To call Odin Sphere a role-playing game would be to entirely mislabel it. By common understanding, an RPG mostly involves navigating menus and passively controlling the motions and actions of the playable characters. Odin Sphere is much closer to an action game with elements borrowed from many other genres: real-time strategy, beat-em-ups, shooters, and even card games. With an emphasis on action, Odin Sphere plays as if it was thrown into a melting pot of such elements and emerged as a spectacular theatrical experience that is nearly stunning, yet isn't without flaws.
The game begins with a strong presentation and sense of itself. While the opening loads, a small staff roll informs you of its director, a position usually obscured or hidden in the end credits. The first scene opens up with a young girl standing in a room with a black cat wandering around and a large hardbound book is sitting on the floor. The game's visual style becomes immediately apparent as a blend between Sir John Tenniel (the illustrator of the original Alice in Wonderland) and modern anime. The tone is also set when the player realizes that they have to pick up the book and begin reading to start the game. All five playable characters come with their own books and story lines, and you have to start "reading" the book every time you load your game. This gives the atmosphere of the story a whimsical and fairy tale feeling from the very beginning.
Directed by George Kamitani (known for his directorial debut on the Sega Saturn with Princess Crown), the game takes you through a lengthy theatrical performance on par with its inspiration Der Ring des Nibelungen (commonly known as The Ring) by 19th century composer Richard Wagner. The opera for The Ring is generally a four night performance that takes about 15 hours to watch, a feat which even rivals a back-to-back viewing of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy in its extended form. As a result it's very rarely reproduced, a fate that hopefully won't befall long-form, beautifully drawn, two-dimensional games such as Odin Sphere. While The Ring influenced Odin Sphere, the connections are loose, and what the director himself even calls a "Kamitani-style take on Norse mythology" as opposed to a direct re-telling.
Immediately after the abstract storybook waiting room Odin Sphere throws the player right into the story of a major conflict between nations for a cauldron that forges the most powerful gems. The importance of the gems is only initially suggested, and it takes many hours for the true significance of everything that's shown in the very early game to emerge. This isn't necessarily a benefit though. The game takes a good fifty hours (or more) to finish, and by the end you probably won't remember all the details that the game takes a meticulous joy in making seem important.
The game is ultimately a balancing act of wanting to see what happens next--and in turn putting together the overall puzzle of the narrative--and combat that can end up going on much longer than it should. The story itself isn't bad, reminiscent of the fables by Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm. But it never goes any further than that. The conflicts are very straightforward and the enemies are mostly cut and dry. There's a bit of bleed over from the general teen angst common in many RPGs, but that's far from noteworthy inside of a medium that is awash with such stories. While hardly anything worth mentioning in the realm of literature or even theatre, the story weaves in and out of itself in a way that is more compelling and entertaining than a large portion of the current offerings.
The gameplay, like its namesake, flows in a circular formation. Each of the five characters starts out similarly: seemingly simplistic combat with easy tactics and hardly any need for strategy. Similarly, every character escalates into a fevered pitch of complex combat needs, preemptive planning, and a unique strategy in order to finish the later levels. Unfortunately, in between all this, the game waxes and wanes between tedium and excitement.
It is the real interaction with the game that drags things out more than the cut scenes. Between the High School level acting performances on the stage of the game, the player will fight through mostly similar levels with very small variations of the enemies. Some levels are more interesting and compelling, with challenging enemies that force you to constantly change your strategy, while others tend to be blander and straightforward. Though out of it all the levels remain gorgeous and infused with life: constantly flowing, moving, breathing, and overall, alluring. The levels are fast paced with wave after wave of enemies that are easily broken up into ground or air combat. The enemies don't vary much for each level internally, but all are unique to there specific location and all themed appropriately.
To add to the combat the developers designed an ingenious way of getting health and experience: plants. The planting system works easily enough with the player placing a seed in the ground and having it grow by absorbing phozons (the energy of fallen foes). Different seeds harvest different plants which in-turn offer different amounts of experience and health; alternatively, food grown from these seeds can be collected and used to make gourmet cuisine at one of the two restaurants nestled between locations. Potions can also be crafted by add various fruits and vegetables into empty beakers to create an elixir ranging from helpful to useless. To not waste phozons, the player can store them in their weapon, which simultaneously increases the attack power and stores up energy for a strong attack.
The best part of all these elements is that, for the most part, they're done in real-time and integrated perfectly into the game's flow. When entering a new stage the player can plant a grape seed, kill a dozen enemies to feed the plant, cut the grapes from the vine, eat the grapes (refilling health), use the stem from the grapes in a potion, create a napalm potion, and then throw the napalm potion at an enemy to kill them. This all happens in real-time with mild pausing for item selection. And if it's done incorrectly, a potion or fruit can be knocked from your hands before it can be used properly, resulting in tension and need for planning. It's mostly seamless, fast, and streamlined making the longest part of the above-described scenario the actual combat needed to kill enough enemies to grow the grape vine.
Since each of the characters have a different emphasis, different techniques are needed in combat. Learning these new tactics is the source of much of the enjoyment in the beginning, but once these are learned they can become slightly tedious in practice. Three of the five characters play quite similarly, with close combat being their main form of attack. There are two very unique characters though, one which fires a crossbow and flies through the air (the Fairy Queen) and another who uses chains to attack at both close and long range. The placement of these characters is spaced well in-between the similarly playing sword wielding characters. Outside of the Fairy Queen, all the characters attacks follow a similar flow: simple combos that end in a very strong attack as well as a separate air attack combo. The real fun comes in figuring out which technique works best in each situation..
As it stands, the game is very good, but there are a few problems. The action is tough and fast enough that it will give even the most hardened gamer a run for their money, yet versatile enough so that gamers who aren't as inclined for a challenge can use their smarts instead by leveling up and creating powerful. I personally love a good challenge, and playing the game on the hard difficulty got all the right responses from my slightly masochistic pleasure centers kicking. The story is engaging and well put together (if not a bit overwrought) with a climatic ending that is rivaled only by the beauty of its presentation.
Many of the problems that I have with the game would be easily solved if the game was paced a bit differently and shortened. Because Odin Sphere treads the same levels over and over again - there's very little variation within each location - it hits a point near the middle of each character's story where the game wears a little thin. With a bit of editing on the story and organization (for example, there are hardly any unique locations because every character goes through nearly all the same places) Odin Sphere would be about the closest thing to a perfect action game that I've played in a long time.