Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta

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In a recent interview, Ready at Dawn talked about how rampant piracy is beginning to turn PSP game development into a pointless venture. Quoting Ready at Dawn’s Ru Weerasuriya: “It’s getting to the point where it doesn’t make sense to make games on it [the PSP],” and, “…it [piracy] definitely hurts a lot of developers out there who are trying to make great games.”

This is extremely disheartening to hear for many reasons, but for two in particular. First, in my opinion the PSP is having by far its strongest year of game releases, and I would even argue that the portable’s 2010 lineup rivals any other gaming platform. Second, Ready at Dawn has become the industry’s preeminent PSP developer after stellar titles like Daxter and God of War: Chains of Olympus, and if a studio that talented and successful is having a tough time with piracy, you know others are being slammed even harder.

The reason I bring this all up is because after ceasing development for the platform a couple years ago, Ready at Dawn has made its long-awaited return to the PSP with this week’s launch of God of War: Ghost of Sparta – and another stellar RAD game it is. However, after those piracy comments and other statements, it’s pretty clear that this will be the studio’s final PSP game, and that makes me a very sad man. But looking on the bright side, if this does indeed turn out to be their last PSP game, I certainly couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

But we can talk about depressing piracy problems further some other time. Today should be a day of celebration, for God of War: Ghost of Sparta is yet another standout PSP release. Perhaps even the year’s best.

For those who haven’t been keeping track, Ghost of Sparta is the fifth full installment in Sony’s God of War franchise, and the second exclusive to the PSP. Whereas Chains of Olympus, the first PSP title, is a prequel to the entire storyline, Ghost of Sparta serves as an interquel between God of War and God of War II – and it even acts a precursor to certain plot threads that carry over into God of War III.

Spartan warrior Kratos has defeated Ares and claimed his spot in Olympus as the new God of War, yet he still suffers from the nightmares of his past; nightmares that lead him on a quest to find his mother, Callisto, and his brother, Deimos. On this journey to discover Kratos’ origins, you actually get to see a softer side to the Ghost of Sparta as he wrestles with the humanity that lingers inside him, and it’s a refreshing change – especially after God of War III, where he is a man on a mission with no other thought than to mercilessly slaughter the gods of Mount Olympus.

As always, the production values are through the roof, from the riveting cutscenes to the movie-caliber voice acting to the epic soundtrack of booming mythological anthems and evocative melodies to the incredible sound effects (my favorite being the whistle of Kratos’ chain blades as they cut through the air and the thunderous clap of his slam attack). Oh yeah, and the game is absolutely gorgeous, delivering an unprecedented level of detail on a portable gaming device. As you work your way through Atlantis, the Temple of Poseidon, Sparta and the Domain of Death, you’ll be blown away by the dwarfing scale of the surrounding environments, something the game’s fixed camera perfectly accentuates.

It also amazes me that a game of this scale and detail is so well optimized and runs so smoothly on a platform so many developers struggle with. How can a game that looks this good run with nary a load time (and the load times that do exist are a second or two at most), yet a similar high production value game like Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep chugs along with never-ending loading screens? Ready at Dawn clearly knows the ins and outs of the PSP hardware better than any other studio, that’s for damn sure.

In terms of gameplay, Ghost of Sparta doesn’t deviate from the God of War action/adventure formula – and why would it? The franchise has only sold over 11 million copies after all.

Kratos is still the angriest S.O.B. in gaming, and he still cuts down mythological beasts with the same ferocity and reckless abandon as always. The combat system continues to shine as the smoothest controlling and most tangibly visceral in the action/adventure genre, and in addition to the usual assortment of new enemies, weapons and magic powers (Kratos now gets a spear and shield secondary weapon, for example), Ready at Dawn has even incorporated some subtle twists of its own.

In my recent review of Ballistic’s Art of God of War III, I pointed out a section in the art book which shows a “lost” concept for fire and ice powers attached to Kratos’ trademarked chain blades, and went on to joke that Sony should put out a DLC add-on bringing the concept into some type of combat arena or challenge room. Well, instead I guess they let Ready at Dawn poach the idea, because sure enough, one of Kratos’ key new powers is the ability to imbue his blades with the element of fire by holding down the right shoulder button.

This new mechanic is used throughout for basic environmental puzzle interactions (like breaking down doors and searing through metal objects like gears that his plain Blades of Athena can’t touch), as well as an important combat modifier for cracking through the defenses of an armored enemy. The closing slam of his main combo also plants a fiery time bomb on struck enemies, which is a helpful way of clearing crowds and giving you an opening to get out of harm’s way or attempt to sneak in another attack.

Overall, the gameplay seems to have better balance to it, too. The hack-and-slash combat features prominently as always, however to me the ratio of action to reflex platforming and adventuring felt much more even than previous titles. You seem to do a lot more swinging from grappling points, and with large portions of the game taking place in Atlantis, there is a fair amount of underwater exploration to be had, including moments where you have to swim against a strong current, latch onto a grapple point, and then wind the analog nub to reel Kratos in like a fishing rod.

Really, it’s hard for me to think of a truly negative thing to say about Ghost of Sparta as a game. It controls extremely well, looks stunning, sounds amazing, has familiar-but-thrilling gameplay, and tells a captivating story that fits into the God of War narrative in a meaningful way. If I had to stretch and pick something to criticize, it would be that the secret treasure chests containing the health/magic/fire meter upgrades really aren’t hidden at all like they usually are, and I kind of missed the scavenger hunt fun of having to search every nook and cranny for them. Oh, and one time I encountered a bug which caused Kratos to fall straight through the ground to his death after opening a door. It was the oddest thing – but fortunately the game keeps regular checkpoints, so I didn’t lose any progress.

Of course, I know this game will get railed on for its brevity since it takes no more than seven hours tops to complete (my finish time was a little over six hours on the normal difficulty). But to me the whole “it’s too short” criticism is way old at this point, so you won’t hear me complaining. Yes, the campaign may be “short,” but it’s so good you’ll want to hang onto the game and replay it multiple times.

Ready at Dawn stuffed in tons of unlockable side content, too, such as a combat arena where you can set up customized battles with monsters, costumes and settings of your choosing (I jokingly asked for something like this in my Art of God of War III review as well) and the customary Challenge of the Gods mode consisting of brutal challenge missions. With the red orbs you earn replaying the game and completing these side modes, you can also visit The Temple of Zeus to buy other unlocks like concept art, videos, extra content for the combat arena and eight additional Challenge of the Gods missions on top of the initial five. So, yes, there is plenty of stuff to keep you busy and justify the price.

My final recommendation is simple, guys and gals: if you have a PSP or PSPgo, you need to own this game. ‘Nuff said.

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Pros:
+ Same great God of War gameplay with some fun new tricks and better balance
+ Tells a great story
+ Incredible graphics that I can’t imagine will ever be topped on the PSP
+ Audio is spectacular – score, sound effects, and voice acting
+ Fun side modes and lots of unlockables

Cons:
– This is supposedly Ready at Dawn’s last PSP game…for real this time…I think (but hope not).

Game Info:
Platform: PSP (available on UMD and PSN)
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Ready at Dawn Studios
Release Date: 11/2/2010
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!