God of War: Ghost of Sparta

I find that reviewing PSP games is exceptionally more difficult than the rest of my responsibilities here at PopMatters. That is because for whatever one might say about anything in the console’s game library — and it has a surprisingly high number of excellent games anyone would want to own — the experience is always marred by the PSP itself. If it isn’t the bad control schematic, it’s the inability to play in ambient lighting conditions. If it’s not the light, it’s the terrible battery life. The fact that reviews of, and developers’ discussion of, PSP games always seems to bear some mention of how a game did or didn’t work past the failings of the horrible console is a sorry state of affairs in this day and age of game design.

For that reason, it’s difficult to recommend something like God of War: Ghost of Sparta to someone because that would mean recommending the PSP, something I am staidly opposed to. In light of that, however, if you already own the handheld and wish for something to justify its existence this holiday season, or if you’re looking for that one game to validate your hypothetical future purchase, Ghost of Sparta might be it.

Handheld developers Ready At Dawn have a reputation for delivering high quality work on Sony’s fatally ill little console, and Ghost of Sparta manages to make their previous success in the franchise, Chains of Olympus, pale in comparison. There is no question that what we’re seeing is a complete PS2 experience in handheld form. The graphics are luscious, the levels are huge and sprawling, the controls are tight and work possibly the best of any PSP control scheme I’ve ever encountered.

But what really, truly impresses me is the story. Although one could throw a stick and strike some kind of family drama in Greek mythology, this is the first installment of the God of War series — to my recollection — that deals directly with the mortal side of Kratos’s family. While previous games have boiled down to fetch quests, revenge and bloodlust, Ghost of Sparta is a pure family affair, in which Kratos is visited by his mother Callisto and sets off to rescue his younger brother Deimos from the hands of Thanatos.

It goes without saying that there is still plenty of murder involved, and ultimately, one can’t go too far in this franchise without stumbling upon some theme of revenge, but the overall arc manages to seem much more coherent and compelling than we may be used to experiencing in a God of War game. This trope of reunification of the family, far from the series’ usual model of grief and retribution, is a refreshing change of pace and definitely plucked this reviewer’s heart strings, which is the last thing that I might have expected it to do.

As iterated elsewhere, the game’s set pieces underwhelm after the crowning moments of awesome in God of War III, so those seasoned in the series might not find that it’s a blood-filled rollercoaster of heretofore unseen thrills and evisceration. In other words, it doesn’t really up the ante. That being said, it’s a solid piece of entertainment and, as I remarked earlier, probably the best use of the PSP yet produced.

To its detriment (not that this is a criticism to be leveled at this installment alone), the stages are essentially linear, and the puzzles at times feel entirely too arbitrary and ridiculous. But let’s face it: there is the simple way of doing things, and then there is the Kratos way of doing things. If it would be simple enough to climb up the scaffolding of a tower onto a ledge, of course the game will make you drop a huge rock weight onto a burning gate with a helpless, screaming civilian trapped between. And of course you will then use his body to depress a button to get through the next gate. It’s not as though there are any ceramic vases and wooden crates around. And don’t get me started on King Midas.

Bosses, though frequent, rarely involve any sort of complex strategy. Those who remember the good ol’ days of harpooning Hydras to the deck of your ship in the first game will be disappointed that there is no real interplay between enemy and environment at all in this game. Most bosses are astonishingly straight-forward — usually the difference between pressing or not pressing the right trigger, depending on whether your target has armor. It may have something to do with the battery life — it’s hard to trial-and-error for hours on a boss when your battery’s sure to die before then — but games should never be designed in apology to their platform’s shortcomings. It would have been nice to see some more creativity in the boss fights, although Erinys is definitely a major high point.

Though it’s an also ran in the wake of God of War III, Ghost of Sparta is still essentially all that you know and love about the franchise, with the addition of a uniquely compelling narrative that is, for once, about unity and rebuilding, instead of aimless revenge and destruction. You still get your familiar wrathful Kratos, your mountains of dead and your grim classical imagery with an MTV generation tweak, but now the protagonist is even more relatable — more human — than he’s ever been.

RATING 8 / 10