When I first heard that God of War: Chains of Olympus for the Sony PlayStation Portable could be finished within five hours, I was expecting it to cure at least two kinds of cancer, end world starvation, and wrap up the ongoing war on terror to justify its brevity - as well as cook, clean, and pander for us videogame stereotype shut-ins.
Yes, yes, I know, it's a bit unreasonable of me to think that a game could in fact physically cook a full-course meal, but that's just what the demo UMD from Ready at Dawn made me believe. The demo was in fact one of the best ones I have ever played on Sony's PSP.
The production levels are obviously off the scale, the action is fluid and visceral to a Devil May Cry level, and the atmosphere is suitably epic, but the fact that the game itself played so naturally and so easily even with the PSP's crippled analog stick control scheme convinced this blogger that God of War: Chains of Olympus is definitely worth gushing on about.
You'll have to forgive me if my expectations are a bit high for the full game - this is Kratos we're talking about, and as unfair as it may seem, anything that falls short of the standards that God of War and God of War II set should be outright mocked, if not slapped on the wrist and be told to go to bed without dinner.
After spending enough time with the game (which far surpassed the five-hour time limit) I'm happy to say that this is not the case here, and God of War: Chains of Olympus definitely fills the blade-tipped, blood-caked boots that Number 1 and Number 2 left strewn on Sony's porch. While it certainly is by no means as long or as expansive as the first two games, it IS undeniably God of War - and the best thing about it is that you can take it wherever you go.
This is our review.
If you've played the demo to death, you'd know how God of War: Chains of Olympus starts off, but for reiteration's sake, Kratos is sent by the gods and goddesses of Olympus to defend the city of Attica from the Persians. Set before the original God of War on the PlayStation 2, Kratos doesn't have any other choice but to follow - and so he does, but we know he'll be getting his comeuppance in the end, anyway.
While this seems an easy enough task - the Ghost of Sparta is armed with his trademark Blades of Chaos and trademark guttural voice, thus making him pretty much invincible - the Persian army has an ace up their sleeve, and it's in the form of a Basilisk that's more than just peckish.
Like the jolly, penchant-for-violence-having Spartan that he is, Kratos cheerfully massacres everything and everyone in sight, including the Basilisk, and everything goes downhill -literally - from there on in. Any further and we'd be spoiling you, but suffice to say things are just as bloody and as gratuitously visceral as the first two games.
First off, the graphics. This brooks no argument - God of War: Chains of Olympus is THE best-looking game there is on any handheld platform to date. The backdrops are incredibly vast, large and lively, the enemies varied, intense and well-animated, the blood - dollops of it - looks and bleeds so real and so copiously that we can't help but shake ourselves from time to time, just to stave off that unconscious feeling that we're covered in gore.
While Kratos is the star of the show - and predictably, he's the most detailed of the bunch - you can plainly see the love put into the enemies themselves. Even from afar you can spot details upon weapons and armor, thus making everything easily distinguishable at the off-chance that the camera decides to pan out.
The game's soundtrack also pulls off quite the feat - a rousing orchestra of timpani and horns will follow you throughout your journey, making things sound and feel just as epic as a god-killing rampage should be. T.C. Carson, the voice of Kratos, once more lends our hero the dark, gravelly voice that sounds as if he's a hair's breadth from flipping out and snapping everyone's necks (and personal diety). As for the sound effects - blades clashing, flesh tearing, monsters roaring - they're as crisp as can be. In fact, we heartily recommend playing with earphones on, just to take it all in.
Fights like a dream
Now for the controls. As we've mentioned, Kratos is no slouch in God of War: Chains of Olympus, even if he's missing one analog stick. The Ghost of Spartan moves, jumps, climbs and kills like a dream. The controls are tight, responsive and sharp, and it's general consensus that you can pretty much recreate your old combos from the first two games into this one. The only thing that we have trouble with are with the quick time events, where you have to make a half- or full revolution with the analog nub.
It's not that it's hard to do these quick-time movements - the game readily detects them, and is quite forgiving with the timing - it's just that it's hard to be ready to bust it out at a moment's notice, lest we accidentally snap the analog nub right out. And the fact that the game sometimes calls for fast, repeated revolutions doesn't help any.
Dodging/rolling out of the way takes a bit of getting used to as well - with the action performed by holding down both shoulder buttons and then tilting the analog nub to wherever you want Kratos to hit the dirt. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be dodging enemy strikes like it was second nature.
And yes, if you were wondering about combat - we'll keep it simple: the God of War is back, and he can rip anyone (and anything) in six different ways if they even so much as breathe at his direction - whether it be by his weapon or his own bare hands.
A late caveat
Now that we've established that God of War: Chains of Olympus is by no means the weakest of the series, we do have to note that the game itself has a stripped-down feel to it. It's inevitable, and a truth of life: one can only pack so much goodness into a UMD. This is felt mainly through the lack of hardware that Kratos can pick up during his journey from Attica to Hades.
In fact, the Ghost of Sparta only picks up one additional weapon in the course of the game. Don't get us wrong, it's horribly fun to use (and horribly overpowered once upgraded), but with us being spoiled like little brats with the various weapons of mass destruction the Gods themselves lent Kratos in his two previous outings, God of War: Chains of Olympus' offering leaves us a bit wanting.
Fans will also feel that as the latest entry in a legendary series, God of War: Chains of Olympus doesn't offer anything really new in terms of actual brand-new content. That's not necessarily a bad thing - a good way to put it is that the game sticks to tradition - but those of you who were looking for something refreshing and new for Kratos might feel as if the well-beaten path was just given another beating. Sure, it's a technically-impressive and visually-stunning beating that fleshes out one of today's more memorable videogame characters, but at the end of the day, you're still playing Simon Says with the PSP's face buttons.
We do have a bone to pick with the length. While we know expecting a full-length console experience on a handheld IS unreasonable, we definitely feel that this entry in the series could have used a bit more meat. More boss fights, probably two or more new weapons for Kratos to play around would have been icing on the cake.
As it is, however, God of War: Chains of Olympus does just fine in giving us more over-the-top, god-killing action. Ready at Dawn could have certainly padded things out, yes, but with some of today's next-gen console titles offering even LESS play time and resorting to blatant recycling of material, Ready at Dawn could have also done much, much worse. So let's all just put aside the fact that the game is five hours long, and appreciate it for the tight, well-made package for a portable handheld that it is.
So, what's our final decision? This is one title you shouldn't miss. It doesn't tread on new ground per se - it is the prequel, after all - but this is a legitimate entry in the series. From the music to the graphics to the combat - down to the quick-time events - God of War: Chains of Olympus certainly doesn't stray away from the successful formula that the first two titles laid down. Maybe it's a bit short, yes, and it's familiar to a fault, but that doesn't mean there isn't an engrossing game perfect for those long bus rides. You won't regret it.