ODIN SPHERE / Atlus / Playstation 2
Odin Sphere is a gorgeous game that often threatens to be brilliant. Unfortunately, it also collapses under the weight of some really atrocious design decisions, the absolute worst of which don't manifest themselves until after you've already sunk about 40 hours into the game.

As the bootup logos make sure to let us know (every single time), the game comes to us from George Kamitani and his company Vanillaware. George is responsible for the two legitimately excellent Dungeons and Dragons arcade games that Capcom put out in the 90s, and the semi-prequel to this game, Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn. He clearly has decided to make the beat-em-up his prime field of work in gaming; an interesting choice given that the beat-em-up largely died off due to its inherently repetitive nature. Odin Sphere attempts to transcend the boring repetitiveness of the genre in several ways, however. It has a complex (one could say "convoluted") story that has you switching between an ensemble cast of five main characters. It also adds a fairly complex system of inventory juggling, giving you limited space in which to collect and combine ingredients for both an alchemy system, and a restaurant which serves as your primary means of leveling up your health points.

As mentioned before, however, it also has a boatload of problems. But the gameplay, for the most part, is not one of them. Some characters are a little clunkier and more annoying to use than others, but on the whole it's quite smooth and satisfying, with a solid variety of enemies to beat down on that require varied tactics. The art is most certainly not one of the problems; this is easily the best-looking 2D game on the PS2, and it's in the running for best overall of all time. The somewhat Terry Gilliam-esque "cutout" animation style has a bit of an "uncanny valley" effect for the human characters that I actually found a bit off-putting at first, but after a couple hours of gameplay I found I no longer cared, and the backgrounds and enemies are roundly brilliant. I also think the musical score is Hitoshi Sakimoto's best. Granted, I haven't heard them all, so don't get too buttmad musical buttnerds. I do think it's better than any of the Tactics games, though, and those certainly aren't shabby to begin with.

Now here's the problems. The first is that this is effectively about a 10 or 15 hour game padded out to 40+. Though the story and inventory system do go a long way to helping the game stay fresher longer than the usual beat-em-up, every character visits some combination of the same 8 possible levels, and fights the same enemies over and over. Bosses are even recycled between chapters, which often leads to some goofy story contrivances. And while the story is actually a little more mature, tragic and interesting than your usual JRPG fare, cutscenes also often just droooooone on needlessly, adding even more padding to the game's total playtime.

The game also suffers from incredible slowdown whenever too many objects are on the screen. Sadly, many of the game's impressive boss battles are brought to a crawl by the fact that the designers didn't limit the amount of bullshit little creatures and objects they can summon, and once enough flood the screen the whole game chokes down to like 5 FPS. This problem may be circumventable by playing the PS3 downloadable version of the game, but on the PS2 it can be a real headache, and there's really no way to clear the screen or stop little assholes / random debris from being constantly generated.

The worst of it is the massively shitty "gotcha" the game pulls on you after sinking about 40 hours going through the main quest, however. After completing the 5th character's final chapter, you're thrown immediately into the final boss battle (which actually consists of 5 battles back-to-back, each of which is handled by one of the characters.) If you didn't stock enough healing items to survive these battles, however, or simply didn't level the character enough ... you're forced to play that character's ENTIRE CHAPTER AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING to level them up and get new items! Granted, you keep their current EXP level and inventory, but even with stomping through the story and skipping all the cutscenes, that's still a solid 4 hours or so for each chapter you'd need to replay. And while the final five bosses are so graphically impressive they're almost worth all the trouble just to see in action ... two are recycled from the main story :( To get the "good ending", the player must also fight each of the final bosses with one specific character ... but it turns out there's also a "true ending" which requires you to fight each boss with each of the wrong characters, just to get some little special scene each one has! How much free time does this George Katamari dude think people have?

Odin Sphere is interesting, very pretty, and often fun. But it's also one of those games that is cavalier about wasting the fuck out of your time with a bunch of pointless shit that shouldn't even be happening, and some of the boss designs seem like they were never even QA'd. It's almost the 2D Shadow of the Colossus, really - not thematically or gameplay-wise, but in the sense that it's trying to do things graphically that it knows the hardware is not fully capable of, yet gives no fucks and goes for it anyway, and it's greatly to the game's detriment.
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