Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta

As long as you’ve got Kratos, a decent mythological storyline, and tight controls, any installment of God of War is going to shine. You could argue that it suffers from the “same” syndrome, rarely improving on its core mechanics and offering the same jollies at every turn, but isn’t that what its imitators are for? When similar releases can’t seem to get the basics down pat, i.e. Dante’s Inferno, I’m thankful that the franchise that launched a thousand cookie-cutter spinoffs remains what made it so memorable in the first place.

God of War: Ghost of Sparta is placed between God of War and God of War II and offers to shed even more light on the rapid spiral downward our favorite angst-filled god takes after accidentally offing his beloved family. Becoming a full-fledged god didn’t exactly rid poor Kratos of the violent visions that plague him, and lately newer, more disturbing visages threaten his sanit. These visions involve a presumably dying woman and Kratos takes it upon himself to perhaps erase this particular vision from his tattered and torn psyche. Thus, a new adventure begins, this time a journey all the way to the god of death himself, Thanatos.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Ready at Dawn’s first departure in the PSP series of God of War adventures, Chains of Olympus, I expected a similarly tight experience here. And Ghost of Sparta delivered twofold.

Perhaps the first pieces of this brilliant little puzzle to have caught my attention were the gorgeous visuals rivaling any other PSP offering and several PlayStation 2 titles, including the non-HD classic God of War. Exploring the same landscapes that are par for the course for the franchise has never looked better on a handheld, and it’s clear that making Kratos’ inquisitive mission was truly another labor of love for Ready at Dawn. Even the smallest details such as torrential rain really shine here, as does Kratos himself, who looks rather fetching even while splattered with the “real” spoils of war – blood.

But even though this entry may be more aesthetically pleasing than even the earlier games in the series, fret not, because virtually nothing has changed in terms of gameplay. Why mess with something that works? Kratos will still slice through baddies with his signature blades like a hot knife through butter, there are “move this item here, press the switch there” puzzles, and the infamous quick time events required to take down some of the colossal bosses still make an appearance at every turn. It’s all quite familiar stuff.

There is enough here to keep vets feeling at home, but Kratos has a few new tricks under his belt. You’ll start off with the classic (and my personal favorite) Blades of Athena, with combos and regular melee attacks mirroring those seen in the other games. New to Ghost of Sparta, however, is Thera’s Bane, which not only augments the Blades of Athena, but must be used to penetrate armor, obstacles, and anything else that dares to stand in Kratos’ way. In addition, he also takes up a more traditional weapon combo more fitting of his Spartan heritage: a spear and shield collectively known as the Arms of Sparta. Kratos can make enemy kebabs with up close and personal baddies or assault them from a distance with a simple throw. Likewise, the shield performs double duty as it can deliver crushing blows to opponents as well as defend against oncoming threats.

New weapons aren’t all that have been introduced. The Scourge of Erinys and Eye of Atlantis magical abilities offer a little more diversity for Kratos’ mystical arsenal. While the Eye of Atlantis doesn’t particularly enthrall with its humdrum effects and pedestrian lightning damage, the Scourge of Erinys serves up a devastating whirlpool of energy, dragging enemies kicking and screaming into oblivion and spitting out orbs for Kratos. Quite useful, especially if you’re in a pinch.

Magic, weapons, graphics, and familiar mechanics are some great reasons to give Ghost of Sparta a chance, but then so is the fact that quick time events have been vastly improved as far as on-screen prompts go. It’s one step forward and one step back though, unfortunately, as even though the use of the iffy analog nub has been dialed back, another annoying few button presses have taken its place. When Kratos finds himself in the diabolical clutches of any random enemy, you need to rapidly press the shoulder buttons of the PSP, clickety-clacking your way to his freedom. As you can imagine this quickly grates on the nerves, especially if you’re not so hot at dodging. It’s abuse on the shoulder buttons and more than a little annoying for anyone in your general vicinity, so this is a definite misfire in all aspects.

Other than that, I honestly couldn’t find much of anything to dislike here beyond the fact that, as previously mentioned, there have hardly been any changes made to the core God of War experience, and many will find that a deterrent. Understandable. But for me, I am enamored with what works and I never tire of stepping into the shoes of this bloodthirsty warrior with a (surprise!) heavy heart and a weary mind.

Ready at Dawn have done something relatively amazing here with their second offering for the series, and God of War: Ghosts of Sparta certainly delivers. They’ve improved upon their previous offering in many ways and created a handheld title that feels every bit as epic and entrancing as the latest console entry. That’s a tough nut to crack, but I believe it was done quite well here and I’m hopeful they once again take the reins in the future if we are to see another take-along journey with the God himself. If you’re a fan at all of this button-mashing brawler, pick Ghost of Sparta up and prepare to be reminded just why you fell in love with the saga of Kratos in the first place. You won’t be disappointed.

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