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Back in 1997, Atlus released an Action RPG for the Sega Saturn known as Princess Crown. It was never well known and was never released to US shores, primarily due to how the console flopped in the United States. However, it spawned a cult classic, and 10 years later, a game called Odin Sphere is released, developed by newcomer Vanillaware (who recently released Grim Grimoire) and published by Atlus. It is considered a spiritual successor to Princess Crown, as it features a lot of similarities to the game, from the story structure to character designs and even a similar interface. I have never played Princess Crown so I had no idea of what to expect. Upon completing the game, I was surprised how good the game was, and realized it'd been a while since a game got me this engaged.
The story is split into a series of five books, read by a little girl in an attic. Each book contains a different protagonist, and all the books are connected, showcasing different perspectives of the main plot. You start off with access to only one book and unlock the next as you beat the previous book.
World of Erion contains several nations, each keeping tabs on the other and striking if another shows weakness. One day, the kingdom of Valentine gets wiped out by its own weapon, The Cauldron. Seeing this as an opportunity, Odin's troops and their fairies attempt to seize the cauldron while other nations remained neutral. What they don't know is that this string of events follows a forgotten ancient prophecy that will lead to the worlds end.
To start things off, the first book's protagonist is demon lord Odin's daughter, Gwendolyn. Her older sister, Griselda, died during a battle, entrusting Gwendolyn with her special spear, a weapon made of a special jewel known as a Psypher. Gwendolyn always sought her father's love, and would be willing to die to hear him say he loved her. As she serves the king, she is tormented by trying to please her father and staying true to her personal beliefs.
Each book shows the perspective of the character during certain events, whether they are involved or completely elsewhere when it occurs. Because of this structure, the main plot barely progresses until the very end, focusing a lot on the protagonists and their ordeals as they overcome their own problems and issues while learning bits and pieces about the contents of the prophecy.
Each story was good due to the excellent characterization. Each book roughly takes about 5-10 hours to complete, and within this short time frame each protagonist received a good amount of development, and I felt an attachment to each of them. Each protagonist is deep and interesting, and I found myself already liking some just minutes after their introduction. Some even left a lasting emotional impression. Secondary characters are also great and received good development throughout the game, and like the protagonists, they kept my interest.
What made the characters great was the excellent script and localization, courtesy of Atlus. The script is sophisticated, using a bit of a Shakespearean style, but easily understandable. With the plot being a drama and the game's theatrical presentation, it was the perfect choice of style and remained interesting.
Upon completing five books, a sixth book is unlocked to conclude the major events. The five books alone were all good in their own right, but the events in the final book are simply amazing and filled with epic goodness. It felt like such a nice reward for getting this far, as the plot really kicked it up a notch, leaving me feeling satisfied. The ending was also quite powerful, and upon fulfilling certain conditions, a true ending can be unlocked.
To make things better, the game features the option to look back at any scene in the game at any given time. A great way to re-watch any scene and a feature I feel all RPGs should have.
The main draw of this title, though, comes from its artistic graphic style; words alone cannot explain how amazing they are. It really pushed a nearly 7-year-old console to it limits and shows how well 2D can be utilized in this day and age. The environments are fantastic with each locale being unique and detailed with a lot going on in the background for some extra flair. The backgrounds are hand-drawn which results in a unique, sophisticated style with the charm of a fairy tale. Character sprites vary in size and they all have an excellent degree of detail and animation. The main characters all look exotic while massive bosses and other major characters look intimidating and powerful. Even regular enemies and NPCs are well done, even if there aren't too many of them. All the cutscenes are in-game and have unique presentations. With the game's style and script, it's portrayed as if you're watching a theatrical play.
With this amount of detail comes a price, unfortunately. In exchange for pretty visuals, the game suffers serious slowdown when there are too many enemies on screen and on a certain boss fight. It's easily manageable, but it's an annoying factor when the going gets tough.
It's also a downer how frequently the environments get rehashed; only having 8 stage environments and a few other locales is a bit of a pain. It makes sense, though, given the game takes place in a small world. Even with the slowdown and rehashing, the beauty of what is presented is so unique and breathtaking, especially later on, the pros eclipse the cons. The game is a true work of art, having a charm no 3D game can capture.
Hitoshi Sakimoto is the game's composer. He composed many Square Enix RPGs such as Final Fantasy XII and the upcoming Revenant Wings. He utilizes orchestra to convey emotions and executed the battle themes in a cinematic style. I always liked the epic scope of his battle themes, such as those in Final Fantasy Tactics. All the vocal songs he composed are also excellent. It's not the best of his work I've heard, but fits well with the game's, graceful charm.
The game also provides full voice acting, and Atlus incorporated a dual language option that you can switch during gameplay. It's not surprising that the Japanese voice acting is better, featuring a lot of prolific voice actors. Fortunately, the English is solid, managing to retain the Shakespearean style without feeling flat or cheesy most of the time. Some of the English VA, such as the NPC Oswald, are a bit weak, though I was not into Oswald's Japanese VA either. Occasionally, the execution of some lines can come off stiff or awkward, but regardless, I found the English VA to be enjoyable in its own right. You can't go wrong with either option.
Odin Sphere is a side-scrolling, Action RPG, and from the first stage, it follows a specific formula. Each book consists of 7 chapters, each containing a mission to go through. These missions consist of mini-stages of various difficulties, rated by stars on the map. The objective is always to defeat all enemies, and there is a timer for each stage. Upon completing the stage, you will be ranked based on how fast you completed it along with how little damage you receive. Higher ranks give better rewards, but there is always a certain item dropped on each stage. Amongst these mini-stages are two mini-boss rooms and two shops. At the end, you go fight the main boss, which has no timer, rank or rewards.
Since every mission follows the formula and the enemies, most bosses, and even stage structures get rehashed, the game can be quite repetitive, so you'll fare better playing in small doses to keep the enjoyment fresh. It only gets different in the final book, which only has boss fights. For what it does provide, its still fun, and the missions themselves are short at least. The game poses quite a challenge, with emphasis on skill and item management over mindless rampage. This especially holds true for bosses, as most of them require you to pull off a lot of skills and have a pinch of luck.
For each book containing a different protagonist, however, there isn't a huge degree of variety to their playstyles, with almost everyone but Mercedes fighting similar. Each does possess one unique ability as well as different combos, speed, hp and strength, so that they aren't carbon copies of one another. They also share the same abilities too, and while it proved to be a downer initially, these abilities are extremely useful and I was glad each character had them.
There are two sets of exp bars for each character to gain. The first is your Psypher, where you absorb phozons (life energy) from defeated enemies. Tougher enemies yield more phozons while mini-bosses release a bunch. Leveling up your Psypher would increase attack power along with learning new abilities and increasing your Psypher gauge every few levels. The second is HP, which you can only level up by eating. You can plant a seed during a battle which will grow only if it absorbs phozons. Grown food provides a good amount of exp while bought ones provide very little.
In addition to combat, there is an alchemy and cooking system that is unlocked early on. Alchemy is where you make items by combining chemicals with special plants called mandragoras, hidden underground, and which can be found by the squeaking noises they make. Cooking is where you go either to a café or kitchen, bringing ingredients and a coin to receive a nice meal, gaining massive exp for HP. As you progress, you will come across recipes as an occasional stage award. Alchemy is beneficial for creating items to enhance your hero, along with forging up destructive items. Cooking is the best way to gain HP exp and can be downright addicting. Both crafts are great and add a lot to the game.
You can switch difficulty any time during the game, and upon beating the game on hard mode from start to finish, you unlock heroic difficulty where enemies are vicious, and the little HP you have will never increase. Aside from unlocking the ultimate difficulty and true ending, there is little else to do in the game, but it provides a solid length of around 40 hours with a simple but fun fighting system and addicting crafts.
One of my pet peeves for action RPGs is that the majority of what I've played have had clunky controls. While it can feel awkward at times, the controls are solid with good response, while keeping it simple. The interface is well done, featuring an extremely useful radar. It showcases your character, along with enemies, attacks, and items. What makes the radar so well done is that it displays how the enemy looks in a miniature scale and exactly showcases their movement and actions from initiating attacks to falling in defeat. Accessing items is simple as you toggle through each bag with the L1/R1 button and provides a shortcut to showcase all your items to organize.
The game does suffer from some nasty load times, particularly in the towns or starting up a stage. They are not long in general, but the buildup leads to annoyance.
To sum up, never have I seen a game so visually pleasing. If you look past the heavy repetition, Odin Sphere is a fun game with solid concepts, along with a great musical score and interesting plot. I applaud Atlus for releasing this masterpiece, especially just five days after Japan's release. Rent it at the very least, but for just $40, you can't go wrong with purchasing it. It's a one of a kind gem and a worthy contender for best RPG of 2007.