Game Description: In Odin Sphere, players enact the story of their world's end. A great kingdom named Valentine was brought apart by natural disaster and internal strife. As war broke out, the once-great nation became a wasteland. As a demon lord named Odin schemes to conquer it, a far-off sorceror plans to use ancient magic that will bring an apocalypse. As the nations struggle for control, the world steadily slips unknowingly toward its demise, ancient prophecies are ready to be fulfilled—unless a young princess named Gwendolyn can stop the bloody feud between nations and fight for unity.
When I first started reading about Odin Sphere, I felt convinced that it would be just the kind of game I would like—intricate storyline, gorgeous old-school 2D graphics, exciting side-scrolling beat-‘em-up action. How pleased I was when I finally popped in the game and was greeted by the beautiful opening sequence. The graphics were even better than I had expected, and the story immediately drew me in. Then I started to play the game, and everything slowly unraveled, my high hopes crushed. Looking back, I can only conclude that Odin Sphere stands as a potent example of how tedious and frustrating gameplay combined with excessive load times and a shoddy frame rate can wreak havoc on an otherwise praiseworthy game.
Part action game and part role-playing game (RPG), Odin Sphere tells the stories of five separate protagonists, each from one of five warring kingdoms. Going through each story in turn, players get to witness the larger narrative unfold through the eyes of all five characters. The plotlines cover roughly parallel chronologies and often intersect along the way, resulting in an intriguing dynamic in which the villain in one story may be the hero in another. Key events are seen from multiple perspectives, with the player gradually learning about the personal motivations and back-stories of the characters involved. Since one storyline must be finished before starting another, however, the layered plot structure does take some time to pay off.
The elaborate story is supported by perhaps the best 2D artwork I have seen in a videogame. Given the dominance of 3D gaming and the steady push towards photorealism, it’s nice to see a game that bucks prevailing trends. The visuals resemble a lovingly painted graphic novel, brought to life with vibrant colors, and infused with a sense of depth through use of subtle animations and background layering. The stylishly drawn characters and enemies—some of whom almost fill the entire screen—include some of the most impressive and richly detailed 2D character designs to grace a videogame. If nothing else, Odin Sphere proves once again that games need not be rendered in 3D to be visually compelling.
Unlike most RPGs, Odin Sphere lacks any kind of explorable overworld. Instead, players move tiresomely from battle to battle, punctuated by the occasional dramatic cut-scene or a stop to buy items or supplies. Although the levels appear horizontally linear, they actually behave like a loop in that moving far enough to the left or right will eventually bring the player back to the same spot. Players advance only after defeating all the enemies in a level, which can sometimes involve dozens of enemies and even gigantic screen-filling bosses. While repetitive battles are standard in most RPGs, without an open world to explore between the fighting and cutscenes, the battles quickly turn into a long and wearisome grind.
The battles might have been tolerable were it not for the simplistic and unbalanced fighting system. Oddly, the game’s only attack button is also used to block; however, since many enemies have non-defendable attacks that can instantly kill the player, blocking is virtually useless in practice. Attacking too fast drains the power gauge, leaving the player temporarily vulnerable. As a result, players are forced to engage in an irritating hit-and-run style of fighting, constantly dashing back and forth across the screen to take potshots at the enemy. It’s a shame, because had the designers given players a greater range of melee attacks and a useful means of defending themselves the fighting might have been quite fun.
As if these issues weren’t enough, Odin Sphere suffers from crippling slowdown and maddeningly-long load times. It’s hard enough slogging through a painfully repetitive battle only to have the frame rate go spasmodically out of whack while being bombarded with enemies. This slowdown often results in accidental death and having to start over, but not before sitting through the game’s load screen, which consists of the now-seared-into-my-brain image of the words “now loading” slowly revolving around an open book. Almost as frequently, players are treated to a fancy transition screen that flashes the title of the current chapter, a regular occurrence during which I found it necessary to close my eyes to avoid getting a headache.
It saddens me that Odin Sphere didn't turn out to be a better experience. I want to see more games that go against the 3D grain by using high-quality 2D artwork. I want to see more games with unconventional narrative structures. But with its subpar gameplay and technical flaws dragging it down, I fear that Odin Sphere will do a poor job of furthering the cause.
I think Brandon is spot-on with his assessment of Odin Sphere. This is a game that appeals to everything that hits my gaming hot-buttons. As Brandon's lead-in mentions, the game has an "intricate storyline, gorgeous old-school 2D graphics, exciting side-scrolling beat-‘em-up action." It even lets me grow cute little sheep from plants! What's not to like about this combination? Unfortunately, the answer to that question lies in its gameplay, the bread and butter of what seems to be an action-RPG (role-play game).
I started playing the game, which opens with the death of the protagonist. The game's plotlines continue along in this vein, with a story that is well-told and mature (in the adult sense) compared to some of the angst-ridden teeny-bopper stories common to many Japanese role-playing games. Themes of unexpected love, loss and self-worth are woven into the heavily layered plot, of which Brandon gives a good overview. The 2D look of the game provided my doorway to entry into Odin Sphere's universe, but its story immediately grabbed my attention and held it. I couldn't help initially but to marvel at what was promising to be an above-average story, utilizing multiple viewpoints as a less-taken way of seeing the tapestry.
And oh, the 2D look! The artwork is simply gorgeous, and this is one of the best looking pieces of 2D gaming goodness that I have seen on the PlayStation 2. Everything is colorful and vibrant, utilizing palettes appropriate to the current level, whether a lush green jungle or a bleak and barren underworld. The backgrounds are alive with movement; there is always vegetation shifting in a breeze, or the movement of creatures native to the environment. The enemies are imaginatively animated too. One of my early favorites is the honey bear, who growls and attacks with his claws while holding a cup of something (perhaps mead!). When the bear is left alone, however, he'll imbibe of his cup and sink into a healing sleep (or mead stupor). It's the little polish of details like this that really contribute to elevating this game well above the expected for even the most modern of 2D titles. The whole look reminds me vaguely of medieval artwork and Lewis Carrol.
Sadly, after getting past the look and story, I found the gameplay to quickly become stale. Brandon describes the battle mechanic well, and it truly does boil down to using a strategy of hitting an enemy three or four times, then running away. Interestingly, I didn't find the ability to block useful either. I think this game is more about resource management than hack-n-slash, however. As the game proceeds one can access recipes to develop potions that augment the player's abilities in terms of attack, defense and healing. Seeds allow the player to grow items, some of which can be taken to a restaurant to create better healing items, or used for minor healing. This means that the hit-and-run stratagem requires some planning to create potions and grow plants in real-time, which frankly, I found awkward more often than not. The alternative is to grow items after clearing a level, which pads the game time and gets old after the novelty of growing sheep plants wears off.
The boss fights are notable in that the bosses are often bigger than the screen. The animation detail is apparent, and the bosses are all unique in their attacks, although the player is still down to the same hit-and-run tactics used with lesser enemies. This was also the weakest spot of the game for me, because the bosses are insurmountable without a good stash of items in stock, and I found it hard to have enough of the right item in stock by the time I got to these boss stages. Due to the sheer amount of hit points relative to my ability inflict damage (save for my occasional special attack maneuver), these battles were also long. Too long in my opinion.
Like Brandon, I'm disappointed that I didn't enjoy Odin Sphere more, because it has the germ of a good game that could certainly be grown into something truly engaging in all respects. I think this is a game the developer did create as a labor of love. But the repetitive gameplay let down the excellent story and above-average 2D look. I'd rather have seen this game be less about resource management, and more of a beat-‘em-up. Although I ultimately found Odin Sphere disappointing, I will keep an eye on developer Vanillaware, because I'm hopeful to see them build on this experience and achieve a fantastic 2D game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol
Parents have little to be concerned about. While the relatively mature story and dialogue may not be suitable for younger kids, teenagers should be completely fine. The game does contain death and violence, but it is handled tastefully.
Fans of Role-Playing Games may appreciate the visuals and story, but the constraining linear gameplay, lack of character customization, limited battle options, and absence of an overworld to freely explore will probably come as a disappointment.
Fans of 2D Fighting Games will find the combat simplistic, repetitive, and dragged down by long load times and repeated slow down. Although the battles may superficially resemble a 2D beat 'em up, they do not play like one. Consider this fair warning.
HDTV Owners should be aware that this game is presented in 4:3 mode and does not support widescreen or progressive scan.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers can read the dialogue from speech bubbles, comic book style. There are no significant audio cues that impinge on gameplay, and important character stats are displayed on screen.