The Game: Odin Sphere (2007)
Developer: VanillaWare
Publisher: Atlus
System: PS2, Playstation Network
Buy It On Amazon: RIGHT HERE 

The Premise: A young girl named Alice reads about the legends of five separate Wagnerian/Norse-inspired heroes, often crossing over into each others’ tales, and culminating in a final book where the fate of the world is decided.

Is It Any Good: Absolutely. In fact, it’s a downright masterpiece of storytelling, gameplay and visuals, and proof that 2d, sprite based games can take on the passage of time with a strength few of its 3d, polygonal brethren have been able to show. Seriously, this is easily one of the most gorgeous games ever made. Every character and background is a hand painted work of art, and aside from the occasional slowdown/frame rate drop, it loses none of that gorgeousness in motion. Even the NPC/enemy design is mesmerizing. Do not be surprised if you lose some boss battles just because you were distracted by what is pretty much a moving, living and breathing painting of a game.  Hell, just witness it in action:

If like me, you have been sort of irked by the oversexualized designs–both male and female–of VanillaWare’s latest game, Dragon’s Crown (which is otherwise being universally praised right now, and you bet a review is forthcoming on this site), I point you to Odin Sphere. It avoids the most common tropes of videogames and Japanese media, presenting strong female and male characters that are inserted in a narrative where their characters and emotions are truly engaging and realistic despite the fantasy setting, and it breaks the mold of stereotypes and tradition of the genre on several occasions. Right at the start, you play as a female character, Gwendolyn, a valkyrie who is torn apart between her duty to her father and the man she loves to whom she is engaged. Gwendolyn’s story is magnificent in its complexity while retaining the classic elements that make fantasy engaging, culminating in a complete inversion of tropes, as Gwendolyn atones for her actions and risks everything in order to rescue what is most dear to her.

As you advance in the game, you discover more and more books in the library where Alice (the little girl reading the books, and hands down the most adorable cursor/menu in gaming), discovering new characters or even characters you’ve already met, who you start seeing in a new light as you play on. There’s  Oswald, whose transformation from a lone child in a magical realm to a knight regarded as a walking death in the battlefield reveals hidden depths in Gwendolyn’s story. There’s Cornelius, a lone prince whose forbidden love for an outcast princess sees him transformed into a strange yet cute humanoid rabbit creature, and starts him on a quest to regain his true form and return to his beloved, a quest that changes him and his view of the world completely, leading him to make a terrible choice. Then there is Mercedes, the young Princess of the Faeries who must grow from a young girl to a ruler, warrior and savior of her people, after a tragedy forces her to step up to terrible responsibility and burdens. Finally, you have the tale of Velvet, Cornelius’s forbidden love and the heir to a nothing kingdom, destroyed by a cataclysm brought on by avarice and desperation. Velvet’s tale is one of betrayal and vengeance, as she races to prevent a prophecy of Armageddon, unaware that her very actions might actually lead to it instead.

Once all five books are completed, a sixth book reveals the end of all things, as the choices and the crossing of paths of the five heroes end up triggering the end of the world, and the player, controlling each character, must piece together clues and legends from the previous tales to make the correct choices in battle that will reveal a seventh tome, where there might yet be hope for the world.

The monumental achievement of such a grand story and its framing device is further elevated by a damn near perfect localization. While the original Japanese audio is offered, Atlus, being one of the few companies that seem to be extremely in touch with their fans and the games they develop/publish, recruited some of the best voice actors and actresses in the business. The English cast features some extremely recognizable names for fans of anime, cartoon and videogame dubbing. Add in a magical score that fits each character, location and sequence brilliantly, and you have a masterpiece of both narrative and audiovisual design.

The gameplay is rock solid as well, emulating the right mixture of hack and slash with RPG elements of arcade masterpieces like D&D: Shadows of Mystara and the original Golden Axe games. Each circular stage in the game is either a battlefield, boss battle or safe town hub, where you’ll fight or interact with different characters as you progress into each book’s story chapters. While the usual elements of the genre are present (acquiring new gear from enemies/shops, earning sidequests, using alchemy to forge and upgrade items and acquiring new story lore from and so on), Odin Sphere does implement some new elements on its combat. Your heroes do get fatigued and benefit from standing still for a bit to avoid getting tired in the midst of combat, and each character wields a “Psypher” weapon, which gets enhanced as you absorb the crystals enemies drop after being defeated. Balancing defeating enemies, absorbing crystals and avoiding fatigue all leads to a gameplay that balances the challenge onscreen to the right level of reflexes, strategy and skill, although some of the boss encounters will test some player’s patience.

Odin Sphere is one of the few games that can be called an objective masterpiece. While its basic yet solid gameplay and the heavy anime influence of its story and characters might not be well received by some players, its achievements in design, style and narrative are far too impressive to deny it that masterpiece status. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but few of the precious and unique things in the gaming world are.

Bonus Points: Mythology, folklore, and Shakespeare enthusiasts will recognize a lot of characters, themes, and items in the game, although VanillaWare’s liberties taken with these in service of their story. Try Googling EVERYTHING.

Reaching the true and best ending of the game is based on choosing the correct sequence of characters for the last book’s chapters. It’s not exactly rocket science, but paying attention to the lore and the story of the game is well rewarded here.

The prevailing fan theory among fans is that Alice (the little girl in the library) is the direct descendant of Oswald and Gwendolyn.


MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: GrimGrimoire, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows of Mystara, Guardian Heroes