Odin Sphere Review
You'd think after years of proliferation of Japanese-themed role playing games that it'd be harder and harder to come up with original concepts, and while this is often the case (more so with each passing year), Odin Sphere is nothing if not original. Known in the United States for bringing Japanese RPGs to American audiences, Atlus' latest project brings us Odin Sphere, a unique action oriented JRPG from developer VanillaWare.
Odin Sphere tells the tales of five different adventurers and their own unique adventures in a mythical world set during the Cauldron War. The first character players have access to, Gwendolyn, wields a staff and an attitude, and seeks glory and recognition from her father, the Demon Lord Odin. After completing her quest, players can then unlock the remaining four in sequence, starting with Cornelius. Each character has their own story, set in their own time during the war, and while some players' timelines overlap, their stories are largely independent from the others.
Story is the focus of Odin Sphere, like most role playing games, and unfortunately for Odin Sphere, while the broader tales are interesting enough, the poorly acted cutscenes really hurt the presentation. To say Odin Sphere sported cheesy B-movie caliber acting would be an insult to cheesy B-movie actors. Luckily, the game includes the Japanese language track as well, and with all cutscenes subtitled, whether in English or not, using the Japanese track would be advisable. Those not fazed by poor acting, though, should find enough redeeming qualities in the various tales to keep their interest.
Odin Sphere does fare better in other aspects of presentation, fortunately. The game is great looking for a 2D sprite based game, with incredibly stylized and detailed backgrounds, great lighting effects and unique, if eclectic, character design. The Playstation 2 wasn't really designed for games with this kind of intensive vector based processing, though, and the result is a game that, while beautiful, is often very, very, painfully slow. It is not uncommon in boss battles, for example, to see the framerate drop into single digits, giving the game a sort of underwater slow motion feel that almost makes certain portions unplayable. This problem does not crop up in every single boss battle, or even the majority, but it does happen often enough to warrant commentary and criticism.
Another problem spot for Odin Sphere is the incredibly repetitive and mundane combat, with this hack and slash RPG is missing most of the slash, as there aren't even basic melee combos to utilize. You attack with the square button and that's basically it. You can do jumping attacks that look different, but aside from being in the air, they require no further complexity to pull off. The only real strategy in the melee combat is to avoid draining your Power gauge, which then causes the character to be stunned. However, this is easily avoided and not a terribly interesting way of creating challenging combat.
The more interesting aspect of Odin Sphere's core gameplay is its level design, as all stages are circular, giving players the ability to run as far as needed to evade enemy attacks, or set up their own. You'll often find yourself overwhelmed by foes, and it's easy enough to dash in the opposite direction and flank them, if you're quick about it. Each spherical stage in a level is connected to each other stage in the same level, and navigating them can be somewhat complex, especially if you have to backtrack, but if anything, the level design wins points simply for originality.
Where Odin Sphere really shines, however, is in the item management and creation arena. Odin Sphere allows you to use almost anything you find on the battlefield in creative ways, such as growing sheep using certain seeds (yes, you can grow sheep in this game), which you can then slaughter to create lamb chops. You can also plant seeds you find to grow fruits and vegetables, obtain milk (and then create yogurt with it, which will be covered in a moment), and much more. Each type of edible item not only recovers various amounts of hit points, but also has other effects as well that vary depending on the item. All edibles will increase your experience, but some will increase them more dramatically than others. Therefore, it might often be better to eat a fruit that only recovers 10 hit points because it will level up your character through the gained experience, fully recharging your health. This definitely adds an interesting strategic mix to the gameplay.
In addition to finding and using items in creative ways, Odin Sphere also lets you create new items from previously obtained goods. By combining items with Material, you can create unique potions or items. For example, you can combine an onion with Material 0 to create an antidote for poison, or a Cubsbane and Material 20 to create a light spell. Since there are 99 different Materials in the game, and you can combine them with any item (even other Materials), the possibilities are fairly staggering in a good way, and people interested in item management will definitely find this to be the most exciting aspect of the gameplay.
If item creation isn't your thing, though, you may find the restaurants in Odin Sphere of interest. Here you can combine certain foods using recipes to create dishes that have far more beneficial effects. Instead of eating bread and eggs separately, why not take them to a chef and whip up some eggs on toast? There aren't quite as many recipes in Odin Sphere as there are item combos, but there are still enough to make mixing around with your edibles interesting and entertaining.
The sound in Odin Sphere, save the dialogue, is also impressive and interesting, if a bit repetitive. Most of the music is recycled from stage to stage, but the music appropriately changes up during important story driven events, and for the most part matches the atmosphere the story is trying to establish. The sound effects are even better at matching the events occurring on-screen, as the sound effect accompanying your character being struck with Dizzy actually sounds like something sort of spinning around in a haphazard manner, for example. While never the main focus of any genre, save music and rhythm games, sound is essential in any role playing game, and Odin Sphere basically nails it.
What Odin Sphere does not do very well, however, is the control, as it is extraordinarily unresponsive at times, as well as poorly mapped on the Playstation 2 controller. In perhaps the worst control mapping ever, the attack button and block button are one in the same, in that you attack by pushing the square button, and block by pushing and holding the square button. Couple that with an unresponsive system and you'll often find yourself attacking while trying to block and dying as a result. Eventually this forces a change in strategy whereupon the block button is never used again, making it absolutely worthless as a feature.
A feature that may not be useless is the ability to play through the game with five different characters. While each character's story takes less than ten hours to complete, the ability to play through five different ten hour stories definitely ups the replay, assuming you don't mind fighting through the same stages and bosses five times. Essentially, if you're a fan of the game's combat and presentation, this is a game to be played repeatedly. If not, the replay value is ridiculously low.
Overall, Odin Sphere plays like the budget title that it is, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Those into the niche type RPGs that Atlus localizes for American audiences will likely eat this game up, and outside the horrid framerate will likely forgive the game's other faults. However, those looking for more epic presentation and gameplay would be wise to pass on this title and search for RPG satisfaction elsewhere.
5/30/2007 Ryan Hartmann