While GrimGrimoire may have been an enjoyable experience, I think it was really the original Odin Sphere for the PlayStation 2 that really put Vanillaware on the map in the west. Featuring incredible 2D visuals and a fascinating Norse mythology inspired tale surrounding five different protagonists, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit amongst those that played it. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir hopes to bring that experience to modern consoles with updated visuals and mechanics in hopes of capturing an even bigger fanbase. Having spent some time with it, I can honestly say that if this version doesn’t make you like this game, nothing will.
I was a latecomer to the original release, and along with a number of other late PS2 releases like Yakuza and Persona 4, it was one of those titles I regretted not playing sooner. Once it got its turn from the backlog, I instantly fell in love with the narrative and the visuals, even if a few of the combat mechanics fell a bit flat for me. If you missed out on it too on the first go round, it goes a little something like this: you’re a little girl in an attic with your cat reading books about other characters that exist within the same world. That’s right, each of the main characters gets their own book that chronicles their exploits, though oddly they have to be experienced in order.
You start out with Gwendolyn, a valkyrie and daughter of Demon Lord Odin who fights to earn the affection of her neglectful father. Next comes Cornelius, a prince who finds himself in the body of a pooka (rabbit) and must find a way to break the curse. There’s also the fairy princess, Mercedes, shadow knight, Oswald, and the “witch”, Velvet. Each one will cross paths with the others on more than one occasion, but it’s not until you play the story from their perspective do you understand the motivations of their character. What may seem like a throwaway boss battle early in the plot, becomes a much more meaningful development once you play that character’s story. It’s this series of interwoven narratives what makes Odin Sphere so successful. The gameplay in the original didn’t win me over entirely and this 40+ hour plot was interesting enough for me to stick it out to the end. That should tell you something.
Fortunately, many of those less desirable quirks have been addressed, making this the all around total package. Each area or “dungeon” if you want to call it that is a series of connected areas shaped like a circle. You see, since the game is in 2D, continuously moving to the right or left will eventually lead you right back to where you started and you’ll notice on the map that your character is navigating around a circular map. Only by going through doors unlocked by keys or felling all of the enemies are you able to progress from one area to the next.
During your adventures, you’ll undoubtedly be assaulted by your fair share of enemies, and the combat is somewhat reminiscent of games like Muramasa or Dragon’s Crown. Regardless of which character you are, X is to jump, square is to attack or guard, and circle unleashes special skills. Despite the simple control setup, each protagonist has a unique fighting style, which helps stave off any potential monotony in the combat during your long adventure. Each one is also equipped with a Psypher weapon that absorbs Phozons dropped by your enemies, which are used in this game’s other major gimmick.
Much of your strength will be harvested by food, and what’s the best way to obtain food? Well, by planting it yourself. Using seeds gained by fallen foes, you can grow various ingredients by feeding them Phozons. These ingredients can then be eaten raw or cooked to grant a potentially bigger boost in power. Another thing to keep in mind too is that these Phozons can also power up both active and passive skills, so you want to take care not to blow them all on growing crops. It’s a balancing act that continues throughout the entirety of the game.
It was that very aspect that nearly turned me away from the original game. I mean, let’s be honest, stopping to grow crops really slows down the action and the inventory management was a complete mess, but this has all been streamlined. You no longer have to grow food during combat, as Phozons can be freely absorbed and released from your Psypher as needed, plus the various rest areas have an item box for storing goods, checkpoints, and your own personal chef. Worrying about which kind of bag you have or shuffling items around is a thing of the past too, as things are organized into different categories for you, though you can increase your total storage as needed. Of course, if you miss all of those annoyances, the Classic mode is there to accommodate your needs, while maintaining the improved visuals.
And what beautiful visuals they are. I remember when I played through The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD and telling people that the enhanced visuals are how they always looked in my memory; even though I know were I to fire up the original I would likely be grossed out. The same turned out to be true with Odin Sphere. The 2D sprites are like something out of painting and their interpretation of such characters as Odin as being a massive old man with a pseudo cybernetic body is incredibly imaginative. Further adding to the presentation is a stellar soundtrack and some of the best English voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game dubbed from Japanese. Seriously, I’ve heard the likes of Michelle Ruff and Yuri Lowenthal dozens of times before and this is by far their best work.
For fans of the Atelier series and its in-depth alchemy system, there’s a somewhat robust system in place here too. Players gather materials and depending on what they are and the quantity, you may end up with potions of varying strengths and effects. You can craft potions for healing or ones that can be lobbed at the ground creating a deadly cyclone to mow over enemies. Unfortunately, a recipe is needed for each item that you can potentially make, which limits the experimentation a bit. But it’s certainly nice that you can take potions of things you don’t want or have tons of and reuse them for something you will.
I know diehard Odin Sphere fans swear by a number of the quirks of the original and wouldn’t see them changed. And that’s fair, they certainly give the game character. But Vanillaware found a way to please both camps, as the Classic mode keeps all of those things intact while the adjustments made to the re-release combined with the multiple difficulty levels means that difficulty and tedium are no longer barriers to seeing the game through to the end. I’d always regarded Dragon’s Crown as my favorite Vanillaware game, but Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir has moved its way up the list.
Short Attention Span Summary
A big challenge for video game remakes is not only attracting new fans, but appeasing the existing ones, and Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir manages to strike that delicate balance. Featuring gameplay tweaks that streamline the experience for newcomers as well as a Classic mode that keeps everything in the original intact on top of the visual enhancements, it’s one of those rare releases that’s sure to please everyone. And that’s in addition to an already impressive visual aesthetic as well as a gripping tale featuring five different protagonists. The year 2016 might be a busy one for quality Japanese releases, but be sure to make some room for this Odin Sphere revisit.