"I have poison if you want. Unfortunately, I do not have a blade to coat with it."

Of all the taglines I've come up with for all the reviews I've written, no tagline better exemplifies a game than this one. It's a line from a bit shopkeeper in the Netherworld, but it perfectly describes Odin Sphere.

Because while Odin Sphere is a good game and should be remembered as such, it trips over itself every step of the way and ultimately gets thrown into the massive pile of "good, but it could have been iconic" video games. You can really feel yourself playing something special when going through this game, but it does so many things wrong in every aspect that it becomes grating at points. In a way, Odin Sphere being a good game in spite of its massive flaws is a testament to how the good aspects are really freaking good.

For those of you looking for the Cliff's Notes description, Odin Sphere is a 2D side-scrolling action RPG with a top tier plot, and the game can make an argument for having the best graphics among 2D video games. That claim will come off as an exaggeration, but it's not. There aren't more than two or three 2D games that could claim a stake in the "best graphics among 2D games" department, and one of them is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. That's the company Odin Sphere keeps.

Since no other game plays quite like Odin Sphere, we're going to try a slightly different reviewing style from past works. I hope you enjoy it.

Characters and Plot

Loosely based on Norse mythology, Odin Sphere tracks the adventures of five characters of five different royalties on a continent called Erion: Gwendolyn the flying valkyrie from a castle where women take the front lines in fights; Cornelius the cursed from Titania, who gets the most raw deal in the entire game; Mercedes the fairy princess, who fits the bill as Token Fairy/Elf Forest Leader for this particular Japanese RPG; Oswald the Shadow Knight, which is all anyone needs to know about him; and Velvet, the Token Depressed Hot Chick. These five characters are all able to wield weapons called psyphers, which absorb energy from the wandering dead and the planet called phozons. The more phozons collected by a psypher, the stronger the weapon gets. If you don't think this will turn into another Japanese RPG plot with undertones about how we should all lower our carbon footprint to avoid global warming, you vastly overestimate Japanese RPGs. All the genre is missing these days are recorded messages from Bono and Al Gore with Live 8 performances during the credits.

The story is told in a very unique way. You see a girl in an attic reading old books, and the books all translate into the plot of one of the five characters. You're stuck reading them in order, and once you're done going through the plots of the five characters you're given two more books that cover the events following everyone's conclusions, which basically amounts to a glorified, sloppy boss rush mode.

The overarcing plot revolves around two entities: the king of Ragnanival, aptly named Odin, and the Cauldron. In the distant past, the Cauldron activated and completely annihilated the land's most powerful kingdom, Valentine. Odin was alive for the calamity, and seeks to prevent the same tragedy from happening again. But in a tragic fashion seemingly written by the Greeks, everything Odin does to prevent a future catastrophe only hastens the demise of both himself and his kingdom. You never directly control Odin, but he is inarguably the most important character in the entire plot.

As for everyone else, Odin Sphere can safely be called one of gaming's best stories. It's an outstanding, moving storyline that doesn't always give you the "happier ever after" stuff. Bad things can and will happen, and the characters you control will all go through some legitimate tragedies. With the exception of Gwendolyn, who ruins everything she touches because she's a complete idiot with a daddy complex, you'll feel a deep sense of "those poor people :(".

Why this style of plot works: As Pulp Fiction showed us all the way back in 1994, a plot that jumps around in a time line is exceptional if done well. Odin sphere does this well enough, even if a few characters are lacking here and there.

Why it doesn't work: Two reasons. One, you don't get to choose the order you play the five characters and nothing in the plot suggests that doing so would spoil you on future events. And two, the game is far too long. Muramasa: The Demon Blade (the spiritual successor to Odin Sphere despite not being an outright sequel) learned from this mistake and only gave you two characters to play with.

Gameplay

Odin Sphere's biggest weakness, and it's bad enough to bring down the entire game. You know how your mom always tells you not to judge books by their covers? You can't judge a video game by the first hour anymore, either.

The beginning of Odin Sphere is a blast -- you kill a few enemies, you plant some plants, eat some food, explore a brand new experience system and learn to ration a few things. Before long, it all falls apart.

First and foremost, this game is repetitive and monotonous. For how long it is, this is outright unacceptable. For each character, you'll visit around 6 maps. Each map has a bunch of different rooms in it, all are circles, and you'll have to clear each room of enemies before proceeding. The rooms are either regular enemies (these maps are rated 1 stars through 5, with 5 stars being the rooms that kick your ass), mini-boss rooms, final boss rooms and shops. Only shops are safe. When the final boss is killed, the map is over and you won't know ahead of time for plot reasons whether it'll disappear without seeking a guide. For all the farming you'll have to do, this gets annoying fast.

More specifically, the rooms are all the exact same linear, circular path. There is no vertical game or topography to speak of at all, just one flat line circle after another until you get to the final boss rush mode. Basically you enter a map, clear a room that's nothing but a straight line, clear the next room, fight the boss, repeat. For five characters.

The main things you have to worry about on each character are your weapon's psypher level and your hit points. Psypher gains in power by absorbing phozons (normally done by killing things) and is easily farmed, while HP levels up by eating food. Food is a nifty idea early in each character's story, but gets really dumb really fast. Your character will gain levels quickly early by eating various types of food, but before long even apples, the best regular food, becomes tedious if you're using it to level up. Worth noting here is you get most food by planting plants, which grow by absorbing phozons. Yes, this leads to choices on whether or not to level your HP or your psypher.

And this is where the dumb part starts. Each character will eventually have access to something called the Pooka Village, which is a magical little village that exists solely to level up your hit points in the two restaurants. But unlike every inn-type building in every other RPG, you have to bring the inn the food recipe items. You don't just show up and buy things. It's even dumber than it sounds, and the kicker is this is only way to really get your HP to comfortable levels without spending dozens of hours on each character farming and eating apples.

On recipes where the ingredients are all readily available, this isn't so bad. You run out and get your chickens or your lambs or your apples or your eggs, or whatever else you might need, bring it back and make a recipe that gives you HP experience on top of a gain in max HP. It's a good deal, right?

Nope. The good recipes invariably require mandragoras, which are plant demons in their own little way in Odin Sphere. As you're walking along in a level, you'll hear a squeak. Jump onto the squeak, and a mandragora pops out native to the level you're in. So for example if you get a forest mandragora, it'll probably be a carrot or an onion. At first it doesn't seem so bad, but then you realize that not every character has easy access to every mandragora. This will inevitably lead to hunting the same maps to find the rarer mandragoras for a character, or outright beating the story and restarting it entirely since your stats carry over.

Mandragoras don't only go into recipes, too. Odin Sphere has alchemy in it, which is where you combine a bottle with a numerical value with another item to get something else. For the harder stretches of the game, you'll need certain potions to kill the bosses and protect yourself, and for the most part these items are eventually made with... mandragoras. Lovely. Invariably this leads to every single character trolling the same two maps for the plants they need, which artificially extends game length and further proves JRPGs are a dead genre. Almost no JRPG developer "gets it" anymore. We want things to be faster, not longer. Remember back when you could do everything in Chrono Trigger and even then it was a 40 hour game at max?

And this doesn't even begin getting into this game's horrible monetary and inventory systems. It's easy to see how the money is bad, since there are five different types of coins. Any gamer will immediately see this and realize all the dumb stuff Odin Sphere will do by having the different coins amount to different values, and how recipes all require a specific coin to make. Thankfully the shops don't do this, which was a nice pittance for all the tedious stuff you're doing elsewhere with the money.

The inventory system is just the worst, most miserly thing imaginable. Assuming maximum possible inventory space, you're only able to carry 48 items and 6 bags maximum. You don't start with this, of course; you have to go farm up money, which happens very slowly since enemies don't like dropping any so you're better-off farming more mandragoras and selling those, and then you buy the biggest-sized bag until you have four space. 48 seems like a lot, but this is all your items, food, accessories, seeds, potions, materials and other stuff. It fills very fast, which leads to you having to annoyingly ration things out and leave a bunch of things lying around on the ground. The basic idea is the game encouraging you to use your stuff and not hold onto it all so you can godmode each level's final boss, but this was a terrible way to do it and even with the right items a lot of the boss fights are hard anyway. Which is a good thing! The answer is not dumb limiters; it's harder enemies.

For the record, the original Final Fantasy had 16 total inventory slots for weapons and armor and a whole separate menu for items. Weapons and armor would eventually get clogged, but items were fine since you were able to hold up to 99 of everything. Odin Sphere only lets you carry one item per item slot, which is another in the long, loooooooong line of examples about how the Japanese RPG never evolves.

The last thing to cover here is combat itself, which can be very fun if not very repetitive since four of the five characters (Mercedes being the lone exception) play the exact same way: mash the square button until you win, heal as necessary. They each get a unique move or two that sets them apart, but their basic combos are all identical. Odin Sphere does not pull its punches, which is a good thing because it's very fun to crack a hard enemy and learn their patterns. This is the type of game where you win by being good, not necessarily by healing until everything dies. Only Gwendolyn is cumbersome to use, and you're stuck using her first. Whether this is good or not depends entirely on how you feel about getting bad news first, and trust me, she is god-awful in every conceivable way.

The regular enemies are fun to fight, especially on the harder rooms, but bosses are where it's at (although even they get stupid with infinitely appearing and wholly inexplicable toadies). Bosses will absolutely wreck you until you learn what they do, which is probably the most fun thing Odin Sphere does. The one down side is nothing really changes between the five characters outside minor things like a few goblins moving into the snow area for a minor change of pace. All the characters more or less fight the same exact enemies in the same exact areas and can use the same exact strategies to win. Only the order changes, and the only major break comes in the final boss fights for the final
two characters. Everything before that is a rerun in some form or another.

Odin Sphere being hard leads into the last major issue with the gameplay, which is that the screen doesn't reveal enough. It's zoomed in way too far, which gets stupid when you need to do things like reflect a wizard spell back at it or avoid a telegraphed boss attack. This will always lead to you having to look at the minimap to see what in the hell is going on, and spending a majority of your time looking at an ugly gray interface instead of the actual action on the screen probably isn't what people want from video games.

Why this style of gameplay works: Hard games are usually good games, and Odin Sphere is a hard game. Easymode casual gamers need not apply.

Why it doesn't work: It's too monotonous, meticulous and flat-out tedious to be much fun. There's too much garbage to wade through before getting to the fun stuff, and you'll realize this on the first character. Reminder: there are five character plots to play through. When you can siphon a game's full enjoyment by simply watching all the scenes on YouTube, there is a major gameplay problem.

Graphics and Music

Without a doubt the best part of Odin Sphere, although it comes with a catch because that's just how this game works.

Well, the graphics come with a catch. The music is just perfect, although I find it increasingly difficult to describe why good music is good because it's the most subjective taste there is. None of the track names are in English, but frankly it doesn't matter. If you know nothing about Odin Sphere or its soundtrack, do yourself a favor and go look up one song. It's called "Odin Sphere's Theme -Shanachie-" and is among the most pristine, beautiful pieces of music in gaming. The entire soundtrack sounds close to that song, too. Say whatever you will about Japanese gaming, and lord knows most of the criticisms are warranted, but one thing Japan continues to impress in is the music they put into their games. If only everything else were as good.

As for the graphics, they're equally beautiful but come with a massive caveat. The entire game is done in sprites -- not just the characters and their weapons and the enemies, but the entire game. Frame by frame, pixel by pixel, these wonderful-looking characters and animations are done in sprites with Playstation 2 graphics and hardware. This is an absolutely insane achievement that really needs to be noted in gaming history, because we almost never see efforts like this in video games anymore. Games now are all about multimillion dollar studios, multimillion dollar corporations and multimillion dollar developmental costs. Think any Call of Duty or Madden game is going to build graphics like this from the ground up and turn it all into sprites? Of course not, because cash cow gaming has murdered the industry.

Unfortunately if you've ever played something like the version of Chrono Trigger that came with Final Fantasy Chronicles, you know where this is going. Spirits were made to be on cartridges, and they almost always lag on disc media. Now imagine what happens when the entire game is sprites and a ton of stuff is happening on the screen all at once.

Now realize it's far worse than what you're actually imagining. This game lags just from buying one too many items in a shop. The lag that comes with something like a boss summoning a bunch of minions or a load of regular enemies all firing projectiles at once is ridiculous, and the game's main strategy of beating you is to lag the screen.

It's a damn shame, too, because the game is beautiful to look at.

Why the graphics and music work: Just look at it. Just listen to it. You'll really be able to tell you're experiencing something special here.

Why they don't work: When a boss's main attack can be "lag the screen" and it actually works a large chunk of the time, you're in for a whole world of problems in a game that's already difficult enough.

Conclusion

Odin Sphere will ultimately go down as a forgotten title, which is both a blessing and a curse. Because while a lot of this game's content needs to be forgotten -- the lag, the monotony, the wholly bad gameplay, et al -- there's also a lot that needs to be remembered.

The sheer effort that went into designing this game's graphics and music are off the charts, and the plot bases itself on mythology without being ridiculous about it. I love God of War for example, but let's face facts here: that game is about as accurate an homage to Greek mythology as fecal matter is to its own source material. It's not even worth comparing the two.

Odin Sphere doesn't have this problem, and the shame of it all is that no one will care because the game is a chore to play on its best day and I can't in good heart tell anyone to actually play it. But you should definitely check out the soundtrack, watch all the cutscenes and look at a few pictures. It's much better that way, I promise.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/07/11

Game Release: Odin Sphere (US, 05/22/07)


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