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Like Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street or Jason in Friday 13th, the PS2 never quite seems ready for its grave. Just when you think you've had its final flourish with God of War 2 and Final Fantasy XII, something else comes along to prove that the world's biggest-selling console ever can't be relegated to the kid's bedroom yet. While it's hard to call Odin Sphere cutting edge, it's certainly one of the most astonishing games that you might see this year.
Arguably, this is the old-school 2D game at its graphical zenith, as if we've all moved to a parallel universe where 3D never took off and everyone concentrated their efforts on pushing bigger and more colourful sprites around the screen instead. If you like your anime, Odin Sphere is a must. Its gorgeous cartoon backgrounds have been lavished with incidental detail, and in front of them you'll find the biggest and most beautiful hand-drawn heroes, villains and monsters you could ever hope to see. Some, like the mighty King Odin, merely dominate the screen. Others, particularly the bosses, stretch far beyond your TV's weedy portal of vision. If you no longer expect a 2D game - let alone a PS2 game - to impress you, prepare to be surprised. Odin Sphere is a seriously beautiful game.
Your next impression may be that hiding behind those astonishing visuals is a rather basic little game. There's no denying that, while Atlas and Square Enix might like to call it an action RPG, Odin Sphere feels more like a 2D scrolling beat-em-up with strong RPG elements. Each stage of the game is a continuous loop populated by a number of enemies, all of whom must be destroyed before the stage can be cleared. Stages are connected to other stages in a network through a system of exit points, and each of those networks constitutes a chapter in the overall story. Working your way through from one stage to the next you'll discover a variety of combat scenarios plus shops where you can buy health and support equipment, mini-boss battles and eventually the final boss battle that caps each chapter. Crack one of these, and it's onto a string of cut-scenes and dialogue sections before the action kicks off once again.
If you're expecting a combat system of Streetfighter II complexity, think again. Attacks are fired off with rapid presses of the square button, X handles jumping, while the triangle kicks off special magical attacks chosen from a menu. Handily, your initial protagonist - Odin's daughter, the Valkyrie Gwendolyn - can also glide for a limited period, then unleash brutal charged attacks from above. Finally, the circle button pauses the action so that your heroine can pick something useful out of her bag, though crucially any actual using, eating or drinking has to be done in real-time.