GAME REVIEW: Odin Sphere

•June 24, 2008 • 3 Comments

Box Cover Art

Main box cover art for Odin Sphere

Odin Sphere, released for the Playstation 2 on May 22, 2007 was heralded softly-but with a rising chorus of cheers nonetheless. This game, relatively unique by today’s standards, was crafted by artist/game designer George Kamitani and his small company Vanillaware. Mr. Kamitani is the very same man responsible for the classic Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn many years ago.

Odin Sphere is set in a world inspired by Norse mythology; there are Valkyries, magicians, fire giants and deific kings and queens. The story is actually split up between five distinct characters, each with their own moves and quirks: Gwendolyn the Valkyrie, Cornelius the Pooka (half-rabbit, half-human), Mercedes the Fairy Princess, Oswald the Shadow Knight and Velvet, the “fated” princess. Each character’s “story” is actually a different side of the same tale, and with each character unlocked, the player is able to see different angles of the same events. This creates a rather interesting effect; few people are genuine villains and many conflicts and situations are more than they appear. Much attention was paid to detail, making the eventual completion of the story truly gratifying.

Trouble stirs in Ringford, the realm of the fairies

As well, the voice acting for each of the characters, even aside from the main ones, is quite good overall. Each person has a distinct personality, and their lines are delivered quite skillfully. Given that the game uses its two-dimensionality as a stage, the use of dramatic face-to-face communication and confrontation allow the game a level of theatricality and self-absorption that is rare in today’s games. In the long run, this translates into a very satisfying, if sometimes slightly musty, form of storytelling.

Velvet speaks to the dragon, Hindel

Velvet speaks to the dragon, Hindel

In terms of game play, Odin Sphere is more or less a two-dimensional, side-scrolling hack n’ slash. Like Princess Crown before it, the player can plant things on the battlefield that bear fruit which can be used either to heal or to use with recipes to level-up maximum hit points. You are also able to equip one special item to enhance your abilities, and are able to buy and sell things with merchants throughout the game.

Oswald fights off a squad if valkyries

Oswald wades into battle with a squad of Valkyries

Special moves are performed and weapon level enhanced by absorbing “phozons”, stray bits of energy that fallen enemies leave behind. There is, as well, an energy meter that attacks are drawn from; perform a large chain of them and the energy meter will drain rapidly. If the meter reaches zero, the character is winded for many precious seconds and unable to act. This system creates a rhythm to battle which forces a player to be strategic as much as they are deftly reflexive. Your performance, in terms of damage taken, time to defeat all enemies on a battlefield and other factors contribute to the grade you get, which in turn determines how much loot you acquire from each battle.

An example of the Odin Sphere battle grading system

Also worth mentioning is the in-depth and all too necessary alchemy system and currency system.  Alchemy is a system in which the player can collect small, animated plants (collectively called mandragoras) to create potions. The variation in the system comes from literally having to stuff different junk into vials up to an appropriate amount of “material” (displayed on the vials’ labels as a number) and then combining the different levels of material with appropriate mandragoras. With this system, much of a battle’s outcome can be determined by the planning and strategy a player puts into their potions beforehand; the potions are used for anything from healing to creating waves of napalm explosions which can be critical against bosses and large numbers of foes.

The currency system is extremely interesting. There are no less than five types of currency throughout the world of Erion, and each one is worth varying amounts (and also of varying rarity). The different currencies make paying for items a mini-game unto itself, because you can’t just throw away any type of currency you please. Rather, certain coins must be saved to pay for recipes to be prepared in order to level up each character’s hit points, thus making the preservation of rare coins a must to reach and overcome the (rather difficult) ending boss sequence.

As for actual level design, the game is divided into acts throughout each character’s story, with each act taking place in one large location (such as Ragnanival, the stronghold-city of King Odin). The larger area is then subdivided into many side-scrolling battlefields which are circular in shape (meaning you can run around and around the same spot by going one way). Each such circular battlefield is connected to the others in a set fashion, and exploration is often necessary to find a map that tells the player where they need to go to accomplish certain things.

Graphically, Odin Sphere is heavily laden with extremely detailed and fluidly animated sprites. Everything in the game appears painstakingly hand-crafted, allowing an extraordinary amount of detail. George Kamitani himself, the lead artist and designer, was involved with most of the artwork. This is part of where the game really shines: though the design sensibility of a two-dimensional side-scroller is retro, such beautifully rendered sprites actually make it seem plausible as a modern design element. The backgrounds have many, many parallax layers, creating a mesmerizing effect as you rush around the battlefield. Throughout the game, everything is crisp, colorful and whimsical in a very unique and attractive way.

Gwendolyn reports to King Odin

On the negative side, the game sometimes (at least in the North America release) slows down due to processing overload. Large numbers of beautiful sprites sliding across the screen shouldn’t prove to be a problem for the ailing yet still solid Playstation 2, but boss battles frequently slow to a crawl. Apparently, this was fixed for the European release, which means that if you’d like the best possible version and are hardcore enough to do so, buying the game on eBay from the U.K. might be a good idea (which would also require some modding to the PS2 to be viable… but again, this is only for the hardcore among us). Also, game play is occasionally frustrating due to what have been termed “cheap shot mechanics”, wherein enemies are able to either utilize abilities which are too powerful or are able to do things that cut short challenge and ability on the player’s part without any good reason. They’re just cheap. One moment, you’re doing well; the next, you’re pelted by projectiles from off-screen, which cause a dizzy stupor (and render you unable to act), and then are subsequently frozen while being thrown into the air (and again unable to act) and then biff’d by a boss monster and killed-all without even the slightest opportunity to stop it. Yes, this game has occasionally left me speechless, but perhaps that too has its perks.

One last thing must be mentioned. The musical score was composed and constructed by none other than the legendary Hitoshi Sakimoto and his studio full of musicians. For those who don’t know, Mr. Sakimoto was responsible for the classic sound track to Final Fantasy Tactics, not to mention more recent titles, such as Final Fantasy XII. Indeed, the music in Odin Sphere bears his orchestral mark, as well as that of accompanying musician Masaharu Iwata (his long-time partner), alongside others in the studio. The music is sweeping and contains a heavy bass quality that feels right at home in a tale of ancient Nordic proportions.

While not necessarily innovative and occasionally frustrating due to odd difficulty variations and processing slowdowns, Odin Sphere is still a landmark game in the realm of traditional side-scrolling. Anyone who is a fan of old-school design, beat ‘em ups and slightly dark fairy tales owes themselves the opportunity to play Odin Sphere.

Bob’s Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Business: Preserving Community in the Information Age

•May 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Businessmen are like gardeners. Their main tools are interpersonal communication, innovation and strict economic sense. They cultivate various elements and resources in our world to help provide color, variety, infrastructure and worth to society. In recent years, they’ve been vilified because of their plundering and abandonment of the very things they successfully grew, and of the other people who had taken to helping them as employees. However, everyone is a business person-and using resources wisely and creatively is part of what life is all about.

In fact, it’s amazing what can be done with elements that seem untenable, like an abandoned lot in the middle of a run-down part of town, or a rotten piece of lumber. I daresay, it still takes money to really utiilize many things, but sometimes, depending on the intended use of something, money is easier to find than one might guess. If that makes you, the reader, pause and frown, there may be good reason. This brings up an important point about community-in our age, our sense of community is often a bit transient and fractured. However, community is important given that it is the local network through which resources, power, aid and ideas flow. I place an immense emphasis on the word aid.

The reason it is often much better to allow private parties to handle local affairs rather than (big) government is that government is powerless to aid a community unless it takes from someone-it must raise taxes higher and higher in order to compensate for the lack of overall worth it generates in and of itself. The money, or whatever resources are in question, can best be utilized with the thorough and consistent input of the community in which the resources exist, for they are the local infrastructure. Whenever an individual in a community has a significant problem, it is likely the community around them that could give the best chance for resolution, barring the need for expensive treatments or rare resources (like equipment). Even when the solution to a problem does not exist in a particular community, the community can still donate a small sum of money per individual that amounts to a very large sum overall, which would allow the afflicted person to find the help they need. Communities are extremely strong, flexible and important structures, but in modern North America our sense of community isn’t always terribly strong or communicative due to technological isolation, heterogeneous populations, and the extreme distances we travel.

A good business acts as a conduit in the system of community, and allows precise, customized and powerful solutions to be implemented. In this case, the human need for community and socialization is being served with the same innovation that helped create a rift to start with: the internet and social networking sites. No one denies that face-to-face socialization is still most important, but staying abreast of events in peoples’ lives and being able to communicate heavily in just about any way one chooses has great benefits when there’s nothing else to substitute. Thus, the creators and administrators of sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have innovated a barren patch of memory on a cluster of servers into a helpful and wildly popular (read: rare and valuable) form of service in the greater world community and especially in the classical “Western” world.

Given all of this, business people should not be reviled or envied; they should be thanked and worked with. It is through their efforts that new value is introduced to the world and by which many difficult problems can be solved.

Serenity or Severity?

•July 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I saw an extremely interesting advertisement for so-called Game-Eyez glasses (http://www.game-eyez.com/) that claim to reduce eye strain and cortisol levels resulting from high-frequency wavelengths of light. This, the manufacturer claims, will allow people who need to look at computer monitors all day to do so with little soreness in their eyes and a greater ability to both relax while viewing and fall asleep after viewing their monitors.

I’ve looked up a review and apparently these glasses are for real. By blocking out the “blue light” coming at you from your monitor, these glasses stop strenuous cortisol release in your brain, for real. This keeps you relaxed and unstressed-and based on weight-loss ads, may even stop you from getting terribly fat while you sit at your computer for endless hours.

Apparently it can be hard to refocus when you put on the glasses and take them off, but for prolonged use, they are critically acclaimed. They improve color contrast, making what you see on the monitor much crisper. Many people report whites turning yellowish, but this is how the glasses work, and most seemed happy with the change. As well, your eyes won’t be burned out of their sockets after prolonged MMO exposure, thus alleviating the gamer’s dilemma of looking like a crack addict all the time.

Game Environments

•July 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Throughout my eternal playtime, I’ve found many games that were deeply involving and evocative which to me had just one important trait: engrossing environments!

To start off, let’s look at some stuff from World of Warcraft:

“Zangarmarsh”

“Hellfire Peninsula”

How does a game’s environment set the mood and how does that, in turn end up affecting game play? I always wondered how much of an impact the environments in a game had on the players. I know that I’m always enthralled nearly to the point of being in a trance. To that end, music is important to me as well. When one takes and combines both music and in-game environments, the effect can be quite inspiring. The aptly named Hellfire Peninsula, for example, has an eerie, alien soundtrack with sad overtones that echo despair, brutality, and the vainglorious nature of war.

Upon seeing and exploring the place, one is apt to be moved, particularly with the knowledge that the Peninsula is part of all that’s left of an entire planet, the rest collapsing into the the “twisting nether” (as can be clearly seen in the picture-that cliff side runs all the way down to the remaining depth of the planet’s crust, with the abyss just beyond it).

Similarly, Zangarmarsh contains an exotic set of tracks and showcases the alien ecology present in the Outland portion of World of Warcraft before the planet was ripped apart by dimensional portals. A thick blue mist veils almost every part of the zone, and the giant mushrooms are actually used to house bases and way stations. Architecture, too, is strange and different in Outland. The designers at Blizzard should be applauded for their efforts in conveying such subtle but powerful environments effectively. All it takes is walking up to the edge of the landscape and watching small islands of broken earth slowly churning and floating around in the distance, and almost everyone gets pretty excited.

Next, we have some classic game environments from a classic series: Myst!

“J’nanin”

“Amateria”

Myst was always one of my favorite series of games because of the odd combination of bizarre, beautiful and creepily abandoned tones present throughout the many worlds it encompasses. Both of these screen shots are from Myst 3: Exile. This game made a particularly large impression on me because the camera was completely unhinged for the first time in the series, allowing 360 degree viewing of any specific part in the point-and-click “movement” system. Unlike some of the later Myst games, though, everything was pre-rendered; thus, the extreme delicacy and beauty of the worlds reached an all-time high. The music was also extremely well done and fit the environments perfectly. The first time you step into Amateria you can hear (and with a good sub woofer, feel) thunder rumbling in the distance and experience the lapping of small waves against the basalt column shoreline as if you were truly standing there. That J’nanin place reminds me of a nice day on the beach in Virginia. Sorta.

New Frontier Synergy

•July 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Has anyone else noticed that many of the best works of literature, film, video games etc. were developed during times of rapid change and advancement? This could be called the “new frontier synergy” effect, and it’s sort of getting me down.

It seems that the excitement of new developments, of trailblazing and the opportunities it brings lead to the purest forms of expression and some of the absolute best of creative material. This is comparable to the scale of advancement for business and science during times of great need, such as in war.

What this means is that the one of the best and only ways to create an exciting, dynamic force with which to drive forward your goals and visions is either to be in the right place at the right time or to try to discover infinitely smaller and smaller opportunities present in current conditions.

For any creative endeavor, one person’s will and vision should and always will be the main driving force. But let’s face it, it’s just harder to innovate and refine when the excitement of the chase isn’t there anymore, and you’re stuck trying to travel on a tame, lame old horse.

Gender Bias in Games?

•July 4, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I’ve heard people complain a lot (mostly women, but also some men) that there’s a lot of content in games that’s totally geared towards a male audience. It’s not hard to agree with that sentiment, given the fact that most game designers are indeed male and also that many more men than women buy games-especially “blockbuster” action/adventure/FPSs.

I thought that one point in particular was interesting: males are stereotyped in games almost to the point females are. While all of the women are generally slender, busty and have unbelievably well-kept hair (not to mention their catering to fetishes), men are also similarly either bulky, Adonis wannabes or shadowy hotshots (both of which find widespread appeal amongst both genders). This reminds the player that games are also, importantly, a marketing device for themselves. As well, people who find such stereotypes appealing put them into the games purposefully.

While it’s true in many MMO RPGs that armor appears differently depending on which gender equips it (chain mail bikini syndrome) I would contest that it’s not gender bias we should be worried about-that’s feminist rhetoric. No, rather the threat we ought fight against is the willful delusion of the public. The only reason any of these stereotypes became so popular is that people bought them, usually in a very literal sense. Again, if this is advertising and appeal for the game, then the only reason it persists in them is that it sells. Of course, we could dive into a multitude of psychological topics on this one, but suffice to say that it has nothing to do with gender bias-and everything to do with escapist fantasy and the burying of human sorrow.

More Mini (Sorta) Figurines

•June 27, 2008 • 1 Comment

As a follow up to my follow up, this is mini figurines part 2!

This time we take a look a larger scale figurines with significantly more detail!

Take these, for instance:

Balthier, Ovelia and Delita, as seen in Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions

Back side detail

These are the only such size figurines I currently own, though I’d love to complete the set. Unless you count my old Temjin from Virtual On circa 1997, but that’s more of a Plamo (plastic model). In any case, I want to point out the great amount of attention paid to detail and the excellent craftsmanship of these three. I was especially enamored of Ovelia’s hair and cape-I never expected such detailed folds in her cloak, nor designs. Her skirt also has very detailed waving ripples in it, and ankles and shoes underneath. Most plastic toys in the U.S. don’t really hold a candle. Delita actually has his left index finger-and only that finger-running along the edge of his cutlass. Even with such a demanding detail, the assembly of his arms into their sockets still allowed it to mesh up flawlessly.

Mini Figurines

•June 27, 2008 • 1 Comment

To build on my last post, mini figurines are much like gashapon aside from the fact that they don’t come out of vending machines. Mini figurines are alluring in that they involve an element of randomness but can be bought anywhere, including online.

Specifically, I’m alluding to Square Enix “trading arts” figurines of which I have some small number. I liked the characters from Final Fantasy IV, no matter how stunted, primary color’d or simplistic they were, so those are the ones I went after. I had to mail order Cid on eBay (back left) but the collection is complete!

This game was so fun

Too bad there aren’t figurines of Edward, FuSoYa, Yang, Telah, Palom and Porom… Golbez… the elemental fiends… Perhaps they’ll come later though. I also have a rather sassy Ashe from this very same series of figurines. Oddly, all of these FFIV characters were done in one collection, whereas the next collection contains Auron, Squall, Tifa, Ashe and Basch. Here’s to hoping they mix in more FFIV characters with future releases.

As a side note, if anyone wants an Ashe figurine, I have like two exra. First come, first served!