any nearby foes, giving Kratos the opportunity to either throw them, or slam them in the face repeatedly until they die.  While charging, and while performing this takedown, Kratos becomes basically invincible to attacks from elsewhere, and I found myself using this move repeatedly while surrounded by anything smaller than a minotaur.

As with any new God of War game, much of what is new in the combat comes from what new weapons and magic attacks Kratos will gain access to.  Obviously, the Blades of Athena remain in use for nearly all of the game, and in fact many fights straight up require them due to the addition of the item bar to Ghost of Sparta.  The item bar was something introduced in God of War III, and in Ghost of Sparta only has one particular ability associated with it.  This ability causes Kratos blades to become encased in flame, a necessity when fighting certain armored foes.  The new magic attacks are fairly standard.  There is a lightning attack, a wind attack that sometimes freezes enemies, and a traveling orb of green death that will stun and do some hefty damage in a small area.  The real prize of this games collectible weapons are the Arms of Sparta.  The Arms of Sparta are acquired fairly late in the game in the city of Sparta itself.  As it may seem apparent from the name, the Arms of Sparta are the spear and shield of the battle-city itself.  While equipped, Kratos literally looks like someone out of the movie 300, and his combat prowess is just as ferocious.  The Arms allow him both a ranged attack when chucks the spear, and a blocking attack when he uses the shield.  It also allows him to move while blocking, and combined with the ability to lash out from behind the shield, this new set of weapons really adds a new dynamic to the combat.  My only complaint was that the Arms were not available earlier in the game.  Some people might take issue with them as well simply because they are not Kratos trademarked weapons of death; however, every God of War game brings some new weapon to the table, and with maybe the exception of the Cestus from God of War III, I think the Arms are possibly the best.

A God of War game would also not be complete without some thrilling boss fights, and Ghost of Sparta delivers, though much as with Chains of Olympus, the portable game doesnt offer quite as many as the console versions do.  Kratos is forced to fight bosses across levels and sometimes even in different areas entirely.  The last battle, in particular, is one of the finest moments in the series history, offering up an ally that makes the fight not only emotionally charged, but engaging in a way that I havent seen in many games, console or handheld, period.

Visuals

Ill be very surprised if another game comes out for the PSP that looks as good as Ghost of Sparta.  It borders on PS3-like visuals, albeit on a smaller screen, streams along at an incredibly smooth framerate, and has some of the lushest environments youll see in the series.  Even the combat has an artistry to it that Ive not seen in many games, particularly when using the flaming blades which look almost like a painting in motion.  We also come to expect a certain amount of polish from any cut scenes, and the game delivers there as well, offering up probably the prettiest looking movie sequences on the system.

As I mentioned previously, Ghost of Sparta takes everything that made Chains of Olympus great and heaps on more of everything good.  The story is better, the combat is more interesting, and where Chains of Olympus could be completed in a few hours, Ghost of Sparta clocks in at around ten hours or more, but never drags or feels too long.  Its quite frankly a better game in every conceivable way, and the fact that Chains of Olympus was itself so very good only emphasizes just how brilliant Ghost of Sparta is.  If I had any complaints at all, it would be that the nub of the PSP should never be used for rotation-based quicktime events.  I also think I would have preferred playing through this story in high definition on the PS3.  Whatever.  Everything else about the game is completely Kratos-worthy, and fans should be happy to see their beloved icon on such an adventure.