To the people on buses and benches, necks bent and eyes locked on their Angry Birds, make way for one of the best 2010 portable games that you need buttons to play, the one starring an angry Greek god who rips wings from birds.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is a palm-sized epic video game, the fifth game on a Sony platform to star the growling mortal-turned-god, Kratos, the second on the PlayStation Portable. Released more than two years after its pocket-sized predecessor, it fills a narrative gap by sending Kratos through Atlantis and beyond to solve the mystery of his lost brother. This is hyper-violent Greek mythology the rampant killing of gods and mortals made fully interactive and, no, not with any radical gameplay twists this time around.
A person who wants to hold in two hands a widescreen high-action Hollywood-style blockbuster — and who won't be turned off by a hero who slices the legs of a Cyclops who chases him, and then stabs its eyeball.
Ghost of Sparta has three hills to climb: It needs to keep a gray series fresh lest it allow Kratos to become the new milked Madden; it needs to somehow possibly look good in the shadow of March's PlayStation 3 blockbuster God of War III; and it needs to attest to the relevance of console-style portable gaming in a day where portable gaming satisfaction is often attained in the 20 seconds it takes to doodle-jump.
It feels like we just got a new God of War game. And that one pretty much had it all. What could this PSP sequel possibly have to offer other than the ability to be played in bathrooms? Pick this game up and you'll assume it's just another God of War. Not a bad thing, though initial impressions are deceptively underwhelming. The series has always offered high-quality combat gameplay, sharp graphics, overindulgence of the male id and some of the best camerawork in the medium. All that is here. Early on, this made me feel like this was a skippable God of War, but as the game progressed I found myself enjoying the adventure. I was going new places with Kratos.
But this one is a prequel and fills in some back-story, right? That's the allure? Ostensibly, yes. This game explains why Poseidon has a beef with Kratos in God of War III and teaches our anti-hero — and us — a lot more about Kratos' family tree. It's just not clear that people would pick up a God of War for story. You either pick it up for the maiming, which Ghost of Sparta does as dynamically and graphically as the previous God of Wars. Or you pick it up for the gameplay. Well, Kratos swings the same blades in this game that he does in his others and rides a familiar upgrade path to greater abilities. He climbs and kills much as he did before, his main new gameplay element an ability to temporarily inflame his blades that looks beautiful but revolutionizes nothing. It turns out, God of War is a narrative series and the story is a draw. Kratos' journey to explore his Spartan roots proves captivating. There is nothing deep here, but there is grand mythology. As the scenery changes, the heavens change colors, betrayals and heartaches commence. Molten and thunderous adventure charges forth.
"Molten and thunderous adventure"? The game stops being gray and the review prose becomes purple? Ghost of Sparta's spectacular journey makes the case visually that the series was made for the wide-screen beauty of a PSP screen. You're getting your Uncharted itch scratched here (your Indiana Jones itch, if you don't speak PS3). You're going to exotic places, seeing impressive things. Like here, clipped short so as not to spoil:
Great graphics on the PSP notwithstanding, what makes Ghost of Sparta a special game and not just some sympathy winner for being grand on a tiny machine? This adventure has great pace and polish. You're not only usually doing something fun, but the pleasures vary from busy combat to some superb quiet mood-setting walks. You've got uncommonly good underwater gameplay and more up-tempo acrobatics than the series is known for.
Would a fence-sitter who was never sold on God of War want to play this one? Kratos is still a growling boor, though the plot does wrench him from his clichés a few great times. Treasure chests still take too long to open. But.. good news! This might be the first God of War game with fewer blocks puzzles than sexual partners for Kratos — and that's with the obligatory interactive love-making relegated to a single scene and one king-sized bed.
A high-end God of War game? Check. A game that lets the PSP do what it does best? Check. But that last God of War on PSP was kinda short…. It was. This one is longer. The campaign exceeds seven hours and, post-completion, players have access to combat arenas, unlockable single-room challenges and campaign-altering items that make it tempting to play the adventure again for grander rewards. No multiplayer, though, if you care.
Ghost of Sparta begins as gray and angry as any God of War and is initially commendable for simply matching the blueprint of the series with great technical proficiency on the PSP (moreso than Chains of Olympus did). But by halfway through, the art direction strengthens, the beautiful vistas vary enough, the story solidifies, Kratos encounters some interesting allies, and, well, it becomes debatable whether this or God of War III was the more polished, more fun, action-packed God of War game of 2010. This is a keeper.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta was developed by Ready At Dawn Studios and published by Sony Computer Entertainment of America for the PSP, released on November 2. Retails for $39.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the singleplayer-only campaign, tried some unlocked challenges and remembered the cardinal rule for finding hidden treasure chests in this series: Always try walking toward the game's camera.