Of Sony’s growing stable of first-party franchises, there is none currently bigger than God of War. Kratos took the PlayStation 2 by storm with his 2005 debut and then continued his Godly ascension last year in the sequel, God of War 2. Now the Ghost of Sparta is taking his chiseled frame and vicious chain blades to the PSP for a prequel entitled Chains of Olympus, but can this handheld version live up to the lofty expectations brought on by its console brethren?
The answer is a resounding yes, and it does so for three reasons, the first being the controls. The Achilles heel of many a PSP game has been controls. With only one analog stick, developers have often struggled to balance character movement normally associated with dual analog sticks. Chains of Olympus has no such problem because of a an instinctive camera system that roams around the levels seamlessly, allowing gamers to concentrate on controlling Kratos with just the one analog stick.
The main controls are straightforward. Most of the combat actions – attacks and grapples – are mapped to the face buttons, while the left shoulder button is used to block. Pressed in conjunction, the right and left shoulder buttons are used to roll away and evade enemies. As Kratos gains new abilities, those actions are also mapped to the face buttons, and are activated by pressing and holding one of the right or left shoulder buttons and then pressing the corresponding face button. The directional buttons are not used in the game whatsoever so you never have to move your thumb away from the analog stick. It’s a simple control layout that’s made ingenious by the slick camera system.
Then there’s the presentation. Visually, there’s no better looking game on the PSP than God of War: Chains of Olympus. Kratos looks as good as ever, with brutally fluid animations. The hordes of enemy creatures are distinct and wonderfully animated as well, and the bosses, though none quite as large in size as Colossus from God of War 2, are still intimidating in their own right. The environments are richly detailed and the use of lighting throughout the game is just spectacular. This PSP installment more than holds its own when compared to the PS2 installments. The best part of all is the load times which considering the scope of each level, are unbelievably short. The audio is equally brilliant, featuring an epic soundtrack, great voice acting and amazing sound effects.
Last but not least is the action in God of War: Chains of Olympus, which is just as thrilling as either of the PS2 installments. If you’re not familiar with the God of War franchise, the gameplay blends visceral combat with a button timing mini-game for up-close-and-personal kills, puzzle and platform elements, and amazing boss battles that sometimes span entire levels. Some elements from the PS2 games, like wall climbing or shimmying across ledges, aren’t as prevalent in Chains of Olympus, but fans of the series will still get their fill of sex and violence.
As a prequel to the original God of War, Chains of Olympus picks up during Kratos’ ten-year servitude to the gods of Olympus in exchange for redemption from his sins. The game opens with Kratos on a mission to defend the ancient Greek city of Attica from the onslaught of the Persian army and a giant basilisk that’s been unleashed upon the city. Chains of Olympus runs about a total of 7 hours and upon completion, the even more difficult God mode is unlocked, as are a number of challenges players can partake in.
Chains of Olympus isn’t flawless. For one, the game can get quite difficult. With the presence of the automated camera system, spotting visual cues needed to solve puzzles in the game can be tricky. It’s also not uncommon to paint yourself into a corner by reaching a checkpoint with very little health, only to engage in a massive battle with little chance of victory. If you die a half dozen times in the same spot, the game will ask if you wish to drop the difficulty level, but you can always just retreat back to your last savegame and aim to reach the same checkpoint with a little more health the next time around. The button-timing mini-games sometimes require you to rotate the analog nub in half or full circles, which can be hard on the thumb after awhile. These are all fairly minor issues though.
If you asked me a week ago what the best game available for the PSP was, I wouldn’t have been able to give you a definitive answer. I probably would have named two or three excellent titles. Ask me that same question today and the answer is simple, it’s God of War: Chains of Olympus. The controls are perfect, the visuals are stunning and the action is just as thrilling as its PS2 brethren. It is the best game available for the handheld and together with Sony’s other recent releases, Patapon and Wipeout Pulse, I don’t believe there’s ever been a better time to be a PSP gamer.