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Odin Sphere
Score: 88%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Vanillaware
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
With the PS3 grabbing most of the attention and struggling through the traditional post-launch game draught, it is great to see top-tier games still being released for the PS2. Odin Sphere is a name that probably is not all that well known outside the enthusiast community, but it is one that everyone probably should.

Visuals are always the first thing to grab attention and Odin Sphere does it remarkably well. Whereas most games have gone 3D, Odin Sphere goes the 2D route and shows, without question, that there is still a lot of life left in 2D. The more striking aspect of the visuals are how big and detailed characters are. Characters range from flowery fairies to winged valkyries to odd, rabbit-like creatures called Pookas and have a charming personality that you don't see in many games.

One of the few downsides to the style, if it can be called one, is the size of characters. Characters take up most of the screen, with some bosses taking up the entire screen, giving the game a claustrophobic feel in some situations. I found it bothersome mostly because it becomes really hard to find flying enemies or tell what is going on when you have several enemies on-screen. The latter problem also comes with noticeable framerate drops, with more crippling ones occurring during boss fights.

Presentation is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack. The funny thing is that while none of the tracks are something you'll find yourself humming in the shower, while you are playing, it is hard to not appreciate how well it ties into the experience. The same goes for the voicework. Every character, no matter how minor, has a voice. The performances get the mood of the dialogue across while not sounding overdramatic. Odin Sphere is easily one of Atlus's best localization works to date.

Odin Sphere is an unconventional game that pulls from action games and RPGs with some gardening thrown in for a little something extra. Once defeated, enemies leave behind energy called Phozons. What you do with this energy is one of the game's major play elements. Your first choice is to trap the energy in your weapon and unlock new special abilities. You can also choose to plant seeds and grow food-bearing plants. Eating food is the only way to level your character and increase your life points.

You can also uncover Mandragoras in the wild which can be consumed like other foods, though they are more useful in recipes or alchemy. The first is another, more potent way to level your character. Alchemy provides a wide array of uses, including healing, protection and other effects.

Much like the Internet, levels are a series of interconnected tubes, only the tubes are replaced by circles. Each level wraps around itself with the only "endings" being arrows marked "Exit" that appear once you have cleared it of enemies. Levels come in one of four types. Some include groups of enemies or a shopkeeper, while others include either mini-bosses or the level's main boss.

With all of the tweaks to tradition, storytelling is where Odin Sphere really stands out. The story is told as a series of five books being read by a little girl. The "main story," if it can be considered that, revolves around an on-going war between two kingdoms. The first story acts as the framework for the rest of the stories. Each is strong enough to stand on its own, though all five tie into one another. Every character comes into contact with others with varying degrees of contact. Some will meet in passing, while others share deep connections to one another.

Storytelling draws from a variety of sources and is a great example for just how to pull off storytelling in a video game. The story draws on multiple sources, including Grimm's Fairy Tales and mythology, and shows that you can distill the story into something that is easy to follow and entertaining, while also managing to convey something a little deeper than the typical, "Save the Princess. Save the World." story most games present.

Odin Sphere is by no means an easy game, which is likely to be the greatest hurdle the game faces when trying to reach a wider audience. Three difficulty levels are available, though even Easy is challenging. In addition to an overall difficulty rating, each ring that makes up each level has its own individual difficulty ranking. The fewer stars placed by the ring on the map, the easier the level is.

As much as I want to attack Odin Sphere for having balance issues, it is hard to do so since the issues seem intentional. Despite what the descriptions in the menu say, Odin Sphere is meant to be hard and is balanced in such a way that it is challenging, but in a way that you want to keep playing despite any frustration. The replay system is very forgiving and you are even given the option of replaying the entire level with all of your upgraded stats. Some books even require that you replay entire levels. It is a cheap way to extend gameplay time, though the action is so fast-paced that it isn't as big of an annoyance as it could be. Still, if you are the type that wants to play straight through a game quickly, Odin Sphere probably won't be to your liking.

The one area that I found completely frustrating were status effects. Some, like "Poison," aren't that big of a deal, but others, particularly "Freeze" and "Dizzy," offer too big of an advantage to enemies. This is especially troublesome when facing bosses who are usually backed up by reinforcements that can hit you with these effects.

Game Mechanics:
Over the course of the game, you will take control of five different characters. Each share similar skills and play styles, though at the same time, each have their own minor differences that makes them feel like completely different characters. Combat is basic and limited to one attack button and a handful of combos. Although it isn't complicated, it is far from a button-masher.

Attacks are limited by a POW meter than depletes as you attack. If you let the meter run down, you are stunned for a few seconds, leaving you open to attack. The trick to combat is knowing when to press a hard, 4-hit combo and when to land a hit or two and run. If you treat the game like a button-masher, you won't find yourself in a good place.

At any time in a level, you can access your inventory. Although you can expand the number of slots by purchasing new bags, the inventory system is very limiting. However, like the difficulty, this is intended. You are encouraged to try different alchemic mixes, eat lots of food, and plant as many seeds as you can.

Odin Sphere is one of those games that comes along that is so well-crafted that everyone should take the time and try it out. At the same time, it is still a game whose quirks will more than likely appeal to a more hardcore, niche market rather than the mass market. Still, if you are looking for a great playing, great looking action game, or just something a little different, Odin Sphere is a must buy.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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