IGN Review of Odin Sphere
I don't want to sound imperialistic, but it's about time that Japan gives up some of the games and exclusives that they've been holding onto before we Western gamers declare war. Think about it: while we might receive a second disc for a Collector's Edition, Japanese gamers often get soundtracks, action figures, bonus controllers, or other tchotchkes for a title. What's more, Japan holds onto action titles, shooters and tons of RPGs that Western fans are forced to import if the ever want to experience them. C'mon, Japan! Give us a break here! Take Princess Crown, for example. Atlus released this popular title only in Japan for the Saturn in 1997 and ported the game over to the PSP two years ago. The side scrolling action RPG set in medieval times with multiple sidequests and massive enemies made players eager for a sequel, although early signs pointed to the sequel being restricted to Japan yet again. Luckily, Atlus decided to throw us a bone by releasing the spiritual successor to the game, Odin Sphere in North America, and PS2 owners should thank them for it: this is one of the best action RPGs that's been released for the console.
The story of Odin Sphere unfolds via an interesting convention: a young girl in an attic picks up one of five books, each featuring a separate hero, whose various stories intertwine to give the overall picture of the now war-torn lands of Erion. Players will unlock the secrets behind the game by exploring the adventures of each character, discovering how their actions play into the overall tale. While I won't give away plot specifics, much of the story revolves around a powerful magical artifact left behind from a destroyed kingdom known as the Crystallization Cauldron. Some of the kingdoms in the land, including the Fairy kingdom of Ringford and the land of Ragnanival, lead by the Demon Lord Odin, clash over control of the object. Unbeknownst to the leaders, possession of the object could quite possibly lead to the destruction of the world.
Obviously, trying to follow all of these plot points, character events and storylines over the 40+ hours that the game will last a player would be extremely confusing over time. Fortunately, Odin Sphere provides a text and cutscene summary of significant character events along a timeline, which a player can access as they go through each hero's story. This gives you the opportunity to remind yourself of what you've done along the way, especially if you've put the game down and forgotten how the actions of a particular person affects the overall world of Erion. There is one slight caveat that players should be aware of: The game isn't a strict interpretation of Norse mythology by any stretch of the imagination. There are no gods, monsters or realms from the myths that are carried over to the title, and those that are included are loosely connected in name only. As such, the Aesir, Vanir, valkyries and even Odin are merely accents to the story itself.
Anyway, what makes gameplay in Odin Sphere so good are its balanced mechanics, even on the three difficulty levels included in the game. Just about everything within the game is balanced to allow players to experience the story the way they want to experience it. Gameplay for each character takes place across a number of locations, including forests, frigid mountains and even the lands of the dead. The adventure is divided into main chapters, with minor Acts for plot points and separate sub-stages for action. These stages are the "sphere" that the title refers to: a circular side scrolling area that repeats upon itself, a la Defender. Each stage is connected to other another via branching exit points, so players have flexibility in choosing which direction they want to go as they explore a level. There are four different kinds of stages you can encounter, with the first one being a battle stage. Starting at one star for basic enemies and moving up to five stars for multiple waves of opponents, players can get a sense of just how difficult an area might be. Blue stages feature mini-bosses, while pinkish red areas are final bosses. Players will also encounter safer Shop areas where you can purchase items and goods to help you along the way.
There are advantages to trying to clear most, if not all of the stages in a level. For one thing, players receive experience that they'll use to power up their characters. But players can also acquire items by entering a stage and defeating the beasts inside it. By choosing to take on the enemies, you're guaranteed at least one item, such as a map, money or an ingredient that you can use to formulate potions, but you're also given the opportunity to increase this based on how quickly you can defeat all the forces in an area. Every battle, with the exception of final bosses, are timed, and your performance, including how long it took to clear the stage and the amount of damage you took, is evaluated and given a letter grade: S being the best, D being the worst. The better you do, the more items you receive, which gives you more of an incentive to quickly and skillfully cut down your opponents. If you don't receive enough items or you feel like you can do better, you can always restart a previous stage or even retry an entire level, retaining your same level of experience and items. You can even return to previously completed levels to gain further levels of items and experience to strengthen your character for future battles.
Speaking of battle, Odin Sphere's combat system is easy to grasp, but surprisingly deep. Each character can perform attacks with their Psypher (their magical weapon) by hitting the Square button, and by pressing up or down on the directional pad or analog stick, you can perform high and low attacks. Low strikes are key to landing hits on guarding enemies, which is important as some enemies will remain in a defensive stance until it is safe for them to attack. By stringing the button presses together, you can create basic combos. Each character also has a unique special attack that they can launch against enemies. For instance, Gwendolyn has a gliding dive attack with her spear, while Cornelius has a spinning pinball attack with his sword.
These moves may sound pretty simple, rather repetitive and somewhat akin to a button masher, but Odin Sphere actually restricts that issue with the inclusion of a POW meter. Every attack that you launch, will cost your character POW points, with special attacks spending more points a lot faster than normal as a trade off for extra damage. Standing still for a second or two will help replenish this meter, but if you completely exhaust your POW points, your character will stand dizzy for a while until the gauge refills. As a result, players need to learn to balance their enthusiasm for attacking while at the same time dodging incoming attacks or guarding against enemies. This brings in a new level of strategy, as you'll need to decide whether staying and risking incapacitation is worth it to defeat one opponent, if you can hold out against an enemy, or if you should retreat to a distant section of the circular stage to restore your health and energy before returning to attack.
While the POW system restrains the amount of mashing you will engage in, there are other ways that you can dispatch opponents. The first is by using potions that cause area effects against monsters. There are a number of effects that can be triggered, including setting beasts on fire with napalm, poisoning them with toxins, or opening a choking cloud of fumes in an area. Depending on how long a creature is trapped within the affected location, the status effects will be intensified. For example, it's possible to open up a killer cloud and position enemies inside of it for a while, draining their health substantially so they're easier to kill. The second way is by tossing the remains of fruit, like grape stalks and fruit cores at enemies, which can knock monsters down and give you a free attack against them. The last way is by magical attacks released by the Psypher, such as cyclones that juggle opponents up in the air and energy bursts that harm every nearby monster. You can combine these attacks to make your own advanced combos, and it lets you come up with some pretty creative ways of dispatching monsters. How many times have you seen someone killed with an apple core? The only issue I have with the battle system is that the Square button is the same for attacking and guarding and I would've preferred that they were on separate buttons, but that's a minor gripe.
What makes battle sequences so impressive is the size and the scale of combat in the game. Your characters will often face attacks from all sides, including the ground underneath their feet, making it imperative that they keep each monster a weapon's length away. There's a wide huge assortment of creatures that you'll fight as well, ranging from frogs and fairies to tentacles and skeletons. Each beast that shows up on a stage is decently paired up with a supporting monster to make their attacks challenging for a player as well. For instance, you may go up against frogs that have ground attacks and poisoning attributes, as well as fairies that provide ranged and magical support and bears that charge, causing large amounts of damage. Figuring out which kind of monster to isolate and attack is often the key to success, especially when you find yourself facing off against the mini-bosses or the huge final bosses. The only serious downside that crops up in battle is the frequent crippling slowdown that drags battle down to a crawl.
Killed enemies will release Phozons, which are the souls of the dead. While you can acquire Phozons from mystical butterflies or specialized seeds, the primary source for them are from dead monsters. Phozons are important for two reasons: they can be absorbed into your Psypher to power it up, giving it additional striking power as well as magical abilities. Like previously mentioned, you can perform magical attacks, but you can also perform other stat affecting magic, such as healing your character, turning yourself invisible or powering up your strikes for a limited amount of time. However, Phozons can also be used to grow food from seeds you'll purchase or acquire from monsters. Each seed has a specific number of Phozons it requires to sprout fruit, such as berries, fruit, and even sheep. That's right, Odin Sphere allows you to grow sheep from plants, which turn into legs of lamb when they're "harvested." Food is important for your characters because not only will it heal their wounds, it will provide them with experience to level up, increasing their total hit points. What's more, while some of the remains of food can be used for weapons, as stated earlier, others can be recycled to help your character again. A Muggle Seed will quickly become your character's best friend, as you receive a seed once you've finished off the fruit you've grown. Once again, Odin Sphere balances out a system that could be abused with another creative mechanism that forces you to think of what's best for your character.
After a while, you'll quickly find yourself accumulating so much food, items and objects that your inventory is completely stuffed. There's a couple ways that you can get around this, including eating the food you have and selling unwanted items to stores. You can even purchase larger containers that will give you extra space in your inventory -- since each character can have six separate backpacks, you should be able to contain just about everything you need. There's pretty much no need to hoard a disposable item unless you are really nervous about being prepared for any situation the game will throw at you, especially because you will always have the option of getting something else as a replacement. But what if you don't want to lug around all of these objects and just wanted something else? Here's where the alchemy system comes into play. By using a material bottle, players can transmute any item in their inventory into an alchemical mix for potions. However, to create potions, you'll need specialized ingredients known as Mandragoras, semi-intelligent plants scattered around stages. If you manage to walk over one of them, they'll squeak. By jumping on their location, you'll knock them out of the ground, forcing them to run away or, in the case of Habaneristos, attack you in self-defense.
Even Mandragoras have multiple uses within the game. Players can eat them for a mild health bonus, allowing you to save more powerful food items for later battles and bosses. Players can also create potions as long as they happen to have recipes and the proper alchemical mix for that potion. There is a significant bonus to creating these items: whenever a potion is made, Phozons are released as a side effect. The more powerful the base material mixes are, the more Phozons are released. This can be strategically done as you take stock of your character's health and status after a battle or before you enter another stage, because you can provide additional strength to your Psypher or plant a seed before creating a potion and reap the benefits of fresh food.
Mandragoras also play a significant role within the game's restaurant and caf¿ system, which you unlock as time goes on. Just like Alchemy, your characters will gather recipes for larger food items like salads, spicy chicken and even ice cream deserts. However, the recipes are a bit more complex, sometimes requiring two or more ingredients before they can be cooked. Players will also need to travel to the Pooka Village to have these dishes prepared by chefs, and they'll need to pay for the specialized meals. There are benefits to this, as food prepared by cooks is packed with experience points and will strengthen any character that eats it. What's more, you can get some high powered food to go, which you can then save for boss battles to replenish your health when you really need it.
Balanced gameplay aside, Odin Sphere really shines in the visual department, with its large 2D sprites and backgrounds that are extremely detailed and striking. Everything, from the flowing banners in the background to the stylized depiction of knights, heroes and monsters is striking. The scale, as I mentioned before, is incredible: From the dragon that you face off with at the end of the first level to the final boss, you'll be impressed by the size of these beasts. (Was it just me, or did the first dragon look Monty Pythonesque in its animation and visual style?) Again, the only significant issues that arise with the visuals is the slowdown with large numbers of sprites onscreen. Large numbers of Psyphers, enemy attacks and your character trying to counter strikes will literally bring the PS2 to its knees.
The gorgeous visuals are supported by excellent voice acting. Not every actor delivers their lines perfectly, but for the most part, the dialogue is presented very well, and you get a solid sense of who these characters are and what their world is like. Considering that every line of dialogue is spoken, this is a pretty solid feat, especially since you can switch to the original Japanese dialogue track at any time. Coupled with a sweeping soundtrack that is a nice underscore to the game action, and solid sound effects, Odin Sphere really presents an excellent aural environment. The only downside I have with the score is that it can be so loud that it can drown out the volume of the squeaks of the various Mandragoras you're looking for in a level. Since you can't control the volume of the music and of speech, you may have to search a level multiple times to make sure you've got everything.
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