Despite its flaws, Odin Sphere was one of my favorite games on the PS2. It was a beautiful, fun, and incredibly addicting action RPG that was sadly hamstrung by serious amounts of slowdown whenever either a large mob or massive boss showed up. (Most of the bosses are huge, and taking out groups of creatures is the game’s bread and butter). The game was also incredibly difficult, compounded by the fact that you would often be beaten black and blue before you even realized you’d taken a hit thanks to the god awful lag. To be honest, I don’t know how they managed to get the thing running on a PS2 in the first place. Despite this there was a certain undeniable charm to Odin Sphere, but thanks to its issues and being one of those games released in the twilight years of the PS2, it was one that no bugger played.
Ten years later, Vanillaware has become a studio known for creating beguiling, proficient 2D action RPGs. After the success of Muramasa and Dragon Crown, they’ve decided to jump aboard the remasters bandwagon to bring us Odin Sphere Leifthrasir for PS4, PS3, and PlayStation Vita. Though calling it a remaster is a bit of disservice, as Leifthrasir is practically a remake. Everything’s been upgraded to some extent; the game’s gorgeous hand drawn sprites and backgrounds have all been rendered in a much higher resolution (1080p on PS4) and look divine on whatever platform you choose to play it on. Meanwhile, the slow down which plagued the original version is a thing of the past, keeping a steady 60fps throughout on PS4 while only occasionally dipping slightly during its most hectic moments on Vita.
What’s most impressive though are the lengths that Vanillaware have gone to improve and enhance the actual gameplay experience. This isn’t a simple spit-and-polish job (though the original version is available to play with all the technical enhancements I previously mentioned). They’ve dialed right down into the game, rebalancing the combat systems to make them far more engaging and complex, smoothing out difficulty spikes, reworking the battle rating system, and giving each character their own unique sets of skills (making them feel far more unique in the process). They’ve also added several new areas, bosses, and modes, including a 30-level boss rush and New Game Plus, which allows you to keep your unlocked skills and equipment, but greatly increases the level of the enemies you face.
Odin’s Sphere’s literal story book narrative opens with a young girl in an attic sitting on a big comfy chair, reading her favorite fables to her pet cat. Each tale focuses on a different protagonist (player character). Like all good sagas, each tome intertwines with the previous one, as scenarios are replayed from multiple angles and minor characters in one tale become major players in the next. Often times one protagonist will run into another, and a cliff hanger from one tale may be resolved by players taking on the role of another in the next. This not only gives the world of Odin Sphere a marvelous sense of place, but also helps players to engage with each character on a deeper level, understand their motives, and construct a nuanced and compelling narrative as the bigger picture is slowly revealed over the course of Odin Sphere’s five main tales.
Each tale has you playing as a different protagonist. While the original didn’t have a great deal of difference between each character, the remaster gives each characters their own skill trees and additional attacks to make each of the game’s playable heroes feel distinct and require slightly different styles of play in order to be utilized effectively. For example, Odin’s daughter, the Valkyrie Gwendolyn, uses her Psypher spear to attack enemies with flurries of swift attacks and has access to a bevy of ice attacks that can slow and stun enemies as well as extended air combos thanks to her ability to glide. Meanwhile, Velvet uses a Psypher chain to batter and whip enemies from a distance, and Mercedes feels almost like you’re playing a shooter as she wields her crossbow.
Each of the game’s areas represents a chapter in the book and are flanked by cut scenes which develop the story in some way. While the moment to moment gameplay boils down to you battling your way through a series of interconnected rooms, absorbing phozons from your vanquished foes in order to upgrade your skills and help you to level up, while heading towards the inevitable end level boss, concludes each chapter.
Combat is similar in feel to Vanillaware’s Muramasa. Players attempt to rack up combos using a mix of physical attacks and skills (which either consume POW or PP). New skills are unlocked by collecting crystals found in various areas as you progress (fully exploring the entire map of each area is highly recommended), which can then be upgraded using phozons absorbed from vanquished enemies. Your arsenal of skills can either be unleashed by pressing L1 or via shortcuts (hitting R1) and a face button, which allows you to queue multiples up quickly and unleash devastating combos capable of bringing the game’s colossal boss creatures to their knees. Skills can be leveled-up however you want, which means you can favor your favorite attack patterns and refine each characters build to suit your own play-style.
Leveling up in Odin Sphere is done via a combination of experience points gained from fights and eating tasty treats. In its most basic form, this involves planting seeds and feeding the resulting plant phozon until it bares fruit that you then consume, adding a boost to your HP and experience.
However, fairly early on, you unlock the ability to call on traveling chefs in each level’s rest areas that can cook meals that give you a substantial bump to your HP and experience, so long as you can provide them with the correct ingredients and recipe. As the game progresses, finding and cultivating these ingredients becomes a whole micro-game in itself. Exploration is generally rewarded with a new item or element that can be turned into a feast and will significantly power up your character.
Along with making meals and growing fruit you can also mix various roots to create all manner of powerful potions that can provide all kinds of buffs, as well as refill your health depending on what concoction you come up with.
Each protagonist’s tale takes about 6-7 hours to complete (so approx. 30-35 hours for the first run). Then there’s the added bonus of New Game Plus to contend with, boss rush mode, and all sorts of other post-credits content to drag you back.
The game’s presentation is still a real highlight, though it’s been ten years since its original release. Its striking, hand drawn environments are detailed. Expertly animated character models are a testament to how strong style and design will always top raw pixel power. Odin Sphere was one of the best looking games ever created on its release in 2006, and the same is true of Leifthrasir; the improved resolution and tweaks to the animation make the game’s wonderful visuals pop just that little bit more. It also runs flawlessly on PS4, rocking along at a steady 60fps with only minor drops on the on the Vita during the game’s most hectic boss fights.
If you like your game’s audio in its original language (by that I mean Japanese–you never hear people saying you should play The Witcher in Polish or Metro in Russian do you? OK, except me. Seriously, Metro in Russian is amazing!) Odin Sphere Leifthrasir features both Japanese and English audio for heathens like me. Regardless of what language you play it in, the voice acting is great and accompanied by a wonderful score by Hitoshi Sakimoto, which does a spectacular job of punctuating Odin Sphere’s fast paced action scenes, epic boss battles, and its more touching moments too.
The only minor complaint I have found: leveling in Odin Sphere can begin to feel a tad repetitive in the game’s latter stages, as you will often find yourself revisiting areas and facing similar challenges with each of the game’s protagonists. I suppose it’s a necessary evil as it serves the game’s multi-faceted narrative rather well.
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is, to put it mildly, a masterpiece. Vanillaware have taken the rough diamond of the original and polished it to a blinding sheen. Combining addictive well-balanced combat with beautiful hand drawn visuals, a superb narrative, and a truck load of player customization, they have taken everything that made the original game worth the hassle and taken away the hassle, taking a game that, by rights, shouldn’t have even worked on the PS2 at all and putting it on a platform deserving of its splendor. If you’re a fan of Vanillaware’s other titles and you missed it the first time around, you owe it to yourself to get Odin Sphere Leiftrasir. Hell, if you’re a fan of action RPGs, or really liked Dust: An Elysian Tail, you need to check out Odin Sphere: Leifrasir.
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir was reviewed on PS Vita, with a copy provided by the publisher
Publisher: NIS America| Developer: Vanillaware | Genre: Action RPG | Platform: PS3, PS4, PS Vita | PEGI/ESRB: 16+/T | Release Date: June, 4 (NA), June, 24 (EU)