Apr 032008

So I came to a compromise on the review issue. I’m not going to do much discussion of the aspects of a video game that don’t relate directly to the theme or the atmosphere, which are the subjects I want to focus on in the critiques. At the same time, there are going to be some instances, like this one, where a game really deserves some additional criticism or discussion for some of the design aspects. In some cases this will be because of exceptionally good choices that were made in the design process, but in others it will be because of the flaws in the process. And the simple fact is that Odin Sphere had several flaws, some of which nearly made me toss the controller down and take the disc out.

Odin Sphere is an example of a rare case in which the coding, rather than the artistic direction or the writing, was the weakest link in the game. Music, graphics, story, and design create the experience for the player. Coding can’t create a good experience if these elements are trash. It can, however, work against them by pushing a player’s mind out of the world of the game. It’s a thankless task to be a programmer, I’m sure. The designers, artists, and musicians get all the print. But it’s the people in the trenches writing the game engine that make all the other aspects work together to create art. In this case, unfortunately, the programming (and perhaps the hardware) wasn’t equal to the task that the experiential elements demanded.

Although it is graphically beautiful, Odin Sphere doesn’t seem to run on very efficient code. Anytime a large number of moving elements are present on screen the framerate drops, sometimes significantly. This isn’t just a problem with too many enemies—the frequent slowdown in the Netherworld stages is associated with background elements. Even stages with relatively few enemies can suffer significant drops if too many phozons are left floating in the air. Because several of the boss battles are very complex, with lots of moving elements, they can be especially afflicted. The battles against Odette and Belial get to be very frustrating because of the framerate failures. The feeling that you could punch in a combo and go make a sandwich before the animation stopped really removes you from a fight.

Speaking of going to make a sandwich, Odin Sphere features some truly amazing load times, especially when going between the Pooka Village and the restaurants. No number of charming little animations will hide the time it takes to move between screens and stages. Often there is substantial loading after you enter a stage as well. Slowdown and load screens kill a player’s engagement in a game.

Aside from the technical base, a few design elements were notably off. The controls were a bit muddy, and made to feel more so by the fact that cancels were impossible. Once you start a combo your only option is to see it through or stop acting entirely, which was something of a problem in the more complex boss fights. The inventory system also could have been much improved—it seemed like half the time you weren’t fighting was spent managing the tightly constrained inventory. Shrinking that down so much didn’t feel like it served much of a purpose; there’s no need to be “realistic” about the inventory size in a game where each level ends with a gigantic treasure chest falling from the sky. The inventory management was a needless distraction from the game’s better elements.

Another flaw was that the revelation of recipes for alchemy and the restaurants didn’t match up with the modular nature of the story. You find a recipe for a moderate healing potion in the first book of the story, but the stronger healing potion isn’t found until the fourth book. In the meantime, however, you have brought several characters to a point where the “H” potion isn’t of any benefit. There was no gameplay or story reason to hold the Elixir back, and doing so forces the players to replay books in order to give their characters a meaningful healing potion for the final stages. Revealing the recipes piecemeal would have been more acceptable if the player was free to experiment and find things on his own. However, you aren’t allowed to make any alchemy mix for which you don’t have the recipe.

As for the restaurant, the fact that the story is told very much out of order makes its recipe system seem extremely strange. Why can Velvet buy “egg on toast” right away, when in the linear timeline that recipe won’t be found until much time has passed? This complaint can also be leveled at the alchemy recipes. In short, the recipe system was illogical and needlessly forced a replay of previous books.

The reason the replay of previous books was a problem was that you literally had to replay them. That is, once you finished all five main books and wanted to buff your characters for the final battle, you had to start each of those books from the beginning, rather than entering each one at a point later on where you had access to all or most of its levels. As a result, you had to play rather a long time to reach a point where you could buy the bags you needed for inventory or get the raw materials necessary to make elixirs. It seems like this could have been avoided.

For the most part, however, Odin Spherefeatures reasonable design choices. The diversity of fighting styles of the main characters means that the repetition of levels and bosses never gets boring. The character development system is intuitive and still manages to feature an intelligent trade-off. And for the most part, the game is very forgiving about providing you with materials to produce the potions you need in the areas where they’re needed (the notable exception being Titania). While most battles allow you to get by just by whacking at your enemies and using special powers, you can usually find additional strategies or tricks for each particular fight that makes it easier. The game is balanced, has a relatively even difficulty progression, and only one really unreasonable enemy (the slimes). The choices are solid but not spectacular; for the most part this is a game where the mechanics try to make themselves as unobtrusive as possible. That’s why the smaller failings seemed so glaring.

  5 Responses to “Odin Sphere gameplay notes”

  1. So when are we going to get to the point that developers can do away with load screens? I can understand for older systems without a lot of storage and memory, but both of those are so cheap and available now there shouldn't be any excuse. Hell, there was enough on the PS2 for God of War II to get done without any load screens, shouldn't expect as much if not more from newer systems?

    BTW, Crisis Core is stunning.

  2. It's something I don't really understand myself. I mean, just using clever programming and design both Shadow of the Colossus and the Metroid Prime games (on the friggin' GAMECUBE) almost entirely avoided load screens while still looking amazing and being generally awesome games. And in the case of Odin Sphere the longest loads were for very small areas (the restaurants), although granted these areas were very animated and had some extra features.

    I don't think it's really a hardware issue so much as laziness and inefficiency. Just as with bad writing, players are usually willing to accept a great experience despite long loads. And fixing long loads isn't something that's easy to do late in the process—it seems the strategies that avoid load times have to be implemented early on in development. Until there's a serious push back from players, it's going to be a low priority, or it's going to get addressed (as in DMC4) by mandatory installs.

  3. I think mandatory installs are just the first step in closing the circle of consoles. Not 20 years from now I'm thinking consoles will essentially turn into PCs, albeit ones that ONLY play media from their makers.
    And thus the cycle will be complete, the ninth gate shall open and the three horsemen of the apocalypse (hey, it's been tough times in the afterlife lately, gotta expect SOME layoffs) will ride forth….

  4. I'm no expert, but the fact that OS is a sprite-based game might have something to do with it. Polygons (aka fancy math equations) are just waaaay easier to render. Just like how vector graphics load/draw faster than raster.

    I think.

    Still, I feel your pain. OTOH, I thought the slowdown was very SNES… and brought some nostalgia. But I can see how it can be viewed as unacceptable in this day and age.

    PS: I heard that if the game is loaded onto a PS3 (80g specifically), there is noticably much less slowdown/loading.

  5. I also heard that the PAL version has much better optimization. No word on whether that translated to the new Greatest Hits edition.

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