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Odin Sphere: The Destructoid Review

2:14 PM on 05.26.2007 // Aaron Linde

No doubt you've heard plenty about Odin Sphere in the last week, with the gamut of reviews ranging anywhere from ungodly terrible to 100% perfection. As Gamasutra points out, Odin Sphere has proved to be something of an anomaly in gaming review circles. It's a smattering of gameplay from several traditions of the industry's history and, most notably, one of the few sprite-based 2D side-scrollers we're bound to see for a long, long time. So how does this artistic heavyweight stack up for your Destructoid editors? Behold and tremble, dear readers, it's the Destructoid Review!

Before we get started, I got some notes for all y'all. We're changing a few things in our review routine, the most notable of which is our schedule: with any luck, you can look forward to a review a week from Destructoid's dedicated review crew, a crack team of bitter, curmudgeonly gamers hellbent on forcing their tastes and opinions upon you. At present, the squad includes the good Rev. Anthony, DMV, your favorite Linde, Chad Concelmo and Nick Brutal.

Additionally, we've changed up our rating system just a smidge. On top of the standard score to be delivered by each individual editor, we're also offering up our opinions on a buy it/rent it/forget it scale, to give you a better idea as to whether or not a game is worth taking the plunge, or if it merits a little caution -- the kind of notion that might get lost in a simple 1-10 score. We'll also be offering final Destructoid review scores at the end of each write-up, a figure averaged from the editors' individual scores, topped off with some shiny new graphics courtesy of art hero Hushgush.

All that being said, hit the jump and dive into our inaugural trainwreck: Atlus' Odin Sphere!

Brad "DMV" Rice

No one is going to disagree that this game is beautiful -- the way that the characters moved had me spellbound for quite a while, and it still affects me even now when I boot up the game. From that point on, though, it's a series of highs and lows that slowly declines as I went through the game.
 
Combat was interesting to try out in the tutorial, as the game knew that it was, well, a tutorial. After that, though, it just leaves you on your own to figure out how to beat the enemies. Sometimes it's fairly obvious, like with the first boss -- but it's still challenging and fun. Then, there are times when you just have no freakin' clue how to do it and have to go through about two dozen times of trial and error just to beat the boss.
 
Now, why is this? It's because the game is a brawler with RPG elements, except it doesn't know how to be a brawler. There are three fundamental areas in which it fails. First, attack and block are the same button. It makes it nearly impossible to go through a battle relatively unscathed unless you use a combination of hit and run and magic, or are just an incredibly lucky bastard. Second, enemies can attack through your combos, and really take a huge chunk off your HP -- which, of course, you can't block. Third, there's a "POW" meter, which will drain as you attack. If you attack too much, then you sit there, stunned, until it fills up again. This will drain way too easily if there's a large horde of enemies attacking (and there usually is), so it makes it really hard to fight them effectively.
 
The game strings you along in really difficult situations, leaving you to figure out how it wants you to beat a boss. Trial and error usually win out, which is immensely frustrating. The ability to go back to a level once you've beaten it, though, is invaluable, because it's a safe-ground to experiment with making potions and trying out different combat tactics.
 
The story, once I got past just staring at the characters, was pretty bland. To me, it seems like there was a horrible night of sweaty, drunken, and utterly forgettable sex between Norse mythology and utterly generic (and possibly hentai) anime. To me, it's been disappointing so far. Yet, one thing has set me off on a warpath -- the "true ending." Apparently, to get it, you have to beat every battle with an 'S' ranking on hard, make and eat every food, as well as several other requirements. This is utter bullsh*t. I can't stand the idea of multiple endings where I have to jump through hoops left and right to get it. Silent Hill 2 was fine with its multiple endings, but Odin Sphere has gone into the "I want to stab someone" realm of multiple endings.
 
While the game is utterly beautiful, it falls short on gameplay functionality with issues on how the combat system works. If you have the patience to figure out how the game wants you to fight a boss, then you'll enjoy it later on once you've got a hang of everything. A mediocre story and ridiculous requirements for multiple endings hurt the game a lot, though. If Vanillaware can patch up the combat system, and lean more heavily in either an RPG or a brawler direction, I won't hesistate to pick up Odin Sphere 2 to try.

Verdict: Rent it!
Score: 5.5

Rev. Anthony

Everything you need to know about Odin Sphere can be summarized in two bullet points.

1. It is the most beautiful and immersive 2D video game ever made.
2. The "block" and "attack" commands are both controlled by the same button.

Odin Sphere exhibits an astounding depth of thought and attention to detail in every aspect of its aesthetic design   -- which makes it all the more astonishing that the game also possesses so many obvious gameplay and control flaws that almost cripple the entire experience.

First, the good: as my colleagues will no doubt confirm, this game is absolutely gorgeous. The 2D graphics may not seem to be anything new at first – an anime-style character is an anime-style character is an anime-style character – but the fluidity of the animation, the detail of the backgrounds, and the overall storybook feel of the game are enough to reduce any hard-bitten gamer into a state of childlike glee. The graphics are so good, in fact, that they manage to make the trite, derivative story compulsively watchable; thanks to decent voice acting and beautiful graphics, the narrative is far more interesting than it really has any right to be. I'm also a sucker for games with fractured timelines and multiple protagonists, and I'm pleased to say that Odin Sphere delivers on both of those fronts.

And for a while, things seem great: the combat is harder than usual and the controls are a little unresponsive, but it's no big deal – the game directly tells you not to rely only on your beat-'em-up skills, and to fiddle around with creating potions and using special moves to defeat your foes. For a couple of hours, Odin Sphere feels perfect. For the first time in my gaming life, I felt like I was honestly pressured to use everything at my disposal to defeat my enemies, instead of just falling into the typical RPG routine of stocking up on items and mindlessly hacking away.

But then the game gets cheap. And when it gets cheap, you begin to realize just how truly flawed the combat system is, and how horrendously it screws up the flow of the game.

As Dick points out, the player's inability to break an enemy's combo, the stamina bar that prohibits constant attack, and (most irritatingly) the fact that the block and attack commands are mapped to the same button put the player at a horrendous disadvantage. Coming across multiple enemies means that you have to try every combat tactic in the book -- which is cool, in theory -- but nearly every strategy one can use is either totally ineffective (blocking), or punishes the player in an unavoidable way. For example, attacking an enemy from the front with a powerful combo is a useless tactic, because though getting attacked by a baddie will stop your combo, attacking a baddie will have no effect in stopping his. He'll simply stand there for a few seconds and by the time your character is just about to deal the finishing blow of your combo, the enemy will abruptly hit you with an uber-poweful charged attack that there was no way to block or avoid. We take things like this for granted in modern brawler gameplay: if I manage to execute a successful combo on a bad guy, he shouldn't be able to immediately and unavoidably hit me with a powerful charged attack without at least pausing for a few seconds.

Again, these flaws are all but negligible when the game plays fair. But once you get attacked by a dozen enemies at once, all of whom have attacks that reduce you to 50% health with one hit, and when flying, difficult-to-hit elemental sprites freeze you for a good ten seconds (leaving you completely open to attack), you'll find yourself dying over and over and over again (subsequently forcing you to repeatedly sit through lengthy loading screens) thanks to the lackluster combat system.

And yet, sometimes, the game is simply magic. Every once in a while the clouds dissipate, the game starts playing fair, and the player begins to play the game the way it was meant to be played -- by using all different kinds of potions, weapons, and attacks in a beautifully drawn 2D landscape. Given the game's propensity to divide up everything into individually playable chapters sandwiched between story cutscenes, Odin is the perfect game to play in short bursts: play it for a little while, enjoy its beauty, then save and turn it off before the irritating combat mechanics make you want to put it down and never play it again. I'm not exaggerating when I say that, at moments, Odin is pure gaming bliss: it's just a shame that it's so goddamn infuriating the rest of the time.

Verdict: Rent it!
Score: 6.0

Aaron Linde

Lemme tell you, gang: it's really, really difficult to hold Odin Sphere responsible for its faults. It succeeds so well at some of its ambitions -- ambitions that, for the most part, have been altogether abandoned by the industry at large -- that you're almost willing to overlook its shortcomings as a form of reward for its efforts. For creating what is undoubtedly the most beautiful 2D game ever crafted, I want to shower Vanillaware in cash and virgins. If any game is set to revitalize the imaginitive visual style that Koji Igarashi, current producer of the Castlevania series, claims is much too costly to pursue on a console, Odin Sphere is it. In the face of such success, it's a shame that the rest of the game doesn't stack up quite as high as the awe-inspiring visuals.

My colleagues have already talked up many of my pros and cons, so let me dig a little bit deeper into Odin Sphere's most debated feature: the combat. 

Odin Sphere's complications are chiefly rooted in the combination of the various elements of gameplay that it seeks to incorporate. This isn't to say that these elements are implemented altogether poorly -- they just come up a little short. As Brad and Anthony have already mentioned, combat in Odin Sphere has a variety of faults which, originally, I had accepted as the sort of "flavor" of this particular brand of action RPG -- like the percentage charge in Secret of Mana or the ball-breaking difficulty of God Hand. I was getting creamed on a fairly regular basis, so I had to ask myself: is this a failing of design, or do I just suck? It's a little bit of both. 

Odin Sphere implicitly asks the player to abandon some of their expectations of the beat-'em-up genre by incorporating a few choice elements into the works -- namely, the heavy emphasis on item creation and use in combat and the POW bar, which Brad had mentioned earlier. As veterans of the brawler genre, our instincts would lead us into battle with both barrels blazing, slamming that attack button for all we're worth, hurling ourselves into the fray with reckless abandon. This strategy, while useful in brawlers like God Hand and The Red Star, won't get you far in Odin Sphere -- and the game doesn't give you any indication that your approach isn't just off, it's damn useless. It's a hard lesson, and one you'll have to learn on your own, if you're as intimate with the brawler genre as we are.

The revelation goes something like this: near the end of the game's first main storyline, Gwendolyn's saga, it finally occured to me that this isn't so much a brawler wrapped in an RPG; it's an RPG wrapped in a brawler. I slowed my onslaught tried to pay attention to the movements and tells of the enemy sprites -- anything to help me anticipate their attacks. I planned my assaults, worked in a divide-and-conquer strategy, and suddenly the combat became much less frustrating. Sure, the enemy could still bust up my combos with a well-timed strike, but with a bit of effort, I found that I could prevent them from ever getting an opportunity. 

Once you get the swing of things, Odin Sphere proves to be a spectacular game. But a game that expects you to conform so rigidly to a particular style of play just to succeed -- hell, just to avoid mind-numbing frustration -- is bound to lose points in anybody's book, especially mine. I like games that offer myriad paths to victory, multiple ways to play. There are several ways to play Odin Sphere, but only a few of them will keep you from breaking the game in half.  

At its heart, Odin Sphere is an action RPG that suffers from a crippling identity crisis. It aspires to be a complex, inventory-driven RPG while also shooting for the halcyon realm of quality beat-'em-up. In theory the combination of these elements sound quite tantalizing, and in practice -- well, it is. It just takes a little more time and effort to get engaged than you might originally suspect. Vanillaware had a particular brand of gamer in mind when they made this game -- should you submit to their expectations, Odin Sphere should prove an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

Verdict: Rent it!
Score: 7.0

Destructoid Review Final Verdict

Final Score: 6.2



Aaron Linde,
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