God of War: Chains of Olympus
Arriving on the PlayStation Portable as a standalone prequel to the acclaimed God of War titles already known to PS2 owners, Chains of Olympus sees everyone's favourite embittered Spartan warrior playing the role of vicious lapdog of the Gods some time prior to his eventual ascension as the 'God of War' outlined in the series' title.
Seeking to rid his mortal soul of the torment brought on by his unwitting actions in the murder of his own wife and child, Kratos must battle to restore light to a world plunged into darkness by the festering black fog of Morpheus. Across an immersive narrative arc that sees foul tempered Kratos (the 'Ghost of Sparta') rubbing blood-stained shoulders with the likes of Greek legends the Goddess Athena, the Titan Atlas, and Persephone the Queen of the Underworld, players will find themselves traversing a wide variety of testing environments.
Those environments will see Kratos tasked with all manner of challenges that lead him towards successive confrontations with a giant Basilisk mauling the city of Attica, puzzle-based progress through the Temple of Helios, and seemingly endless battles with the undead in the perilous depths of Tartarus, deeper even than Hades itself.
Anyone who has ever played a God of War title will slip effortlessly into the sublime PSP gameplay on offer in Chains of Olympus, while newcomers to the series will find fight moves easy to grasp, challenging to learn, and nothing short of fulfilling to execute with style. Conventional in-game battles are meaty and regular while the game's steady stream of enemies provides consistently intelligent and tough opposition. As with prior God of War offerings, Chains of Olympus also contains sporadic gore-filled and button-led quicktime finishing moves. These moments involve the player following on-screen button prompts and analogue directions to rip off heads, perform unseen sexual moves (seriously), thrust swords hilt-deep into soft flesh, and generally decapitate anything unlucky enough to cross Kratos' path.
While some players may find the finishing moves a distraction that briefly fracture the gameplay flow, implementing button moves outside of boss battles is strictly optional to the player, with a button icon appearing above an enemy's head when they're weak enough to finish in a flurry. Distraction or otherwise, when surrounded by a horde of marauding creatures eager to liberate Kratos from his intestines, that quicktime finishing icon is often a blessed escape route that all but the most hardcore player will be able to resist.
At its core, the God of War series (Chains of Olympus included) is little more than a gore-splashed hack and slash extravaganza. However, unlike genre rivals such as Dynasty Warriors, Heavenly Sword and Devil May Cry, the inescapable pull exuded through classic mythology, compelling narrative, and the exploits of gaming's most emotive and oddly likeable antihero successfully help the series transcend any and all videogame challengers.
As with other God of War offerings, Kratos is kitted out with his faithful chain-imbued Blades of Chaos, but a selection of other physical and magic-based weapons are gradually unlocked throughout the adventure. Also, everything collected within the Ghost of Sparta's evolving arsenal is open to three upgrade levels for the benefit of doling out serious punishment toward the latter stages of the game. Weapon upgrades are purchased in return for blood collected from fallen foes and special chests, while health and magic skill upgrades are unlocked by searching out chests containing Gorgon Eyes (health) and Phoenix Feathers (magic power). It's also worth noting at this point that players keeping even half an eye out for chests hidden in environmental nooks and crannies will find themselves suitably armed across the board before facing off against the game's final boss battle.
Graphically, Chains of Olympus dazzles beyond compare and stands as perhaps the only PSP software release to date that doesn't just meet Sony's much vaunted 'PlayStation 2 in your pocket' marketing ethos but actually surpasses it with ease. Character animation is flawlessly weighted and executed - especially on Kratos - while frantic on-screen battles play out with virtually no signs of frame rate drop, environments are beautifully laid out and adorned with rich layers of detail, and enemies always provide plenty of variety in terms of design and attack. It's everything that God of War fans have come to expect.
The game's visual prowess is more than ably supported by an extraordinarily atmospheric soundtrack that swells dramatically during set piece boss confrontations and thumps along impressively while Kratos is ploughing relentlessly through wave after wave of the best Tartarus can throw in his path. Sound effects are also thoroughly befitting of the God of War series, offering up all the pre-requisite resonance of jarring weapon clashes, rewarding death rattles, and sickening blood fountains that have become synonymous with Kratos and his tortured quest to topple Olympus.
Sadly, while the PlayStation Portable does admirably cope with the stresses and strains imposed by Chains of Olympus and its top tier gameplay and aesthetics, overall appreciation does stutter a little due to the single-player adventure lasting just a tad over seven hours - and it absolutely flies by thanks to the quality on show. The relative brevity isn't a major criticism, but when a game is this good, a player cannot help but feel cheated when it comes to a climax about 3 hours too early.
In terms of actual detraction, the only aspect worth noting in a negative sense emanates from the game's intelligent camera, which, although generally commendable by almost never making itself apparent, does tend to leave Kratos a little blocked off and stranded when giant hulking beasties periodically block his path and the player's line of sight. Granted, a few hastily applied jumps or evasive rolls usually result in Kratos bursting back into clear view, but cramped and close confines will occasionally see the player wishing for manual camera control via a non-existent extra analogue nubbin.
Ready at Dawn's scaled down version of the critically acclaimed God of War series comes to the PlayStation Portable at just the right time to further bolster the ever-growing appeal of Sony's sexy handheld as its continues to outshine the Nintendo DS portfolio. While a seven-hour freestanding Kratos adventure might be considered a little short by some gaming standards, God of War: Chains of Olympus is quite simply the finest slice of action to grace the PSP since launch and is an essential purchase on every level.