ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 5/22/2007
- Playstation 2
From time to time, there are great pronouncements of death in the gaming world. The Dreamcast is dead! Adventure games are past! 2-D gaming is no more! Some of these revelations are more apocryphal than others, but it is certainly true that 2D games have fallen out of favor among the home consoles.
It comes as no surprise, then, that a 2D brawler appearing late in the PS2’s life cycle was heralded both as the last great game for the PS2 and the last great 2D game. While Odin Sphere meets and exceeds these standards in visual presentation and audio, the actual gameplay is forgettable.
At its core, Odin Sphere is a brawler. This means that gameplay largely consists of clearing side-scrolling levels of enemies to advance to a new level, where you do it all again. Odin Sphere adds a modest exploration element in that each of these stages is a node that is connected to one more other nodes on a greater continuous map. So, depending on your personal preference, you can dash straight to the conclusion, or you can murder your way through a map until nothing remains but ashes and bones.
In great brawlers, you’d always want to take the ash and bone route, but Odin Sphere lacks the diversity or depth of gameplay to inspire that level of dedication. Most stages are completed by mashing the attack button until nothing is left standing. There’s some diversity in combat, but most of that involves jumping to engage flying enemies in the same button-mashing. In the game’s favor is the fact that the collision for combat is spot-on, the controls are generally responsive (if a bit sluggish to recover from actions), and none of the characters or abilities feel useless or helpless. So, there’s nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the gameplay (classics like Double Dragon aren’t hugely different), but consider that Odin Sphere stretches the same basic activity across 30-40 hours of gameplay. Now consider how repetitive that sounds.
Vanillaware does mix up the basic brawler formula by incorporating some RPG elements. When enemies die, they spew phozons–little pink balls of experience. Characters either absorb the phozons into weapons, improving the weapon’s strength and granting special abilities, or they can plant seeds and use the phozons to grow fruit. While it’s best not to dwell on the idea that you’re watering plants with the souls of your enemies, the macabre snacks recover lost health and provide experience that improves overall health.
Older brawlers mostly took place in real time, and if a character possessed abilities beyond simply beating his foes to death, these abilities would be activated through arcane button combinations. Odin Sphere simplifies this process somewhat by interrupting the real time gameplay flow so the player can select abilities and items from menus. Most of the menus are standard fare, though one puzzling decision was the inclusion of two separate inventory screens: one for using items where the contents of one of your six bags are visible, and one for sorting them, where the contents of all six bags appear simultaneously.
This can be particularly irksome with the alchemy system. You’re able to take some of the fruits of your conquest and mix them with alchemical reagents to produce potions with various handy effects like damage immunity or temperature tolerance. However, since you can only see one bag at a time when using items, the game rapidly degrades into a highly realistic rooting-through-your-pockets simulator.
You Got Your RPG in my Brawler!
Unfortunately, the RPG elements significantly mar the action in Odin Sphere. While most brawlers appeal to a hardcore sensibility and encourage the player to achieve a state of immersion with the onscreen action, the constant pausing to navigate through menus and resource management inherent in the experience system break the intense pacing characteristic of most brawlers.
Furthermore, as character HP levels rise, so do the experience requirements to level up and you’ll have to resort to asking some of the game’s denizens to cook your fruit for you. Cooking significantly increases the experience value of foods, but requires specific arrays of ingredients and a relatively uncommon set of coins for payment. As a consequence, any time the difficulty curve outpaces the character’s natural development, you’ll find yourself literally farming for experience.
In fact, it’s not clear why there was a HP leveling system incorporated into the game at all. As is the case with lazy RPG design, much of the rising curve of enemy difficulty amounts to increasing damage numbers that are inflicted on the avatar. This provokes an arms race between you and the game designers where you try to keep your HP above the ever rising threshold required to proceed. While this could be generously described as a self-correcting difficulty curve, the health leveling system reeks of padding the already-stretched gameplay.
Odin Sphere isn’t just an oversimple brawler with unnecessary RPG hoops to jump through. Fortunately, it is also absolutely beautiful. Much like Okami and Wind Waker before it, Odin Sphere eschews photorealism for a strict adherence to an aesthetic and the effect is a visually rich and stimulating world. Characters and enemies are hand-drawn sprites standing easily a third the height of the screen. The sprites are actually hinged at their joints, and while this means the animation sometimes ventures into the uncanney valley, the overall effect sums to give the impression of exquisitely painted paper dolls. Environments are also crafted with loving brush strokes. The 2-D world is typically painted in 6 layers of parallax, each layer of which is filled with movement, from swaying greenery in the fairy forest to boiling vapors in the fire realm. Even the speech bubbles that accompany spoken dialog belong in a comic book, with sketched angular edges that dynamically expand as a character completes a thought.
Unfortunately, the visual brilliance of Odin Sphere comes at a price. When a twenty phozons erupt onto a screen where four skeletons are lurching forward under the weight of heavy candelabra, driving back the darkness of the underworld and exposing a swath of 7 new opponents, the game lurches to a near standstill. These slowdown issues never crash the game, but they do persist until some of the onscreen clutter is cleared away, and it further harms the pacing that is so essential to an engaging brawler.
Another issue is that the art assets must be huge, because the world of Odin Sphere seems to be made of small set-pieces separated by lots of loading. Individually, the load times in the game aren’t so terribly long, perhaps ten or twenty seconds. However, when the load screen pops up between every node on the map, and even between adjoining screens in town while you’re trying to get some food cooked, you’ll have a chance to wonder why you’re waiting so long to play a game that isn’t terribly fun.
The soundtrack to the game complements the environments very well, and the swelling orchestra never disappoints during the narrative or the action segments of the game. The narrative itself is interesting, and it describes the same series of events from the viewpoints of each of the game’s five characters with no omniscience. As you wind your way through each character’s plot, you’ll discover how each is connected to several warring nations and how their actions indirectly impact each other. The six hours of narrative cut scenes are ham-fisted at times, always melodramatic, and voiced with inconsistent quality, but it’s no worse than most games and much richer than many.
Odin Sphere is a competent brawler weighted down by repetition and kludgey RPG elements. The visual presentation is superlative and the music is wholly appropriate to the setting and narrative, but these serve to highlight just how disappointing it is to find yourself bored as you slog through another pile of enemies. Rent it or borrow a friend’s copy to enjoy the visuals. Just don’t buy it unless you think it’s pretty enough to keep.
What It Costs: $40
What It’s Worth:
- To The Hardcore: $20 (visually stunning and entirely superficial)
- To The Genre Fan: $15 (marred by genre mixing)
- To The Casual: $5 (waaay too long and too much kludge)
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