Reviewing God of War: Chains of Olympus can be done in either a paragraph or several pages. Actually, describing the game can be done in one hearty breath, though its existence makes for a longer and frustrating commentary on the industry.
Let us get the first part out of the way; Chains of Olympus is developer Ready at Dawn’s attempt to bring the full God of War experience to the PSP. In this goal they have succeeded; the game looks and plays so closely to the PS2 originals that Chains (almost) sits right up there with them in terms of quality. It really is amazing to think that this game is being played on a handheld. Unfortunately, in trying so hard to emulate the PS2, the experience also becomes excessively generic. Yes, the music might be new, but at a certain point all Latin chanting sounds the same. Running around in Greek cities, Greek temples, and the Greek underworld also gives me deja vu. God of War 2 did much to rebalance the cheapest moves, only for Chains to bring back all the infinite combos, which, combined with poorer AI, make the game much easier than it should be.
The story explains a few details in the GoW mythos, but also pokes several holes into it, which fans will no doubt try to rectify in their usual attempt to take a game series and determine its canon as if their life depended on it. I will laugh at how they try to explain how certain scenes from GoW 1 and 2 are not at all affected by the silly plot elements Chains introduces, but only for so long, as I don’t plan on playing any of these games a second time. Chains is so short that I feel sorry for anyone who lays out full price for it. At its highest and lowest points, the God of War games are still the equivalent of a quick and dirty action flick, fun, but not worth more than the price of a movie ticket.
Now on to bigger things. There is a generally accepted notion that today’s western developers are at the forefront of innovation and technology, and that Japanese teams need to play catch up. Of course this has spurred great debate among gamers who find their preferences lie almost entirely with one of the two regions. Some claim that Japanese games have more crafstmanship and thought behind them. They may not be bold and new but they play very well, and when there is innovation it is a massive leap. Western supporters feel that American and European devs are the ones creating superior technologies for graphics and online play, as well as more immersive games. They may also claim that western indie development is far more interesting than the waves of doujin games out of Japan. In either case, both parties will accuse the other of relying on the same concepts and genres to stay afloat. I would side with western developers, as their products have been the proverbial staple foods in my gaming diet as of late. Games like Chains of Olympus make me doubt this conviction, while reminding me of some of the better ideas the Japanese have come up with.
If you have played the first two God of War games, you know that upon completing them you can unlock some hidden movies. These clips always reveal some hidden aspect of Kratos’ life or hint at adventures yet to come. Each one could be made into a sequel or spinoff, and I thought the devs would do exactly that. Yet Chains uses none of these plot threads. It goes with its own story that ultimately does more harm than good, and fleshes out nothing. This hints at a bad situation for the franchise. Are these stories going to be made into games? If so, we have a blueprint for whoring out the franchise over the next few years. But what if they aren’t? What if they were merely ideas that will go unfulfilled. This evokes a feeling of confusion and laziness. Why tease fans with them if you don’t plan on following through?
This is our first difference between east and west. I would argue that Japan is much better at creating media franchises out of their games, and there is a reason for this. It always starts off with a single game, and grows only as fast as the company wants it to. For example, we know Final Fantasy XIII is going to be a media monster, because Square has shown us the games that will comprise it. In the west, the words “trilogy”, “saga”, and “comic and book deals” are thrown around before a new IP gets its first release. Will any of it come to fruition? Who the hell knows. In the case of Gears of War, a game to which all of these terms have been applied, the answer is likely ‘yes’. For Beyond Good and Evil, the answer was a bitter ‘no’. Instead of promising us something with a game announcement, we get vague and empty promises that give no clue as to what the franchise will transform into. And so we see God of War in a lose-lose situation, where it either fails to capitalize or becomes big and bloated.
At this point you might tell me that just because God of War may have an explosion of releases doesn’t mean they will be poor. This is a hard stance to argue, because the community at large has blinders on when it comes to this franchise. The first game was loved, and rightfully so. The second added a few nice improvements, but it was still the same game. Now we have Chains, and I wonder why no one else questions how the level design allows Kratos to get to his destination no matter where he starts off (or even simpler, how does he even know where to go half the time?) Why is it that every time he succeeds with a finishing blow it plays out exactly the same way? Wouldn’t other opponents watch you and learn? How the hell does this “hero” work for the gods and get away killing Greece’s legends piece by piece? These are the questions that arise in a wandering mind, a mind that is no longer completely captivated by a game’s magic. If everyone else hasn’t caught on yet, they will eventually. And if they don’t, then how are they any different from Japanese gamers that slobber over each and every release of Dragon Quest?
I also wonder if we should all consider Chains a western interpretation of a Japanese gaiden game. It is a tough judgment because there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to gaiden. They are often, but not always on a handheld. They may or may not avoid using the main characters of a storied franchise. The only common thread among them is that they are usually a side story in the series, and they usually attempt to do something different from the usual. At their worst, that means handheld text adventures. At their best, they lead to games like Gradius Gaiden and Majora’s Mask.
So is Chains of Olympus a gaiden? It certainly is a prequel, though the two terms are not mutually exclusive. It is on a handheld, and the scope of its story is much smaller. It doesn’t do anything different from its predecessors however, and perhaps this is the heart of the matter. Each region wants originality and familiarity in different areas. Gaidens seem to exist as an outlet for a certain amount of creativity that isn’t allowed in a numbered series release. Japanese fans want the next Dragon Quest sequel to play as they expect it to, but they don’t have any issue with Dragon Quest Swords trying another approach. In the west, there are plenty of rehashed sequels, but the very best ones understand that the envelope has to be pushed. Half Life 2 had to change a genre in order to succeed like it did. Call of Duty 4 had to change settings and revamp its multiplayer to become the king of Xbox Live. Unreal Tournament 3 offers some graphical updates and familiar gameplay, and it is popular, but not blockbuster (the same approach meanwhile worked incredibly well for Smash Bros. Brawl). On the other hand, portable efforts and side stories are rewarded for imitation. In a display reminiscent of American/British/German industrial ingenuity, we seem to look at the hardware limitations as a challenge, and concoct a way to overcome them as best we can.
Is either ideology better? Tough to say, but in the case of Chains of Olympus, the western approach leads to an impressive achievement that is ultimately unfulfilling. I’m glad to know that the PSP can give us a near PS2 quality game on the go, but that is just not what I am interested in playing during my travels. Other famous series have translated to the PSP with major variations in pacing and content, and I find myself enjoying these much more. It not only fits the playing environment better, but it helps to keep a series a little more fresh. After God of War 2 I felt burnt out, but after Chains I feel like I could put this series away for a long time.