Monday, July 14, 2008

Odin Sphere review

Odin Sphere has been out for quite some time, even in Europe where it was released a couple of months ago. Unfortunately with a monumental of things to do, including Persona 3 and other what-nots, I neglected the title which sat on the shelf unplayed and unloved. One can only go through so many epic RPG titles before feeling burnt out. Fortunately not playing it right away allowed the hype to dissolve. Developed by Vanillaware, the people behind the gorgeous Grim Grimoire, Odin Sphere is one of the last few RPG titles worth checking out on the ageing PS2. Sure we still have Persona 4 to look forward to, but that is if we ever get it released here...

The story of Odin Sphere involves two warring kingdoms, the Ragnanival led by the demon lord Odin, and the forest of fairies Ringford, home to the fairy race. In between a storming battleground holds host to the majority of battles. This very storming battleground was once the Kingdom of Valentine, which was decimated by an ancient artefact. It is now the home to Pookas, rabbit-like critters who were once humans now cursed to be forever cute. The tragic tale of war mimicking an ancient prophecy predicting darkness is told in chapters, based on a series of books read by a little girl called Alice in her library attic while accompanied by her cat.

Each of the five books tells the story of one of the five different protagonists. The stories told are connected, each presenting the player a different perspective and providing an overall story arc. The characters are: Gwendolyn, Valkyrie Princess of Ragnanival and daughter of demon lord Odin, whom she seeks his love; Cornelius, the Prince of Titania cursed to be a purple rabbit; Mercedes, the fairy Princess of Ringford and next in line to be Queen; Oswald, the shadow knight serving Ringford and renowned dragon slayer; and Velvet, the only Princess to survived destruction of kingdom of Valentine. Each book will take a couple of hours to complete. Completing a book will unlock another book and so on.

The gameplay is side scrolling based laced with action RPG combat - think of Viewtiful Joe mixed with Valkyrie Profile and you are close. Exploration and combat takes place on the same plane with no transition screen. The game has a user-adjustable difficulty that can be changed at will. The real time combat is accessible and can be quickly mastered after the first hour of the game. Defeated enemies will release Phozons that can be absorbed by holding down [R1] which is used to augment weaponry and give the character new Psypher skills (which is a fancy term for skills...). Exploration takes place on a 2D plane. At the end of each stage you will received an end of stage stat report as well as bonus loot. Exiting the stage will prop up the world map. Loading time is minimal, at least in the PAL version (I've read about long loading times on the NTSC version).

A power gauge appears on the top left of the screen that has to be refilled for the character to attack. This will automatically refill when the character rests (remain inactive) or by absorbing Phozons. Each characters have their own special skills. For example Gwendolyn can glide and attack, while Mercedes can fire five bolts at an enemy when her Psypher is charged. Items collected can be used in varying matters to improve your characters stats. Seeds can be used to harvest fruits at the expense of Phozons, and fruits can then be used to augment the player or for use in alchemy. Later on you can cook ingredients at restaurants which can be used to gain your character's maximum HP, negating a huge need for level-grinding. You can also purchase items.

Odin Sphere retains a very similar visual style to Grim Grimoire. It uses large and beautifully drawn sprites sparingly. Characters are deformed, though not as much as one would expect. The Japanese manga/anime style won't win any praise from detractors of the art style, but they work very nicely with the title. The amount of meticulous detail is amazing as highlighted by how lush and sophisticated each backgrounds are. Sprites are larger than usual giving characters greater freedom to express expression, and are wonderfully animated. You can easily notice how the character's hair flutters and their chest expands when breathing. It is almost like watching a fully coloured live shadow puppet performance. You do have to wonder how a small company like Vanillaware can create high resolution animated sprites when Konami can't with their Castlevania series...

Unfortunately the game suffers from repetitive level design. Palette swapping is common, which should be expected within any 2D games. Many stages are re-visited a couple of times throughout the game due to the way the unique story-telling structure works, and recycled backgrounds are not uncommon. Odin Sphere also suffers from slowdowns but is relatively isolated to very rare occasions particularly when there are a mob of foes on screen or certain boss fights. It would be interesting to see this game up scaled via the PS3 with anti-aliasing.

The score is provided by one Hitoshi Sakimoto, whom I am sure some of you will recognise as the person behind the epic soundtrack of Final Fantasy XII, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics. While not his best work, the subtle but distinctive Sakimoto-tune suite the game very well. Like the American version, the European version features dual-language mode (Japanese and English). The English voice acting is of high standard (as high as video gaming allows it to, I mean) and I would recommend you play the game in English. Of course there is nothing wrong with falling back to the Japanese voice track is you prefer to. Not understanding Japanese I can't comment on its quality, so I won't pretend to understand any better. They do sound nice though.

Overall while I found the gameplay to be rather repetitive but I did find it fun and enjoyable while it last (majority at easy as I wanted to just breeze through). As for content Odin Sphere contains around 30-40 hours worth of play time in it which while less than the average epic RPG, still provides tremendous amount of value. Despite the accessible combat, casual gamers may be put off by its length, repetitive hack & slash gameplay (what game isn't?), difficulty and fairly mad inventory system. The plot is rather linear and having to play through a couple of times, even if they are of different perspective can get rather tedious. Fans of fast paced games (like me) will find themselves delighted though.

The European version is published by Square-Enix. It supports both 50 Hz and 60 Hz tellies.

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