Kratos might possibly be the angriest game character ever created. We all know he accidently killed his wife and child in service to the gods, but his belligerent attitude has often made me wonder what else might have happened to him to make him so filled with rage. We get some insight into this in God of War: Ghost of Sparta, which does a wonderful job adding depth to Kratos' character while delivering one of the most fun and beautiful gameplay experiences on the PSP.
Set between God of War and God of War II, Ghost of Sparta picks up right at the end of God of War, with Kratos sitting upon his newly claimed throne looking appropriately grumpy. After all, becoming a god didn't remove the disturbing memories of his past, but now he's being plagued by a vision we've never seen before -- an old woman lying sick on a slab of stone. Convinced he can actually change this vision, Kratos sets off for Atlantis on a quest that eventually takes him back to his home of Sparta and into the realm of Thanatos, god of death.
At E3 this year, reps from Ready At Dawn Studios said they were skeptical about doing another God of War game because they felt they had accomplished all they could on the PSP with God of War: Chains of Olympus. Luckily for us, they discovered they actually could push the system further, and it really shows.
Ghost of Sparta is gorgeous. Graphically, it looks better than a big chunk of PS2 games, and is absolutely the best-looking game on the PSP thus far. Detailed environments featuring constant rain and cascading water and lava create beautiful backdrops and really bring the world to life. Kratos looks wonderful as well. In fact, his character model was rebuilt from the ground up to add more detail for this game, such as the fact that he can be bathed in blood during battle, like he could in God of War III.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, there's nothing super unique here, but that's not a bad thing. You'll still spend your time slaying countless enemies, traversing dangerous domains, and solving light puzzles. Combat has been perfected throughout the series, so there's not a lot to improve upon, and too much change would have been jarring. That said, there is a brand new weapon and two new magical attacks that add something new to the experience.
Kratos starts the game with the Blades of Athena, which function exactly like blades do in the other games, including the special moves. However, you unlock the ability to add fire to the blades. Known as Thera's Bane, this power functions similar to the Rage of Sparta in God of War III, with its own separate meter (which replenishes over time) and the ability to activate or deactivate it at will. One important difference, though, is that Thera's Bane is necessary for more than just adding power to your attacks. Doors and other obstacles require the power in order to be destroyed, and it's also necessary to break through the armor of certain enemies.
The other weapon you acquire later in the game is the classic spear and shield known as the Arms of Sparta. This combo is one of the most diverse I've seen in the series as it serves as both a ranged and melee weapon with Kratos able to throw the spear at distant enemies or perform a succession of quick jabs up close. The shield can be slammed into enemies in addition to its blocking duties, and most importantly, Kratos can move while blocking with the shield, giving it functionality outside of battle such as walking into fire or freezing wind.
The two new magical attacks in the game are the Eye of Atlantis and the Scourge of Erinys. The former is a lightning attack and isn't terribly unique. The latter, however, is a much more creative ball of energy that sucks nearby enemies into it and occasionally delivers green orbs to Kratos in the process.
The game is filled with all the blood and gore, the great voice acting and dramatic music we've come to expect from a God of War installment, as well as the most ridiculous sex mini-game the series has ever seen, where a whole of swarm of women jumps in on the action. There are also more gigantic bosses than in Chains of Olympus, giving the game more of the awesome sense of scale that's a hallmark of the console versions. Upon beating the game, there are a number of challenges that become available, as well as the Temple of Zeus, where players can sacrifice red orbs in order to purchase concept art, videos, and enemies to battle in the combat arena, a free-play area where players can customize a number of settings and rip apart enemies to their hearts' content.
Some functional improvements have been made as well, such as showing button prompts on the side of the screen that corresponds to the button's placement on the PSP and using of the analog nub less in quicktime events, which could be terribly frustrating in Chains of Olympus. Load times are still practically non-existent, though the game will occasionally pause in mid-action briefly to load, but it's never enough to interfere with the gameplay.
Beautiful graphics and solid gameplay aside, where Ghost of Sparta really sets itself apart is in its ability to add depth to Kratos, who has remained a largely two-dimensional character throughout the series. We still see his rage, but we also see regret and even compassion as he thanks Spartan soldiers for serving him well. The use of lesser-known mythological figures as the main antagonists also distinguishes the game and is a refreshing change from Kratos' epic battle with Zeus, who surprisingly plays no role in this game.
Ghost of Sparta is not perfect, but there's really little to complain about. I would have liked to see some bigger and more challenging puzzles in the vein of the Hera's Garden puzzle in God of War III. The fixed camera can also make it difficult to see Kratos when surrounded by lots of enemies. Usually this isn't a problem, but there were a few occasions when I ended up grabbing the wrong enemy when going for the one with the circle above his head, simply because I couldn't see Kratos in order to turn him in the right direction.