Odin Sphere is far from normal. While I first thought this 2D action-RPG was a monotonous bore, it slowly grew on me as a nuanced and inventive entry to the genre. There is a surprising amount of unique things to do in this wild hack and slasher, but after a while, that familiar feeling of repetition begins to creep back, and the final judgment is uncertain of just how good Odin Sphere may or may not be.
Early in the game, it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough to do. Although Odin Sphere is entirely in 2D, there’s no platform jumping, and the odd level design also doesn’t help. Each dungeon is broken down into a series of super-short levels, which last only a couple minutes, or as little as thirty seconds. Once all the enemies are defeated, a ranking and treasures are given, and then it’s off to the next stage. On the in-game map, the stages look like a series of spider webs, due to the circles that represent each stage, and the way they are all connected. The dozen or so mini-stages in each dungeon look strikingly similar, and the only variation comes in the number of waves of enemies, aside from the occasional boss and shopkeeper. Whether the stage is set in ruins of a former kingdom, a frozen mountain or even an enchanted forest, they all feel too similar.
“The combat is definitely stronger than the odd level layout”The extremely limited layout to the dungeons takes some getting used to, and the fast-paced combat does its best to make Odin Sphere interesting. There’s usually a handful of baddies on the screen at once, some of which are enormous. Taking out these soldiers, fairies and beasts usually requires some finesse, since Odin Sphere is so difficult. Wailing on an opponent with a multi-hit combo and then retreating is the best way to survive on the normal difficulty (easy and hard are also available). The controls are responsive and quick, so the game boils down to fast reflexes and a bit of luck. The action is so frantic that a radar at the top of the screen displays where the enemies and dropped items are. This is not only helpful to see who’s coming at you, but also because the viewing area is somewhat small.
Simply unleashing hit after hit on the swarming enemies isn’t totally effective because after a number of attacks, the “POW” meter drops to zero. When this happens, you become immobile while it slowly charges. This isn’t really a pleasant way to die, but Odin Sphere is wonderfully forgiving. When you die, you simply restart the mini-stage. There isn’t even a taunting game over screen. Also, the difficulty can be changed at any time, so you’re not stuck on whatever was picked from the start. Considering the fluctuating difficulty, this is a godsend.
The combat is definitely stronger than the odd level layout, but at first, it doesn’t appear to be enough to make Odin Sphere a truly good game. At this point, Odin Sphere began to slowly work its many charms on me. The first moments of this were with the intriguing storyline. Odin Sphere opens with a pre-teen girl inside a room. On the floor rests her cat, Socrates, and a book. That cat can be toyed with for no reason, but it’s the book that’s important. The entire game is divided into a few of these tomes, which need to be played in a linear order until the end of the game. Each of these books is a five to ten hour portion of the game that tells the story of a different character. Many of the events for each character overlap, so the different books shed some light on the motives of people who were once antagonists and are now playable characters.
The book approach works well, considering the storyline feels like a sophisticated fairy tale. We have grand tales of love and honor, along with plenty of powerful rulers and monsters. For example, the first book tells the story of a valkyrie in Odin’s kingdom. Being a solider is tough enough, but Gwendolyn is also King Odin’s youngest daughter. She sets out to find an object that will hopefully win her father’s love. Meanwhile, she is forced to marry a stranger she despises. Love plays a big role in the books, and while the stories aren’t terribly unique, the straightforward manner is which they’re told makes the many of the scenes interesting. Also, the voice acting is excellent, and there’s even the option to switch to the original Japanese voice actors.
Keeping in tone with the storybook approach are the amazing visuals. Everything is animated, and if the gorgeous (albeit repetitive) environments weren’t enough, the stunning characters certainly are. Some of the characters are larger than life, taking up nearly the whole screen, but still possessing plenty of intricate details. Odin, for instance, makes the screen shake with every step, and his presence is absolutely dominating. There’s also the Pookas, which were once humans, but turned into adorable creatures. The design for all characters, great or small, important or unimportant, are a testament to what the PS2 is still capable of with a little creativity. Unfortunately, while the special effects and size of some of the enemies during the fights are impressive, there’s often a horrendous amount of slowdown. With some bosses, nearly the entire battle is in slow motion. That’s the price to be paid for such vibrant visuals, and it is disappointing.
“I began to realize the depth of Odin Sphere“Despite the slowdown, the graphics and storyline quickly caught my interest, but early in the game, I still had problems enjoying Odin Sphere due to its repetition. As fun as it was gracefully cut down enemies, I needed something more. When the game started to get increasingly difficult, I got exactly what I needed. At the start of the game, I was bombarded with tutorials on planting seeds that absorb experience from defeated enemies and the art of alchemy, but I didn’t give it much thought. After all, I had killing to do, which always takes precedence. However, once I started to utilize these features, I began to realize the depth of Odin Sphere.
Planting a seed is a weird thing to do after a battle, but this concept proved to work well. When enemies are killed, they release floating objects called phozons. These can be absorbed to level up attack power and enable the casting of powerful spells. Letting seeds absorb these phozons is another fruitful (har har) option. Different seeds wield different fruits, but most of them restore health and help increase the overall hit point level. Eating this food is the only way to gain experience that increases health capacity, so balancing the amount of stuff eaten with the phozons absorbed is necessary for maintaining a dangerous fighter.
Adding more depth to the game is the creation of potions. Containers called “material” are the basis for these concoctions. Material can be combined with any item in order to increase its level and yield more powerful mixtures. However, in order for an item to be made, the recipe needs to be found (they are scattered throughout the dungeons), and then the proper mandragora has to be plucked. These crafty animal-plants are hidden in every ministage, and walking over one causes them to squeak. If the location hat squeaks is jumped on, a mandragora pops up and tries to run away. These things, cutely called Turny, Caroteer, and other similar names, are then able to be attacked and placed in the inventory. Aside from a few mixtures, these otherwise pointless objects are the main ingredient for the potions. While the game starts off easy and potions can be mostly ignored, they become absolutely vital as the game progresses. They have a variety of uses, from curing poison and restoring health, to other attack-oriented concoctions. Some of the bosses are so brutal that tossing out some napalm or a toxin cloud are the only ways to win.
With all these things to do with items, the inventory system gets heavy usage. The problem is that there never seems to be enough room, and purchasing more bags to hold items costs a pretty penny. Far too much time is spent organizing items, but this proves to be rewarding because of the wide array of options for each item. If it’s a worthless apple core, it can be used to increase the material level. If it’s a seed, it can be planted when some enemies are killed. If it’s almost any kind of item, it can be brought to the Pooka Village, where recipes are given to cooks, and if you have the proper materials, the meal is made for you. The ingredients are usually difficult to obtain, but acquiring the necessary things grants a load of experience, in addition to set increases in hit points. It can be a pain lugging all those items around, but the benefits for doing so are worthwhile.
I was enjoying this newfound variation in the gameplay, such as creating the right blend of items to take on a tough boss, but then the repetition set in once again. In each chapter, nearly all the bosses and areas are the same. While the stories are different, and the characters have slightly diverse moves, having to trudge through the same dungeons and face the same bosses took its tool on the fun. Once again, I grew a little bored. Odin Sphere is a truly different experience in many respects, but the repetition is frustratingly similar to that of countless other games.