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CONSOLE: PlayStation 2 DEVELOPER: Vanillaware PUBLISHER: Atlus
RELEASE DATE (NA): May 22, 2007 GENRE: Action-RPG
// review by SoyBomb

One of the most beautiful works of art in gaming.

Wow. Just look at that major library the PlayStation 2 has. There's God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, two Metal Gear Solid games, S.O.C.O.M., Sly Cooper, several hit Final Fantasy titles, Gran Turismo, Kingdom Hearts... the list of unquestionable successes could go on and on...

And then there's Odin Sphere. It's different. Yes, Odin Sphere made it to Sony's Greatest Hits line, but it definitely does not have the same appeal as the aforementioned heavy hitters. The game has its own unique methods of gameplay, its own specific look, and its own take on how to handle the ever-popular action-RPG genre.

Get used to dragons: you'll clash with them plenty of times.

Odin Sphere doesn't tell the story of any single hero or heroine. No, it tells the story of FIVE of them. Similar to the storytelling methods in Final Fantasy III for the SNES where your party (of 12 characters) was split up and forced to find each other, passing through a variety of scenarios, Odin Sphere covers one overlapping storyline through the eyes of five unique characters who all play a concurrently integral role in the plot. Gwendolyn, daughter of the Demon Lord Odin... Cornelius, Prince of Titania who is transformed into a Pooka...

Each character not only gets their story told, but they also have unique fighting styles and weapons (though they are not impressively distinct from each other, with one exception). At the same time, because much of the storyline overlaps, the different areas of exploration are reused over and over, while boss characters overlap and are fought multiple times by different characters over the course of the game. Remember to recycle, children.

The gameplay is rather unique, and I'll admit that sometimes I liked it, while other times I found it to be repugnant. Each character gets their own "book" that chronicles their exploits over a prelude, six acts, and an epilogue. In each, the plan usually goes in the order of an introductory sequence where you can wander about to chat with townsfolk and perhaps purchase items, followed closely by a relevant cutscene before the real action begins.

You'll be required to traverse through a series of segregated areas where you must defeat a certain number of enemies before being granted passage to the next one. Each of these "areas" (as I seem to be bereft of any better terminology at the moment) are completely cyclical; that is, you could keep running in either direction and eventually end up exactly where you started. Use this to your advantage! You're free to run from the enemy to heal and whatnot, and you can sneak up behind the enemy if they're that stupid not to notice. If you successfully plow down the waves of foes, you'll be graded for your efforts, from an "S" rank (meaning you did quite well) all the way to a "D" rank (which means you stink), all based on a point system. The better your rank, the more rewards you get from a giant treasure chest that falls from above after your success. Interestingly enough, failure doesn't really hurt. If you die, you'll become reincarnated in the exact same area with the same item stash and the same amount of health you originally came in with. So really, there's no penalty for death, unlike in real life, where death usually means death.

There's trouble everywhere you look, even in the quaintest of forests!

Engaging in battle isn't like other games where you would be expected to go in with your sword swinging, slashing off heads like it was your career! If you try that in Odin Sphere, you'll most likely take an unwanted beating. One must be more strategic: taking out one enemy at a time is much more gratifying in the end. Remember this: you may lose some points for moseying along in defeating enemies, but taking damage will cost you much more. It's better to lose a few points than to go down a few ranks due to impatience. Thankfully, final bosses of each chapter offer no ranking, which is good, because I'd probably get "D" ratings every time. Some of those bosses, especially in the final book of the game, can be downright frustrating. I admit to cursing at a bitter few of them, once even causing me to temporarily lose my voice. I... need therapy.

The next question is, "How does a character strengthen themselves?" There is no new weaponry or armor to buy, that's for sure. Leveling up your attack power is quite simple: you suck up phozons. Every enemy, upon defeat, releases varied numbers of phozons into the air. Use your weapon to vacuum them from the air. Think of phozons as experience points. The more you collect, the more levels you gain and the stronger you become. As an added bonus, collecting phozons helps to power up each character's special attacks as well.

Hit points are not gained in the same way. Health, too, has experience, gained solely from eating things. That's right: increasing one's lifespan is a gastronomical affair! Munch on various goods and you'll gain experience -- used towards increasing your total HP level. Food can be attained by a) growing it using plant seed and phozons to help cultivate your little sprout, or b) collecting/buying ingredients and visiting the Pooka Restaurant or the Rabbit Cafe to fulfil the demands of delicious recipes. Food recipes, along with backstory prophecies and alchemic concoctions, are attained from the aforementioned treasure chests found by completing an area in the form of crusty old scrolls.

...What? Did I say alchemy? Why, yes, I did. Indeed, using an item known only as "Material", you can combine it with various other items you pick up in your travels to create new and exotic potions! Although I rarely used this feature, it's still nice to try out in case you'd like a little chemical assistance in your journey. But remember, kids...

One of the most outstanding aspects of Odin Sphere would have to be its graphical style. In an industry where 3D graphics on a home console is the norm -- and, in the eyes of many developers, an absolute must -- the team at Vanillaware dared to be different. Odin Sphere is illustrated entirely using rich, colourful 2D sprites. All of the graphics, including characters, scenery, and items, appear to be hand-drawn and show an affinity for exquisite detail, down to the last pixel. Though many 3D games may look "pretty", Odin Sphere is one of the few games of its time that could truly be described as "beautiful" and, dare I say it, "breathtaking". There are very few games that have attempted this style; Vanillaware has definitely succeeded in capturing such brilliance in two dimensions. Truly an excellent effort, and one of the finest visual accomplishments on the PlayStation 2. But don't take my word on it. Let's ask an expert, our resident contributor, Beverley:

Thanks for your input! Now unfortunately, with good looks comes unusual reprecussions. Although the game usually plays smoothly, such is not always the case. In particularly heated battles, Odin Sphere will slow down. And I don't just mean it gets a little sluggish. There are times when it will literally STOP for a moment to catch its own breath. THAT'S pretty awful and definitely something that should not have been overlooked.

Meanwhile, the sound production quality is astonishing. In addition to an entertaining symphonic suite backing it up, all scenes are delivered with mostly decent voice acting. The occasional remark may make you cringe a tad, but overall, the emotion in each scene has been captured eloquently through voice. I should also give the translation a thumbs-up for their hard efforts. I suppose my only complaint here is that, like in all other RPGs, when one character hears something somewhat shocking from another, they only reply by saying the person's name. So frequently is this form of response used, but nobody would do that in real life... But this isn't a slam against Odin Sphere; it's just a slam against the speech patterns of RPG personae in general.

Though sometimes the game's difficulty fluctuated, all can be overcome with some strategy, and that's what Odin Sphere is all about. It's not a hack'n'slash game, even though hacking and slashing are a necessity. But it looks fantastic, it plays great (okay, maybe the characters are a little too floaty and there's some occasional slowdown...), and it sounds phenomenal. It's just a class act all the way. Odin Sphere is clearly one of the finest gems to be found in the PlayStation 2 library, and you owe it to yourself to seek it out.

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