While the 3DS may be stealing the show, it's always worth remembering that Sony's little handheld that could will be kicking around for a little while longer, before being sent to that great Gamestop in the sky with its friends DS, Game Boy Advance, and the runaway smash hit, the Atari Lynx. So grab your blankets, hot cocoa, and form a circle around the campfire, because it's time for Uncle Swede to tell you kids a little story about scary monsters, a fellow named Kratos, and lots and lots of disembowelment.
God of War is one of those franchises that took a while to win me over. On paper, it seemed incredibly unappealing: An unsympathetic protagonist -- some shirtless, marauding sociopath with no qualms about hacking to pieces every man, woman and (if not for the censors) child within spitting distance for no discernible reason -- bare-breasted playthings whose sole function was to titillate teenage boys, and generally absurd amounts of violence for the sake of, well, absurd amounts of violence. Everything about God of War indicated that I would hate it, that it was little more than a cheap indulgence of all things mindless and loathsome, but after a recommendation from a friend of mine I gave it a whirl, and found myself treated to one of the most stylish, epic, and all-around fun games the PS2 had to offer. When I heard the franchise was making its way onto the PSP, my momentarily lapse into optimism elicited a childlike wiggle and a barely-audible squeal of glee, and Chains of Olympus, while not quite up to the level of the previous two God of War titles -- something that no right-thinking person would have expected -- stood out with its successor, Ghost of Sparta as among the best the PSP had to offer.
Continue the trip down memory lane after the jump!
The original God of War was noted for breathing new life into the PS2 -- a sort of swan song for the system, given that the game was released a year or so before the PS3 -- pushing the system to its limit by showcasing graphics that were, while not exactly next-gen, beyond what we had come to expect from a PS2 game. Chains of Olympus brought that sense of awe to the PSP, delivering what was, at the time, easily the most gorgeous game to ever grace Sony's miniature beast, aided by Sony's removal of the processor's 222 MHz cap, allowing the system to run at it's full 333 MHz potential. Complimenting the visuals was familiar gameplay (or for the naysayers, the same old same old), a fittingly epic score, as well as a clever and surprisingly intuitive control system -- for example, holding both shoulder buttons and moving the analog nub would control rolling -- one which avoided the pitfalls of the PSP's single analog nub. As impressive a technical achievement as Chains of Olympus was, it wasn't as immersive as its PS2 counterparts. Casting aside the obvious differences in the console vs. handheld experience, the resources needed to create the environments of God of War's portable incarnation seemed rather skewed. The game looked absolutely spectacular -- effects, character models and animations were much more than one would expect for a PSP game -- the the outdoor backgrounds in particular were rather stale. Granted, we were spoiled by the grandiose scale of previous God of War games, but I couldn't help feeling that I would have preferred a bit of a visual downgrade in favor of a more balanced visual atmosphere.
Ghost of Sparta upped the ante, delivering a game that was not only more polished graphically, but managed to capture the utterly vast scale of it PS2 predecessors. The visual seemed to have been given a boost compared to Chains of Olympus, though there are a couple of glaring flaws. Ready At Dawn studios bit of a little more than they could chew with the controls, resulting in unintentional rolls due to a few attacks that involve pressing both the left and right shoulder buttons at the same time, and the camera, while usually very well done, becomes problematic. Every now and again you'll find yourself stuck on a puzzle because of a less-than-helpful angle, and combat sequences are hindered while enemies find themselves out of your view, only to dash back in and tear you to bits because the camera was pulled in too close. While these aren't game-killing problems, the camera in particular is a nagging issue throughout most of the game, resulting in cheap kills and, most distracting of all, navigating Kratos around the environment in search of that sweet spot from which you can see the battlefield.
The story, rather than being a throwaway bit of filler (as one often fears with portable games), did shed some light on Kratos's character -- specifically, his childhood. It still does little to inspire sympathy for him -- Kratos has always been, and continues to be, a bloodthirsty monster who makes Pol Pot look like a Boy Scout -- and set in the fascistic world of Sparta, it's hard to have an real emotional attachment to his plight. Still, while Kratos may be the epitome of the anti-hero, Ghost of Sparta makes him a more three-dimensional one, granting the player a better understanding of his anger, his sense of betrayal, and the underlying motivations that drive his infinite string of rage attacks. The series has never made any real variation in terms of combat, so if you didn't care for the style of previous God of War games, you won't find anything to endear you to the PSP titles. Still, while the games are quite formulaic, they are extremely fun.
God of War on the PSP has been nothing if not a reminder that portable gaming doesn't need to suffer the bane of second-rate titles and stripped-down gameplay. Despite some issues, Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta shows that, given the resources and the inclination, developers can deliver memorable games on the PSP. While the console trilogy may be over, setting aside the series' two portable offerings, the team at Santa Monica Studios has indicated that this will not be the end of the franchise, thus setting the stage for more Kratos, more mythical beasts, and several more kinds of epic in years to come.