GAME REVIEW: Odin Sphere

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

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~ by Bob on June 24, 2008.

3 Responses to “GAME REVIEW: Odin Sphere”

  1. I’ve never heard of this game before, but after reading your post I think I will try it. I’m a big RPG fan, but I don’t usually like JRPGs as much because they’re usually more confusing and less action-oriented. However, I really like the Final Fantasy series and I’m impressed that Odin Sphere has the same music director as FFXII.

  2. Bob my man, have you ever thought of writing reviews for a living? It seems like you put a ton of though into this post, just like the Porco Ross post, and it’s really informative. I’m really curious to see the implications of planting things on the battlefield. That seems like a really cool and unique feature. Maybe I’ll give this game a try, I’m 12.5% Norse.

  3. This is one of my favorite games of all time! An incredibly long a sometimes frustrating saga, but it really is the best 2D game ever made. I mean, this is a 2D side scrolling game that the PS2 cannot run at full speed, and is prone to severe drops in frame rate. It’s so stylized with great controls, and a superb combat system, I’m surprised it didn’t receive more awards.

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