IT MAY LOOK LIKE AN ACTION GAME, but it’s really an in-depth RPG.
Reports of the PlayStation 2’s death have been greatly exaggerated. After the release of the PlayStation 3 this past November, it seemed logical to assume we’d heard the last of the venerable PS2. Then a funny thing happened: nobody released any games for the PS3. Instead, we got God of War II for the PS2, an action-adventure game that outshone anything on the next-gen systems. Now we’re treated to a gorgeous role-playing game called Odin Sphere. It’s not a worldbeater, but its visual look and action-infused gameplay make it the sort of fresh title that’s sorely missing from the current crop of next-gen retreads.
The first thing you’ll notice upon booting up are the visuals. Like last year’s Okami, Odin Sphere favors a stylized, anime-like look. It’s also simply, defiantly two-dimensional. The closest this game gets to 3-D is in its multiple layers of parallax-scrolling background elements. The backgrounds are gorgeous, but they pale in comparison with the hand-drawn characters — the protagonists’ vitality and verve are unmatched by anything in more realistic 3-D renderings. These characters battle screen-filling dragons and interact with non-player characters like King Odin, whose massive frame sags under the weight of his worry. For anyone who considers games an artistic medium, Odin Sphere is a must-play.
For everyone else, it’s a bit dicier. On the surface, Odin Sphere looks like an old-school brawler — Streets of Rage set to high fantasy. But if you try to play it that way, relying on reflexes and button mashing, you’ll be disappointed. Each self-contained level takes place in a circular plane; though the worlds appear to be flat, running far enough in one direction will bring you back to where you started. Clearing a stage never takes more than a few minutes: the game throws a few waves of enemies at you, and once you’ve beaten them, you get a grade on your performance. You have just one button doubling as an attack and a block function, so no amount of twitch gaming skill will help you advance beyond the earliest portions.
In fact, Odin Sphere is an in-depth RPG that only appears to be an action game. Defeating enemies depends more on careful planning than on brute force. The basis of all your strategy lies in the Phozons — the units of energy that bind all living creatures in the game world. You acquire Phozons primarily from slaying foes, though you can also nab them from special plants or the occasional butterfly. They power up your weapon, which is called a Psypher; they also cause seeds to germinate. The different uses for Phozons means that you need to have a plan from the outset of each level: start off by planting some seeds, and once they’ve borne fruit, use the remaining Phozons to bolster your Psypher. The fruit and other foodstuffs will help your character level up. As you get deeper into the game, you’ll need to perform more such balancing acts. Each item presents a choice: do you level up your Psypher or your character? Do you hang onto an offensive item or one that will restore your hit points? Given that you have limited space in your inventory, deciding what items are expendable becomes a matter of life or death.
The role-playing aspect of Odin Sphere, as well as its overwhelmingly Japanese presentation, may keep it from reaching a wide audience in the West. That’s unfortunate, but understandable. Odin Sphere is more likely to find a small and passionate fan base. Still, it’s proof that the PS2 is still vital. The $600 PlayStation 3 is dying for something like this.