Friday, April 17, 2009

Why I’ve Stopped Playing Odin Sphere

This was early in the game...when everything was still fresh. A few months ago, Odin Sphere dropped as a Greatest Hit.  For twenty bucks, I picked up one of the last critically-acclaimed PS2 RPGs this side of the Persona series.  I plowed through the game’s first two chapters before my playtime slowly waned.  An uptick in real-life work coincided with classic RPG fatigue. 

How could a game so renowned, and seemingly worth the praise, manage to lose me?

There are more than a few things to like about Odin Sphere.  Beautiful art.  A colorful cast of characters acted more than competently (no small feat for any RPG).  And an episodic structure that invokes Rashomon in its attempt to interweave narratives.  Instead of amassing a party, you play as individual characters, whose narratives subtly overlap.  It’s not uncommon to fight a character, then find yourself controlling them a few hours later.  Perhaps not groundbreaking, but certainly a welcome change of pace.

This narrative device plays directly into the game’s mechanics.  Odin Sphere is an action RPG, a 2D brawler merged with a Seiken Densetsu ring inventory system.  The combo-friendly combat feels refreshing in a genre dominated by variations on the Active Time Battle system.  And the characters each handle slightly differently: whereas the first two double jump and wield melee weapons, the third can fly and brandishes a crossbow.

Unfortunately, the game too often treads over the same environments, hoping your new character will make all the difference.  It doesn’t.  I’ve fought the Queen of the Underworld (dripping frame rate and all) with each character now, and her patterns don’t change.  Sure, I may have to slightly change my tactics with one character, but the boss is essentially the same. 

Herein lies the crux of my issue with Odin Sphere: I’m over twenty hours in and I feel like the progression of the player has eclipsed the progression of the character(s).  This is the drawback of an overlapping episode story structure.  Yes, my Valkyrie leveled up nicely after eight hours or so.  But then my Pooka Prince starts all over, while I, the player, grow increasingly adept at manipulating the game. 

Odin Sphere’s food/alchemy system is another example of how player progression can suck the fun out of a game.  To recover health, you must grow food by planting seeds on battle maps, which grow after enemies are defeated.  Furthermore, food contributes experience to your character’s level, thereby giving them more total hit points.  Not only can you simply eat your harvest, you can save it for ingredients in more beneficial cafe recipes.  Similarly, you regularly pick up base alchemy material, which you combine with food and other found objects to create useful potions.

While both systems appear simple at first, they reward the player who learns to grind and exploit the system.  Want more HP?  Put in the time to farm high-yielding fruit and spend your money on better recipes.  Want more weapon experience from your alchemy?  You better start managing your inventory like Scrooge McDuck, carefully selecting when and where to use up even the most meaningless items in potion combinations.  I find this experience analogous to the underlying strategies in newer Pokémon iterations (as noted by Penny Arcade and seconded by our own Andrew in private conversation).  The systems are there to be exploited, if you care to notice them.  But like the red dot on Elaine’s sweater, you can’t unnotice them.  It becomes near impossible to pass up making the highest experience-granting sorbet possible and just get on with the damn story.

To be a bit more concise, it is some of what Odin Sphere does well that’s actually derailed me.  Atlus eschewed a robust, multi-faceted character growth/customization system – something that would have no place in a 2D brawler anyway.  Ironically, removing a more conventional, bulky system draws focus to the characters themselves.  How they’re written.  How they’re animated.  However, with conventional character customization lacking, we’re given an item combination system so deep you could drown, which distracts from a surprisingly worthwhile story. 

And the story is what will (eventually) bring me back to Odin Sphere.  While it’s more than a tad melodramatic, the characters aren’t all one-dimensional archetypes.  The episodic structure’s at its best here.  It allows the player to encounter characters in a number of plotlines, shedding light on ulterior motives and fleshing out background stories.  I’m looking forward to seeing how these separate narrative strands converge.  I’d love to have an actual party in the last episode and have to choose whoever’s most suited to a particular world or boss.

I’m not giving up on this game by any means.  I still have two more characters I haven’t played (according to the manual anyway).  And I’ll likely do a postmortem when should I reach the end.   I just have to plow through all the Harvest Moon getting in my way.