When it comes to games that prioritize story above all else, the role-playing genre comes to mind. These long, epic games hold tales which get us attached to the characters within, and make us care about killing slimes over and over again until they’re strong enough to overcome their plight. Sometimes these games go above and beyond story, though. Sometimes, people just wanna craft an excellent, beautiful little gem.
One such game is “Odin Sphere”, released late in the PS2’s life cycle (read: after the PS3 came out), by Vanillaware, the same company who would later please the hardcore Wii crowd with “Muramasa: The Demon Blade”, and who are currently working on the PS3/Vita dungeon crawler, “Dragon’s Crown”.
Odin Sphere’s epic tale tells of the land of Erion, where many nations are at war, most notably the kingdom of the Fairies (Ringford) being at war with the Aesir of Ragnanival over an artifact called the Crystalization Cauldron, which has the power to create powerful weapons called “Psyphers”, but also recently destroyed the once prosperous kingdom of Valentine, and cursed its inhabitants, turning them into immortal bunny-folk called Pooka. Little do they know that the Caludron is the key to the end of the world.
The tale is told through the eyes of five playable characters, each with their own Psypher, fighting style, and special abilities, but the story is really being told through the eyes of a little girl named Alice, who is poring over her grandfather’s books in an attic. The books each correspond to one of the player characters, and the hero of one story could end up the villain of another. It’s a sweeping tale that gets its claws into you early, with little touches like the sound of an orchestra warming up at the start of a book, or a little spotlight on a character when they have a monologue. It’s also nice that you can go back and watch any and all of the cutscenes at any time from the main menu, and there’s even a helpful little timeline so you can figure out how the events of the five books play out at relate to each other.
The game is a side-scrolling action-RPG (similar to the later “Muramasa”), except each stage in a given world is a looping circle, usually containing enemies, but some spaces on the map are boss encounters or shops, which are safe-zones. You can choose your exit point from a stage, which will take you to a different one on the map, and the end goal is to get to the final boss of the given world.
Vanillaware managed to streamline the action-RPG to very accessible levels. There’s only one attack button, a jump button, a button to bring up your inventory, and one to access your special attacks. Of course, there are quite a few other abilities you can use with variations of these along with the analog stick (or whether or not you’re in the air), and this actually adds a surprising amount of depth to such a simple game. Attacks use up points on your “POW” bar, and when the bar depletes, your character is stunned and left open to attack for a few seconds, so it’s best to attack and then back off to let the POW bar regenerate.
Leveling up is simplified, too. You only need to worry about leveling up your Hit Points and your Psypher, and there’s a bit of a balance to it. See, when enemies are killed or when you perform certain actions (like successful alchemy), Phozons are released, which are fragments of the souls of the dead (or something). You can absorb these into your Psypher to level up your attack power (and possibly gain new special attacks), or you can choose to plant seeds, which need to absorb Phozons to successfully grow. Eating the food that these seeds produce (whether it be mulberries, apples, or even sheep) gives you experience towards leveling up your HP, and a good strategy is to gather ingredients to have made into fancy meals at the game’s two restaurants, which give you huge HP boosts.
The game also features a pretty cool alchemy system, where you can combine base items into useful potions. Hidden in the ground throughout each stage are Mandragoras of varying types, which, when added to a “Material” item create various potions. You can also add non-Mandragora items to the Material to increase its value. So, for instance: you want to make a “Painkiller” potion. It requires a Material 2 and a Carroteer. You have two Mulberry Seeds, a Material 0, and a Carroteer in your inventory. Simply select the Material, fuse it with the two seeds, (which will bring it up to a Material 2), then fuse the new Material with the Carroteer, and you’ll have your Painkiller! It sounds complicated, but by the second or third story, you’ll be a whiz at alchemizing useless items and combining two Materials to get even greater Phozon output when you successfully make a potion (the higher the number, the more Phozons you get when you create something).
And you’re going to need to stock up on potions because this game can be damn hard. Many bosses can take a good chunk of your HP away with one or two attacks, and oftentimes you might find yourself bouncing off of one harmful projectile or enemy into another, which can be insanely frustrating. Of course, it’s more than just hack-and-slash, and if you stick to a purely offensive strategy, you’re going to lose often. The game does do a good job of providing you with the means of keeping yourself alive in the middle of a particularly tough boss fight, what with the frequency of Material being dropped, and the various shopkeepers who sell useful equippable items. Thankfully, if you die during a stage or a boss fight, the game starts you right back on that same stage or boss, instead of at the beginning of the level.
Another thing that might be a problem is that the game can get very repetitive. You have to play through five stories all sharing the same land, and since each character goes to about all but one of the worlds on the map, you’re guaranteed to have some deja vu. And the enemies aren’t immune to this. The first boss fight against the dragon Belial is awesome the first time, but be prepared to face him at least two more times throughout the rest of the game.
That being said, the enemies, characters and areas are all beautifully animated, in the now-trademark Vanillaware style. There isn’t a single area of the game that is static; something is always moving, whether it’s a background element, or the enemies you face on the map, or even the Mangradoras. These visual flourishes breathe an unbelievable life into this game. Of course, since the graphics are so beautifully-rendered, the load times can be agonizing (especially if you’re trying to enter the Pooka restaurants), and the game is often brought to a crawl by slowdown. I mean, the slowdown can sometimes work in your favor, but this game seriously makes the PS2 chug at points.
The graphics are accompanied by a beautiful, sweeping score by Basiscape. When I first heard the music and thought it sounded an awful lot like “Final Fantasy XII” or “Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift”, I was right on the money, as it’s the same company and composer. The beautifully-sung theme and some other pieces set the operatic tone of the game, which is also fully voice-acted in both English and the original Japanese. The acting is done rather well, and evidently the almost Shakesperean script is the result of a near-literal translation from the original Japanese script.
Odin Sphere claims on the back of its box that it is an “intricately spun tale worthy of a place in the canon of classic literature”, and it also says it’s “a masterwork, a feast for the senses, the kind of visual experience every gamer dreams possible, but rarely plays”, and I’m here to fully back up that claim. People who grew up with the NES talk about games like Final Fantasy IV and VI being these epic tales that have yet to be trumped, and while that still may be true for some, I’d say that Odin Sphere is another title worthy of that description. This game is my Final Fantasy VI. It’s a gripping story fully of action, drama and romance, and it needs to be seen in action to be believed. Some moments of this game may even be enough to make the player tear up, and that’s a rare enough thing in game stories these days. If you like action-RPGs, or even just RPGs, or even just good games, check this one out. Everything about this game is simply beautiful.
For those hoping to find a rare copy of this game for the PS2, fear not! Odin Sphere was one of the first games to launch Sony’s “PS2 Classics” lineup on the PlayStation Network, and it was also the top-selling PS2 Classic during the month that the titles premiered! So, if you find yourself not being able to find a physical copy, you can always get it on your PS3. And at $10, it’s a steal. -A-
For more from Mitch ‘Aforextreme’ Rozetar visit his blog at http://mitchrozetarsketchblog.blogspot.com/