Odin Sphere was one of the best and most underappreciated games on the PS2. If this month’s PS4 re-release Leifthrasir had simply been a remaster of the original game, with higher resolutions and framerates, you would still be reading a wholeheartedly positive review. It is a visual delight, a unique tactical experience, and the perfect example of how expert presentation can make a by-the-numbers story a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
To those of you who are already familiar with the original game and wondering if the PS4 version is worth your money, let me just say two things: Mercedes doesn’t suck, and picking up a book you’ve already completed puts you at the start of the Epilogue, not at Chapter 1. There. Go. Stop reading this and buy the game.
For the rest of you…
An Interactive Storybook
Odin Sphere is an absolute joy to watch. The hand-drawn animation and lush colors mean that every character, from the humble frog to the fearsome dragon, simply looks great. The rustic Pooka Kitchen and the frigid peaks of Horn Mountain are just a handful of the gorgeous environments in the game, which each lend their own special flavor to the game and bring real color to the world. The art was entirely redrawn for Leifthrasir, mostly so it would look good in HD, so most of the animations are largely the same. The entire game has an aura of being lovingly handcrafted, like looking at an epic mural or watercolor storybook.
The original game was plagued by frame-rate issues due to the PS2’s hardware limitations. Too many spells or enemies on the field at once would grind the game to a halt, and the load times were utterly painful. Thanks to the all around face-lift that Leifthrasir received, those days are long gone. The game runs at a crisp, solid frame-rate, despite my best attempts to break it by tossing an entire inventory of alchemical bombs out at once.
A Tale In Five Parts
The presentation of the game’s story is an interesting one. The character select screen of the game is framed as a little girl named Alice who is looking through a bunch of dusty old books in her attic. You can read any of the five books (which are added to your library as you advance through the game), sit with your cat Socrates to rewatch old cutscenes, or stand on a stool to look at the higher bookshelves and review the in-game codex. This extra layer is mostly for show, but adds a certain unique charm to the story presentation of the game. The five books tell the game’s story from the perspectives of five different characters who all wield Psyphers, powerful weapons made of crystal that can absorb and release energy on the battlefield. It is in the interaction of these separate stories that Odin Sphere’s story really shines.
As the title suggests, Odin Sphere is based heavily on Norse mythology, specifically the story of Ragnarok. The many different factions of the world are battling for control over a device called The Cauldron, a huge machine of incredible magical power. The story is rather straightforward – you aren’t going to see a whole lot of progressive subversion or tropes or surprising twists in this story, but its presentation as five interwoven tales nonetheless creates some intrigue in piecing together how all the moving cogs come together. Thanks to the fact I haven’t played the original in ages and had forgotten many of its particulars, I often found myself wondering aloud about how a particular character or important item had gotten where they were, and felt a satisfaction when seeing a different part of the story helped me piece it together.
The game handles its five different perspectives very well. You will rarely find yourself playing over the same events more than once, and even when you do they are likely seeing different events on different sides of a conflict. Throughout all five campaigns, you never watch the same cutscene twice, instead, the game uses narration to gloss over the events the player should already know. This both expedites the storytelling process and keeps the viewer engaged.
As a nice cherry on top, interacting with Socrates or accessing the archive on the pause menu will allow you to review any previous cutscene along with a complete timeline, so if you find yourself confused or simply curious what one character was doing while another was on the other side of the world, you can.
The story’s finale comes together in an incredibly satisfying way, although to talk too much about it would be spoiling. Suffice it to say that Odin Sphere may not be the most original story in the world, but it is one that is crafted with incredible precision, given its many moving parts.
Like A Completely Different Game – Overhauled Combat
Leifthrasir is like a new edition of D&D. Some of the mechanics have the same name, and are vaguely familiar, but the actual nitty-gritty of the gameplay is where the changes in this update are the most apparent. The actual act of engaging in melee with enemies has been made much more complex and satisfying, with non-MP consuming physical abilities tracked on a separate gauge from the magical powers emitted from your Psypher. It almost feels like a 2D Devil May Cry as you dash around the screen, keeping multiple enemies at bay, quickly switching between physical, magical, and alchemical attacks, and watching your combo meter rise into the hundreds.
The end result is a combat experience that is far less tedious and far more satisfying than the original game’s slower, more contemplative style of fighting. While boss battles in the original mostly boiled down to how many potions you can carry, I found myself getting through many battles of Leifthrasir without using any healing items at all. It was much more in my interest to remain on the offensive and simply keep moving, avoiding taking damage in the first place.
If this is sounding a whole lot like a straight-up action game to you, fear not: this game is still an RPG. Every character has a series of skill trees that unlock passive and active abilities throughout their campaign. Instead of simply learning new talents as you level up, you have to allocate points and energy towards upgrading abilities and some can only be found if you seek out the hidden secrets among the redesigned environments. This lends a unique flair to every character, and lets them play a little bit differently.
For example, the enigmatic forest witch Velvet gains an ability that deals bonus damage to enemies JUST inside her attack range, another that boosts damage to enemies who are on fire, and a third that can leave behind a fire mine when she dodges. Pumping this combination led to many battles where I baited a large group of enemies near me, then jumped back to get them right into my sweetspot range while simultaneously immolating them. The chaos was delicious.
There are also many quality of life changes in Leifthrasir: a Pooka Traveling Restaurant now exists at every rest point, where you can turn the ingredients you found in the field into meals that boost your xp in the middle of a level. The leveling system in general has been streamlined to a single number versus the original’s HP level and Psypher level. You can now release energy from your weapon at any time, making the game of growing your own food a lot less mentally taxing.
Definitely Not Dark Souls – The Game’s One Flaw
There is one catch. This game is really easy. Like, holy crap.
The original was a challenging experience. Sometimes due to the clunky controls, but also because the slower pace of combat meant that you had to be careful when you went in for the attack because you couldn’t get out as easily.
The improved mobility granted to your characters and general faster pace of the combat does not transfer over to the enemies as much as would be desired, leading to an experience that is very easy to sleepwalk through. Even though I was only paying minimal attention to the food subsystem, I frequently found myself outleveling enemies by 5 or 10. The key to most boss fights is simply to craft a large amount of alchemical bombs and then drop them all at once, letting the damage over time effects pick the enemy away.
Even upping the game to Hard Mode (which can be done at any time, thankfully) only moderately mitigates this, making you vulnerable while using potions. If you are looking for a tense, challenging experience, this is not the game to turn to. After beating the game, you can unlock “Heroic Difficulty”, which swings entirely too far in the opposite direction – all attacks kill your character in a single hit. As someone who likes a challenge but is not a masochist, something in the middle would have been nice.
Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir is something every PS4 owner should pick up. The changes to a PS2 classic make the game more accessible (sometimes a little too much so), and the epic saga of Erion is a tale well worth reliving. The unique food-based experience system remains intact and streamlined, combat is satisfying even if not challenging, and it is simply a visual feast. Purists who don’t like the changes can also play on “Classic Mode”, that is simply a visual upscaling of the original game. I promise that if you pop this game in and stick around for its roughly 25-30 hour journey, you will agree that it is a true work of art.
Final Score: 9/10
Have you played Leifthrasir or are considering picking it up? Share your thoughts in the comments!