Review by Compass

"Graphics to die for, gameplay to kill over."

First impressions can be powerful. If one were to write an Odin Sphere review within an hour of meeting the charismatic game, it would likely be a glowing affair filled to the brim with compliments such as "gorgeous," "pulchritudinous," (if one were feeling pedantic), heck, maybe even "2D-licious." Are first impressions always accurate, though? More importantly, do they tell the whole story? Is it possible to spot a thief after shaking a man's hand? A ruthless backstabber upon catching a woman's eye? Most would freely admit, no. Regardless, let us begin with what Odin Sphere reveals out of the gate, somewhat misleading though it may turn out to be.

Atlus's latest PS2 action-RPG is an absolutely drop-dead ravishing piece of software. This is the only time I can recall literally staring slack-jawed throughout a game's tutorial, spellbound, not quite believing what I was seeing. Videogame art direction can occasionally feel like an afterthought, as if Jimmy the Website Intern was tasked with choosing a cohesive and distinctive artistic style at a quarter to six on a Friday night. In Odin Sphere, though, it's front and center -- the main attraction upon which the rest of the package makes a valiant attempt to follow in its impressive shadow... or luminescence as the case may be. You've heard it before, but for once it's not hyperbole: screenshots fail to do this game justice. Controlling this sumptuous display of artistry as it breathes to life is a world apart from passively taking in static screenshots. Tiny details explode with personality amidst a melange of vivid, but never garish colors, and nuanced character and background animation (up to eight layers of parallax!). Bit characters exude a vibrance during their idle animations that put entire casts of lesser titles to shame. Completely unnecessary, though fervently appreciated graphic touches abound like small unwrapped gifts left out for any lucky gamer willing to humbly receive them. Observe: liquid sloshes in the potion bottles in your inventory. They didn't have to do this. They just as easily could have settled for a static icon, and nobody would have been the wiser. But they did it. They made the liquid slosh.

The soundtrack and foley work are no slouches either. The music in the aforementioned tutorial will make your heart soar, and the soft a cappella that greets the world map remains minimal and serene while blossoming into something epic and achingly beautiful. There's a scene in the first act where the main character, Gwendolyn, walks out to a terrace, each of her steps synced perfectly with her animation, her long dresses rippling audibly in a passing breeze. She stands gazing out at the landscape for a moment, leaves of ivy flapping gently on the stone terrace, shooting stars spiraling lazily in the night sky above, the only sound the gusting wind. Scenes like this are the rule, not the exception.

So we all agree the game is a delight to the eyes and ears? We're all on the same page there? Great. Shake hands on it. Now... let's look at the gameplay, shall we? It's alright, don't be afraid, just... do it quickly. Seems okay, too, right? Nothing to be scared of. Maybe even awesome! Lots of frantic slashing where blows land in rapid succession and with satisfying thunks on a healthy menagerie of foes both small and relatively harmless as well as large and decidedly harmful. Hey, can't go wrong with that. Oh, wait, what's this now? A "POW bar" you say? Sounds cool. This is an action-RPG, so I bet it rewards the player for beating up on the enemy, right? And maybe grants them a special move when the bar is filled up? Sugoi! Okay, when do we -- eh? The "POW Bar" punishes the player by incapacitating them for attacking the enemy TOO MUCH? And the only way to reset it is to stand still... not doing anything? Not even blocking?! Ack. ::rests the controller on the ground and dies::

Indeed, a most troubling turn of events here, as we arrive at Odin Sphere's most glaring flaw. The majority of the game revolves around combat. So to perpetually be forced to stop raining blows down on your enemy to -- of all things -- run away and stand perfectly still, is quite frankly an affront -- nay, a smug insult, a white glove slap in the face to all that is right and fun in videogames. Presumably this mechanic is included to alleviate the repetition of mindlessly attacking non-stop. Okay, fair enough. But then why not allow the player to recover the "POW bar" by blocking? That would be a reasonable compromise. Most people need encouragement to learn to block in these kinds of action-RPGs anyway.
Of course it would be rash to condemn a game for one admittedly ludicrous design decision. Some flaws -- even great ones -- can be ignored, overcome and superceded by the other more cordially designed game elements. Not so fast. Unfortunately, our story takes another grim turn when we get to the cumbersome and limited ring-based inventory system.

Odin Sphere is flat-out miserly with inventory space, especially early on before earning enough money to buy additional bags. Items pepper the ground, dropped from creatures and treasure chests alike -- not a torrent mind you, but definitely a steady drizzle and more than enough to force the player into constantly pausing and mulling over whether to gather up some juicy tidbit, or leave it on the fertile ground to rot. An option to send overflow back to base, or convert it to cash on the spot would have made this particular frustration significantly easier to bear. But alas, no, and the pain doesn't stop there.

An abundance of quirks and irritations nag and pull, piling up inexorably to create an atmosphere of anger and frustration, made all the more palpable due to the game's contrasting strong points continually reminding you of the formidable heights it's all too capable of reaching. The fact that the player will spend much of the game squinting at a little gray radar map instead of the main action in order to have any idea of what's going on in the grand scheme of things. The abrupt loading screen scene breaks upon defeating a challenging boss instead of the expected and deserved catharsis of an explosive crescendo. A total dearth of any vertical dimension in the levels whatsoever beyond some mild sloping. Finally, the very fact that the majority of these issues could be so easily rectified is the toughest pill to swallow. At this point you wouldn't be crazy for suspecting that deep down, this game secretly hates you, and is intent on murdering every last remaining endorphin your brain released during those initial care-free moments spent getting acquainted -- almost as if it was offended you dared to judge it so hastily by its most delectable, albeit only superficial assets.

And so, of course, the ultimate question is whether or not Odin Sphere's rousing first impressions are powerful enough to engender the good will required to forgive its bountiful and not insignificant faults, some of which appear to be hand-picked for the sole purpose of testing your resolve. Does Odin's meticulously shadowed and tattered cape fluttering in the wind rinse away the foul taste of losing half your hit points to your own offensive magic spell, or all your hit points to a lucky enemy strike that began out of sight off-screen? Does the accomplished Japanese and English voice acting (take your pick, can't go wrong!) make up for the mash-happy, repetitive battles (a single button to attack and block?... can go wrong!)? Do the myriad loving details like the specks of multi-colored fireflies flitting above the forest on the World Map make you forget the tedious and unrewarding alchemy system? Naturally, the answer to these questions is a big, fat... maybe.

After all, first impressions can be powerful. Sometimes even powerful enough to forgive a game its transgressions when it looks and sounds this good, and its heart appears to be, for the most part, in the right place.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 06/27/07

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