300 is one of those films that seems perfect for a video game adaptation. The over-the-top stylized violence already feels like a power trip just watching it from the theater seat, but curiously the only video game adaptation of it that exists is a PSP title by the name of 300: March to Glory. While this game certainly understood that gore and combat were integral parts to 300’s appeal, it still doesn’t seem to quite know how to capture the appeal of being one of the 300 Spartans.
The story of 300: March to Glory follows the highly fictionalized take on the Battle of Thermopylae presented in both Frank Miller’s comic books and Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of them, although it certainly leans more strongly towards the film and diverts at points in order to add more gameplay segments to a story with a rather small scope. The real life event tells an Alamo-like tale of a group of 300 Spartan soldiers (and some Greeks that aren’t counted to make things seem more impressive) fighting in a doomed battle, their strategic position giving them the edge against the superior Persian force but the battle still being unwinnable due to the scale of the opposition. 300 of course fleshes out the lead-up to the conflict, but it also takes the already inspiring tale of human fortitude and cranks it up to near mythical proportions, turning Spartans into hypercapable warriors and the Persians into near-demonic beings. When 300: March to Glory tries to sell the same tone the movie and comic held, it does so with mixed results. Sometimes it will present some gorgeous comic book art for its cutscenes, the images standing somewhere between Miller’s original style and the look of the film adaptation, and while I’m usually averse to comic book cutscenes in a game as they usually indicate laziness, the justification seems strong enough here to let them slide. They at least prove to be much better than the scenes using the game’s models, and while the graphics look decent enough in motion, close-ups on the blocky proportions and painted on features of characters don’t do the scenes a good service. However, the story scenes seen during play often don’t do much at all and wouldn’t have benefited from better graphics, as an enormous amount of them involving the gameplay grinding to a halt so the Spartans can try and sound tough or utter some line about the specific way they’ll make the Persians pay THIS time.
Quite wisely, the design team realized that 300 was a great fit for the beat-’em-up genre, and as you begin to play it, it might even evoke memories of older titles like Streets of Rage or Final Fight where the entire goal was just to move forward and beat up guys along the way. Enemies will walk towards you and try to fight you, with almost every goal in the game boiling down to killing every enemy you come across so you can keep moving. Putting you in the role of the most famous Spartan King Leonidas, you must hack, slash, and shield-bash everything that comes your way. You’ve usually got a bit of space to move around in and a soldier or two will usually back you up so you don’t get overwhelmed, but some things will get in your way of killing enemies. To try and make the 3D combat a little easier, Leonidas will lock onto a nearby enemy automatically and direct his attacks towards them, but this can make busier combat moments harder as the game begins introducing enemies with shields and foes who can only be killed by certain attacks. The spear throwing is especially hit hard by this as you watch your spear sail off into nothingness or hit the wrong enemy when the lock-on fails you. Leonidas’s skills are limited, the game instead hoping you’ll try to link together combos with your heavy slash, weak slash, and shield bash, but you can get by pretty easily with just constant button tapping. You do have upgrades that can give you new combos, increase your strength and resilience, and boost your power-ups, but they don’t change the gameplay too much.
Speaking of the power-ups, the game gives you four special skills you can activate from a shared Wrath meter. Besides allowing you to do special attacks, Wrath can also be used to give you temporary boosts to your strength or defense, can slow down time, and can heal you up. Since this is the only way to heal though, Wrath is best conserved for the moments where you’ll need recovery or where the game forces your hand with enemies who can only be killed while you have the strength buff activated. The game does not give you any real easy way to build up Wrath besides fighting, and with bosses or tough enemies that require you to boost your strength to even hurt them, you can expect a lot of pointless slashing against their invincible hides to slowly fill that bar up to the point you can use it. Of course, if the boss damages you during this period too much, prepare to either heal up or get killed, undoing all your Wrath building.
There is a bit of variety when it comes to weapons too despite having some similar flaws. The game lets you switch between a sword and shield combo, the spear and shield, and later on the double sword arrangement, with each having upsides and downsides. Sword and shield is the all-around style, the spear can break through defenses and be thrown, and the double sword style can often bypass defenses as well but has no shield. Shields are important not only because they can block and have their own devoted attack button, but most every level will have a moment where you need to hunker down with your shield raised to avoid a deadly arrow rain. The spear style is pretty slow and weak comparatively even with upgrades, but the game seems to love this style the most as there are plenty of enemies who can only be damaged with the spear since it breaks armor and shields. There are far too many grueling battles where it just involves double tapping a foe with your spear and then raising your shield or retreating, but I will say most battles do just involve rapidly attacking enemies with whatever weapon you like. That basic thrill is there, but to add variety the game throws in foes that either require the less interesting spear or some Wrath meter nonsense to defeat, which was an attempt to break away from the monotonous battles but ended up adding annoyances instead of interesting enemies. Most enemies are admittedly dumb fodder, but tearing through easy foes is a lot more enjoyable than gradually denting equally dumb but sturdy foes.
There isn’t much to do besides fighting in this game either. Special golden Lambda collectibles appear throughout the stages but they are often put out in the open or off to the side in one of the few divergences from the path you are allowed to take. The game does repeat a few environments, but they do at least make for good arenas for the battles. Attempt to break away from them to explore though and most often it will lead to incredibly restrictive invisible walls or paths to nothing. Keeping things focused isn’t too bad, and 300: March to Glory does sometimes try to encourage you to use stealth or interact with the environment a bit so it’s not endless slashing, but the biggest mix up comes in the form of the phalanx. A complete gameplay shift occurs when it’s phalanx time, Leonidas lining up with the other Spartans to make a long line of shields and spears. The focus of these segments is advancing forward and killing anything that tries to stop you. Fighting is even more simple than the basic combat here but phalanx sections don’t last very long so they don’t grow tired unless you keep dying during them. Very briefly the game introduces a dome phalanx variation that could have been a fun minigame but it only lasts for all of a minute, but other than that, this game is all about some unimpressive but mostly inoffensive hack and slash violence.
But… even if you can accept the other issues with the game, there are issues on a technical level that keep this from being a possibly passable beat-’em-up. Slowdown is surprisingly rampant and it’s hard to predict what will trigger it. Glitches can crop-up in unusual ways, such as enemies disappearing before you can kill them, meaning you can’t unlock the way forward and have to reload from a checkpoint. The phalanx moments have a few issues as well with attacks sometimes sending enemies glitching into your ranks and draining huge chunks from your health before they correct themselves. When combat can already be slow and drawn out, having the game slow it down more or require you to redo it wears out the basic thrills of shredding things as a Spartan.
THE VERDICT: 300: March to Glory doesn’t quite match the flashy violence from the film, but it still could have delivered on some thrilling beat-’em-up gameplay if its attempts to diversify the gameplay hadn’t fallen flat. Drawn out battles slowed down by technical issues that require you to use your worst weapon and rely on a meter that is slow to build means for every moment of wanton carnage there is a dull grind against a barrier to your progress.
And so, I give 300: March to Glory for the PSP…
A BAD rating. 300: March to Glory wasn’t likely to be something exceptional, but it had the pieces to be a serviceable beat-’em-up. When it’s not railroading you through battles, March to Glory doesn’t really seem to know how to make things more interesting, sometimes striking on a decent variation like the phalanx but mostly requiring you to tap into your least fun and most tedious skills to deal with them. The need to build Wrath isn’t backed up well, partially because the game puts too many skills on one meter and one of those is the only way to heal during a battle. Giving each skill its own bar would not only mean you can have skills when the moment requires them, but it would also let you indulge in the less useful ones or use them in regular battles without fear. Rather than hinging so many battles on chipping away at defenses with your spear, the game could have better explored the combo system that does seem to have a skill that would be useful for such foes like stuns and knocking enemies into the air, but those skills only really work on the basic grunts. These fixes could at least let 300: March to Glory stand as an average game that lets you experience the power fantasy of being these beefed up heroes, but technical and design limitations instead make these legendary warriors feel dull and rigid.
300: March to Glory stands on the brink of mediocrity, but King Leonidas will not pull it all the way towards it nor will he kick it down into a pit of awfulness. If this is the best Sparta has to offer, than you best go looking somewhere else.