God of War: Ghost of Sparta is a stripped down version of the early games with a surprisingly affecting story
By BigSocrates 0 Comments
I started playing Ghost of Sparta last Sunday, the same day I finished God of War II. This proximity initially worked against Ghost of Sparta because it is so obviously scaled down in comparison to its main console cousin. Even though I played both games on the PS3, Ghost of Sparta’s character models and environments are chunkier and less ornate than those from its big black monolith-based predecessor and there are other obvious downgrades too, like experience orbs that lack the tailing energy effects in II. Overall Ghost of Sparta feels like what it is, a handheld version of a big console experience. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does make it lesser. It’s the frozen yogurt to God of War II’s premium ice cream. The competently made knock off purse version of the bigger game. It’s the PG-13 sequel in a previously R rated movie franchise.
I played the game over the course of the next week, generally logging 45-minutes to an hour per night and getting through at least a couple save points in each session. Ghost of Sparta never compelled me to play it for long periods of time, but I also never had a bad time with it and never felt like I didn’t want to play it, at least for a little bit each night. That could be seen as damning with faint praise, but considering how little interest I’ve had in video games over the last year or so, it’s actually a pretty strong point in its favor. Playing Ghost of Sparta may have a relatively low ceiling (you’re never going to feel enthralled or transported to another world) but it also has a high floor because it’s always clear what to do next, you’re always advancing, and there’s enough new stuff in terms of story, visuals, and game play twists that the game doesn’t get boring. I could pick it up, clear a few rooms, solve an extremely simple ‘puzzle’, and find a save point (located every 10 minutes or so) to stop and pick up my progress the next day. Ghost of Sparta’s mobile roots may show in a bad way in how stripped down it feels, but they show in a good way in how easy it is to drop in and out of the game, designed for short sessions on the bus or in the back of a car. It’s a low investment adventure, and for someone like me who has been burned out on giant open world games, that’s a plus.
The other reason I breezed through Ghost of Sparta with so little resistance is that it’s easy. Really really easy. I don’t think I died once in combat on normal, and the only time I even came close was a boss fight in the Sparta area. Coming directly off God of War II, where I died multiple times in multiple sequences the difference was jarring. Not only are the fights simpler than God of War II’s, with fewer enemies and longer times to respond, but enemies frequently spray off healing orbs when they reach certain damage thresholds, and one of the magic attacks in the game also releases green orbs, giving Kratos the ability to self-heal to some extent. The combination of these things meant that I frequently skipped over the green health chests that are plentiful in the world. In some cases I think there were green health chests in connected areas with no enemies to fight in between, meaning there’s no real way to be damaged between them, though maybe there are enemies there on Hard mode. If I knew how easy the game was I would have played on hard, even though I am usually a ‘normal’ gamer all the way. The easiness may be a concession to hand-held mode or just because the game was released in 2010 instead of 2007 and games got easier from the 6th to 7th generations, but it was very noticeable.
Despite how easy Ghost of Sparta’s combat is, there are a few wrinkles to the combat system that I hope carry over to future God of War titles. Kratos being able to heal himself with magic is a good idea in theory and would be more useful in a harder game where he actually got damaged during the fights. The fire meter, allowing Kratos to ignite his blades and affix a fire bomb to enemies, as well as break through armor on enemies and certain objects in the environment, was a good addition, and felt less random and cheap than Rage of the Titans in God of War II. The Arms of Sparta, a shield and spear that Kratos gets halfway through the game, make for a great alternative weapon to the Blades of Athena and it’s fun to fight using actual Greek style weapons as opposed to weird fantastical artifacts like a magic gauntlet or a giant war hammer. Unfortunately these mechanics are never deeply explored, but they are fun to play around with nonetheless, and conceptually quite good.
The puzzles and traversal mechanics don’t fare as well. God of War’s traversal has always been a mediocre part of gameplay, and after 4 games I am bored of wall climbing and grapple points. While God of War II had the time freezing mechanic to at least add a fresh twist, Ghost of Sparta’s traversal stuff is just perfunctory. I died a few times from missing button presses but that felt cheap rather than challenging. Most of the puzzles were not puzzles at all, just switches to hit. Compared to God of War II’s puzzles Ghost of Sparta barely seems to be making an effort.
However, while I said before that Ghost of Sparta’s environments feel stripped down and shrunken, and they definitely do, they are at least thematically interesting. The cities of Atlantis and Sparta make for a great contrast, and for once Kratos goes through a city that’s not at war and feels lived in and alive. It fleshes out the world of God of War and makes it feel more like a place people actually live than a series of giant stone buildings waiting to be smashed apart. The volcanic area is full of reds and deep browns and very different than the green and gray colors that tend to dominate the series, and when you throw in the frozen cliffs and Death’s Domain you get a huge amount of variety in a short run time. I would kind of like a full remake with PS4 level graphics and maybe some more mechanical complexity and challenge, just because the bones of what’s there are so strong, and so clearly hampered by the handheld platform the game was built for. The designers of Ghost of Sparta did a lot with the tools they had available.
One area where Ghost of Sparta doesn’t compromise is on the story. Because of the size of UMDs there is less voice and fewer cut scenes than in the larger console games, but that works to the game’s favor, keeping it lean and propulsive. The story starts as a rehash of the first two games (with the sea monster Scylla acting as a combination of the hydra from God of War 1 and the Colossus at Rhodes from God of War II, chasing Kratos from his ship into the city of Atlantis) but soon turns deeply personal for Kratos. While Kratos is very angry, as always, during the game, we also see the respect he has from the people of Sparta and his connections there (he seems comfortable and at ease around his Sparta compatriots) and we see his mournful sadness as events unfold. While he has always had a tragic back story and always been sad about his family, his sadness here happens organically from the events of the game, and is given more time to develop. This is the first time I have cared about Kratos at all during the four of his games I’ve played, and the first time the story felt like more than an afterthought. There are also some very cool vignettes outside of the main plot. The part with King Midas is both funny and horrifying in equal measures, dealing with a madman with amazing powers and no control, and the fact that Kratos ends up sinking Atlantis basically just by being a huge angry dick is very on brand and funny. Kratos is called the Ghost of Sparta in part because of the ashes on his skin, but here we also see Sparta as a ghost for him, something ephemeral that he can see and pass through but can’t really go home to. Ghost of Sparta explores Kratos’ status as a God who was once a man in interesting ways. It’s a real improvement.
Ghost of Sparta’s stripped down size and pared back mechanics would have been a bummer if I had been looking for a full God of War experience in a portable form, but taken on its own terms as an interstitial between full console adventures it was a fun little side story. What the PSP entries lack in graphical fidelity, length, importance to the God of War continuity, gameplay complexity, and scope they make up for by being simplified brawlers that let me carve up some minotaurs and cyclopses and drop a big stone block on an annoying guy’s head so I can use his corpse as a counterweight for a gate (Kratos is not a good dude.)
When I played Chains of Olympus a couple years ago I said it felt disposable, and others suggested that Ghost of Sparta was the better game. I think it is the better game, with more interesting environments, bigger boss battles, and a story that moves a bit more briskly and has emotional stakes. It’s impressive what they managed to squeeze out of the PSP, but removed from the context of that limited hardware it just feels shrunken down and insubstantial, especially played right after the epic scale of God of War II. On the other hand the story serves to flesh out Kratos as a character and give a better sense of the Greek world he inhabits. Given how short it is, if you don’t mind the stripped down sensibilities of the portable format I recommend it for God of War fans. It’s short and entertaining and has a really satisfying ending that gives context to Kratos’ actions in other games.