Normally, when a casual-hardcore gamer like myself speaks, they will tell you that the key ingredient to a successful game is gameplay. Realistically speaking, there’s almost always an exception to the rule that exists somewhere, but if you ask a gamer where that exception lies, they might not have an easy answer for you. Odin Sphere, an RPG beat-em-up from Atlus and Vanillaware, comes close to being the exception to that rule; at the very least, you will find it an exceptional game.
Odin Sphere is an epic-scale beat-em-up with absolutely gorgeous graphics. When I first saw the game, the first game that came to mind was Legend of Mana due to its similar sprite styles. Of course, comparing Odin Sphere to Legend of Mana graphically is like comparing Call of Duty 4 to Goldeneye: the difference is wildly apparent. Odin Sphere is gorgeous, and no amount of words will do justice to its lush environments, its sharp sprites, and its vivid colors that would make even Zhang Yimou blush. It has been mentioned that the game does not support progressive scan, but the art is so sharp that you can just forget about how they use the technology.
You will be swept by the story of Odin Sphere. You experience the story through the eyes of a little girl who reads the books in a cozy basement or attic with her cat Socrates. The main story is told Pulp Fiction-esque; it rotates focus around five central characters and told in a non-linear fashion, and each character has his or her own book. There is a story archive mode accessible either by pausing the main game or by petting Socrates, and in this archive mode, there is a helpful timeline to help you gather at which point in the progression the events are happening – it’s helpful, albeit not entirely necessary.
The characters themselves are amazing. You never fail to sympathize with the character, and as such, you may even feel a sense of guilt or remorse when playable characters are forced to clash. Characters develop well, and you can feel the same sense of disgust for the recurring characters that continuously antagonize one another and your main character. The events of the story go on in the middle of an epic war for control of the land, and in during this war, love, hate, greed, and absolution are granted to many of the main characters.
However, when it comes to the voice acting, there are flaws in the art of presentation. You are given an option to experience the voices in English or in the original Japanese. As instinct indicates, you probably want to choose Japanese as soon as possible. I’m not biased, and in ways, neither language is a perfect fit for me. The English voice acting isn’t great, and the on-screen dialogue doesn’t always match. The dubbing is bad for both languages, but some parts of the English feel read from the script as it comes on the screen without any care to dramatic emphasis. To the benefit of the English language, something about English battle grunts feel much more organic than the Japanese ones. However, there is something powerfully synthetic about hearing an Eastern language voice over Western-themed drama. Maybe you can forgive the Japanese referring to the Halja as Shinigami or having to pronounce Oswald as “O-su-wal-do”, but I can’t forgive them pronouncing Odin’s name “Oh-dine.”
The fact that Odin Sphere‘s production values are so high make the gameplay the hinging point of its quality. At the very least, Odin Sphere is fun to play. You get to run around and rack up combos against dragons and mighty beasts, and that will give you a great deal of satisfaction. However, Odin Sphere is the one game I highly recommend turning the difficulty down to Easy. In my first experience with the game, I found the Normal difficulty to be just above modest. I didn’t feel extra difficulty was giving this game any more depth, as two buttons are used to pause the action and bring up item and spell menus and your other buttons are jump and attack/block; that’s right, your attack and block buttons are anchored to the same button. Of course, it’s easier and far more practical to just run and avoid attacks. The story and the visuals are so appealing that I’d rather sacrifice difficulty for seeing more of what happens and what other worlds are out there.
While we’re talking about difficulty, let me tell you that Odin Sphere‘s difficulty curve loops like clover. The game is easy enough to get into, and you’ll find perfecting the nuances of the game to be relatively simple. Characters play differently, so you can’t use the same strategies for one character as you did with the others – even their levels and stats feel somewhat varied. That being said, while all characters are useful in some respect, some characters are easier to kill with than others, and in particular, the later parts of the game spring upon you some terribly nasty boss fights that just plain aren’t fair.
While combat definitely holds the driver’s seat in this game, there is a hint of strategy involved. Unlike most knuckle bruiser games, each stage is a 2-D ring, and all the action happens along the circumference. This means that you are never cornered, and you cannot corner the enemy. It is very easy to get over-extended and lose a great deal of your life in a fight. Thanks to this circle, you can retreat, and there will be ample reasons for you to do so outside of healing and recovering. It’s a refreshing take on the beat-em-up map, but at the same time, it doesn’t always save you from cheap deaths in unfair fights.
Each character a Power Gauge. The Power Gauge depletes as you attack or defend, and if you go too long beating up enemies, your power gauge reaches 0 and you are stunned for a while. While this is effective to make sure your character isn’t a walking god, at the same time, it is inconvenient. Among all the sounds going on, it is easy to ignore your HUD and end up stunned from wearing yourself thin – and getting caught in heavy crossfire with low HP. It is necessary, but could have been implemented better.
This would be a good time to introduce Phozons: the game’s generic EXP crystal. Phozons are dropped by your fallen enemies’ bodies, and they can either be absorbed into your weapon or taken by plants in the farming system. Phozons also double as your MP; your weapon stores a set number of Phozons that are used to cast powerful spells that will help you turn the tide of the battle.
The alchemy system in the game introduces a fun math minigame. You are given empty “Material” bottles, each with a number attached to it. Adding a foriegn object that doesn’t make a brew will add a certain value to the number on the bottle, and combining the bottle with another empty bottle will give you the multiplicative product of both bottles – from 0 to 99. Your 1’s digit dictates what kind of brew you will be making if you already have the alchemy recipe, and your 10’s digit is a bonus that gives you more Phozons. Sounds complicated? In short, you’re going to want to make as many Material 90 bottles out of the bottles you are carrying. You have a good excuse to, as bags are expensive and you aren’t given a lot of space to carry items in the beginning. Fortunately, items are abundant, and it’s rarely a bad idea to just toss out what you don’t need and act a little wasteful in favor of aggression.
There is also a farming system; you are given seeds, and when you plant seeds, they usually need a certain number of phozons to mature and bear fruit. Fruit is the major way your character levels up. You want to remember to balance your phozons between growing fruit and leveling up your weapon, as both are critical to your survival in this game. While it sounds like the critically bashed Daikatana, it’s not that terrible – you’re more than likely to use fruit as a renewable source of healing, as leveling up your character’s HP refills it as well.
Additionally, if you collect fruits, mandragoras (animate vegetables mainly used in alchemy) and the games several other food items, you will be given a chance to bring them to a restaurant between stages and have them cook a meal for you – which acts as a faster way to level up mid-game. It’s cute and practical, so I have no complaints.
These side features are fun ways to keep your mind engaged, but unfortunately, the circular item menu stands out as a flaw; or rather, it does not stand out. With the game’s bright colors, it becomes a bit of a nuisance to see your items circle around you and having to scroll through several bags to find your one or two healing potions. There is a matrix of your items in a sort screen, but using them requires you to access the hard-to-use circle menu. You’ll understand what I mean when you accidentally plant a seed instead of putting it into your Material bottle to get a very helpful Material 9 or Material 10 bottle.
All things considered, Odin Sphere is worth it, especially now that its price has been reduced in several places. It’s an action RPG with enough depth to draw you in, but without all the long sidequests. It’s a longer game than the average beat-em-up, but it’s worth the investment as you are graced with a storybook illustration of a gripping fantasy war tale.
~ Setsuna Setsunai