Odin Sphere

Knights of the Round

Next-gen 2D is here, it just happens to be that Odin Sphere landed on the PS2.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: June 11, 2007
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I'm going to try to hold back on going into some long-winded tirade about the death of 2D games. Polygons eschewed hand-drawn sprites a good 10 years ago for most genres, though a lot of Japanese-developed role-playing games still stick to their guns. The art style certainly isn't entirely removed from video games, but the race to normal map millions of polygons per second has sort of chased the medium to handhelds where their diminished muscle makes something that isn't an orgy of 3D more understandable.

Thing is, most just assumed that sprites -- the flat hand-drawn animated elements that make up everything from the characters to the backgrounds in 2D games -- could really just get more detailed and higher-resolution without actually improving, animation-wise. And, technically, they were right; the sheer amount of memory needed to animate a ton of different characters on the screen in something that approached Disney-quality smoothness at any decent resolution would take up way too much memory, particularly in the case of Odin Sphere, which can throw a good dozen enemies on screen at once.

The solution lies in something shooters boasted at the height of their technological advancement: multi-jointed sprites. Attach smaller (but still very high-resolution) sprites to a basic skeleton and then animate the whole mess. This not only allows for things like characters that "breathe" and have more realistic movement, but it let developer Vanillaware go absolutely nuts with the detail, and it shows. Odin Sphere is the single most beautiful 2D game I've ever seen, and though all this technology can take its toll on the aging PS2 hardware, it still manages to convey the "wow" factor in the visuals department that most only get during the transition to next-gen systems.

It is, to put it as succinctly as possible, next-gen 2D. It just happens to be on a system that's seven years old.

I'll gush more at length about the visuals later, but suffice it to say that this is easily one of the most amazing feats of hand-drawn artwork in a game you'll ever see, and at the risk of exposing myself as the complete graphics whore that I am, I'd say the game is worth picking up just on the merits of looks alone. It's that damned pretty. Fortunately, it's also a damn fine game to boot, and likely unlike anything else you'll have played in years.

Part of it is the way that Vanillaware infused traditional side-scrolling elements with an old-school role-playing game core and then propped the pair up with a handful of little distractions like cooking/growing your own food, item synthesis and an innovative system for character growth. You'll encounter a few moments of old-school power leveling if you're a fan of that stuff, but by and large the game mixes the trappings of a classic RPG without most of the tedium -- provided you learn how to best use the game's core currency: Phozons.

Phozons, in a nutshell, are the souls of the departed. Usually you'll be giving them their one-way ticket to the underworld, but regardless, the end result is the same: little flitting pink orbs are barfed from the corpses of enemies and from there you have a few choices. The default one is just to absorb them by holding the R1 button. By sucking down Phozons, you'll level up your character's weapon, their Psypher. Not only does this make attacks more powerful, but at certain levels, new abilities that use up some stock of stored Phozon energy are unlocked. These are one of the key areas where each of the five main characters in the game differ, though, things like speed, range and moves go a long way toward separating them as you read through each of their intertwining tales.

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