Sometimes a game comes along that's a little bit like a slap in the face. It's not that you couldn't imagine a game like it ever might exist, but you certainly didn't expect it. Odin Sphere defies conventions, defies the logic of the game industry, and delivers a compelling adventure not merely because of its novelty but because of its intrinsic quality - which is much more satisfying.
Odin Sphere is a 2D, side-scrolling action RPG. But it's not a throwback to the ideas of the past. It only superficially resembles any of the genre's classics. It forges its own path: lush artwork that owes more to Russian cartoons than the anime aesthetic you'd expect; stripped-down and honed gameplay systems that deliver RPG-like depth without slowing the game down.
The game tells the tale of five different characters - their fates intertwined. What's interesting is not necessarily the story but the way it's told; most games are rooted in cliches ripped from action movies and comics, but Odin Sphere draws its influence from mythology and literature. The resulting melodrama has a very distinct feel. The events in the story - such as the Valkyrie Gwendolyn's cruel fate - have mythic resonance, even if the story doesn't do a careful job of following the Norse mythology it borrows from. It's a bold choice in an era when all serious games ape Hollywood movies to run with this storybook look and tell a story that feels, if anything, like an opera or epic poem.
The gameplay revolves around several simple elements that mesh well. Each of the game's five main characters wields a special weapon known as a Psypher, which can level up in power. Your basic task is bludgeon your enemies until they die. The simple combo system requires a little timing, but it's hardly demanding - and the only attack button is Square. Still, you'll have your hands full dealing with the waves of enemies, whose behaviors govern your strategy much more than your attack options. Dodging, blocking and even retreating is necessary - this is not an easy game.
As you defeat enemies, special particles called Phozons are emitted. These power up your weapon but can also be used to grow plants that produce fruit - which leads us to the other RPG element. As you eat food, your character's HP builds. Collecting Phozons (to improve your weapon) and eating food (to strengthen your character) are the only two means of leveling you have to worry about - it's very streamlined. Beyond that, you have to deal with mixing potions for various effects. It all sounds simple (and it is, separately) but when thrown together on a chaotic battlefield, it's more than enough to engage all of your attention.
Realizing that the conventions of classic games feel clunky 2007, the developers have tempered their love for older titles by making some very appealing changes. When you die, you can jump right back into the action - from the start of the battle that killed you, meaning the challenge is preserved. You can also duck out of the dungeon you're in at any time to shop and save - you'll just have to start it over. These "dungeons" are really just interlocked series of battles, so you won't get bored backtracking. Odin Sphere has all of the convenience of a contemporary game without throwing away its responsive, speedy gameplay.
It has to be said again - this game is absolutely beautiful. It puts paid to the prejudice against 2D gaming we've seen arise in the last few years, with a storybook elegance and beauty that - let's face it - looks better than a lot of the sloppy, so-called "next generation" games we're seeing on newer systems. The classically inflected soundtrack - by the same composer chosen for Final Fantasy XII - underpins the drama and action beautifully.