Odin Sphere

May 23, 2007

Simply, and utterly gorgeous. This is the first thing that came to my mind when setting upon Odin Sphere, Atlus’ latest release for the PlayStation 2. In today’s age of increasingly complex 3D concoctions it’s hardly a mystery that equally intricate sprite work has become somewhat of a lost art, a failing obviously lost on the developers at Vanillaware, a studio also responsible for NIS America’s GrimGrimoire. First impressions account for a lot, especially with the sorts of niche releases for which Atlus is known, and here Odin Sphere does not disappoint. From the onset, the game expertly plays to the strengths of its sex appeal with large sprites and detailed environments, where every screen captured seems suitable for framing.

As the spiritual follow up to the now decade-old Princess Crown for the Japanese Saturn, Odin Sphere offers up a similar mix of gameplay styles that playfully flirts with both action and role-playing mechanics. While this sort of hybridization falls short of setting the game apart from other similar titles, it is Odin Sphere‘s unique art style – all hand drawn by Vanillaware’s own George Kamitani – that makes the title truly stand out. In addition, Odin Sphere features a score by Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy XII), resulting in the sort of sensory overload usually reserved for bachelor parties and Pink Floyd concerts.

A lengthy adventure spanning multiple characters, Odin Sphere first casts you in the role of Gwendlyn, a Ragnaneival Valkyrie princess caught up in an ongoing conflict between waring nations. Over the course of the adventure, the story shifts perspectives by placing you in control of four other characters, including Cornelius, prince of Titania, Mercedes, the crossbow wielding faerie princess of Ringfold, Oswald, the dark knight, and finally Velvet, the bastard child born out of an affair between Gwendlyn’s father, King Odin, and the rival faerie nation of Vanir.

While each of these characters are all mildly interesting on their own, it is when these stories intermingle and the different characters cross paths that the magic of Odin Sphere‘s narrative truly shines through – thanks in no small part to the kind of expert localization that fans have come to expect from Atlus.

Story aside, in many ways, Odin Sphere‘s gameplay reflects back on an earlier age of gaming, with its emphasis on short stages, cheap enemies, and frustrating bosses. Now, reading that you’d think I was down on this game, but you’d be wrong. There’s a growing movement in the gaming community that feels that video games, in general, have become too easy, and here we have a game that will occasionally bloody your nose just to remind you who’s boss.

It’s unfortunate however that, much like those games of old, the lion’s share of the gameplay here is mired in repetition, with numerous stages playing out in similar fashion and offering little variety save for a new enemy or menacing boss encounter to break up the tedium. Some of this is masked beneath the game’s stunning outward appearance, but for those players unwilling or unable to look past Odin Sphere‘s reiteration, no amount of visual acuity or compelling storytelling will make the experience palatable.

For those who stick with it, however, what awaits is gameplay that is evocative of classic side-scrolling brawlers, with multiple areas broken up in a collection of stages, boss encounters, and shops. Odin Sphere also offers an illusion of nonlinearity by allowing some freedom in what order these stages are played, while some may be bypassed entirely. The game also offers a useful map for plotting your course through the different areas, with helpful icons showing the relevant difficulty and potential reward for completing each.

Something that stuck out while playing Odin Sphere is in how long it takes for the on-screen character to react to a button press, as well as the sometimes excruciating recovery times needed between attacks or item uses. If you are like me, at first this will seem an an unconscionable nuisance, having to press the button earlier than might be ideal to attack or jump, but early on, like so many things in life, you adjust, and this becomes just another notable quirk in a game that seems to go out of its way to be unique.

In addition, despite its action roots, Odin Sphere is certainly not a button masher. These delays force you to plan out your attacks and activities sometimes seconds in advance, knowing that recovery times are not immediate. Also, you are encouraged to learn from my experience and never stop to eat a nourishing hot crossed bun or cheese wedge when a giant brigand is plummeting out of the sky to land on your head.

Odin Sphere‘s quickly escalating difficulty is also sure to be a sticking point with players, as the game wastes little time in ending your game if you are not careful. And even if you do tread lightly, be prepared to retry some stages many times before success is earned. Thankfully, death is cushioned somewhat thanks to short load times and the immediate ability to restart from the stage that did you in. The unfortunate flip side to this is that if you ventured into a stage already on death’s door or with little with which to heal, you may find yourself restarting from a previous save instead. So save often.

And speaking of healing, one of the most interesting elements of Odin Sphere is the ability to grow your own recovery items, something that proves very useful should the scenario above play out. Money is a rare commodity in this game, so while it is entirely possible to purchase provisions from the local wondering merchant, the much more feasible and readily available alternative is oftentimes to plant seeds during battle and later harvest the resulting fruit, energy, or even sheep (yes, sheep).

While not a rule, in order to mature most of these seeds require a given number of Phozons, magical balls of light that are released as enemies are defeated. Interestingly, Phozons can also be collected yourself to power any number of magical abilities, so many times, especially during a particularly hairy boss encounter, a decision has to be made as to which course of action will best help turn the tide of battle in your favor. Alchemy, a gameplay element that has become extremely commonplace in role-playing games of late, also fills a similar role here, as recipes are found and items are collected and mixed during battle, resulting in various concoctions, both helpful and vicious.

It’s probably not a surprise that Odin Sphere‘s chief draw lies in its presentation, as the game is without question one of the — if not the — most visually impressive games to be counted among the PlayStation 2’s library. However, the title is repetitive, at times arduous gameplay is simply not something that players are used to putting up with these days, and as such many will likely pass on this game in favor of something more modern. Those looking for an experience rife with old school charm, complete with an interesting story and unparalleled visuals, Odin Sphere comes through with vibrant colors.

Score: 4/5

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