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Odin Sphere

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Odin Sphere (オーディンスフィア) - PlayStation 2, PSN (2007)

American PlayStation 2 Cover

Japanese PlayStation 2 Cover

Nearly ten years after the release of Princess Crown, the director, George Kamitani, left to start his own studio called Vanillaware. At E3 in 2006, Atlus quietly mentioned the existence of a game called Odin Sphere, which meant to be the successor to Princess Crown. While it's not technically a sequel, there are clearly several aspects borrowed from it. Much like Princess Crown, Odin Sphere is told with a frame story, focusing on a little girl in an attic, as she curls next to her cats, picks up a book, and reads about heroics of our heroes. Both games feature huge, gorgeously animated characters, displaying some of the best 2D graphics on its platform. Both are action games with heavy RPG elements, use similar inventory systems, and feature both cooking and plant harvesting elements. And hell, both covers feature practically identical layouts, just with different characters. Despite all of these similarities, they're two very distinct games, with no real plot connections and drastically different controls.

Odin Sphere takes place in the land of Elrion, which consists of several nations inspired by Norse myths. Valentine, one of the kingdoms, suddenly destroyed itself and nearly all of its people, leaving behind nothing but ruins and a very strange device called the Cauldron. Believing this to be the key to great power, two nations - Ragnanivl, ruled by the Demon Lord Odin; and Ringford, ruled by the fairy queen Alfaria - wage war on each other, trying to unlock its secrets. The story is told from the viewpoints of five different characters.

Characters

Gwendolyn

The princess of Rafnanivl, she's a warrior valkyrie who lives in the shadow of her older sister Griselda. When Griselda falls in combat, Gwendolyn seeks to gain her father's love by proving herself on the battlefield, sacrificing much in the process. She attacks with a spear and can slide in mid-air. Despite her agility and strength, she's unfortunately quite fragile.

Cornelius

The prince of Titania, a country not directly involved in the war. At the beginning of his story, he is cursed by an unknown person and has been transformed into a Pooka, which are a race of anthropomorphic bunny creatures. Cornelius is in love with Velvet, although he's afraid she will not accept him in his cursed form. In his story, he must discover the identity of the person who cursed him, along with who's manipulating his father. Cornelius attacks with a sword, and has an awesome spinning blade attacks that can be used to pounce between foes like a pinball.

Mercedes

The princess of the fairy kingdom of Ringford. Her mother is killed early in her story, and she works hard to take on her role as the new queen. She has a psypher crossbow that acts like a machine gun, which makes her segment feel much more like a game of Contra than any of the other characters. She can also fly, which almost makes up for her rather slow running speed.

Oswald

The powerful Shadow Knight of the fairy kingdom of Ringford. He was taken in at a young age, although he appears to be manipulated by their rulers. He's fast and powerful, much like Cornelius, and wields a short blade. He can temporarily turn into his shadow form to unleash mass destruction, although this quickly drains the power meter unless you can kill tons of bad guys in a short amount of time.

Velvet

The princess of the fallen kingdom of Valentine, Velvet hides out in the Forest of Elrit to protect her identity. She returns Cornelius' love (at least, while he's a human) but is constantly tormented by her brother Yngwie. She spends most her story uncovering various apocalyptic prophecies, the same kind which destroyed her nation. Velvet attacks with a pair of chains which she wields like a whip. She also looks like Red Riding Hood dressed as a stripper.

The back of the English box brags that Odin Sphere is an "intricately spun tale worthy of a place in the canon of classic literature", a slightly pretentious tagline that suits the extraordinarily melodramatic storytelling. It's basically as if the script writer discovered the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen and decided to kinda sorta make a game based off that. Odin Sphere highly fancies itself as a Shakespeare play, to the point where the screen dims and the spotlights focus on the protagonists, letting their internal thoughts out as soliloquies. There are whole gallons of angst, as Gwendolyn fights endlessly for her father's approval, or Cornelius sulks over his appearance, or Mercedes cries over the death of her kin - and yet it's never quite as obnoxious as most RPGs that contain similar themes. Maybe a large part of this is due to the presentation, which feels like the most shockingly professional stage play ever produced. There are options for both Japanese and English voice options, but truth be told, you needn't ever switch on the Japanese unless you're one of those insane purists, because the English voice acting is incredible. The only issue with the story scenes is that you can't fast forward through the dialogue, requiring that you either watch each scene play out completely, or skip them entirely. It's not extraordinarily long winded, but these scenes can feel a bit long.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, and they must be played in order (Gwendolyn first, Cornelius second, etc.) During these chapters, their paths occasionally meet, although many times they meet as enemies. This is similar to Princess Crown - although while Gradriel was clearly the star of that game, Odin Sphere's cast is definitely more of an ensemble effort. Sometimes later stories help fill in the gaps with earlier characters - for example, Gwendolyn spends a good chunk of her chapter unconscious, and Oswald's story elaborates on their story while she's sleeping. This is similar to greatly underrated Suikoden III, which also told the same tale but from different perspectives. However, the stories don't always intertwine - for example, Gwendolyn fights Velvet in the first chapter, but when you play as Velvet, you won't fight the same battle against Gwendolyn. Since each character's plot relates different chunks of the overall story, a handy history screen keeps track of all of the events in chronological order, and allows you to review any cutscene once you've played through it. It's also helpful if you're impatient and skip all of the cinemas, so you can watch them later.

Each character's story is broken up into eight chapters, most of which begins with a cinema and the opportunity to do some shopping, before eventually beginning the battle segments. These segments consist of multiple sub-stages called "spheres" - these stages are flat planes which loop endlessly as you move left or right. Once you kill all of the bad guys in a stage, you can move on to the next. There are multiple spheres in each chapter, and since progression isn't linear, you can move among them freely. An indicator at the bottom of the screen shows you the location of all the exits - press Up at an exit and you'll see a map of all of the spheres you've visited (this looks pretty similar to the navigation screen in Princess Crown.) Eventually, you'll find a map which reveals the whole layout - each chapter usually has two at least two mid-bosses and one primary boss. You only need to kill this primary boss to beat the stage, but it's definitely to your advantage to explore everything in order to gain strength or discover additional items.

Like Princess Crown, Odin Sphere relies heavily on its outstanding visuals to entrance its audience. 2D was dying back in the 32-bit days, relegated primarily to the Saturn, and the only 2D games that saw light on the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube were a sparse number of fighters, shooters, and RPGs. But these almost never took any advantage of the horsepower of these machines. Nippon Ichi games continued to use awful, low resolution sprites, and the efforts out of other small Japanese developers like Flight Plan (Summon Night) and Gust (Atelier Iris) were practically as cheap and shoddy. Practically everything out of SNK and Capcom simply reused assets from the olden days, upscaled and filtered to actually look worse than before. The use of true high-res in 2D (we're talking the 640x480 resolution of standard TVs, not the 1280x720 and above of HD TVs) was relegated to Arc System's Guilty Gear X and Hokuto no Ken fighters, along with rare gems like Alien Hominid. 2D lived only on the portable systems, having only barely advanced beyond the SNES days.

Odin Sphere changes all of that, using gorgeously rendered sprites for all of its characters, with nary a jagged pixelly image in sight. And when you first see the animation in action, it looks amazing - almost too amazing, in fact. There are a number of gigantic characters like the hulking King Odin or the evil barbarian Brigan consist of static images, with small manipulations in various parts of their bodies to make it look like they're breathing. This goes for all of the characters in the game, but it's absolutely entrancing to watch their hair wave or their muscles slowly expand and contract. While this was an attempt to make the sprites feel more alive, at times it has the opposite effect, resulting in a visuals that looks kind of unnatural. These are the same types of graphic manipulations used in many Flash animations, and some of them may remind players of such cheaply done animations. But ultimately, when compared to other console games that use similar techniques, like Dimps' fighter The Rumble Fish (which simultaneously looked incredibly amazing and incredibly awkward), Odin Sphere has much more care painted into its motions, and rarely over relies on the effect. The boss fights, many featuring gigantic dragons with painstaking detail put into each of their colored scales, are so huge that they fit the entire size of the screen.

The backgrounds, too, are breathtaking. When was the last time you actually sat down and counted the layers of scrolling in a background? Most of the stages in Odin Sphere feature over a dozen. It's a humble throwback to the first time you ran through the Green Hill Zone with Sonic the Hedgehog, as here, you dash through lush green forests and fierce burning red volcanos, fully immersed in some of the best graphics ever seen on any home console. None of these technical details would mean anything without skillfull art direction, but Vanillaware has that covered too. The character artwork, drawn by George Kamitani, is breathtaking, steering clear of most of the typical anime design cliches while still keeping the wildly exhuberant art style that Japanese artists are known for. Some may look cartoony - the goofy dwarves, for example, or the cute bunny-like Pookas - but the overly whelming sterness of the storyline works as an excellent contrast. Odin Sphere is a tremendous argument that a game needn't use polygons to look amazing.

Naturally, all of this gorgeousness comes at a price. There really isn't much variation in the backgrounds at all. In fact, each sphere is completely flat, with no variation whatsoever in the terrain, and they each look almost identical. The graphics only change when you reach a new area. There are a total of eight different areas in Odin Sphere (the deathly Netherworld, the barren Battlefield, the Elrit and Ringford forests, the cities of Titantia and Nebulapolis, the freezing mountains of Winterhorn, and volcanic Volkenon Lava Pit.) The problem is that each character visits seven of them, which means over the course of the entire game, you'll replay each stage at least five times. Furthermore, most of the bosses are recycled, so you'll need to fight the same battles over and over. Gwendolyn's final stage, boss fight included, is almost identical to Cornelius' first stage.

As you delve further and further into the chapters, Odin Sphere eventually spirals downward into repetition, as you play and see the same things over and over and over again. Admittedly, you're playing through as different characters - most of them have at least slightly different play styles, and many bosses require different tactics to win - but after a certain point, you're really just playing to see what happens in the story, because it eventually runs out of new situations to toss at you. Even the final battles contain recycled bosses.

While Princess Crown was similar to a one-on-one fighter like Street Fighter, Odin Sphere feels more like a beat-em-up like Final Fight, where you take on multitudes of foes at once. (Considering that George Kamitani worked on arcade brawlers like Dungeon & Dragons for Capcom, this kind of makes sense.) The biggest change is that the action is significantly faster. Compared to Princess Crown's sluggish movement, every character in Odin Sphere speeds along the battlefield with ease, administering attacks quickly and effortlessly. It's like the developers actually sat down and realized what how to make controlling your characters enjoyable, because it's a lot of fun dashing around the landscape and slashing things to bits.

Unfortunately, the controls still aren't quite perfect. They're not nearly as responsive as, say, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, because all actions require minor delays before executing. In fact, Odin Sphere feels similar to a 2D version of Koei's hack and slash series Dynasty Warriors, in that each character has combos consisting of various dives and strikes. Although you can stand still and slash enemies, it's usually more productive to press in direction to take out more enemies at a time. However, certain characters have a propensity to execute crazy jump strikes when all you want to do is keep slashing. There's only one attack button - no weak or strong slashes - and your combos usually max at out around five attacks, at which point you're frozen still, completely vulnerable to attacks. This wouldn't normally be a huge problem - this mechanic is the basis for most fighting and 3D action games - but there are a number of issues that cause these controls to become a bit frustrating. There's no way to cancel out of combos either, which means you'll find yourself aware of an incoming attack, teeth clenched, as you watch your character flail helplessly before getting smacked by something huge. Some attacks, like Gwendolyn's diving attack, are extremely useful, but it can be enormously difficult to use effectively. Trying to defeat airborne enemies with certain characters is also far more difficult than it should be, thanks to the jumping controls. You can block by holding down the attack button, but this is as clumsy as it sounds, and it's ultimately useless.

In some areas, a single hit can take out at least half of your life meter. You don't get an invulnerability period unless you get knocked down, which means it's entirely possible to get killed in a two or three quick attacks Some hits can make you dizzy, during which you can be redizzied, and thus easily dispatched as you wobble helplessly. The action is zoomed in so far and the screen so constantly cluttered with your gigantic character, the equally gigantic foes, and all of the projectiles floating everywhere. This actually wasn't a huge deal in Princess Crown, since you were only fighting enemies one-on-one in an enclosed space, but when you're dealing with a huge, wrap around, infinite level, it's hard to keep track of everything at once. Many foes, including bosses, attack from off screen, forcing you to not only pay attention to the action onscreen, but to keep an eye on the mini-map in the corner, just so you can avoid any gigantic flying cannonballs that may have been shot from halfway across the field. This problem would've been alleviated if the designers were smart enough to let you zoom out the camera.

Some bad guys are equipped with small weapons such as knives or bombs that fly into the air when they're killed, which will hurt (and potentially kill) you if you're anywhere near them. Sometimes your hits will stun enemies, sometimes they won't. If you get poisoned and don't have an antidote (or are in an area where you can't find items to create one), you may as well just give up and start the whole fight over, because the poison lasts for at least a couple minutes. When you first enter a new area, it takes about ten seconds to load all of the enemies. In certain zones, such as the fire and ice zones, your life drains constantly without the right equipment, so you've already lost a small chunk of your health before the battle's even started.

In Cornelius' epilogue, there are little slimes that can ONLY be killed if you remember to bring the right items (say, Napalms), and the levels don't always give you the goods you need to order to make your own. In this same level, you fight these stupid bastard wizards, which will disappear immediately after getting hit - the only real way to kill them, short of wasting magic, is to hope that some of those swords apparate nearby, hit the swords back at the wizard, and wail on them when they're stunned. Due to the random nature which the swords appear - as well as the slippery controls - this is a far more difficult task than it should be. Cornelius' epilogue is largely regarded - with good reason - as one of the most broken, most annoying difficult parts of the game...and it's only about 25% of the way through the game. Strangely enough, you play through this stage with the different characters, and it's significantly easier with most of them.

Furthermore, there's some absolutely crippling slowdown in some of the boss battles. This isn't the cute Gradius-style slowdown that actually helps you win wiggle through tough situations, but rather, the aggravating kind that causes the whole game to run maybe 10% of the full speed, while you frantically slam on the buttons just to get the controls to register. These are fairly isolated incidents, but it's still surprising that the game was released with such issues, because you'd think quality assurance would just reject it outright.

I'm guessing the developers were aware of these issues, but it seems like they didn't really care. The strange thing about Odin Sphere is that it's a beat-em-up that doesn't want you to play it like a beat-em-up. You could, technically, charge head first into a band of enemies and start slicing, and you'd probably wipe out at least a few guys. But your attacks don't always necessarily stun foes, and they'll happy continue their attack animations even as you're slicing them to bits. The result is that it's a rare occasion to escape close encounters without taking at least a hit or two. Furthermore, you constantly have to worry about your POW meter. It was frustrating in Princess Crown, and here, it's just redundant - the game has already established that button mashing will get you killed pretty quickly, so why further complicate issues? At least it's central to the gameplay as it was in Princess Crown, as it's much easier to regenerate. All you need to do is run away and it'll be back to full capacity in a few seconds.

Despite being pretty sloppy, at it's core, slashing enemies to bits is still a lot of fun, even as you take plenty of cheap hits. However, most of the actual gameplay revolves around strengthening your characters and managing your items. Unlike most RPGs, there are no direct experience points in Odin Sphere. Rather, killing an enemy will unleash Phozons, little sphere of life energy. There are two things you can do with Phozons. The only way to expand your life meter is by eating fruit. There are a number of seeds, which in turn sprout into a number of plants.

At any point during or after battle, you can plant these seeds and harvest their fruit, which not only restore energy, but eventually expands your maximum HP. Some fruits give low experience but restore tons of health, while others work the opposite. Some can be eaten multiple times, and one particular fruit will leave a seed, allowing it to be replanted infinitely. Additionally, you can hatch eggs and feed seeds to the resulting chick, which will in turn grow into a chicken, which will lay more eggs and can be turned into food. There's even a plant which will grow sheep (!!), which will pop off their stocks and walk around the stage harmlessly, waiting to be slaughtered. Again, like Princess Crown, this constant influx of healing items seems to be designed to counteract the haphazard combat - although it may be difficult to escape most encounters without taking damage, at least it's easy to regain it back, and you even get a little bit of health experience for doing so. It's like getting positive reinforcement in a very roundabout way, so you never actually feel bad for taking too much damage.

Alternatively, if you want to strengthen your weapon and magic levels, Phozons must be absorbed Onimusha-style by holding down the R1 button, which will cause your character to freeze and automatically attract all Phozons in the stage. You can also equip a single item at a time, which can grant a bunch of different abilities (you can run faster, regenerate POW quicker, pick it up items automatically without having the press "Down" or be granted an extra life), or modify your stats, bolstering your HP or attack strength - and thankfully, they won't break they did in Princess Crown. Like any good RPG. managing your character growth to adapt to your play style is a huge part of the strategy. And while grinding is always an option, all of the different items and other aspects encourage you to play smarter, not harder.

Additionally, absorbed Phozons will increase your power stocks, which allow you to use magic. Most characters share the same spells, although they obtain them at different courses in their chapters. Some are defensive, rendering your momentarily invisible, but far more useful are the attack spells, which are vital to clearing out hordes of enemies or attacking bosses from afar. On a similar note, you don't have to eat any fruit you harvest immediately, and can keep a huge stock of supplies to be used at any moment. Adequately preparing for boss encounters and smartly conserving magic stocks and items is also a prerequisite for victory.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Vanillaware

Publisher:

Designer:

  • George Kamitani

Genre:

Themes:


Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

Odin Sphere (PS2)

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Odin Sphere (PS2)

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