In a generation where we've effectively stopped counting polygons in games, and have instead sought our eye candy in multiple dimensions over measurements of feet (or meters), it's a wonder how a mere number of inches (or centimeters) can produce a feeling of awe in more diminutive devices. The handheld may be king in the realm of puzzle seekers or quick-fix addicts, but with technophiles on the move, sometimes a rehashed version of Tetris doesn't always scratch the mobile gaming itch.
Think about it this way: Are you familiar with the phrase “Size Matters”? Because when Ready at Dawn Studios and SCE's Santa Monica Studios collaborate, they obviously don't. It wasn't too long ago both camps teamed up and cranked out the highest aggregate-rated PSP game to date, God of War: Chains of Olympus. In a series known for visceral combat with grand set pieces, the two somehow managed to corral Kratos and all of his godly angst into a pocket portion. Two years after this last mini-epic undertaking, the Californian studios scratch each others' backs once again for a new interquel in the God of War saga. By sticking to their guns—or Blades of Athena, as it were—the formula for this UMD(less) release has changed little, but that certainly doesn't make it a demigod of a game.
With a series wherein the central theme is one of revenge enacted through fits of growls and unquestionable bloodlust, Ghost of Sparta carries on tradition. Taking place after Kratos assumes the mantle of the new god of war in the first game, and before he sets foot in Rhodes in the second, Ghost of Sparta depicts a Kratos tormented by nightmares of the brother he couldn't protect, Deimos. It's not an unfamiliar plot for fans, switching in Kratos' brother to take the place of his wronged familial unit for which to fights to save. But even with that well-trodden concept, when put in context of the series' entirety, it better elaborates on Kratos' transition from humanly to godly both in power and character. The games might not cater to a wide range of emotion, but it's easy to experience at least some bit empathy this time around.
This extension is only made easier by the sensory onslaught GoS offers. Chains of Olympus may have looked great for a PSP or handheld game in general, but Ready at Dawn have somehow outdone themselves. Subjectively speaking, not only does this second portable game look better than the first, it also rivals the depth of even the first two console outings. Whether you're slashing your way through Atlantis, hacking on the snow drifts leading into Sparta, or getting all wizardy in Thanatos' realm of death, GoS plays bigger than its relatively small disc would let on. There is some screen taring here and there in moments of quick transition, but when passageways open up to large scenery, you can't help but gawk at what you're playing on the bus, at work, or right before lights out.
A more diverse set of scripted, quick-time events mixed in with more multi-step boss battles and adventuring also adds to the visual appeal. While the camera is nearly spot-on throughout the whole in-game search for Deimos, changes in point of view for both cutscenes and playable moments give it a more dynamic presentation not only for a God of War game, but a handheld.
Consistency is also upheld on the audio front. You'll want and need a good pair of headphones to escape the underwhelmingly hollow speakers of the hardware, for in your fingertips is a full-fledged orchestral arrangement with pounding percussion and choral chanting rounded out with strong brass to set every moment. There is some fidelity lost in the tiny format, but it's more than acceptable considering what some games present as a 'soundtrack' A recognizable cast also reprise their roles for the usual theatrically dramatic performances. Again, they aren't readings with great range, since there's little deviance from Kratos' harshness or Athena's gentility, but it's compelling dialogue in a gaming landscape devoid of anything grander.
For all of its unbelievable presentation despite its pint size, Ghost of Sparta's arguable detracting quality is its one-track gameplay. Like past games in the series, the focus here is on racking up the hit counter from combination melee interspersed with magical powers. There are items to collect, with a necessity to replay the story to even use them, and there is some adventuring mixed with context sensitive events (press “X” now), but for both the main game and extra unlockable challenges, the focus here is mostly about the violence. It's done through well-executed controls, and smooth transitions between attack strategies as you clash with a varying host of enemies, but puzzle solving takes a backseat this time around. Just swing your swords or throw your spear (near the end of the game), and move on to the next encounter.
Ghost of Sparta may not deviate from the usual God of War experience, but it certainly presents those core concepts which made the series a standard exceptionally well and with nearly untouchable graphical and auditory prowess on the handheld format. Sure, the game may feel a bit short or single-minded, but that's only because it delivers like its Blu-ray relatives. It's been quite a year for Kratos fans, full of high-definition, and Ghost of Sparta is simply a cherry-on-top experience.
Where can or should God of War go next? Is it time to hang up the blades, or keep on collecting souls? Tweet us an epic short on Twitter @gamers_hell