(www.plasticpals.com) Back when the battle for 32-bit supremacy was all but over, there was a Japanese-only Saturn game called Princess Crown that caught my eye in the pages of GameFan magazine. It was the most beautiful 2D game of its time; never to be translated into English what with the Saturn gasping its final breath. Luckily Vanillaware's follow- up to Princess Crown, Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade didn't suffer the same fate. As its name suggests, it's an homage to Norse mythology stringing together the stories of 5 characters: a Valkyrie, a Fairy, a Cursed Prince, a Witch, and a Black Knight. Each character gets their own "book" lasting between 5~10 hours apiece, with their stories intertwining in interesting ways.
Unlike conventional sprites seen in most 2D games, all of Odin Sphere's characters are built up of several pieces,similar to certain bosses in the Castlevania games. This allows standard characters to be much larger and bosses can take up most of the screen! The backgrounds have multiple layers which move independently like a glorious pop-up book, with foreground elements like leaves gently swaying in the breeze. It truly is a sight to behold.
It bears mentioning that the presentation is rounded out by a great musical score courtesy of Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and FF12 fame), and is some of his most original work to date. His old colleague Masaharu Iwata is also credited.
Each character has their own way of moving and attacking. Most of the them are close-range fighters, while a couple have ranged attacks. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, which helps to spice things up.
Best described as a brawler-RPG, Odin Sphere is a button masher book- ended by story scenes. All of your main attacks are done with the SQUARE button, and you can aim attacks by pressing up or down. Using magic or items mid-battle pauses the action while you select what to use. Unlike in Muramasa, there is no platforming besides one or two battles late in the game.
Attacking relentlessly drains your POW meter, which will leave your character in a defenceless dizzy spell if it runs out completely. Certain characters can use up the POW meter to perform signature attacks, adding a bit of strategy. Meanwhile, enemies can leave you with a number of status ailments, such as poison. You'll need to work out strategies to not only win, but win quickly (to earn better spoils). The battle system is quite fast-paced and fun, but is a little on the simple side because the real meat of the game lies in its alchemy system.
Unlike in most RPGs, you don't gain experience directly from killing foes. Instead, you gain levels by eating food. You'll collect seeds which can be planted anywhere and will grow by absorbing phozons that appear from dead enemies. Once the seed has enough phozons it will produce a fruit which can be harvested and eaten immediately (to regain HP and earn a little experience) or taken to a restaurant with other ingredients to cook a meal (which gives you much more experience).
But growing plants for food requires phozons that can otherwise be absorbed by your character's weapon: the psypher. Psyphers gain levels independently from your HP, and the stronger it gets, the more spells you can use. Casting spells uses up phozons that are stored in your psypher (sort of like MP), so you'll want to collect them whenever possible to keep your MP up and raise pyspher levels. It becomes a balancing act between growing plants and restoring MP.
Some items, such as vegetables and potions, need to be combined before you can get much use out of them. You'll find a wide assortment of alchemy recipes for all sorts of potions; from standard heals and antidotes, to more rare and complicated mixes which will produce all sorts of effects. Simply put, the alchemy system ranges from simple to complex depending on how much effort you want to put into it.
2D graphics are notorious for taking up large amounts of memory, so this is to be expected, but the major drawback to this game is its loading time. It's annoying, but it's just one those things you have to deal with. It's worst when you go to the restaurant & café. Since these two areas require about 10-15 seconds to load, and you visit them often, it does begin to wear on you.
Also, when there are many enemies on screen at once, especially during certain boss battles, you will encounter some serious slow-down. Slow- down like you have never seen before. The whole screen will come to a screeching halt, and you can count the animation frames as they tick away. It usually isn't too bad, and it's not a game-breaker, but it will happen.
Another problem is the game gets quite repetitive. Each of the five main characters will visit the same eight or so "worlds" in the game. Each world is distinct, but they only have half a dozen monster types per world, so you will end up seeing the same places and monsters quite a few times over the course of the game.
As one of the most technically advanced and beautiful 2D games ever made, Odin Sphere is an awesome sight to behold. The game may not be for everyone, but if you like RPGs and action titles, or just want to see some amazing artwork, you should check it out. It's successor, Muramasa, fixes most of the issues with this game but ditches the complexity too.
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