'God of War: Chains of Olympus' PSP Review

January 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

The God of War series has made its mark on the Playstation 2 platform with its combination of intuitive combat mechanics, simple puzzle solving and less than annoying jumping sequences (an exception to the trend, I know). Interestingly, this game in the series is made by Ready at Dawn studios, not SCE Studios Santa Monica – who made the last two games in the ever expanding saga. Ready at Dawn Studios is mostly comprised of ex-Blizzard and Naughty Dog employees, their previous and only game to this date being the critically acclaimed Daxter for the PSP. Taking into account the talent at work here and the studio’s currently unspoiled track record, it comes as no surprise to hear that God of War: Chains of Olympus is nothing short of being a terrific success.

This iteration once again puts you in the boots of Kratos – our friendly neighbourhood, pissed-off anti-hero – whose only motives are revenge and a lust for chopping people’s heads off. The story itself is set ten years before the first game in the series, and as we start the game, we see Kratos defending Attica from – what seems like – the entire Persian army. As he is doing this, he notices the sun going down and disappearing from the sky. It turns out that Helios – the god of the sun – has gone AWOL, plunging the world into darkness, and Morpheus – the god of dreams – has used this opportunity to lull the other deities into a deep slumber (that naughty tyke). Who is behind all this mischief? That’s what Kratos is sent to find out: discover the evil behind these events and destroy it – in probably the most gruesome manner possible. The story continues from there, heavily invoking the Greek myths and legends as an excuse to throw Kratos into some epic locales against some truly collossal enemies. The story does provide some entertainment value, and there is a nice subplot involving Kratos’ lost daughter Calliope, which adds a softer shade to his character, as well as the possibility of redemption. Ultimately though, it’s the usual guff about God’s behaving badly, an overwhelming evil that must be destroyed etc… and if you’re not interested in that, then you can switch off, as I did, without the game being too intrusive in wanting to tell you its story. All you need to know is that Kratos is a pissed-off badass whose job title includes kicking arse, taking names and generally butchering anyone who gets in his path.

So with the story out of the way, we can consider the action itself. Chains of Olympus is a 3rd person beat ’em up whose closest relatives are probably the Lord of the Rings games. You’re usually outnumbered by the enemy, but overpowered against them, and armed with a variety of weapons and combat techniques to slay your way to victory. The player is able to parry and evade most enemy attacks, and as you collect the souls of your disposed enemy, you are able to upgrade your items, granting you access to a greater variety of combos and special moves. In this manner, the game does have a very light RPG element attached to it as the player will inevitably prioritise certain weapons over others for upgrading. Along with the conventional battle sequences, there are the – now dreadfully overused – quick time events, which I imagine players will either tolerate or be generally frustrated by. Luckily, most of these events aren’t compulsory so you can avoid them if you wish; although, often, they can be a shortcut to victory . It’s strange that what was once hailed as an immersive method of interaction for the player has turned into one of the most vilified and hated game mechanics employed today.

Technically, this game is a graphical marvel. I don’t think I’ve seen a game on the PSP that looks as good as this. Of course, compared to the current crop of consoles, the textures on the surfaces of objects look horribly basic, but you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the levels, which aren’t hindered by constant loading sequences as you might imagine. The developers have pulled a clever trick in compartmentalising the game into small sections – often, where you are forced to defeat a certain number of enemy foe before progressing onto the next area, but somehow this doesn’t go against how utterly seamless the transition feels, as the player progresses through one part of the game world to the next. There are save points in the game, but there are no levels per se; there is just one giant narrative, one giant world to get lost in, in which you go from one end to the other, and it works really well.

None of any of this would really matter unless the controls were any good and, thankfully, they are. At no point during the game did I feel cheated by the controls. For the most part, they work in a very graceful manner, the only issue being the analogue stick, which is used for movement. This is a fault though that rests more with the inherent design of the PSP, rather than the developer, as using the digital pad would not have been sufficient to allow for the level of manoeuvrability needed to control Kratos under the stress of combat. The analogue stick is functional enough, but because of its small surface area and the way it is placed on the PSP shell, your thumb does feel the strain of it, and over a long period of time it does get quite tiring. Luckily, this issue with the PSP hardware doesn’t impede majorly on your enjoyment of the game.

Also of mention is the difficulty level. I played on the normal setting and it was challenging without being too easy or too hard, and this makes a change from a lot of games made now which are either firmly based in the latter or former camp. The segments of combat are engaging, and the few instances of platforming are quite fair to the player. The puzzles are generally simple affairs of destroying/activating an object to open up a gate so you can progress, and are nothing to really keep the player stumped. I say this as a good thing because, in a game like this, part of the enjoyment to be had comes from the fast pace of the action, and so you don’t want to be stuck for hours on one insiginificant little puzzle.

The music in the game is the usual fare which you’ve probably heard hundreds of times before in films like Gladiator, Troy, 300 etc… but it is standard for this genre and no real complaint can be made about that. Likewise, the sound design is good without being overly remarkable. The voice acting is actually quite decent despite the somewhat cliched dialogue and subject matter.  Talking of subject matter, the game can most definitely be regarded as a real ‘man’s game’, as it is often fairly misogynistic, sadistic and crude in its narrative. In the very first section of the game you have the option of a quick time event, which involves a threesome with two harems – writhing on top of each other naked, no less – and an instance where you crush the head of a mini-boss with a heavy chest, repeatedly, while he cries for mercy. This could all be seen as being in bad taste, but this kind sleaze and gore is so over the top to render it absolutely innocuous and, in reality, hilarious. In fact, it gives the game an added sense of levity which helps offset the po-faced seriousness of the bleak, mythical storyline.

I can honestly offer very few criticisms of the game beyond the sometimes slightly awkward controls. On occasion, the save points are placed a little capriciously, giving you frequent opportunity to save when you don’t need it and not enough when you do, but this is not a frequent occurrence. I have also heard comments about the game’s length. The same criticism was issued towards Call of Duty 4 and you know what these two games have in common? No filler. Both games skip on the lazy to make sure that they are exciting and fun the whole way through, and if I had a choice between quality and quantity, I know which one I’d sacrifice at the expense of the other (hint:  it’s not quality). I see the shortness of the game’s length as complimentary, not as a criticism.

The only thing I feel I must mention is that I don’t feel this is really a game to play on-the-go; I’d play it at home, lying on a comfy sofa or bed, but not while travelling on the train or bus. True, the action is often short and sweet enough to start and stop without too much lost in the process, but it’s simply not the game I’d want to play in transit. It requires a lot of concentration and focus which I don’t particular want to spare when I’m on my way to somewhere. Again this is not a criticism: to say that a game is too engaging, and levy it as condemnation, borders on the ridiculous. The game is an incredible achievement both technically and design-wise. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t a game best suited to a handhold console. With a game like this, you want to play on a big-ass screen, with an ear drum shattering sound system, while stretching out on a sofa in your living room. You don’t want to play it on a crowded bus or noisy train; you just wouldn’t get the most out of it that way. Personally I think developers need to start thinking (and some already have) of creating more high concept games for the PSP that utilise the console’s graphical abilities, while understanding the limits of a portable device. Games like Lumines, Every Extra Extend already do this and are good examples of that kind of thinking.

What else? Hmmm, nope, that’s it. Somehow, Ready at Dawn Studios has done what up to now has been impossible for most developers: make a scaled down version of a console game that works well, and without compromising too much on design. Despite what I’ve just said in the above paragraph, it’s an excellent game and I think every PSP owner who’s a fan the genre should consider it a must-buy.

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