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Odin Sphere (PlayStation 2) artwork

Odin Sphere (PlayStation 2) review

"Odin Sphere is frustrating like that. The threat of exertion and the constant need to snack on restorative items exist throughout the entire game. Button mashing seldom leads to victory over even the simplest of adversaries. Instead, you must strike and retreat while dipping frequently into your bag of supplies."

Odin Sphere is beautiful. From the haunting title screen to the most tiresome menus (of which there are plenty) and everywhere in between, the game stuns the senses both visually and aurally. If nothing else stays with you, you’ll remember it as one of the most gorgeous adventures you’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t stand at the head of the genre, but it has so much style that some people won’t care.

You’ll encounter in Odin Sphere a three-dimensional world that truly comes to life. Screenshots reveal what look like hand-painted environments, but there’s more to the story. As your hero explores a mountain, you’ll pass carefully rendered mounds of snow rising along a rocky wall. Most games would stop there, but Odin Sphere isn’t “most games.” Instead, fine mist hangs in the air, hardly visible, and powdery trails of snow slide over the crust in near-transparent streams. That’s how the game is throughout, whether gusts of air are tugging at foliage or geysers of lava are erupting within underground caves. The result is a world with hand-painted beauty that doesn’t feel like a trip to the museum so much as it does a tour through a fantastic wonderland.

There are, unfortunately, a few down sides. The first, which comes up only during particularly heated battles, is slowdown. When you have a world that looks this beautiful, populated by characters as detailed as the denizens of Erion, the PlayStation 2 hardware has to lag somewhere. So it is that as you fight some of the monstrous creatures--particularly the bosses with their many flailing limbs--you’ll be brought back to the old days of the NES… only prettier.

Another issue is that there aren’t as many distinct worlds to explore as you might find in a different game with Odin Sphere’s length. There are eight primary areas, each full of beautiful vistas with a decent bit of variety within, but ultimately the world’s scope feels limited mostly to tangled, overgrown forests and caverns. Only the snow-covered peaks and populated regions provide relief. Even so, the shallow pool from which the artists and designers drew their inspiration was enough to make the game’s world more memorable than any in recent memory. It’s an acceptable trade, depth for beauty.

The game’s artistic but flawed navigational system is less acceptable. Because of it, exploring dungeons is tedious. Picture a spider web, with nodes that represent stages. At first, they’re revealed in an almost random order as you wander a stage. Then you find a map that makes clear the path to a boss. Each zone is circular with several exits, so you must access the map whenever you’re leaving one, just to make sure that you haven’t lost your way. This becomes a nuisance when you’re on one side of the map and need to backtrack for an item. Suddenly, you have to pass through several zones you’ve already completed. Worse, there are several load times along the way. They’re thankfully quite brief, but shortcuts between completed stages could have removed them entirely.

The game’s combat system is also flawed. Suppose you’re battling some bears and elves in a forest. The elves are to your left, the bears to your right. You decide to tackle the elves first, since they move more quickly and carry poisoned blades. A few quick swipes send most of them tumbling to the ground, but a few escape. More slashes knock them back again, but the frenzied melee has taken its toll. Your character stands still, panting as the remaining elf walks up and stabs her. Poisoned, she finally retaliates and heads toward the bears, even as her festering wound drains her life reserves. That encounter goes reasonably well, but she must retreat before they are completely vanquished. She backtracks to use a healing item, only a hive of bees has appeared overhead. As the heroine raises some food to her mouth, a wasp knocks it loose and stings her fatally.

Odin Sphere is frustrating like that. The threat of exertion and the constant need to snack on restorative items exist throughout the entire game. Button mashing seldom leads to victory over even the simplest of adversaries. Instead, you must strike and retreat while dipping frequently into your bag of supplies. Food doesn’t come easily, either. In fact, you’d better have a green thumb or you won’t get far at all.

That’s because most food begins its life as a seed (even mutton, humorously enough). You can purchase them or salvage them from the treasure chest that falls magically from the sky at the end of each stage. Once you have the seeds, you then must plant them in the middle of battle. As you vanquish enemies, magical balls of purple aura called ‘phozon’ leave their corpses and float through the air. You can absorb them yourself to gain experience points toward eventual special attacks, or you can allow them to sustain the seeds you’ve planted. The more precious the plant, the more phozon are required.

Suddenly, battles are surprisingly tedious. Constant gardening is the only way you’ll survive your trek through the world, the only way to gain the ingredients you need to create delicious dishes back in town (the only way to add extensions to your diminutive life meter). Worse, the game only lets you carry a limited number of seeds and ingredients with you, even after you’ve purchased and activated additional carrying bags, so there are times when you’ll be diving into the ring-shaped menus every few seconds.

One final element worth examining is the game’s plot, which you reveal one character at a time. Then you go through the game again as someone completely different, from the start of the collective timeline. It’s a clever way to extend the game’s length, but it also reminds a person just how redundant things truly are. You’ll battle a lot of the same monsters in only slightly different context, and they’re not really any cooler the third or fourth time around than they are the first. Besides that, the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. The main heroine, for example, stupidly goes to ridiculous extremes to earn her father’s unrequited love. Her one-dimensional selflessness proves difficult to appreciate or believe, and the other characters suffer from similar issues. Curiosity and narrative flair propel you to discover each character’s tale, not empathy.

Somehow, that seems fitting for Odin Sphere. Through and through, beauty serves as both its most commanding asset and its most crippling flaw. Playing it at length is like continuing a relationship with a girl you no longer fancy because you can’t get over how beautiful she is and you don’t want to do without. It’s most easily enjoyed in occasional stretches of 8 or 10 hours then returned to the shelf for a few months of respite. For the patient, Odin Sphere is one of the system’s most beautiful rides and comes highly recommended. Weekend warriors, look elsewhere.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (May 22, 2007)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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