Odin Sphere – Staff Retroview #2

In a period when many developers shy away from trying new things and instead hold to tried and true formulas for RPGs, games that wander off the beaten path are few and far between. Odin Sphere is one of these few. The game suffers from significant slowdown in some areas and a less than original battle system, but it also offers gorgeous graphics and a deep, memorable storyline. It’s a game that’s taken chances, and most of these pay off to create a game that, though not without rough edges, is a breath of fresh air in the genre.

Odin Sphere is a fairy tale, not of the Disneyesque variety, but of the brothers Grimm sort, with little of the original harshness edited out. Odin Sphere‘s mains story if that of the world of Erion in the days approaching the Armageddon. However, the tale is told via a framing narrative. When players load the game they find themselves in an attic occupied by books, a black cat, and a little girl named Alice. As Alice sits down in an old stuffed chair to read, players are plunged into the book’s story and take control of the hero or heroine therein. The game is divided into five main chapters, each with a separate playable character. They are unlocked one at a time as players complete each story.

Sphere? What sphere?
Fifty-five hours later, one burning question remains… Sphere? I didn’t see any sphere. What’s with that?

The plot consists of the intersecting tales of five heroes: Gwendolyn, a Valkyrie and daughter of King Odin of Ragnanival; Cornelius, the cursed Prince of Titania; Mercedes, princess of Ringford, the land of fairies; Oswald the Shadow Knight; and Velvet, the princess of the once prosperous kingdom of Valentia, which was wiped out by a mysterious disaster. In the wake of that disaster, the Kingdoms of the Ragnanival and Ringford are engaged in a war for the Crystallization Cauldron, the great treasure of Valentia. Whoever controls the cauldron will gain immeasurable power and, in short, decide the fate of the world. Yet a dark cloud looms over Erion in the form of prophecies predicting the end of the world — and soon. Over the course of the five tales, the characters will meet and even fight one another, until the sixth and final chapter is revealed. And while the overarching plot is that of the wars and the world’s grim fate, the stories are never impersonal, as they focuses on the struggle of a single character and tell tales of love, loss, betrayal, and family dramas, with each tale adding to the previous one and clarifying and expanding upon events already touched on. This unique mode of storytelling and the interesting cast of characters make the game’s plot a delight to play through and story-oriented gamers will likely leave quite satisfied.

In contrast to the story, the gameplay holds fewer surprises. Throughout the five main chapters, the game follows a predictable rhythm: a series of cut scenes, followed a chance to access a shop, and then a stage, which consists of linked areas. Fighting takes place in these 2D looping areas, which players will have to clear of all enemies before they can move on. Basic attacks make up most of the fighting (players will find themselves pressing the square button quite a lot) and can be chained in combos with a powerful finishing move. Each character also has some form of unique attack as well as psypher skills, special attacks or abilities that can be learned over the course the chapter. The game is saved from being a straight-out button masher thanks to the individual skills and the addition of a power meter. As characters attack, this meter decreases and can only be replenished by staying still for several seconds. If the meter drops to zero, the character becomes temporarily paralyzed as it charges back up, leaving him or her helpless against enemy attacks. Because of this, hack and slash tactics will often meet with failure in the face of large groups of enemies, forcing players to adopt a more hit-and-run style of attack. The five characters each play slightly differently, enough that it can take a few battles to adjust when beginning a new chapter. Mercedes, however, stands out: since she fights with a crossbow and can fly, she requires a completely different play style. After clearing an area, players will be ranked based on time and damage taken, directly affecting what items they receive. In addition, defeated enemies release phozons, which can be collected to increase one’s phozon level and thus learn new abilities, or used to grow fruit.

By the power of Grayskull
Cornelius received fabulous powers on the day he held aloft his magic sword and said “By the power of Graysku–” Oh wait…wrong story.

Items play a vital role in Odin Sphere because experience is not gained in battle, but rather by consuming food items. Among the items players can receive after battle are seeds, which can be planted and grow into fruit and consumed for healing and experience. Also, at some point in every chapter, players will gain access to the Pooka village and fruits can used as recipe ingredients there. Use of recipes is absolutely essential for reaching higher experience levels, and it’s unfortunate that this fact isn’t better explained in the first chapter. It’s easy for players to spend the special Pooka coins that are necessary for recipes and thus, unable to take advantage of the Pooka village, find themselves underleveled through much of chapter one. Fortunately, players can return to previously visited stages in order to collect items and phozons. Both the phozon level and experience level are important to build up, as being underleveled is not only frustrating, but because it can make battles more lengthy, it can exacerbate the slowdown, Odin Sphere‘s most glaring flaw.

Not every area is affected by slowdown, but areas with numerous enemies, including several boss battles, suffer from the problem. Movement slows to a crawl, making already long battles seem interminable in some cases. The problem crops up regularly enough that it can be frustrating, particularly in areas one finds oneself repeating after having been killed.

The game’s other major weakness is its inventory system. Inventory space is extremely limited and while this has the advantage of forcing players to make use of items, the system is awkward to navigate. Items are stored in bags. Up to six bags can be carried with space for three to eight items, depending on the size of the bag, and similar items do not stack. The shoulder buttons allow players to view their overall inventory, but they cannot actually use items from this screen and can only rearrange them. When players open the inventory menu in order to use an item, a ring will appear, displaying the contents of a single bag. To find a specific items, players will have to cycle through all of the bags, a system which can make finding things far more complicated and time consuming than it should be. The lack of an auto-sort feature is also unfortunate, as players who wish to group items to facilitate finding them will have to do so manually through the overall inventory screen. So while the system is fairly original, it is, sadly, poorly implemented.

“Yeah, I’ll have fries with that.”

The graphics are a highlight of the game. The 2D areas feature gorgeous layered background, with rich colors and details, ranging from the desolate remains of the Kingdom of Valentine to the seedy backstreets of Titania or the verdant forests of Ringford. Character models are beautifully detailed and bosses, too, are a particular high point. Many of them tower over the player and their size and detailed animations are impressive. The score is also very well done, and this is especially important since players will return to areas a minimum of four times in the five chapters and fight many of the same bosses. Most of the voice acting is quite solid, though some of the extras may be questionable as they sport a variety of seemingly random accents such as Russian, Indian, or Scottish. The main cast, though, does an excellent job of delivering the game’s dialogue.

Difficulty is adjustable, but even on easy, players won’t be able to avoid restarting certain areas or boss fights. It can also be jarring when one first takes control of a new character, in spite of a brief tutorial for each one. Fortunately, there is no penalty if one’s character dies. There is also a “retry” option that allows players to begin levels again with their items intact. The difficulty setting can be changed at any point in the game and there is no penalty for playing on easy. In fact, the game recommends the setting for players wishing to enjoy the storyline. Odin Sphere runs between forty-five and fifty-five hours. A few extra hours can be added by collecting all the variations of scenes in the final chapter (those that lead to bad endings), but otherwise there are no sidequests or post-game content.

Odin Sphere is a game that takes chances. Some of those have paid off, others not so much, but it is a game whose merits by far outweigh its flaws. The all-too-common slowdown and plain battle system may put off gamers looking for a complex, fast-paced fighting system to master. But those hoping for gorgeous graphics, a memorable story told in a unique manner, with each chapter building on the next, will not be disappointed.

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