Kratos cannot leave the gods alone. Whether he's toppling Ares or Mount Olympus itself, they have known little rest since arousing his ire. As meddlesome observers, we've been all the better for it. And if God of War: Ghost of Sparta is any indication, we'll want to be around for as long as he has some fight left in him.
Despite being the second release on the PSP and the follow-up to the phenomenal God of War III, Ghost of Sparta is actually second in the series' timeline. Chronologically, the events take place in between the first and second title, after Kratos emerges victorious from his fight with Ares but before he actually claims the throne as God of War. That might be splitting hairs, since he seemed to be god enough at the end of the first, but it's all academic when there are uppity deities that need to be slain.
After defeating Ares, Kratos is again confronted with Athena about a mysterious event in his past. As a young man, Kratos was responsible for training and protecting his younger brother, Deimos. Unfortunately for Deimos, he becomes the target of the gods' wrath after a prophecy is revealed that they will be undone by a marked Spartan. At the time, Kratos was free of his ashen skin and red marks while Deimos had a birthmark running down his face. Seeking to head off the would-be god-slayer, Ares and Athena kidnap Deimos and leave Kratos battered and bruised. Upon finding out that his brother is still alive and being held prisoner by Thanatos, God of Death, Kratos sets out to set him free.
In an opening eerily similar to the original, Kratos finds himself on a ship amidst a terrible storm, being wracked both by powerful gales and deadly creatures. Despite Poseidon's best efforts, Kratos soon finds himself in the god's own city, Atlantis, and begins his hunt. It's a familiar set-up, but one that seems to be a nod more than a copy as everything is a mirror of the original's beginning, with Kratos entering and advancing in the opposite direction. It might not be as jaw-dropping an opener as scaling Mount Olympus in the midst of a war between Titans and gods, but it works.
Similar to Chains of Olympus, no significant mechanics are introduced in Ghost of Sparta as it is content to deliver all of the refinements of its bigger brothers to the handheld market. The approach makes sense, and PSP owners definitely don't suffer for it; with the concessions needed to be made to account for the system's control limitations, refinement is much preferred over experimentation. There are some new items, which are the typical additions for the series – new skills, weapons, and unlocks. So what handheld owners are presented with is a new adventure, along with a handful of new items, set in the mold of God of War III. Works for me.
With Ready at Dawn handling development duties alongside Sony Santa Monica, the studio behind the third, Ghost of Sparta is a much different adventure than Chains of Olympus. Sony Santa Monica's influence is definitely felt throughout the game, as the general shift towards faster and more frequent combat encounters against smaller groups is coupled with less tedious puzzles, an approach initiated in the third. That shift is really what rekindled my love of the series as I had had my fill of moving a boulder three screens away onto a pressure plate while fighting off annoying waves of enemies, only to have to do it again and again. By cutting down on the puzzle count and duration, they feel more organic and conducive to the game's brisk pace – less puzzle-like and more like environmental obstacles to navigate. Some of the influences are more obvious, such as the new method of displaying buttons overlaid over white borders that run along the border corresponding to the button position in the layout (e.g., the triangle button will appear along the top) during quick time events and the additional time to press the button; however, I did notice that the time allotted has been slightly decreased from the third.
The big new weapon this time around is actually a set, a spear and a lambda-emblazoned shield known as the Arms of Sparta. They are actually introduced in an interesting flashback sequence that features some novel 2D push-and-thrust fighting between Kratos and Deimos. There are also elemental-based weapons in addition to Thera's Bane, the ability to engulf the Blades of Athena in fire for stronger, armor-breaking damage. Out of all the magic available, my favorite has to be the Scourge of Erinys, which sends a black void traveling across the screen that sucks in and damages any enemy it touches. The Eye of Atlantis (causes electrical damage, similar to Cronos' Rage) and Horn of Boreas (freezes enemies) are fine and all, but they really had no hope against small black holes. Then there are the items that can be used in subsequent playthroughs for the adventurous, such as The King's Ring to collect more orbs and Athena's Owl to find treasure.
Brawlers haven't been left out, either. Kratos can now run into and piledrive enemies onto the ground, leaving them vulnerable to ground attacks – it's very gratifying. New kill animations and moves are also available for lesser creatures, who can now be dispatched with a hold and context-sensitive move after being softened up. I also found it easier to grab flying creatures, which are easily and satisfyingly ripped apart once a hold of. And as always, all moves and items work in conjunction with the series' traditional leveling system, which uses the red orbs collected from chests and defeated foes to increase damage dealt as well as Kratos' move list.
The areas are as designed as much for flow as are the encounters, with each taking only a few moments to navigate. Although I did run into an odd problem with the game's brightness level: whenever smaller ledges or pathways were used, I often found it difficult to make out any non-highlighted portions due to the game being fairly dark. There were also a few rare, humorous moments whenever the camera would swivel or pan too soon and reveal portions where enemies were hanging around – literally, in the case of them hanging off of giant chains – waiting for Kratos to enter the scene. While such instances would break immersion for a bit, they were far from serious problems. Instead, the levels, ranging from a deteriorating Atlantis to death's domain, were filled with short puzzles that fit more naturally into the environment and helped provide variety rather than lengthy asides from the more engaging combat. Although I was surprised by how many more instant-kill environmental traps there were this time around, which would cause some problems when combined with the random hard-to-spot ledge or walkway, but on the whole a good job was done in keeping the game exciting even when there were no fists – or claws – flying.
The rapid pace of the game isn't just because of the refined encounter methodology but also because the default difficult is a bit too easy. I doubt I've become such a good player that my experience has humbled its normally challenging normal level, but I was able to complete the entire game in under six hours – around 5 hours and 40 minutes, giving a few minutes for the last boss fight. I think that has more to do with the plethora of health and mana chests, as well as the secondary chests (feathers for increased magic, horns for increased Thera's Bane, and Gorgon eyes for increased health) that are liberally scattered all over the place. Ramping up the difficulty certainly helps, as does the unlocked God mode, so I suggest old pros crank it up a level before starting. Of course, I did restart on a harder level after completing it the first time, because the game is worth replaying. There are also numerous unlockables that keep the replay value high, such as two sets of challenges (one for Athena and one for Ares); unlockable enemy sets and battlegrounds for the Arena, where two creature types can be fought at a time; and the Hall of Zeus, where red orbs can be sacrificed for additional challenges (all of Ares' must be unlocked), character art and cinematics. There's a lot of good stuff in there, and with some objects costing upwards of 100,000 orbs, it'll take a while to unlock everything.
Ghost of Sparta is also one of the best looking and sounding PlayStation Portable titles to date. Characters and environments look great while Kratos sounds as angry as ever and narrator Linda Hunt is as beguiling as ever. As a prequel to God of War II, Ghost of Sparta isn't essential to understanding the storyline, but it does help to flesh out Kratos' past and – if he needed any more reasons – why he holds such a grudge against the gods.
Despite some minor brightness issues, and a default difficulty level that might be a bit too easy, God of War: Ghost of Sparta is a fantastic brawler that should be in every action fan's library. While it's on the short side, it's also chock full of replay value with numerous unlockables and a main quest that's worth replaying.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)