Offering up a battle system that would seem more at home in a side-scrolling brawler than an RPG and a storytelling style that allows you to play as multiple main characters, Odin Sphere offers up a very different, and flawed adventure for RPG fans. It allows you to play as five characters, telling their stories one after the other, as the game’s adventure unfolds inside a storybook. While the plots are certainly grand enough to work for that concept, I found them to be too melodramatic for me to actually care about some of the characters. I simply can’t relate to Princess Gwendolyn trying to avenge her sister’s death, or the plethora of other generic storybook-styled characters (like a bunch of side characters that speak a great deal but seem to lack any unique traits) that take away from the experience.
Even though I may not like the end result sometimes, one advantage to the multi-character format is that if a player doesn’t like one plot, they’ll have motivation to quickly run through that story and get to the next one. On the other hand, if you really come to like one, you’ll probably be devastated when that story reaches its conclusion. In my case, I found the opening storyline with Gwendolyn to be the least enjoyable, as she’s too generic a character for my liking, while Oswald and Velvet have darker plots that I found to have more depth to them, and were more enjoyable to see unfold, and sad to see end.
When you’re not advancing the plot, Odin Sphere’s Final Fight-esque 2D side-scrolling gameplay takes over and makes itstand out from the rest of the RPGs on the market. The versatile battle system can either be used in a fast-paced manner for those who just want to brawl their way to victory with strikes, or in a slower-paced manner that emphasis magic and cunning over brute force.
Unlike FF (or other brawlers), attacking an enemy doesn’t cancel out his/her attack, meaning that you can still be attacked even though you’re attacking a foe. While this adds some challenge, it also adds a great deal of needless frustration when enemies gang up on you and leave you with few chances to either escape or eliminate them. Battles take place in a completely spherical area, allowing you to circle around to attack a foe from behind, or run away from danger without having to worry about being attacked. An on-screen guide showing your position in relation to your opponent(s) helps you strategize a game plan, and should be used in more games.
Planting seeds to build up HP-reviving fruit, and the cooking and alchemy skills that can be learned during the adventure allow you to create healing items and weapons during battles. You can also use your cunning to avoid having to use those creations and sell them for incredibly helpful items (like the painkiller item, that reduces the damage you receive in half) and newer, more powerful weapons. I grew to love this option as time went on since some of the created weapons (like the napalm attack) can easily go unused or can be easily made, and this setup allows you to stock up on weapons and health items for boss battles without making you worry that you’ll go into one ill-equipped.
One thing I never liked was the POW gauge, which places limits on how much you can attack. If you attack too many times in succession, the gauge will empty, leaving you in a dizzy state and completely vulnerable to enemy attacks. When this happens, seeing your health drop to either nothing or next to nothing is a common occurrence, and while it can be prevented by just not attacking as often, that isn’t a realistic option in boss battles, where your attention will frequently be averted by many enemies that you’ll have to defeat quickly to focus on the boss. This game-imposed attack limitation cripples the game at times, and severely reduced my enjoyment with the game when it cost me battles. I’m not sure if it was put in to add difficulty to the game, but it just ends up hurting it and adding more frustration to the game’s toughest battles.
Fortunately, Odin Sphere’s battlefield controls are mostly sharp - moving from left to right is easy to do, and both the d-pad and left analog stick can be used to do that, and using heavy strikes with X takes little time at all thanks to how responsive the controls are. Unfortunately, jumping and then trying to time jumping (or floating) attacks is far more difficult, since you don’t have complete precision over just where you float off to, and you can’t exactly tell where your diving attack will land. Given that swarms of enemies are common in any battle, and a missed diving attack leaves you open to their advances instead of wiping them out, this can cause major problems. There’s also a noticeable delay when trying to access any of the item arranging or item using menus, which can leave you open to attacks briefly, and disrupts the flow of battle.
Graphically, Odin Sphere is the most visually impressive game the PS2 has seen since Okami. The storybook settings has resulted in richly-colored characters and environments that spring to life with smooth animation. Its brightly-colored, almost painting-like visuals remind me of the vivid world in Astal for the Saturn. Odin Sphere’s lush animation also reminds me of it, and it’s clear that no corners were cut with it here, which I found to be another refreshing change from the genre’s norm. Far too many RPGs get by on just the bare minimum of character animation, and it hurts the reality of the game. That isn’t a problem here, and I’m thankful for that.
There’s also an incredible sense of size and scale here, as size discrepancies are easy to see, and add even more panic to boss battles as you see a screen-filling boss lumber towards you and realize that you’re just a puny being that must find some way to destroy it. The larger-than-life bosses also fit the storybook theme well, and some would seem at home in a book of classic children’s fables. Unfortunately, the lush visuals came with a price in the form of massive slowdown whenever the action gets too hectic. It’s a serious problem in boss battles, which often slow to a crawl due to it. During non-boss battles, the problem rarely creeps up, but it’s still something I’m surprised to see here given how exceptional all other aspects of the graphics are.
Odin Sphere’s audio is a mostly positive affair. Its music is very piano and trumpet and drum-heavy, adding a sense of majesty to cinematics that require it and intensity to battles. The sound effect work is also worth praising, as they all convey things well, and the cast did a good job at conveying the pain their characters are in with their shrieks and cries of agony. Unfortunately, that didn’t carry over to the dialogue, which rarely seems genuinely dramatic. The dialogue is frequently stilted, leading it to sound more like something out of a ‘60s Batman episode instead of a storybook.
All in all, Odin Sphere ends up being an unforgettable game due to its graphics and unique gameplay, but ends up being riddled with some major problems and puzzling game design issues that greatly reduce the amount of fun that can be had with it. Despite Odin Sphere’s faults, it’s an easy recommendation for anyone seeking something new in an RPG adventure, but anyone leery about it after reading about its problems should rent it first. The flaws are simply too glaring to recommend a purchase to everyone. I’d love to see a sequel come out that remedied this game’s issues, because right now, Odin Sphere seems like a game with tremendous potential that simply wasn’t lived up to here.