Apr 032008

The beginning of Odin Sphere seems to have little to do with the operatic introductory sequence or the characters shown in it. A young girl, exploring with her cat, finds a library of old books in a musty attic. She begins to read, and as the storybooks come (gloriously) to life, she finds herself lost in an earlier world, one that is tied to her own by a cycle of death and birth.

One need look no further than the title to recognize that Odin Sphere is aiming to evoke the feeling of Nordic sagas and the Ring of the Nibelung. There are some direct parallels to be found, and persistent references to these stories help establish the mythic atmosphere. Like the sagas, the story emphasizes destiny and prophecy; the more the characters struggle to avoid their fate, the closer they bring it. The player controls five characters (in different “books”), but the story is not presented linearly. Instead, each chapter opens a new angle into events that have already occurred.

The image of the ring lies at the heart of Odin Sphere. Much of the story is concerned with the struggle for a literal ring, called Titrel, that controls an enormous spherical Cauldron with the power to create immensely powerful weapons called Psyphers. Odin captures the Cauldron, but his illegitimate daughter Velvet, fearing the Cauldron’s destructive power, feeds Titrel to an enormous dragon named Wagner. Odin’s legitimate daughter Gwendolyn saves Velvet from the vengeance of Odin’s armies, but in doing so defies her father and so she must be put to sleep. She is told that she will love the first man she sees on waking.

In the meantime, the Shadow Knight Oswald (left), one of Odin’s enemies, has fallen in love with Gwendolyn. In order to win her hand, he defeats Wagner, giving the ring to Gwendolyn as a symbol of his love. Seeking her father’s approval, Gwendolyn gives Titrel to Odin. The remainder of her story consists of her efforts to win back the ring and rescue Oswald from death, as she has fallen in love with him. In the end she refuses to yield up the ring to her father.

Events spill off from this core narrative in all directions, and the player takes up the part of Velvet, Oswald, the fairy princess Mercedes, and the hapless prince Cornelius as they struggle futilely against fate. Cornelius, cursed by Velvet’s brother Ingway, accidentally releases Velvet’s mad grandfather from the Netherworld, who wreaks havoc and brings a world-ending dragon to life with the aid of the Cauldron.

Mercedes, trying to save her kingdom from Odin, unwittingly destroys the only weapon that had a chance of restraining the cataclysm. Oswald learns that Gwendolyn was lied to, that when she wakes her heart will still be her own, yet decides to awaken her anyway in hopes that he can make her happy. Each of them comes into contact with the ring, as well as confronting many of the same enemies (and each other) in combat. The repetition of areas and bosses (especially the dragon Belial, seen at right) is itself a kind of cycle within the game. It should be noted that this never actually gets dull, because each of the characters plays in a different and interesting way.

The game contributes another kind of cycle in that each of its two-dimensional stages is actually a circle. If you continue far enough in any direction you will come back to the spot that you left. From a gameplay perspective this allows the construction of rather complex level maps in the context of what amounts to an old-school side-scroller. But the circular level structure also emphasizes what the player should expect from the game.

Similarly, the results of combat foreshadow the end of the game. In death each enemy releases a number of brightly glowing “phozons”. The player can choose to absorb these into the character’s weapon, enabling special attacks and increasing the character’s combat strength. If, however, the player has planted certain seeds in the stage, those plants will draw in the phozons as they grow and bear fruit. The character can eat these to heal and increase HP. In this regard, deaths are made to literally produce life. Even the phozons drawn into the psyphers have the same ultimate effect, because at the end of the game these weapons are used to power the Cauldron so that it can cover the world with new life after Armageddon. Why not Ragnarok or Gotterdammerung? I have no idea.

This outcome of the game’s final cataclysm again echoes the Nordic myths. As the great serpent falls from the sky, Velvet uses Titrel to command the Cauldron, and a lush new world is born from the death of the old. Only Gwendolyn and Oswald, who were bound together by the ring, have survived the apocalypse to repopulate the world. Again we are treated to the circle, the emergence of death from life, reaching the end of all things only to find yourself at the beginning of all things.

The characters of Odin Sphere struggle against fate, striving to avoid their own deaths, the death of their loved ones, and the death of the world. But it is the nature of all things to die. And it is the nature of the world for new life to arise from death. In the epilogue, even Velvet, who struggled hardest to avoid the death fated to her, comes to accept this.

One way or another, every world ends, and then, another begins.

As of 4/2008 Odin Sphere is still available new from its publisher, Atlus.

  One Response to “The ring of death and life”

  1. Absolutely LOVE this article. It’s old but great. You point out some of the best of the game while you sharply point out the parts that needed criticism in the gameplay article.

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