It’s a rare thing in the videogame business for a game to come out of nowhere and shock the industry. Developing videogames isn’t like making movies –- let alone writing books –- where you can fashion a polished work on a limited budget and have it spiral to success. Most videogames are inherently too complex (with sizeable development teams and budgets) to make one under the radar, much less one that’s worth your dollar. And yet, despite all of this, Odin Sphere is just such a sleeper candidate.
Atlus’ latest is a bizarre fusion of side-scrolling brawling with RPG item-collection and alchemy. It sounds excruciatingly tedious, but don’t let the game’s core essence statement fool you; Odin Sphere is addictive fun. The lengthy tale is told from the perspective of five madcap characters in the world of Erion, a fantasy kingdom of fairies, Valkyries and muscled barbarians inspired by Norse mythology and anime. Each character’s story is concurrent and fits together for a rather tragic tale of world decimation in the aftermath of brutal war. It’s bizarre, because when you’re dealing with pixie queens and anthropomorphized vegetables, you generally don’t expect a story with a darker edge. Prepare to be surprised.
Your first avatar is the softly voiced Valkyrie princess Gwendolyn, a fierce warrior out to avenge her sister’s valiant death in battle and live up to her father’s mighty standards. Along the way she’s forced into a marriage with prettyboy swordsman Oswald (a noble dragon slayer bound to the queen of the Netherworld you’ll later control), and ends up falling in love. Other pivotal characters include Cornelius, an effeminate, lovelorn prince cursed with an ugly beast form, and the forest witch Velvet who is attempting to stop power-mongering warlords from using the Crystallization Cauldron — a powerful artifact prophesized to end the world.
Between brief scenes of exposition, you explore several side-scrolling “levels” in 2.5D (a la Smash Bros., with faux 3D planes). In any given area (the world of Erion has about ten of them, like the Fairy Kingdom of Ringford or the scorching underbelly of the Volkenon Lava Pit), you’ll fight through a series of looping levels (represented as circles) connected to each other with various exit points. You won’t be able to move between the levels until you clear out the smorgasbord of baddies in each one, including flying varieties, some tough mini-bosses, and environmental dangers. Some levels expect you to defeat several waves of spawned creatures.
During these face-offs, you can run, jump, attack, defend, or pick up and use items. Depending on your current character, you’ll have a unique button-mashing combo with your particular crystal weapon (a spear for Gwendolyn, a crossbow for Velvet) and some form of deadly aerial assault. You can also block attacks or unleash special abilities with stored “Phozon” (siphoned from defeated foes or successful alchemy concoctions). These include temporary attack boosts, proximity explosions and trailblazing whirlwind strikes.
It would get pretty repetitive, however, if all you did was button-mash your way through the fights. Luckily, the item collection and alchemy gives the gameplay some challenging depth. At the end of each mini-stage, you’ll receive a score (tabulated for speed and damage received) and a consequent number of goodies, giving you incentive to play well. These rewards include fruit and nuts, which when combined with generic numbered alchemy bottles can be used to brew potions with useful effects. Potions are labeled A to Z and can be used to heal, poison your foes or remove environmental hazards like cold weather. You’ll also find full level maps, scrolls with recipes (for the café) and seeds for cultivating more ingredients (which require Phozons to blossom). Since you only gain levels by eating food and absorbing Phozons (to increase your HP and Psypher meter respectively), you will need to rely on this system to succeed; it’s a rather strategic process, and the level of balance is quite astonishing.
Like many things Japanese — particularly sequels to games that were never released stateside — Odin Sphere is to an audience outside of Japan a mélange of craziness freshly unleashed from the insane asylum. Not only is the story eccentric, but so are the character sprite designs, including little girls with pigtails and Victorian skirts, hugely deformed muscle men who make the Spartans of 300 look puny, and an armada of scantily clad enchantresses, fairy bodyguards and volcano kings. That said, it’s a feast for the eyes, bursting at the seams with gorgeous colors. Several planes of animated backdrops make the 2.5D action surprisingly cinematic, as well.
The presentation is excellent and intuitive. In any given area, you will notice a simple landscape map in the upper corner with silhouettes of your avatar, nearby badguys, growing plants and butterflies that release free Phozons. The radar system is tactically useful for navigating area attacks, or dodging the imminent body-check of a monstrously sized dragon. The item rings are a breeze to cycle, with quick shoulder taps to switch between individual bags. Even when you have eight large receptacles to manage, the task is simple and intuitive. Also good is the cinematic staging of speech bubbles — dialogue appears exactly as it is spoken, with dramatic pauses and sudden interruptions, so we become more engaged in the actual storytelling process.
Since the game was released almost simultaneously in the United States and Japan, the game is fully bilingual with the user’s choice of voice acting language. For a change in J-RPGs, however, the English actors are more than tolerable and it’s highly recommended you give them a listen.
While the game looks and plays well, there are a few irritating setbacks—and they are not minor concerns. During the blitzkrieg of combat, the action often slows down due to the shear number of sprites on screen. This is particularly tedious in the underworld, where in addition to the scores of zombies, skeletons and hazardous tentacles to fight, NPC sprites providing moving light in the backdrop brings the game to an almost unmanageable, game-breaking halt.
And while the presentation of the story from five concurrent perspectives is commendably unique, it also means you’ll be playing the same levels over about five times, which is not so commendable. Sure they throw in new boss figures and advanced alchemy recipes to discover and the sequence of territories changes up, but there is no denying the overall repetitive nature of the game.
Odin Sphere will take at least 40 hours for the average gamer to complete, and this is a tad too long for the limited depth of the experience. Mature gamers have less and less patience to complete games taking more than 20 hours, unless we’re talking complex Final Fantasy’s or Zelda’s here. That said, everything about Odin Sphere’s wacky gameplay is fresh, balanced and fun and the visuals are sumptuous. The epic story’s tragic arc is interesting, but it’s also as convoluted and melodramatic as you’d expect from a J-RPG experience. For an Atlus title, though, this one is definitely a pleasant surprise, and good reason to keep your PS2 active through the summer. It also proves you don’t need a gimmicky motion sensing controller or cutting edge hardware to make an innovative videogame.