Game: Odin Sphere
System: PlayStation 2 DVD-ROM
A game that does as conventional things in as remarkably unconventional ways as Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere, and succeeds, is a special kind of rarity that PlayStation 2 owners are lucky enough to now laid before them. Odin Sphere is an action / role-playing hybrid framed by a compelling and tight nonlinear narrative, and presented with high-resolution 2d graphics and extraordinary production values. While it may get off to a slow start, and it may be blisteringly difficult to the newcomer with some area for improvement in controls and inventory mechanics, this game is only a very slightly flawed masterpiece. I cannot adequately stress the enormous disservice any PS2 owner is rendering themselves by neglecting Odin Sphere. Please note that SPOILERS are a necessary part of critiquing the game’s storyline – I will use spoiler tags for that section and keep the rest of the review spoiler-free.
What most prominently sets Odin Sphere apart from its contemporaries is its enchanting 2d presentation. Although technically only in standard definition, the sprites in this game can honestly be described as ‘next-gen 2d’. They are enormous, incredibly detailed, and well-animated – so much so that the images used during gameplay are strong enough to carry the cut-scenes and story segments on their back – the two blend seamlessly. Considering the PS2’s memory constraints this is no simple feat, but the game rarely suffers from any kind of slowdown, even when a seeming legion of enemies appear onscreen. Character and enemy sprites are top-in-class efforts, easily beating out the likes of Guilty Gear X in both detail and clarity, even when scaling effects are being utilised. But they still pale in comparison to the bosses, which are so big and so detailed that they leave no room for any doubt that Odin Sphere is the best looking 2d game ever made. The Raging Dragon, Belial, the first boss encountered, is perfectly illustrative of just how impressive this game looks, but not just by the size of its sprite.
The aesthetic charm comes from equal parts technical accomplishment, and a very deliberately whimsical visual style. Artistically, the game is gorgeous. As empty a statement as that sounds, what is seen in Odin Sphere could generally be mistaken for the kind of artwork used to embellish other games in instruction manuals or concept art, except that here it is alive on screen. Reminiscent of an animated fairy tale, Odin Sphere avoids the stylings typical of Japanese RPGs and finds a niche for itself. Since it is (loosely) rooted in an amalgamation of Teutonic and Scandinavian literature and mythology, a lot of the inspiration for everything between in-game architecture and interface elements can be traced back to classical European form, which helps imbue the dazzling sprites with a distinctly elegant flavour. The Kingdoms of Ragnanival and Titania seem to draw from gothic and Norman eras respectively, while Ringford and Valentine appear more Tolkienesque. The visual style provides both an emotional grounding and subject matter for the admittedly jaw-dropping presentation.
In keeping with the theme established in the visuals, Odin Sphere’s soundtrack is equally as impressive. More ambient than your average Uematsu offering, the designers succeed in giving the game a more filmic, epic scope through orchestral backing of boss encounters and generally mood-setting pieces everywhere else. More striking than the score, however, is the fact that the entire game is dubbed, start to finish. The voice acting on display is largely varied, if for no other reason than the enormous number of parts, but on the whole adds to the experience instead of detracting from it. This is of course speaking for Atlus’s English dub, which was released almost simultaneously alongside the Japanese version. The Demon Lord Odin himself is suitably menacing to his enemies, while showing more humanity to his kingdom (both sides of which are faced during the various plotlines), while other more dastardly characters, like the evil wisemen Urzur, Beldor and Skuldi, feature aptly stereotypical villain voices. Jennifer Sekiguchi, who plays the impetuous child-queen Mercedes does a particularly noteworthy job, as does Michelle Ruff, the voice of Princess Velvet (both of whom are playable heroes). Unfortunately some key roles, such as Gwendolyn and Oswald, arguably the main characters, are met with weak and insipid performances. Gwendolyn in particular is unable to provoke as much sympathy as disdain from the player, who will quickly grow impatient at the controls of such an indecisive Valkyrie.
Odin Sphere’s narrative is one of its greatest strengths, although the player may think otherwise throughout the entire first chapter. The plot picks up during the final climactic battle between the demonic Aesir kingdom of Ragnanival, lead by the Demon Lord Odin, and the Vanir faerie kingdom of Ringford as they fight for control of the Crystallisation Cauldron, an artifact that mentioned in a five-part prophecy scrying the world’s end. The problem with this is that almost none of that will make any sense until the game’s final moments – likely a good 30 or so hours later. Any familiar references to Norse mythology won’t help unscramble the confusing affair either- names like ‘Odin’ and ‘Yggdrassil’ are presented for flavour only. Ironically some symbolism regarding the Armageddon is spot on, but in those cases the literature is scribed from different bodies of mythology, an example being the enormous ‘world serpent’ that wraps itself around the Earth being here mislabelled as ‘Levanthan’ (itself a likely misromanisation of Leviathan). However neither its loose ties to its mythological roots, nor its apparent confusion throughout most of the game can change the fact that this story is marvellously written. You play as five heroes, Gwendolyn the Valkyrie, Cornelius the prince, Mercedes the faerie, Oswald the shadow knight and Velvet the witch. The course for each character takes place during roughly the same period of time, and they run into each other on occasion as well, although only one will ever be under the player’s control in such instances. Each story is played through completely before the next is unlocked. Consequently, for much of Gwendolyn’s game, a lot of the mentioned terms, character interactions and backstory will be lost on the player. However, as the various characters’ chapters are played, an intricately interrelated set of events unfolds, revealing more about the scenario in general, but also more about the people previously played as.
Odin is a somewhat gruff and distanced father figure to Gwendolyn, but is a fearsome tyrant when faced by Mercedes. Oswald is seen as a cold killer for most of the game, but this is shown to simply be out of debt to the man who raised him and to whom he regards sole loyalty. By the end of his story, a great deal of sympathy is attached to his tale, although somewhat unexpectedly given what is shown of him beforehand. Similarly events take on a different light when put into context by new information. Why did pages from the Book of Transformation go missing during Cornelius’s story? Because the Ingway sought to use the Beast of Darkova spell to get atone for using the Cauldron to save Odin (revealed in Velvet’s chapter), his father, and consequently destroying the kingdom of Valentine. Where is the elder dragon Wagner when Lord Brigan goes to Horn Mountain to offer sacrifice in Gwendolyn’s chapter? He was off protecting the Ring of Titrel given to him by Velvet, but before discovering his brother Hindel has been murdered by Oswald, at which point he returns to the mountain only to encounter Mercedes in her storyline. Convoluted? Only a little. To this end, all story elements are easily re-watchable at any menu, and are arranged in chronological order, making it easy to see what one person was doing while the player was busy with another. This is a very useful addition that most will come back to several times will figuring everything out. The end result is ultimately satisfying and the vague references, and indirect exposition offered through the game are more than made up for by the grand epic left when all the pieces fall into place.
Not at all the first game to combine role-playing elements with realtime action, Odin Sphere takes a new approach, both hitting and missing in doing so. The best way to imagine it is as a side-scrolling platform game, except with no platforms as in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog, but no beat-em-up style depth of field either, as in Final Fight or Golden Axe. Basically, it comes down to running left and right, jumping, and hitting any enemies that come at you. Here’s the catch; stages are arranged in circles. Eventually running in one direction will lead back to the starting point. This aspect is the origin of ‘Sphere’ in ‘Odin Sphere’ by the way. Once all enemies in a given ‘stage’ are beaten, an exit appears, leading to yet another circular stage with a different configuration of enemies, or maybe a boss, but the same music and the same scrolling background. Chapters are arranged thus in a web-like network with the goal being to reach the final boss stage, at which point the chapter ends. Each character’s session is comprised of 6 such chapters, bookended by story segments at both the beginning and end. This arrangement is repetitive to say the least. At worst, it can be a tedious trial that will turn away players before the intriguing plot starts to take hold. The reason is that although there are 6 chapters to a character, there are only 10 grid-like stages in total and maybe 20 backgrounds (considering the backdrops for story scenes) all up. This means that the same places will be visited more than once- Elrit Forest is somewhere that the player will have to venture 5 times – once with each character. The bosses and enemies don’t ever change and so although there is quality content in this game, there is a shortage of it, or a nominal amount stretched across many hours of gameplay, depending on how you choose to look at it.
The battle mechanic itself is largely dependent on the character being played as too. Their attacks are all unique and some have certain special abilities. Mercedes, being a faerie, can fly freely while Gwendolyn can glide and Oswald can shift into a more powerful ‘shadow’ form for short periods of time. As attacks go, though, all that really changes is the timing, as fighting will always boil down to repeatedly pressing the square button and hoping the attack will either knock down, or out-prioritise the enemy’s before they get a chance to strike. Things will definitely not fall with one blow and so anyone expecting Symphony of the Night-style action should consider themselves warned. Despite the dull nature of combat in Odin Sphere the responsiveness of controls is an even greater hindrance. Timing and foresight are obviously the foci of battle, but the controls are simply too heavy, and too slow, to make fighting anything but a chore. Everything but the lightest poke will leave the character open for massive retaliation against most monsters, and trying to get a 4-hit string off against one of the larger bosses is tantamount to suicide. Progress will either come as a result of a Rambo-approach, along with some heavy level grinding before and after, or of extreme patience during battle since those big bosses will take short eternities to down. Both paths involve enough time spent for this to become a tedious exercise, but there is unfortunately no third way. To the game’s credit, by the end encounters will be a breeze, but this will inevitably be down to exploitation of A.I. habits rather than actually getting better at the game. In other words this is a noticeable issue early on, but gets easier and easier to overlook once things start rolling.
Item management and levelling-up are both interesting aspects of Odin Sphere but are also more failed experiments than well-executed features. Items are stored in bags as icons. They cannot be sorted and there is no quicker way to use them in battle then to set one’s weapon down and rummage through one’s bags looking for the item needed. This is a problem only because healing items and alchemic spells are needed frequently during battle, and trying to find what is needed at any given time slows down the pace of action significantly. A Kingdom Hearts-like system here would have helped immensely. The alchemy mechanic is marginally useful because levelling up involves independent statistics for HP and attack – the only attributes that ever rise. Attack value rises with ‘Phozon Level’, which gauges up by absorbing the released souls (Phozons) of slain enemies (pretty macabre isn’t it?). HP on the other hand only gets raised by repeatedly eating healing items or using mixed potions. Cooking recipes come in handy for this, as do alchemy mixes, which additionally serve to make potions with special effects, such as the ‘Cooler’ mixture, which keeps the player from sustaining intermittent damage while in the Inferno Kingdom. Both make use of a system that allows the player to combine items they have to make something more useful. The concept is novel, but becomes problematic considering the limited inventory space in bags, and the often staggering number of things needed to administer a simple recipe. As a result these features will not be used as frequently as were probably intended. Like the battle mechanic, items and levels come off as more clumsy, extraneous implementations than anything else.
In the end, the player’s experience of Odin Sphere will be defined by its interwoven storyline and extraordinary visuals. The game wrapped around these things is not void of good ideas, but needs a great deal of tweaking before it can honestly be considered fun to play on its own. Battling is a repetitive affair that will involve a greater struggle with the controller than with the in-game resistance, and item management is quite honestly a pain in the ass. Still, the narrative comes together better than expected, and stands shoulder to shoulder with the best I have ever seen in a game, with all the suspense of Metal Gear Solid and all the exploration of cause and effect in Shadow of Memories and then some. To be sure, this is one of the most, if not the most captivating RPG I have ever come across. But if Odin Sphere’s story is impressive, its graphics are nothing short of astounding. This game is not only evidence that 2d is not dead, but that it can have a character and appeal greater than anything in 3-dimensions. The fact that Odin Sphere diverges from the beaten track in terms of both presentation and storytelling is reason enough to check it out, but that it is such a remarkably satisfying game to see to the end, despite its faults, makes it a must have in my opinion.
Odin Sphere is really an odd thing to see on the PS2. As I say, it is riddled with problems, but once you get past them it is really such an engaging and rewarding experience that it wouldn’t have mattered if you were forced to fight using dance mat and the repetitive stages were 10 times longer. I wrote an extremely scathing review for this game 2 weeks ago, after just finishing the first section of 6, at which time I absolutely hated it. I thought the controls were bad, the story was going nowhere, and I had seen the best of the 2d animation I was going to see. I am so glad I decided to stick with it a little longer before posting that up, because boy would my face have been red once I realised this was likely one of the best things I’d ever played. Sincerely my opinion was changed that much between finishing Gwendolyn’s story and the end of the game. It really does come together that well. If Odin Sphere really fails, it is in not putting its best stuff right at the start. Bad first impressions, along with an absent PAL release and the end of the PS2 era will deny this game the success it really deserves, and I can’t help but think that is a tremendous shame.