Odin Sphere - PS2 - Review
In between the Grand Theft Autos, God of Wars, and Halos of the world, where can we turn for a spellbinding experience? We search, we hunt, we hope… But do we ever find what we’re looking for? Or are all other games merely jokers to keep us occupied until the return of the king(s)?
Yes, they are. That is, until we find another king.
Today marks the release of Odin Sphere, an under-hyped, under-advertised action game that most of the world will never hear about. The game does not come with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, or 3D graphics that built media praise from the day the first screenshot was released. Though beautiful and exceptionally artistic, Odin Sphere could be overlooked by anyone who takes a glance. As a 2D action game, you won’t get much from looking at screenshots. Those who play it, however, will be immersed in a way that’s worthy of being compared to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Equipped with a magical spear and unusual powers, Gwendolyn – Odin Sphere’s heroine – is a very special character. In addition to her flight capabilities (double-jump to unleash her angel-like wings, which allow her to soar over half a stage), her vicious attack skills, and ability to double her strength and create small tornados, Gwendolyn is an interesting, likable, and heartfelt character whose reason for fighting is far more complex than “to save the world.”
She, as we learn in the first 20 minutes, is fighting for the love of her father – a curiously uncaring old man who happens to be the king. The story spirals with plot twists and high-caliber dialogue rarely seen outside of the Fox or ABC primetime lineup. No, I do not suggest that Odin Sphere’s story is on par with Lost or 24. No game, unfortunately, tells a story that good. But it is as amazing and as addictive as other upper-echelon dramas, and could easily be turned into a phenomenal anime.
The simple way to describe Odin Sphere’s gameplay is to say that it’s a mix of Castlevania, Tekken, and Devil May Cry. Such an explanation does not do the game justice, but it gives you an idea of what to expect.
Gwendolyn is gifted with numerous abilities. They include the aforementioned tornado strike, which rushes through 1/8 of a stage, thwarting multiple enemies in its path. Like Dante many years before her, Gwendolyn has the strength to absorb the power of fallen enemies. That power is dispersed into small floating and glowing orbs called Phozons. After absorbing a certain number of Phozons (roughly ten), one slot in Gwendolyn’s Psypher gauge will be full. That gauge is the key to unlocking her strongest powers. It takes only one full gauge to unleash a tornado, but it takes two full gauges to double her spear attack strength.
Gwendolyn’s standard attack is limited to a four or five-hit combo, with the final hit occasionally striking at triple strength. As rough as that may sound (only having one combo), it does not ever come out feeling repetitive. It’s strange to think that’s possible when there are games with 20 combos that weren’t able to avoid repetition. But Odin Sphere is no average game. It achieves several highs that other games were not able to reach.
The enemies are as unique as our heroine. You’ll encounter poisonous frogs, arrow-shooting fairies, and fireball creatures that explode after being destroyed. Many of them were designed to appear harmless – such as the tiny men who drop life-depleting bombs after death, and the violent bears that look like they just walked off the set of a Snuggle fabric softener commercial.
Boss battles were designed with the opposite effect in mind – make ‘em appear deadly to intimidate, and then Gwendolyn will fall. The larger-than-life dragon, armor-covered steeds, and ferocious (and somewhat creepy) end boss are quite effective in that respect.
A New EXPerience
Odin Sphere takes its name from the game’s stages, which are circular. This does not mean the game takes place in some unusual, gravity-defying land. What it means is that if you run long enough in any direction, you’ll end up right back where you started. There is no official “end” to a stage until (A) all enemies have been destroyed, and (B) you locate an exit. This keeps each stage short while raising a concern: will circular stages be repetitive? Visuals aside, every stage in this game is technically the same. But as with the combo system, which defies typical video game logic, Odin Sphere’s stages are not repetitive. This is partially due to the frequent enemy changes. Each enemy set creates a different combative experience. The rest is purely game development magic. Odin Sphere’s creators are geniuses, plain and simple.
Considering how often new enemies arrive, the game had to give players a way to keep up. Thus, the developers produced a unique Phozon and food consumption system for increasing EXP. When devoured by Gwendolyn, Phozons increase her Psypher gauge while also increasing her Psypher experience points. This does not affect her HP, which may only be increased by consuming fruits and specially prepared meals.
Before you roll your eyes and say, “That sounds ridiculous,” you must know how creatively this system has been implemented. Fruit is grown by planting seeds, which absorb Phozons automatically. By planting seeds at the start of the level, Gwendolyn can begin harvesting a nice array of EXP-raising fruit that will also heal her wounds. It grows quickly and allows you to raise her stats much faster than an RPG whose EXP is earned solely from defeated enemies.
Toward the middle of the game, Gwendolyn will gain access to a local cafe and restaurant. Each location has a unique menu of appetizers, full-course meals, and desserts that may be purchased by trading in specific ingredients and one coin. The ingredients may be grown, won in combat, or purchased from a local vendor (found in a battle shop or in between worlds), while coins are obtained from treasure chests. Small chests are dropped by certain enemies; one large chest is left behind at the end of each stage.
You may also earn extra money by selling unneeded items, but it’s not necessarily worth it. The value of coins, as it turns out, is not as important as the type of coin. For example, many of the items on the restaurant menu require a specific $10 coin. You could have two $20 coins, and a zillion $1 coins, and it wouldn’t matter if the required coin was not in your possession. Regardless of your wealth, you still would not be able to purchase those items on the menu.
Though it might sound like a pain (and can be at times), this system is very satisfying. Meals contain several times the amount of EXP as a homegrown piece of fruit. They may also contain bonus health points that automatically raises your HP. Items marked “takeout” can be taken with you and eaten at a later date, and are crucial to your survival in the final stages of the game.
A Material World
Odin Sphere offers yet another way to help keep the player alive: material mixing. Empty glass bottles (marked “material”) are obtained from the start of the game. Select one and you’ll notice that any other item in your inventory may be thrown into it. Experiment and collect the mixture scrolls to learn how material can be turned into Phozons, poison, ice, fire, a health replenishing juice, and several other concoctions.
These books represent the game’s greatest surprise. Hint: the first centers on Gwendolyn, our playable heroine.
Just Short Of…
Odin Sphere’s only flaw is one that plagues most action games: slow down. When the action is at its best, the frame rate is at its worst.
This flaw, though damaging to the gameplay experience during those portions of the game, is not so severe that you should be turned off. Odin Sphere is still a magical masterpiece. Those who love action games – especially those with high replay value – would be wise to stop waiting around for the next great sequel. The next great game is already here.
Review Scoring Details for Odin Sphere
Not since the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has a side-scrolling adventure had such an enormous impact on a console. We are theoretically past PS2’s golden days. And yet here we are playing golden gems like God of War II and Odin Sphere. This game is the embodiment of greatness. While all other 2D adventures copy a long lost soul, Odin Sphere takes its own, unforgettable route.
Stunning 2D artwork that will impress anyone who sees this game in motion.
Top-tier voice-overs, excellent dialogue, great plot twists, and a short but mesmerizing soundtrack. (Yeah, dialogue and plot twists belong in the concept category. But it’s the way each line was recited, and the way each scenario was conveyed, that made Odin Sphere a masterpiece.)
Creative in every respect. Odin Sphere’s gameplay, story, enemies, circular stages, and leveling system are in a class of their own.
Odin Sphere is the ultimate non-RPG. You will be immersed. You will be awestruck. You will be inspired to play through every stage again and again.
The levels are visually breathtaking, but every location runs on the same circular path. I constantly look for games to offer something different around every corner. But these developers, through undetectable mind tricks or merely a higher level of game development than most studios will ever achieve, have created a masterpiece that makes every action – every repeated action – an unparalleled joy to execute.