Developer: Vanilla Ware
Release Date: May 22, 2007
One of my favorite games ever is Valkyrie Profile for the PlayStation. The combination of Norse mythology and excellent 2-D sprites set in the unique "profile" combination of RPG and platformer just appealed to me in a way few games could. Naturally, when I saw Odin Sphere for the first time, I was ecstatic. With the Norse mythology and 2-D animation, it looked to be a spiritual follow-up to Valkyrie Profile, and it had me foaming at the mouth. Finding out it was also a spiritual successor to the cult hit, Princess Crown, simply made me all the more excited. When I finally got a chance to play it, however, I discovered something distressing. Odin Sphere is one of best-looking games on the PlayStation 2, and perhaps one of the best-looking ever made, but unfortunately, it is not that fun to play.
Although not directly set in the world of Norse mythology, Odin Sphere is obviously inspired by those legends, with a number of iconic characters appearing, such as the god Odin. However, the characters have been distorted or altered quite a bit from their mythological counterparts. While Odin leads the Aesir and Valkyries, for example, he is considered a Demon King instead of a god and lacks many of his mythological brethren. Instead, the characters are thrown into the middle of the war between the Aesir and the Vanir, two warring nations of incredible power. The Aesir are lead by Odin and the Vanir by the Fairy Queen, and both seek the power of a magical cauldron that would allow them to create an infinite supply of Psypher weapons, powerful magical tools that turn a single person into a force capable of devastating an army.
The story in Odin Sphere isn't told in chronological order but is instead divided into various books, each of which tells the story of a specific character blessed with a Psypher weapon. The stories don't start or end at the same place, and so characters may be alive in one book and dead in another, even in later "stages."
While these plots provide a basis for going through the various levels, they're not very interesting on their own, since they're mostly terribly clichéd and predictable. The most interesting part is when the characters interact with the overall war, giving you a better idea of why certain events occurred and how various magical trinkets passed hands. The ability to watch the cut scenes in order does a lot for the story, but it is difficult to find such bland characters interesting enough to watch again.
Each area in the world is made up of "spheres." Moving left and right moves you around the edge of the sphere, so going far enough in one direction takes you right back to where you started. Each sphere connects to another sphere, which can only be accessed after you've defeated all the enemies in your current sphere. Some spheres may contain shops, but for the most part, you're going to be facing a lot of enemies. The difficult of a sphere is ranked by stars, ranging from one to five, indicating the level of enemies you'll have to face. While there are multiple paths to the boss of the stage, they are very difficult to find unless you uncover the map; instead, you'll have to blindly wander the spheres until you find the map or boss. Occasionally, stages have another twist to them that makes things more difficult. A blazing volcano will constantly sap your health unless you have a special item or a number of alchemic potions, and the Underworld is pitch black without magical assistance.
More than anything else, Odin Sphere plays like a side-scrolling brawler , with your character battling swarms of enemies to advance from sphere to sphere. The controls are fairly simple; pressing Square and different directional buttons unleashes different attacks, such as a guard break or an attack designed to hit enemies high above you. Even guarding is done by holding down the Square button.
The only limitation to your attacks is the POW bar, located directly below your health bar. Each attack uses up a bit of the POW bar, and if it reaches zero, your character is stunned until it refills. Luckily, filling up the POW bar simply requires breaking from your attack for a moment, which causes the bar to naturally refill. Triangle allows you to use special Psypher moves, unique abilities that have a number of effects, such as doubling your attack power or creating a massive tornado to rip through enemies. These attacks are powered by a Phozon bar which you power up by collecting Phozons. Circle opens your menu bar, allowing you to use alchemic items or eat food.
Although it is primarily an action game, Odin Sphere is not without its RPG elements. Every character has two different kinds of stats: Psypher and Health. Psypher is the power of your character's crystal weapon; the weapon gains strength as it absorbs the souls of defeated enemies, which are symbolized by glowing orbs. Collecting enough of these Phozons causes the Psypher weapon to gain a level, making it more powerful. Gain enough levels, and your character can access new, more powerful Psypher moves.
Health, on the other hand, is gained by eating food. With a few exceptions, each food item in the game restores hit points to your character and also gives you Health EXP. Some foods, such as forest berries, are easy to find, but give minimal health-recovering and experience points. On the other hand, going to a restaurant for a fancy meal will cause your experience points to skyrocket but requires the player to collect ingredients for the meal and magical coins to pay the cook. While Health EXP doesn't get you new moves, the improved ability to survive damage is well worth the effort.
The basic controls are so simple that they are almost boring. While the animations are beautiful, most fights against regular enemies boil down to pounding the Square button and watching everything die in your path. While charging into a group of enemies will get you slaughtered, few tactics are required as long as you keep your distance. Bosses require a bit of effort, but they have pretty simple patterns, and once you've learned how to dodge their attacks, it is incredibly difficult to get hit by them. While this alone makes them fairly simple, the fact that you battle bosses over and over means that they will gradually become even easier. Once you've beaten a boss once, you should have a far easier time defeating him again. The game grades you on how well you fight, which is perhaps the only reason to not chug a painkiller and just rush blindly into every fight. The better your grade, the better your prize at the end of the fight, but as long as you pay a bit of attention to the battle, getting S and A ranks shouldn't be overly difficult.
Each character plays a bit differently in Odin Sphere. For example, Gwendolyn the Valkyrie has a spear and the ability to glide across the air, the swordsman Oswald can transform into a powerful demon, and the Fairy Queen Mercedes can't block but can fly and shoot energy bolts from her crossbow. For the most part, though, these differences don't amount to much. Occasionally you'll need to adjust your tactics, particularly for Mercedes, but the same alchemy recipes are useful for each character, and few enemies require a change in tactics. Psypher spells are shared by many characters, and they do too little damage for the cost. The most useful are support spells, like the Overload and Invisible spells, the latter of which renders your character invincible for a short time but prevents them from attacking with anything but items.
All of the above systems come together in the alchemy system, which is the primary focus of most of the game, so learning how to use it is the key to dominating foes. Alchemy revolves around using materials and alchemy recipes to create new items. Materials are "blank" potions that form the basis of alchemy, and by combining items with the blank material, you mold them into a new form. Each form is named from 0-9, and different alchemy recipes require different ranks of material. Once you have the correct type, you combine the material with another item — usually one of a rare type of sentient plant called Mandragora — and create a brand new item. Not only do you get the item, however, but you will get bonus Phozons as well.
By the creator's own admission, items are the most important weapon in your inventory. Even if you're an incredibly skilled gamer, items are almost all but required to prevent the experience from turning into an exercise in frustration. Most of the items, like the Psypher spells, suffer from being mostly worthless.
It just so happens that the most useful items happen to be incredibly powerful potions. Attack potions are fairly strong, but not much more than a regular attack. Furthermore, only one use is allowed per potion, while support potions can be used multiple times each. Although these attack potions can be useful, particularly against bosses who are supported by healing faeries, I never found a reason to keep more than one or two in my inventory. Again, like the Psypher skills, the most helpful of these items are support-based. One of the earliest potions you can create is called "Painkiller," which halves the damage your character takes and prevents him from being knocked back by attacks. This is as powerful as it sounds, and turns most battles into jokes. Even if you should screw up and fail to dodge an attack, Painkiller allows you to survive a lot that you normally couldn't. That alone is a godsend, but when combined with other support spells and items, it allows your character to become unstoppable. Comparing this to the attack potions feels almost unfair.
Aside from potions, you can also find seeds, which can be planted in the ground of a sphere. However, they require Phozons to grow, so the player must decide if it is worth sacrificing valuable EXP in order to grow these plants. Once a seed has sprouted, the fruit from the seed can be eaten for Health EXP or used to cook or improve alchemy recipes. For the most part, each type of seed has its own use. Some grow with only a few Phozons but give weak fruit, while others require you to sacrifice a hefty dose of EXP in exchange for useful fruits. If you misjudge the amount of Phozons on a stage, a seed can be wasted. However, most seeds are so incredibly common that it isn't a big worry, and as long as you're smart about when you plant, you should get a harvest every time.
Repetition is the biggest problem with Odin Sphere. As stunningly gorgeous as the game is, there isn't much variety while playing as different characters. You'll travel to the same areas, face the same enemies, and perhaps most distressingly of all, fight the exact same bosses. The final boss of Gwendolyn's book is the very first boss of Cornelius' story. Likewise, you'll see many of the same foes over and over — even when it makes little sense. Although areas have their own unique sets of enemies, there are only four or five types of enemies per stage, and some are even reused in another stage. It gets frustrating to see such repetition in the design, since the graphics are such a major point of the game. A certain amount of pallet-swapping was to be expected, but some of the wonder is taken away when you notice that even the stages are repeated multiple times. With the exception of the boss spheres, each sphere looks identical, and each stage must be visited multiple times throughout the game, with little difference besides the order of spheres.
If you can ignore the repetition, the graphics are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. There are few games, 2-D or 3-D, which can draw attention as well as this game. Even screenshots do little to show the quality and shockingly detailed sprites. From the way Gwendolyn's dress changes into wings as she glides, to the adorable way Mercedes licks her fingers after she finishes eating fruit, this game simply lives and breathes in a way few other titles do. If the actual gameplay matched up to the stunning graphics, Odin Sphere would have been a true classic.
However, not everything is perfect, and these immensely detailed sprites come with their downsides. The sprites are big — perhaps too big. Many sprites are far too large for the screen to contain, and the camera is focused on a very small area around your character. Most of your focus during the battle will instead be on the map screen in the upper right, which shows incredibly simplistic notations of the nearby characters. Since many foes attack off-screen, the only way to keep track of the flow of battle is to focus on this, instead of the beautiful character sprites. The other major flaw comes with slowdown. When a large number of enemies appears on the map at the same time, the system slows to adapt to it. This means minor slowdown at times, but during some boss battles, the gameplay slowed to a crawl, making what should be a relatively simple boss fight into something that made me want to throw the controller against the wall.
It took me a moment to even remember that Odin Sphere had music. The music isn't bad at all; it's just very generic and bland, and there are very few tracks that really become anything more than background noise. The English voice acting is passable, with a few standout voices that do much better than I expected in difficult roles. For those who find the dub unpleasant, the game does offer a complete Japanese voice track as well, allowing gamers the best of both worlds. Discussing the sound in Odin Sphere is difficult, as it simply pales when compared to the graphics. It's sort of like comparing a five-layer cake to a Twinkie.
Many people accuse recent 3-D games of being all flash and no substance, and alas, Odin Sphere shows that 2-D games are not immune to the same syndrome. Odin Sphere is stunning. Rarely have games floored me with their animations and graphics as much as Odin Sphere did, but that is almost all that is worth recommending. The gameplay is dull and clunky and worst of all, repetitive. The characters are bland and boring, and the controls are a bit stiff and frustrating to wrangle with. I wanted to like Odin Sphere — no, I wanted to love Odin Sphere — but at best, I could tolerate it, and it was only the beautiful animations that kept me going. Don't misunderstand. While it has its flaws, Odin Sphere isn't unplayable or unworkably flawed; it just quickly grows tedious. The few elements that truly shine may be enough to justify purchasing this beautiful title, but be warned not to expect a gameplay experience as stunning as the graphics.
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