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Review: Video Games Take Liberties With Norse Myths

When future archaeologists look back on the games of the 21st century, they're likely to be confused by the convoluted myths we've created.

Who is this Zelda, and why must Link find her? How do magic mushrooms make Mario powerful? Why is Pac-Man on the run from his ghosts?

Scholars will discover, however, that many of our games draw on even older myths.

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"God of War" is inspired by ancient Greek legends, while "Okami" comes from Japanese tales.

More often, games show a broader range of influences: The "Final Fantasy" series, for example, references Arabic, Norse, Christian, Hebrew, Celtic, Egyptian, Chinese, Aztec and Hindu traditions, and I'm sure I'm missing a few.

If you want to learn about mythology, games aren't the most reliable sources. Designers take a freewheeling approach when appropriating the old legends, so a character who was a god to an ancient civilization can easily end up as cannon fodder in a video game.

So the educational value is questionable; the real test is whether a game creates a compelling new myth of its own.

— "Odin Sphere" (Atlus, for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): Norse mythology runs riot in this role-playing game, with a king named Odin and an army of belligerent valkyries. But "Odin Sphere" doesn't dig too deep into its source material, essentially using it as window dressing for a tale that's intriguing in its own right.

The setup is RPG-classic: Two countries fight over a powerful magical cauldron, not realizing that their actions will lead to Armageddon (or Ragnarok, if you like).

The story is told in five chapters, each from the perspective of a different character — a valkyrie, a prince, a fairy, a knight and a witch. Occasionally their stories intersect in clever ways, so you may find yourself battling a character you controlled in an earlier segment.

The most appealing element of "Odin Sphere" is its art, which is just gorgeous.

The exploration is a throwback to classic 2D gaming; each level is a circular map in which you can move only right or left, busting monster heads as you go.

There are some glitches in the combat — the action slows to a crawl if too many enemies are onscreen — but the inventive plot will keep you fighting.

Three stars out of four.

—"Valhalla Knights" (XSeed, for the PlayStation Portable, $39.99): Valhalla was the hall of Odin, the chief Norse god, so you'd expect "Valhalla Knights" to revel in Scandinavian mythology.

Instead, you get a rehash of RPG cliches, with your typical pseudo-medieval cast of swordsmen, archers and wizards complemented by more exotic characters like ninjas and robots.

"Valhalla Knights" offers a good deal of flexibility in building your party of adventurers, but its story is skimpy, revolving around the return of an evil Dark Lord.

The action is broken up into several dozen quests, without much flow from one to the next.

The combat is lively and challenging, but the graphics feel claustrophobic after you've spent hours wandering through dungeons.

"Valhalla Knights" has some promising ideas, but only the most diehard RPG fans will have the patience to finish it.

Two stars.

— "Dawn of Mana" (Square Enix, for the PlayStation 2, $49.99): "Dawn of Mana" cribs a different concept from Norse mythology: Yggdrasil, a giant tree that's the root of all life.

Here it's called the Mana Tree, and its "children" are eight spirits that embody elemental powers like fire, ice and wind.

Early on, the tree lends some of its energy to a boy named Keldy, who has naturally been burdened with saving the world.

The tree and the spirits give Keldy some unusual skills — in particular, the ability to hurl heavy objects at enemies.

Keldy's newfound powers are interesting in theory, at least; unfortunately, sloppy controls and inconsistent targeting make using them a chore.

"Dawn of Mana" is an attractive, colorful game that quickly becomes infuriating.

One-and-a-half stars.