"Odin Sphere is akin to an epic fairytale."
Odin Sphere was one of my more memorable PlayStation 2 RPG experiences. When the gaming cultural climate seemed to be shouting "2D is dead, 3D all the way!" Odin Sphere responded with a 2D game that was, and still is, one of the most visually stunning RPGs out there. That beauty came at a price, though, since several battles with screen-filling enemy boss sprites caused massive slowdown. Odin Sphere was more than a pretty face, however. It also wove an intertwining and fantastical story that players saw through the viewpoints of five distinct protagonists, all of whom required different tactics to play effectively. Although progression sometimes felt repetitive and some stages felt unbalanced with certain protagonists, the story built up wonderfully and ended in an epic fashion. All this, plus a sweeping orchestral soundtrack, meant that I formed a very positive opinion of Odin Sphere in spite of its foibles like graphical slowdown and balance issues.
Enter Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir — a HD revamp of Odin Sphere. Imagine Odin Sphere with even more vivid graphics, no slowdown, some vicious new monsters, a more refined interface with some new character growth features, recalibrated difficulty levels, and replotted stage map layouts, basically the Director's Cut version of Odin Sphere. Some foibles still remain, such as repetitiveness, but the positives definitely outweigh the negatives and this is Odin Sphere as it's meant to be.
The story of Odin Sphere is akin to an epic fairytale influenced in part by several European mythologies as seen in the mosaic of disparate locations and characters. Warfare abounds in the world of Erion, with Demon Lord Odin and his army of Valkyries in the thick of it looking to gain an upper hand over Queen Elfaria's fairy kingdom by securing an ancient and deadly artifact. Odin's daughter Griselda is killed in the conflict and she passes her special spear to her insecure younger sister Gwendolyn to finish what she started. Unfortunately, a long forgotten prophecy is tied to this artifact and soon enough, the wheels of fate awaken this prophecy that will doom the world. The impending apocalypse adversely affects not only Gwendolyn, but four other protagonists, all of whom have their own agendas and ideas for what needs to be done in these turbulent times. The five protagonists players will experience the storylines of are: the aforementioned Gwendolyn, the cursed prince Cornelius, the fairy princess Mercedes, the dark knight Oswald, and Velvet- the troubled daughter of a dead kingdom. All of these characters' stories intertwine and it's not uncommon for an ally in one story arc to be an enemy in another. After these five story arcs are completed, a sixth story arc opens up and, if done correctly, a seventh and final story arc opens. It is totally worth it to get that seventh arc, because it ends things in a truly spectacular fashion.
Odin Sphere's story is one that gets progressively better as the game progresses, so definitely stick with it. I loved the intertwining nature of the storylines and seeing certain plot beats from different characters' perspectives gave a lot of depth to the worldbuilding. The game takes anywhere from 30-48 hours to complete, depending on the player, which averages out to 5-8 hours per story arc. Ergo, the game is robust yet manageable.
The side-scrolling action-RPG gameplay differs depending on which protagonist you use. For example, Mercedes uses a ranged weapon and thus needs to be played differently than more melee-oriented characters like Gwendolyn or Oswald. Even among the melee characters, they all have distinctive ways of moving, attacking, and dispatching foes, so it's important that players are flexible in how they meet challenges. For example, Cornelius's sword strokes take longer to execute than Gwendolyn's spear thrusts, so timing their combos is different. The different melee characters do not take long to get used to and the game's world is not very large, so each character will go through every stage and even fight some of the same bosses. This makes the game feel repetitive during later stages. That being said, the stage map layouts have been revamped from the original game so they're not quite as repetitive as before.
Not only do characters have to kill enemies to gain EXP, power up their weapons, and access new spells/attacks via a skill tree system, but they need to eat plenty of food as well. Food can be found in the field or bought in the stores, while seeds can be planted and their foods harvested. The original Odin Sphere granted periodic access to an underground restaurant where sumptuous booster meals could be eaten. In this upgrade, the new Rest Areas in the dungeon stages introduce access to Maury's Touring Restaurant where Chef Maury will cook you a mouth-watering meal, provided you have recipes and ingredients for him to use. I found Maury a welcome addition to Erion.
One of the gameplay options is called "Classic Mode" where everything, except the HD upgraded graphics, is the same as the original. This means the original stage mapping, the original balance issues, the original control interface and character growth systems, everything. I vastly preferred the upgraded "Refined Mode" over the "Classic Mode" but the fact that Classic Mode is present is a lovely gift for the purists.
As far as control goes, Refined Mode takes some control cues from later VanillaWare games such as Muramasa and it makes several combination and special attacks smoother and easier to pull off. Classic Mode works well and the controls are tight, but Refined Mode just took already responsive controls and somehow made them noticeably more fluid. Refined Mode also alleviates the balance issues in some stages. For example, Cornelius's final stage is nicely balanced now and no longer requires the player to load up on Napalm potions to simply make it playable.
The game offers options for Japanese or English voiceovers, and both are excellent. I originally played the game with Japanese voices and played this one with English voices. The Japanese voice acting is a hair's width better than the English voice acting, but if Japanese voices weren't an option, I would not miss them at all. The English voices are admirable across the board and have a theatrical stage quality about them. Every performance felt true to character, and even NPCs who had only 1 or 2 lines, like the various merchants, delivered those lines convincingly. My only directorial criticism would be that the use of accents is inconsistent. For example, I liked the English accent of a princely character but his father, the king, did not have a regal English accent but more of an American-neutral accent. The parts were played well regardless and nobody broke character, but greater consistency regarding regional accents would have enhanced the diverse world greatly.
The orchestral soundtrack is wonderful with its lush instrumental arrangements and evocative atmosphere. The tunes themselves are not the most catchy or memorable, but they are well composed and dance skillfully with their intended scenes. During gameplay, the music does get drowned out by the cavalcade of slashes, clangs, whooshes, shouts, grunts, and other battle sound effects, but it's nothing a quick adjustment in the settings menu couldn't fix. It's like with a new car: it's not perfect until you adjust the seat and mirrors the way you like them.
Odin Sphere's 2D sprite-based graphics were timelessly gorgeous back in 2007 and are even more striking in HD. VanillaWare has always been top in sprite and environment graphics, and as lovely as they look in stills, they look even better in motion. Odin Sphere suffered from a lot of graphical slowdown before due to hardware limitations, but the game runs with the utmost smoothness now. The only objection people may have with the visual design is that some NPC sprites have cartoonishly exaggerated proportions. One example is the treacherous General Brigan, who has a gigantic head, enormous torso, and teeny-tiny bowlegs that look like they'll collapse under his massive bulk. This over-the-top style is certainly characteristic of VanillaWare and people either love it or loathe it. I prefer this style in more comedic games, but Odin Sphere is not a comedic game as characters often take themselves very seriously, and it was difficult for me to take them seriously when they looked so comical.
Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir shows what is possible when a grand idea is not hampered by hardware limitations. With today's technology, the already vivid graphics shine even brighter without a hint of slowdown. But VanillaWare did not stop there. They upgraded the controls, rebalanced the difficulty levels, remapped the stages, and seamlessly integrated new features that felt like they were meant to be there all along. The game still gets repetitive after a while due to the small game world, but the new stage maps are more dynamic than before. I clearly enjoyed myself revisiting the world of Erion in Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir and my rose-tinted glasses for the game are now even rosier.