Long before he was the god of war, bald badass Kratos was just the Ghost of Sparta, a berserk agent of the ancient Greek gods whose job it was to roam around smashing the faces of mythological monsters. God of War: Chains of Olympus delves into those dark years, shedding light on Kratos' troubled past while delivering the same epic storytelling, beautiful scenery and vicious ass-stomping we've come to expect from the series. And for a PSP game, that's a hell of an achievement.
The first thing that should be said about Chains of Olympus is that developer Ready at Dawn - also responsible for the excellent Daxter - has done an amazing job of replicating the look and feel of the PS2 GoW games. The environments are huge, stunning and filled with ornate architecture and colossal statues, and the automatic camera means no clumsy workarounds to make up for the lack of a second analog stick. Kratos and his hulking enemies look great and animate beautifully, and there are times - usually when Kratos is by himself - when the game looks as though it's running at 60 frames per second.
What's more impressive is that all this is done with almost no noticeable load times, although there are a whole lot of unskippable cutscenes littered throughout the game that might be covering some of them up. For what it's worth, though, those cutscenes are great - especially since they feature the same art direction and voice actors as previous games.
The story they tell isn't half bad, either; although he starts out defending the city of Attica from a bunch of seemingly inconsequential Persians and their giant, fire-breathing basilisk, Kratos is soon given a much more important task that carries apocalyptic implications. That's right: for the first time, Kratos has to save the world instead of just himself. While that sort of goes against his sociopathic nature, it'll nonetheless reveal something very tragic and important about him before the twisting story's through.
Although it's a prequel to the PS2 slash 'em-ups, you won't be playing as some young, underpowered version of Kratos here. Like his later incarnations, this compellingly tormented arch-bastard is able to eviscerate everything around him with the Blades of Chaos, a pair of whiplike scimitars on chains that he swings around in deadly arcs. It's just as fun and visceral as it's ever been, especially when you get in close for a grab - which, with smaller grunt-types, will either leave them disemboweled or forcefully booted halfway across the screen.
It's also tough as nails, especially when bigger monsters show up (which is all the time). Kratos will frequently be confronted by resilient, ghostly saber-tooth tigers, Cyclopes, minotaurs and other nasties, and killing them - or any of the game's vicious bosses - usually means entering a hit-the-buttons-on-cue quicktime sequence once you've beaten them up to the point where they need their heads dramatically torn off. These sequences crop up pretty frequently, but they're short and well-implemented, and with a couple of exceptions - like the semi-hidden offscreen-sex scene - they're limited to killing things. There aren't many sudden "hit button to not die" moments, and that's a relief.
Fun as it is, though, just slicing and ripping through everything over and over would get boring, and so Kratos will amass a small arsenal of magical attacks over the course of his adventure. There are three in all (plus a magically reflective shield), with the most impressive one being a giant red Efreet that leaps out of Kratos and pounds the ground with its fiery fists. There's also a formidable new weapon to complement the Blades: the Gauntlet of Zeus, a comically oversized metal fist apparently inspired by Hellboy. As usual, every last one of these items can be powered up using red orbs, which Kratos gets constantly from smashing enemies and random objects.
Finally, there are the environmental puzzles, which aren't really up to par with the devious sequences from earlier games. They're big and pretty, sure, but they tend to either have obvious solutions or - in a couple of cases - be so obtuse that you'll spend hours just trying to figure out how to get out of one stupid room. Like always, though, every one of the puzzles can be solved by carefully observing your surroundings and the things in them; explore every nook and cranny and experiment with every movable object, and you'll figure it out eventually.
Despite its ability to do unprecedented things on the PSP, Chains of Olympus has a few nagging flaws, not the least of which are the unskippable cutscenes. They bear repeating, because although we like watching the story unfold, we really don't need to see the same scenes play out again every time we're unlucky enough to die before the next checkpoint.
Then there's Kratos' rolling dodge, which - in the absence of a second analog stick - is performed by holding down the shoulder buttons and flicking the analog nub. It beats the hell out of trying to work a 3D camera on the PSP, but it's still a little awkward. Also, Chains is short for a GoW title, taking us about six and a half hours to complete on normal difficulty. True, the unlockable difficulty levels, challenge modes and goofy bonus costumes give it more longevity than that, but another level or two wouldn't have hurt.
That said, Chains is still an impressive piece of work. If we haven't made it clear by now, this is one of the best-looking handheld games ever made, and the fact that it can stand toe-to-toe with two of the most technically impressive PS2 games is no small accomplishment. More than that, though, this is nothing less than a full-fledged entry in the God of War series, and anyone who wants to get to know Kratos a little better (or just stomp another army of monsters) before God of War III eventually hits should play it.