When the first God of War came out, we didn't know what the franchise would become and where it would go. Our only hints were a series of unlockable videos, which depicted three possible scenarios for future plots: Kratos discovering his father's identity from his mother, the remains of the Titan Cronos being discovered by a modern day excavation team, and the return of Kratos' long-lost twin brother, who was thought to be dead. None of these plots came to pass, and the second game in the series was quite different, but these plot threads continued to linger through later games in the series.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta for the PSP seems to have been birthed to clear up some of those lingering unused ideas. The end result may not be the most satisfying for fans who expect something dramatic and shocking, but answers are answers, and it is as good an excuse as any for more God of War gameplay.
Ghost of Sparta opens not long after the end of the first God of War ended. Kratos has ascended to Olympus as the replacement God of War since the previous one, Ares, was killed at his hands. Kratos is haunted by visions of his mortal life, particularly of his mother, who is hidden away in the city of Atlantis. Kratos tracks her down and discovers that his brother, Deimos, who he thought had been killed as a child, is actually alive. He was spirited away to the realm of Thanatos, the God of Death, in order to avert a prophecy involving the destruction of Olympus. This discovery doesn't make Kratos a very happy individual, and he sets off to rescue his brother from the clutches of Death. Surprisingly, this isn't as easy as a trip to Hades, as the Realm of Thanatos is a land that belongs to the God of Death, so Kratos must find a way to venture to a land where even gods dare not step.
When it comes to the story line, Ghost of Sparta is probably the weakest of the God of War games. The franchise hasn't exactly had deep and meaningful stories, but the plot usually provided a colorful cast of characters and events leading up to Kratos' next inevitable orgy of murder. Between Kratos' discovery that Deimos is alive and finding a way to rescue him, the story kind of meanders along. A brief trip to Sparta is the most interesting part, but I'm hard-pressed to tell you why he went there. Only a handful of mythological figures appear, and they seem to a bit random. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Deimos, who has perhaps 10 lines in the entire story before his plot comes to an abrupt end. For a character who has been foreshadowed since the first game in the series and whose rescue is the primary motivating favor of this game, he doesn't have much to him.
Ghost of Sparta doesn't make any particularly drastic changes to the God of War formula. A few of the basic gameplay improvements from God of War 3, such as the directional Quick Time Event icons, are carried over to Ghost of Sparta, but that's about the only major change you'll notice to the basic gameplay. The combos, movement and controls translated from the PS3 to the PSP almost perfectly. Due to the PSP's limited controls, dodging is done by holding both shoulder buttons and pressing in a direction. Regardless of how much I played the game, this never stopped feeling awkward. You would rarely dodge if you didn't want to; it's not enough to cause any serious problems, but it can be slightly annoying. Otherwise, the controls are pretty much flawless, and the game is easy to pick up and play if you've ever touched a God of War game.
It wouldn't be a God of War game without a host of new weapons, although Ghost of Sparta's collection feels pretty unimpressive, even when compared to the previous Chains of Olympus. The most noteworthy new weapon is the Flames of Thera, which is an upgrade for the Chains of Athena. By holding the right shoulder button, you'll engulf the blades in flames to increase their damage. On top of that, it allows them to pierce the armor of heavily defended foes and occasionally cause enemies to explode from the inside. The Flames are powered by a fire meter that is located under your health and magic. Holding down the button makes the meter drain, and letting it go recharges it. While this is a neat weapon, it feels a bit odd. The flame meter recharges so quickly that there's really little thought in using it. You should pretty much be holding down the right shoulder button any time you attack. It only takes a few seconds to recharge, so as long as you're not holding it down constantly, you'll always be doing extra damage.
You get a second additional weapon in Ghost of Sparta: the Arms of Sparta. The Arms are a spear and shield that provide Kratos with additional defensive power. Kratos can attack with the spear just as he would with the Chains, although he has less range. Kratos can also throw the spear at distant foes. The spear instantly reappears in his hand after being thrown, so this turns the Arms into his "bow" weapon. The shield allows Kratos to block attacks and move around while blocking attacks. This isn't used very often, but one or two puzzles require Kratos to slowly advance on foes while blocking.
Aside from those upgrades, Kratos also gets three magic spells: The Eye of Atlantis, The Scourge of Erinys and the Horn of Boreas. The Eye fires a blast of electricity towards Kratos' foes, and at higher levels, it can arc to multiple opponents. The Scourge creates deadly balls of energy that knock around enemies and can be useful for weakening foes while Kratos attacks them. Finally, Kratos spins the Horn around like a shotput, damaging and potentially freezing any foes who happen to come within its radius. Each of these three attacks consumes your magic bar, and each is powerful enough to clear out large groups of enemies. Magic is plentiful inGhost of Sparta, so there is no reason to be stingy with the magic.
It seems that Ghost of Sparta toned back the difficulty from previous God of War titles. Perhaps it's because of the Flames, but Kratos seems to hit a lot harder than usual. In addition, enemies seem to do less damage and are easier to counter. There seems to be a lot more health and magic restoring chests around, and health and magic upgrades are significantly easier to find. There are only a few bosses, and they're pretty straightforward. One boss in particular is a series of gimmicks and Quick Time Events instead of a straight-up fight. The game isn't exactly a sleepwalk, but it felt like the easiest entry in the franchise.
Perhaps Ghost of Sparta's biggest problem is that it's not very memorable. Aside from a boss battle near the middle and a boss battle near the end, I can't describe many interesting areas in the game. Part of this is due to the somewhat meandering path Kratos takes, so events don't flow together as well as they could, but a fair bit is due to much of the game being a straight pathway filled with the same small selection of foes. There are a lot of invisible walls keeping you on the path, and you have very little chance to poke around. There's a surprising number of optional upgrades, and the puzzles are lackluster and provide only momentary distraction from the killing.
To be fair, when Ghost of Sparta is on, it's really on. Aside from the aforementioned boss fights, there are some really neat sequences, including one pulse-pounding area where you're forced to escape from a burning city while it collapses around you. The most memorable moments are those when Kratos is acting like a terrible person. Considering he singlehandedly cause the apocalypse in God of War III, it should be no shock that Kratos is a pretty bad person, but Ghost of Sparta repeatedly drives home that Kratos is a very bad man.
Ghost of Sparta clocks in at a relatively reasonable six to seven hours of gameplay, and it's a credit to the game's pacing that it never drags along or spends too much time in one area. As usual, Ghost of Sparta contains a host of extras to find and unlock. Once you finish the game, you gain access to a few different gameplay modes, which add a fair amount of replay value. There's a series of Challenge Rooms that test your mastery of the God of War mechanics. There's also a Temple of Zeus, where you can spend collected red orbs to unlock new features. One of the neater features is a battle arena, where you can set up Kratos to fight a customized group of enemies. You can alter which enemies you face, where you face them, and whether or not they'll respawn. You can even set it so that Kratos (or the enemies) have unlimited hit points or magic if you want to learn how big of a combo you can make without restrictions.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is easily one of the best-looking titles on the PSP. The visuals are pretty amazing for a handheld system, and there are some sequences that really show off what the little system can do, and it does this with very little noticeable loading time. There are a few times when the game would pause to load the next area, but the gameplay was almost seamless, and the loading times were a matter of seconds — even though I was running it right off the UMD. The combat was smooth, and I never noticed any slowdown or choppiness, even during hectic moments. However, there was one downside. The small screen and busy visuals make it hard to focus on the smaller details of what was going on. It was sometimes tough to make out important things, especially during combat against smaller foes. Fortunately, the game gives these foes a color-coded glow just before they attack, but it can still be hard to distinguish things. The soundtrack is the usual epic God of War music, and while there's nothing wrong with that, there are no particular standout songs either, just a lot of familiar stuff. The voice acting was solid, and Kratos' voice actor continues to bring an amusing sense of overblown rage to every single scene.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is probably the weakest entry in the franchise. It has a relatively unimpressive story, fairly unmemorable locations, toned-down enemies and lackluster upgrades. At its heart, it's still a God of War game, and it is still fun to play. When it is on, it is on, and there are some really incredible moments in the game. I wish there were more of them, but there are some awesome sequences that are a lot of fun to play. The gameplay is functionally unchanged from the previous games, and fans of the franchise should find it easy to jump into Ghost of Sparta. In the end, Ghost of Sparta is more of the same. There are no huge surprises, either good or bad, so if you're eager for more of Kratos' adventures, then Ghost of Sparta will certainly fill the order.
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