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Written By mista sense on Sunday, May 20, 2007 | 5:57 PM

Don't pee on your PS2 yet-- Odin Sphere comes out this Tuesday, and it'd be a shame if you missed it.

It puts an imaginative twist on the fairy-tale atmosphere-- and yet still manages to hold some essential core elements of warm-milk RPG nostalgia at the same time. Not the kind of RPG nostalgia that'll have you briefly charmed and then immediately bored by turn-based battles, either. All the fighting takes place in realtime, with a fairly fluid engine that manages to be both engaging and challenging-- all while using only one button. The other stuff-- most notably, an alchemy system that lets you deal out punishment or panacea from items you collect-- is handled with a menu. Realtime gets really real when you can get smacked by a monster in the middle of prepping your spell, dropping your ingredients everywhere. But with three modes of difficulty (and, like a true melee game, an unlockable "Heroic" mode), it's certainly possible to please a broad range of gamers in the action department.Each side-scrolling level is actually circular, which means you can loop the landscape when necessary-- like when you want to sneak up on a monster from behind. And the battle stages are non-linear, navigable via a map that lets you strategically plot your way through the areas.

The technical stuff is worth mentioning, because it's evidence of what's really remarkable about this game-- complexity bestowed when appropriate, simple when it needs to be. Possibly, this is the last "big" RPG for the PS2-- doesn't it figure?One big draw of this game is its jaw-dropping visuals-- vivid, color-saturated characters and landscapes turn the "limitations" of 2D sidescrolling into a multilayered treat. The sprites-- charmingly dysmorphic, detailed paper dolls-- are surreal. Doll-like girls, hulking warriors and small, infectiously adorable creatures populate majestic landscapes, where torn red-violet clouds drift across exquisitely-hued starscapes as a war between winged fairies and feathered Valkyries rages below. Mythical beasts rage through pollen-drenched forests, and over the throne-room of a grand armored king, white doves glide across a green-tinged horizon. It's truly breathtaking-- the sights are almost enough on their own to motivate a player through the next big battle, if just to see what's around the bend.I'm still early in the game, so whether the story can sustain remains to be seen. We've got-- and justifiably so-- reduced expectations for The Almighty Plot in the genre these days, and perhaps, as such, have learned it's not so necessary after all, so long as the gameplay is solid (and certainly, it's not worth sacrificing gameplay for). But already, Odin's Sphere's introduced some plausible character conflict. It opens with the death of Griselda, elder sister and fellow soldier to first main character Gwendolyn, who's given her life on the battlefield in the hopes of pleasing her royal father-- who fails to react. Nonetheless, Gwendolyn is almost eager to make a similar sacrifice, desperate to finally earn elusive paternal approval.

Moreover, the game's divided into four books, each featuring the perspective of a different character on the events as they unfold. This is a plot device with potential, especially with a war at the story's center-- by preventing the divvying of "good guys" from "bad", it guarantees a healthy dose of moral ambiguity and universal appeal. The voice acting's decent, too-- and for purists, the Japanese audio option features some popular seiyuu.Summary judgment? In that big EW interview he recently gave, Miyamoto revealed his unscientific method for game-testing: "I just watch their eyes and their face while they play." His litmus test's OK by me, and I played this game for two straight hours with my happy "O" face on.

If you like 2D melee, buy it. If you like RPGs, buy it. If you're an artsy-visuals type, don't miss it. In fact, I think it's a kick-and-a-half to see a 2D PS2 game prettier and more fun than half the clunky junk I've been button-mashing lately.

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