A side-scrolling brawler featuring 2D sprites. Same old, same old, right? WRONG! Vanillaware’s latest PS2 game, Odin Sphere is anything but ordinary. On paper, it sounds like your run of the mill beat-em-up with light RPG elements, but in practice it took my breath away. Sure, it’s the same old story about Valkyries and King Odin, but Vanillaware has given it a refreshing makeover.
It’s hard to describe how Odin Sphere plays. There’s the side-scrolling brawler part, where you can move your character left or right and attack swarms of enemies and there’s the role playing game part, where you gain experience from your fallen foes. The game is made up of different locations which are made up of a series of stages connected to each other through exit and entry points. The actual stage is circular: if you keep running in one direction, you’ll eventually end up where you started. Exit points are marked in each stage by a white dot on the map but they can only be used when the enemies for that stage are defeated.
The graphics first caught my eye in Odin Sphere. Characters may be 2D sprites, but they’re the best looking, highest-resolution sprites I’ve ever seen. If you pay close attention, you’ll see that characters are actually made up of separate 2D sprites that are attached to each other in places like joints. This is part of the reason why character movement looks so fluid. To match the gorgeous characters are equally pleasing pre-rendered backgrounds. Going through each stage in Odin Sphere makes me feel like I’m running through some twisted version of a fairy tale.
As with any good sidescroller, there are bosses. Unlike most side scrollers, the bosses in Odin Sphere don’t merely appear at the end of each location, but are scattered throughout different stages. I like this approach because thanks to the handy map, I can tell which stage contains a boss before I get to it, and sometimes, because of the way the stages are laid out, I can even avoid it and return to it later. That’s mainly because I’m a pansy when it comes to game bosses. If you’re a fan of them, you’re in for a treat. Bosses are not only hard because they have strong attacks and lots of HP, but also because it takes a few tries to figure out their pattern or learn the trick to defeating them, which is exactly what makes beating bosses satisfying.
I came into the Odin Sphere with the misconception that button mashing would be sufficient for most enemies, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Button mashing your way into a group of five enemies is an easy way to die. Instead, the game encourages the Muhammad Ali approach: float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Translation: jump in quickly with a 1-2-3 hit and maybe combo, and jump the hell out either by running away, or making use of the double-jump float. I like that there’s strategy involved in beating enemies and that sometimes it’s better to stay on the outskirts and spam magic attacks than to jump into the fray and risk running out of power.
It seems like these days, all sorts of games have an item creation system and Odin Sphere is no different. The alchemy system in the game is as simple as combining two items, a Material and another item, together to create a third item. New alchemy recipes can be discovered throughout the game. While item creation isn’t a huge part of the game, it’s still necessary, so if you’re hugely turned off by alchemy, this may be a difficult game to play.
Despite the incredible graphics and a new twist on the old sidescrolling formula, Odin Sphere has a few annoyances. The first one I noticed was that there just doesn’t seem to be enough storage space for items. About two hours into the game, I was already running out of item slots and ended up dropping a lot of items that I rather would have kept for later. Alchemy uses up a fair amount of items, but it would have been nice to have an alternative place to put items, like a storage locker in the castle, or just a larger inventory.
The other complaint I have about Odin Sphere is slowdown. There’s noticeable slowdown when there are more than five enemies on screen, but it’s not game breaking. It’s understandable considering how many moving parts each character has and the high resolution of each sprite, but it’s still annoying.
The third complaint is a bit difficult to understand without having played the game already. The on-screen area available for the stages seemed a bit small because of how large the sprites are. It’s hard to tell when an enemy is getting near until it’s almost too late. The wide-area-map on the top right of the screen in these stages come in handy because it shows which enemies are nearby even if they’re not on screen, but those are just simple silhouettes. I was annoyed by the fact that I was paying more attention to the one colored silhoutes than to the beautiful scenery in each stage.
Don’t let these flaws discourage you from playing Odin Sphere though. I feel confident to say it’s one of the best looking games I’ve played all year. It makes me feel good that there are still companies who believe that 2D isn’t dead yet. It also doesn’t hurt that the game is as fun to play as it is to look at.