Thus speak the old prophecies: five great disasters will strike the land, heralding the end of the world and the coming of Armageddon ... but those who survive the calamity shall become kings. Now the fate of five individuals becomes intertwined with this foretold strife, inexorably drawing them through war, conspiracy and harrowing choices toward the end of days. This is the tale of Odin Sphere, an action role-playing game that liberally draws upon the Norse myths for its inspiration.
An aspect of the game that will immediately strike you is the spectacular graphics. The characters and backgrounds are rendered in hand-drawn 2D glory. It is something that could be taken as a very retro design decision in this age of polygon games, but it works extremely well. The backgrounds are varied, meticulously detailed and utilise parallax scrolling. (For the less technically oriented, it means multiple graphical layers scrolled at different speeds to give an impression of depth.) The characters are large and detailed; the main characters especially given considerable amounts of animation frames to make their movements smooth and fluid. Some of the bosses are enormous but detailed. Some of the designs could be described as bit cartoony, but they work well in context, giving immediate insight into characters' mentalities in a tale that aspires to capture a mythic feel.
Unfortunately, the amazing graphics are sometimes the game's downfall. PlayStation 2's aging hardware simply cannot always cope with everything moving on screen, causing slowdowns in certain battles. While my hat is off to the artists for a job well done, level design and quality control gets a big red minus for letting something like that slide.
Odin Sphere's story proceeds in two manners. First are the dramatic scenes that progress the story, laying to you the protagonists' situations and motivations. These scenes are fully voice acted (plus subtitled via speech bubbles for your convenience), employing quality talent. The original Japanese voices also have been preserved, which no doubt will please certain audiences, but English voices are thoroughly enjoyable to listen to, excepting the generic talent used for several second-tier NPCs.
Each character's tale is given a prologue, six chapters and an epilogue. These all take place across roughly the same span of time and sometimes same events. Progressing through the tales slowly builds up a complete view of the events that lead to the final days. Additionally, after completing all five journeys, you get to the Armageddon story arc that lays out the game's final chapter.
The other way the story proceeds is real-time combat through the game's many maps. Each stage on a map is circular; if you run far enough to left or right, you return where you started. Exits are laid out at certain places, which take you to other map stages, though they only open after you've defeated the current one. A map will usually end with a boss battle (unless you are just revisiting a map to gather resources or experience points). Upon defeating a given stage, mini-boss or boss, your performance gets graded based on time and damage, which determines the contents of the loot chest that gets dropped.
Combat is rather straightforward button-mashing in which you primarily need to score hit combos and jump attacks while paying some attention to defense, but each character brings his or her own unique skill to combat. Gwendolyn, for example, is able to fly, while Oswald has his shadow form. Bosses and mini-bosses, as to be expected, have certain action and attack patterns you need to devise strategies around.
Upon defeat, enemies usually will release their spirit in the form of one or more Phozons, glowing stars that slowly drift around the stage. These have two main uses. First is to harvest them with your crystal weapon - called a Psypher - to fuel your magic spells. Harvest enough, and the weapon's Psypher level goes up, allowing for greater Phozon storage and new types of spells.
The second use is to grow plants. You may come across seeds in shops or as rewards. These can be planted on battlefields, and after they've sucked in an appropriate amount of Phozons, the plants will bloom and produce edibles. There's also a plant that produces sheep - for meat - and an egg that will hatch a chick that needs be fed seeds to grow into an edible chicken. You also have a plant that doesn't need Phozons to grow but releases a bunch of them upon reaching bloom. This can be used to encourage your other seeds to reach maturity.
Harvested foods have two values associated with them. They both replenish your health and increase your health bar's experience - some more than others. Eat enough food, and your health bar gains a level, increasing your maximum health.
An alternate way to gain health bar experience is to bring looted recipes to a Cafe or a Restaurant. When you bring them ingredients described on recipes, they'll prepare you the food, but it'll cost you some money. This is risk-free, however, as you don't need to guess whether a stage's enemies will release enough Phozons to ripen a seed you've planted.
On fields, you may also dig up Mandragoras from ground. Mandragoras are used as ingredients in alchemy, in which you can mix potions of varying effects. These range from ones that restore health to ones that provide light in dark areas or create billowing clouds of poison or wind or flame. Each mixture needs a formula (usually acquired as loot from completed stages), a Mandragora and an alchemy base (called Material) of certain potency. As long as you have a base alchemy potion - available in shops at zero potency - you may strengthen it with just about any inventory item, even with another alchemy base, which multiplies the power.
Successfully creating a potion also releases an amount of Phozons dependent on the base mixture's strength. You can use this to your advantage while on field, either to replenish your Phozon store for spells or to feed your planted seeds. In an emergency, you can even eat the Mandragoras for some minor health boost.
Overall, Odin Sphere gets a guarded applause from me. The graphics are simply fantastic, the music fits the mood well - not to forget the quality voice acting - and the story, in my opinion, is a worthy tale. This, unfortunately, is marred by frame-rate problems and combat that, at length, will start feeling somewhat tedious. Fighting through the same areas for the Nth time - even with different characters - may start to feel tiresome, as well. There are some difficulty level problems, too; the first book's final boss was a maddening experience, even without the frame-rate problems. Personally, I feel the story rushes forward a bit too fast at places. I would have preferred more exposition and broadening of story - as a whole, it serves well, but individual tales feel skinny. However, take this as coming from a person who prefers his RPGs long and jam-packed with cut scenes. I am left with a positive feeling on the whole, and that is good enough.