Saturday, March 15, 2008

Super Smash Brothers Braaaaaaaaaaaawl!

Live under a rock? On the moon? Then this post might tell you something you don't already know. I've been caught by the Super Smash Brothers Brawl frenzy that is currently sweeping the planet (radiation currently leaving Earth and effecting outer space at the speed of light).

Super Smash Brothers Brawl is another one of those legendary titles that isn't just a game, but a powerful cultural force that changes the world. Almost everyone I know has played the game in the last week, and it's sure to be a hit at parties for the next few months (to say the least). So get the hell out of here Guitar Hero (just kidding, we still think you're okay).

Even right now, I am looking over at my Wii with the urge to just drop everything else and play SSBB for 12 hours. So, to sum it up: several different vs. modes, online play, 10 hour+ single player campaign, 35 characters, tons of stages, trophies, stickers, a custom stage maker, gigantic soundtrack, Sonic, Snake, Pit, Meta Knight, King Dedede, Lucas, game demos, and more.

Pixel art by Abysswolf.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Odin Sphere

Every few years a game comes along that far surpasses all others. In 1997, that game was Final Fantasy VII, ten years later, we receive Odin Sphere.

Every review of Odin Sphere has focused on it graphics, and with good justification. The artwork is fantastic. Odin Sphere successfully creates a unique art style, and I stress the word art. The characters are designed and drawn with incredible imagination. The artwork is anime, mixed with fantasy, plus a touch of cubism. In addition to the wonderful artwork, are detailed frames of animation. Characters must have hundreds of frames of animation a piece. I still do not think I can capture the amazing visual aesthetics of Odin Sphere in words, it is like trying to describe Picasso's artwork, words will, out of necessity, will never have the same effects as seeing visual art.

The music tends to blend into the background, but by not overpowering the game it adds a lot to the mood. Odin Sphere is a very somber game, at times. The characters are involved in serious business, almost constantly. Upbeat techno, or heavy metal would have spoiled the mood. Instead, Odin Sphere sports some fantastic orchestral compositions, that could have been slightly catchier. While the songs sacrifice a certain memorable quality (memorable as in Chrono Trigger, of Mega Man 2), they are well composed and arranged. Finally, the sound effects and voice acting are perfect. Each character comes to life through the voices of the great cast. The script is extremely long, and Odin Sphere is one of the few games that has voice acting for every single conversation, including NPCs. If a character speaks in Odin Sphere, the player gets to hear their voice.

Most importantly, Odin Sphere has amazing gameplay. Upon first playing, one might be inclined to button-mash. Fortunately, Odin Sphere will punish button smashing hard. The player has a POW meter, which must be refilled from time to time by not attacking. This may seem a bother, but it helps to keep the player in check. Due to elite enemies that do not suffer knockback (it is worth noting that the player also has an ability to become immune from knockback) the player is forced to hit and run. This develops into a great rhythm that rewards dodging attacks. Considering there is only one attack button, this is a welcome addition, as it creates a fairly deep play system using only one attack button. For a 2D action RPG, it offers the right amount of challenge, in part by allowing the player to switch between difficulty settings at will.

One of my personal favorite features, is the ability to play as five different characters, each with a unique playstyle. This concept is central to the way the story is told. The player receives part of the story by playing through the first character's (Gwendolyn, a flying, spear-wielding Valkyrie) book, with gaps in the time line. Upon playing the other books, the gaps begin to fill in, until, eventually, the story is complete and the secrets are revealed. Each character plays an important role, and each character grows and develops, even most of the bad guys (although it is hard to classify most characters as good or bad, rather the game exists in shade of gray based upon perspective) are dynamic, complicated individuals. As an added feature, the story is viewable anytime after watching the scene in-game, including an option to watch a characters story without interruptions in its entirety.

Odin Sphere is not without a few shortcomings. Slowdown can be a disappointment at times, but it never cripples the gameplay completely. It is unfortunate, but it is very tolerable. During long sessions of playing, I would completely ignore the slowdown, and I honestly feel that it does not warrant the reduction of any points from the game's score. I have read reviews that claim the game has frequent loading times, however, this is an entirely unfair assessment. The game takes about 2 or 3 seconds to load a stage, with about 7 seconds to load a level. I will let the reader be the judge as to whether or not those loading times are acceptable. I feel that both criticisms are due to shortcomings in the Playstation 2's processing power, and not in the artistic realization of Odin Sphere.

Odin Sphere is also one of the few games that is conscious of itself as a piece of art participating in a tradition. It references Wagner's opera Der Ring des Nibelungen extensively, as well as allusions to Shakespeare, Norse mythology, Irish mythology, Hebrew mythology, fairy tales, the Bible, and Swan Lake. It blends these elements together, with a healthy amount of new material to create a wonderful pastiche that is completely engrossing. The world of Odin Sphere is entirely convincing, as it resonates with archetypes in a way reminiscent of Star Wars.

Yet for all of its artistic qualities, Odin Sphere is definitely a video game. The stages remind the player that Odin Sphere is a video game, and it is a proclamation that video games are art. The stage-based design is an embracing of tradition within video games. Stages are one of the most common features of video games, and Odin Sphere realizes the addictive quality a stage-based game possesses. Odin Sphere serves as a model to all video games, in the same way that Aristotle, in his Poetics, describes Oedipus Rex as the model for plays. Odin Sphere embraces qualities of the video game, but includes inspirations from other media as well. This is exactly the quality that makes video games so enjoyable, the hybridization of artwork, literature, and music in an interactive format. But Odin Sphere takes this formula to the next level, and proves that video games deserve as much intellectual respect as other forms of art.