When God of War III ended, Kratos’s story was finished – at least for the time being, what with Olympus in ruins and his revenge finally complete. But the ending still left a big plot thread hanging, one that began in the hidden recesses of the first game and was never pursued: Kratos had a brother. One who’d been snatched away as a child and raised in the underworld. One who, Kratos learns early on in Ghost of Sparta, is still alive.
And with that, we’re plunged headlong into another vicious, rage-fueled stomp through the more monstrous side of Greek mythology, as Kratos travels to Atlantis, Sparta and, finally, to death’s domain (which is separate from Hades, making this the first GoW to not include a trip to Greek hell) in search of his lost brother Deimos. Along the way, we’re treated to flashbacks to Kratos’s childhood that reveal the origins of the bald Spartan’s tattoos and the ragged scar over his right eye, and we’ll ultimately learn why he’s so goddamn furious with the gods at the outset of God of War II.
That setup forms the backdrop for one of the most impressively slick God of War games yet. Ghost of Sparta is unquestionably one of the best-looking, if not the best-looking game on the PSP, and veteran developer Ready at Dawn seems to have used every trick it knows to make the game vivid, smooth and richly detailed. The action is largely unchanged, still balancing occasional platforming and environmental puzzle-solving with gracefully brutal, button-mashy whip-sword hack-and-slash, although Ghost also borrows a few gameplay ideas from God of War III, while introducing a few original touches of its own.
So it’s difficult to say, then, exactly why Ghost of Sparta feels strangely disappointing. It’s not that it’s bad, or even mediocre – this is still every inch a full-blooded God of War game, and it’s still expertly produced, brutal fun. But something about Ghost of Sparta gives the impression that it’s just going through the motions and ticking off boxes of the familiar God of War formula. Expecting an opening sequence built around a lengthy fight with a giant monster? Meet Scylla, a massive sea-beast who repeatedly menaces Kratos throughout the first chapter. Enjoy pulling off Kratos’s balletic, button-mashy combos? They look exactly the way you remember them. Want to make Kratos get his freak on offscreen? A Spartan brothel gives the series its first implied nine-way.
All the familiar elements are in place, which means we know what we’re getting – but that also means we’ve seen a lot of this stuff (or, at least, things similar to this stuff) before. And the difference is that this time, those elements don’t always feel meaningful to the plot so much as they just feel obligatory. It also doesn’t help that, unlike the other God of War games, Ghost of Sparta suffers from occasional pacing problems, with a few annoyingly awkward balance-beam segments and too-long battles with repetitive enemies breaking up the game’s otherwise brisk tempo.
It’s important to stress that Ghost of Sparta is a great game – it just falls short of its stellar predecessors. It’s also not without uniquely memorable moments; at one point, Kratos takes a casual stroll through Sparta, marking the first time ordinary citizens have cheered and saluted at the sight of him, instead of just running away. At another, he has a lengthy encounter with King Midas that culminates with him beating and dragging the poor, cursed old man to a horrible death just to open the way forward.
Then there’s Kratos’s long-overdue encounter with the Furies, the revenge goddesses infamous in Greek myth for hounding those who’ve committed crimes against nature or the gods. Here, they’re condensed into a single character – named Erinys – who seems less interested in avenging Kratos’s many, many crimes than she is in simply keeping him from ever finding his brother. Whatever her reasons, the fight against her is one of Ghost of Sparta’s high points.
Ghost also brings a few original touches to the gameplay, the biggest being the Arms of Sparta, a shield-and-spear combo that’s surprisingly versatile compared to Kratos’s usual arsenal. Not only can Kratos fight at close range with it, but he can hurl the spear at distant targets (something that’s also key to solving a few of the game’s puzzles) and ward off various environmental hazards – like a massive wall of flame – with the shield. Ultimately, the Arms aren’t as effective in combat as the trusty old Blades of Athena, but it’s still nice to have a secondary weapon that feels like an important part of the game, instead of something we can just ignore.
Other additions include the new Hyperion Charge, a dash move that enables Kratos to tackle his enemies and punch their faces in while they’re on the ground. And again, Ghost of Sparta also grabs a few ideas from God of War III, like an added “fire” meter that lets Kratos charge up his blades to punch through armor and some walls, and a slightly modified approach to quick time scenes that moves the button prompts off to the sides, leaving the action unobscured.
Ghost of Sparta also features the now-customary secrets and power-ups to unlock once you’ve finished the game, as well as a handful of challenge modes and a new endless combat arena for which you can set the parameters. But otherwise, it doesn’t hold too many surprises, especially not if you’re a longtime fan of the series – and that’s the bulk of its problem. The gameplay is stellar and the visuals are beautiful, but the ships, dungeons and snowy mountains Kratos explores all feel just a little too familiar.
Granted, this is a handheld interquel, so the developers don’t have a whole lot of room to introduce anything too earth-shaking. But after the last four God of War games, earth-shaking is what we’ve come to expect. And while Ghost of Sparta is still better than most other games (especially on the increasingly bone-dry PSP), it’s a strangely by-the-numbers outing for one of gaming’s most inventively brutal anti-heroes.
Oct 27, 2010