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Review: Innocence lost in gruesome Ghost of Sparta

Poor Kratos. He's such a tortured soul. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he butchers everyone around him with very sharp knives.

In earlier God of War video games, Kratos was tricked into taking the lives of his wife and daughter. In Ghost of Sparta , a new game developed by Ready at Dawn Studios for the Playstation Portable handheld, his mother, Callisto, and brother, Deimos, are the family members who get caught up in the drama - and the horror - that is the truth of Kratos' existence.

Kratos, called the Ghost of Sparta because his skin has been permanently discoloured by the ashes of battle, finally comes to appreciate compassion in 2009's PS3 game, God of War III. But Ghost of Sparta is set immediately after the first God of War video game - released in 2005 - when Kratos has killed and assumed the mantle of Ares, the god of war. There is little resembling humanity in Kratos here.

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Gamers who know the God of War series from Sony's Santa Monica Studio will find much that is familiar in Ghost of Sparta. Kratos, just as haunted as ever, learns that his brother, believed dead, is actually alive. Well, as alive as someone who resides with Thanatos, god of death, in the land of the dead can be.

In his quest to free his brother, Kratos journeys across Greece both ancient and mythological, starting in Atlantis, then journeying to Crete and his hometown of Sparta. The scope of Ghost of Sparta is less ambitious than the console God of War games have become, and with less story - and related accoutrements - to wrangle.

And because the game was created for the PSP handheld, the controls are somewhat simplified, too.

  • The Goods Platform: PSP The Good: Another interesting, well-acted story that makes good use of Greek mythology as an inspiration. New weapons and artifacts are fun to wield, and the movement controls make that easy to do. The Bad: Lack of control over the camera causes problems in some combat situations. The Verdict: This is a welcome return to the exhilarating and vicious world of Kratos. Finally, you've got a reason to pull out that PSP that's been gathering dust.

Players will alternate mashing the light and heavy attack buttons, while being ready to throw up blocks and execute dodge manoeuvres when necessary. Kratos' parry and counter-attack are much improved, which adds a level of sophistication to combat tactics. A new magical artifact, Thera's Bane, imbues Kratos' dual blades with fire, which is required to dispatch armoured enemies.

Players are not required to be in control of the camera, which is mostly a benefit. When playing action-adventure games on the PSP, which has only one joystick, I don't want to have control over the camera. That sole joystick needs to be used for moving the protagonist. That puts a great responsibility on the game designers to make sure that the player can always see what's going on, and have a view on what's important.

It's the one major problem with Ghost of Sparta. It's only an issue during the more significant battles. But if there is ever a time a gamer needed to see his character, needed to know if that character was stuck behind a rock, for example, it is during a boss battle.

There are too many times in Ghost of Sparta when Kratos - while dodging attacks from minotaurs, gorgons, cyclops, and automatons - gets in behind the enemies, and the player cannot see what's happening.

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When enemies are dispatched, they give off the coloured orbs that replenish Kratos' health, magic and fire, and are the currency for upgrading the power of weapons and artifacts. Those orbs are also the reward for finding and opening treasure chests that are scattered through the world.

It's not just about fighting. There are the usual platforming and environmental puzzle elements that we've come to expect from God of War games, but the real reason we play them is to rip heads off snake-headed gorgons, and gamers will find that the fighting in Ghost of Sparta is both visceral and satisfying.

And gory. In one scene, Kratos comes across a soldier holding the torso of his dead comrade, entrails spilling onto the ground. When Kratos jams his blades into the eye of cyclops, fountains of blood jet from the wound.

Is it any wonder that the Ghost of Sparta is mad? His demented psyche, though, makes him fascinating to consider.

He's so egocentric as to be utterly unconcerned with collateral damage. He could care less that he causes the sinking of Atlantis and the deaths of those many civilians.

Civilians appear periodically in Ghost of Sparta, cowering in corners, trying to escape attack. Players can choose to leave them to their fate, or to kill the bystanders to gain valuable coloured orbs.

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Just to make it clear that there is no redemption for Kratos, the game's designers have included scenes in Ghost of Sparta in which Kratos has to kill innocents in order to progress through the game. Saving them is not even an option.

Poor Kratos. Tortured, yes. Also complicit. As are we, who become him.

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