Odin Sphere is a game which goes to great lengths to look and feel like a child’s storybook. The game is presented as a series of stories being read by a young girl in her family’s attic, with each book being the story of a different protagonist, the whole tale coming together as their stories intersect. Odin Sphere‘s visuals back this up very strongly, with a bright, colorful style, detailed animation, and bold, upbeat music. The effect is lessened somewhat by the irritating and constant slowdown the game endures, but the quality of the plot helps lessen the blow. The game is solidly designed, and although the combat system is a bit overly simple, the use of some creative sub-systems helps keep things interesting. In the end, Odin Sphere presents a unique experience, with the issues of slowdown and the sometimes over-the-top melodrama being far outclassed by the overall strength of the story and the quality of the game’s visual and sound design.
Odin Sphere tells the story of a world called Erion and of the prophecies of its demise. Erion is a world at war, with the fight between the nations of Ragnanival and Ringford reaching a fever pitch as they vie for the Crystallization Cauldron and the devastating power it holds. The Cauldron is a machine that absorbs Phozons, the divine spark that allows plants to grow and life to flourish, and crystallizes them, creating the dangerous weapons known as Psyphers. Psyphers themselves are living weapons with huge capacity for destruction; a single Psypher is powerful enough to bring down a dragon, leading many nations to lust after the Cauldron. As the game progresses, players will find themselves caught up not only in the fight between Ragnanival and Ringford, but also in the hidden conflicts behind the war, as shadowy figures attempt to twist the prophecies of Erion’s demise to their own ends.
The story itself is split into six books, which each deal with a different protagonist. The books don’t necessarily take place in chronological order, with some books occurring before, after, or even during the events of other books. The plotline’s scattered nature makes it difficult to follow at times, but it does provide a unique perspective on the tale’s events, and it certainly makes for an interesting plot structure. Odin Sphere‘s characters receive a great deal of depth from this kind of narrative, as players will get to see recurring characters through the eyes of their enemies as well as their allies. For example, players will see King Odin through the eyes of his daughter, to whom he is a noble warrior whose every action a calculated attempt to save his nation, and through the eyes of the queen of the Fairies, to whom he is a vicious and cunning conqueror. The stories follow a common thread: the relationships between parents and their children. The idolization of parents, the sins of the father, and the power that adults hold over children are all themes touched upon by Odin Sphere, with the overarching story drawing each character further from their parents and closer to individuality. Appropriately enough, the story plays out a lot like a fairy tale, with knights in shining armor, mystical curses, and even a frog who requires the kiss of a princess. Although it does occasionally descend into melodrama, the overall tale works quite well, providing a strongly emotional story told through the eyes of some very relatable characters.
The combat system used by Odin Sphere is fairly basic, playing out like a 2D brawler. Each area is broken up into a number of stages, which are basically 2D playing fields in the shape of a ring. The player progresses from stage to stage, eliminating enemies and being scored based on time spent and damage taken, and is awarded items accordingly. There is also a special “carry over” score that appears to be based on a player’s actions in between levels, such as growing food that forms Odin Sphere‘s healing items. When planted, seeds feed off the Phozons released by fallen enemies – the stronger the foe, the more Phozons they release, and the more healing items a player can grow. In addition to healing, food items also award one of the game’s two types of experience points, HP EXP. Simply put, the more food a character eats, the higher their maximum HP will be. However, since the same Phozons that cause plants to grow also provide the game’s other form of experience – Psypher EXP, which governs a character’s physical strength and overall stat growth – players will have to learn to balance growing food with feeding their Psypher. There are a number of sub-systems, such as an alchemy system and a series of recipes which can be used to gain bursts of HP EXP, which theoretically could be used to make combat more challenging and engaging. However, since most of these systems work just as well after enemies have finished trying to kill the player, there’s no incentive to plant seeds or mix potions during actual combat outside of an absolute emergency.
With five main characters to be controlled, one might expect the combat of Odin Sphere to vary a great deal from character to character. However, this isn’t really the case. While each character does have a handful of different attacks, the majority of characters play very similarly. The only character that really stands out from the pack is Mercedes and her bow, as each of the other four characters use melee weapons that work very much the same as one another. Adding to the overall homogeneity of the combat system is the fact that each character learns exactly the same Psypher Skills and will find themselves in the same seven or eight stages, the only difference in either case being the order of appearance. The layout for each area remains the same regardless of the character being used, the only real change coming in the form of different starting points and shuffled stage types – a stage with a one-star difficulty rating for one character may be replaced by a higher level difficulty room, or even a mid-boss encounter for another character. In the end, though the combat system has good things going for it with its sub-systems and the use of different characters, actual combat can drag a bit as the game doesn’t do much to change things up.
As the strongest area of Odin Sphere, the visual style presents a world full of bright pastels and strong contrast, and the overall effect is quite stunning. The game animates very well, with even basic sprite movement being incredibly slick. Some of the game’s enormous boss monsters are truly a sight to see, with separate overlapping sections shifting in the breeze or subtly deforming as the character breathes. Unfortunately, all of this animation does suck up computing power, leading to what is perhaps Odin Sphere‘s greatest failing: the slowdown. Though mostly an issue during fights against the largest of boss monsters, even normal encounters suffer from significant slowdown should there be more than a handful of enemies on the screen at once. Given that the game’s control is not exactly spectacular under the best of circumstances, the worst of the slowdown can make the game genuinely impossible to control, especially with some of the lighter, more inexact characters.
For a soundtrack composed by five different people, Odin Sphere‘s music shows a surprising level of cohesiveness, to the point where it is often difficult to tell who composed what song. Perhaps the most recognizable names involved with the project are Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, but the overall sound is very different from their work together on Final Fantasy Tactics. The music retains some of the symphonic style that Sakimoto is known for, but the feel is much more melody-driven than his work usually is, leading to a soundtrack that is more upbeat and lively than one would expect. The soundtrack matches the setting and the story quite well, providing a very solid backdrop for the story without fading too far into the background. The quality of the English voice acting is quite good as well, if a bit melodramatic in places, but the game also offers the option to switch to the Japanese voice tracks. Overall, Odin Sphere presents some very good sound design, which goes a long way towards making the game’s setting feel more alive.
Though Odin Sphere‘s combat system is exceptionally simple, the game does manage to keep the difficulty level high enough to make things interesting. A player who neglects either side of their character’s level could find themselves in some very difficult situations. Thankfully, though, the game does provide an instant and always-present ability to escape from the current area, even during boss fights, providing a welcome escape hatch for players who get in over their heads, plus the ability to change the game’s difficulty on the fly. With five individual characters with their own story to be told, plus an equally long final chapter, Odin Sphere can be a fairly long game, eventually coming out at between 40 and 55 hours of gameplay. There aren’t any real sidequests beyond acquiring the game’s various recipes and potion mixes, but the game does offer multiple ending sequences for those looking for a bit of extra gameplay.
With some creative design and a very strong artistic style, Odin Sphere has a great deal to recommend it. Even with the problems of an overly-simple combat system, the intractable slowdown, and the occasionally difficult to follow story, Odin Sphere still has some intriguing sub-systems to work with and a story full of great characters and some genuine emotion. Though the game might not appeal to gamers looking for a more complicated system to figure out, those looking for a strong, creatively presented storyline and a powerful artistic style will find a lot to love about Odin Sphere.