Remaking the hits of past console generations seems to have caught fire in the industry over last five or so years, but the practice has been around for ages albeit under different branding guises. It started innocently enough with home console ports of quarter munchers like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, however, around the SNES era, ports began to widen their scope with collections like Super Mario All-Stars or Super Castlevania IV’s full reimagining of its series’ entry. And nowadays we have remasters which largely consist of 3D classics from yesteryear: upgraded, upscaled, and uprezzed for modern 16:9 screens. But some games don’t fit this bill. What happens when you have non-polygonal, 2D game like 2007’s Odin Sphere that is made up of lavishly hand-painted visuals?.
More importantly, what the heck are those sorts of conversions even called?.
Developer Vanillaware says “Leifthrasir,” a word loosely derived from Norse mythology referring to one of two lovers who survived the reckonings of Ragnarök, then repopulated the world with life as we know it. That’s a bold title choice given that, one, nobody will be able to pronounce it, and two, means this remake has to get busy now if it wants to do right by its forebears’ name.
For those out of the loop, Odin Sphere was a 2007 fantasy-inspired side-scroller with notes of Capcom’s DND arcade beat ’em ups and the Japan-only Princess Crown for Sega Saturn, all of which director George Kamitani worked on before founding Vanillaware in 2002. The game tells the tale of five heroes from the land of Elrion thrust into war due in part to mounting tensions bred by the sudden collapse of the Valentine kingdom. The heroes — ranging from a young fairy queen to a handsome prince-turned-bunny warrior — each star in their own chapter that covers one perspective of the overarching conflict. And, naturally, the well-implemented playable characters and intriguing premise garnered lots of praise at the time of the game’s release, as did the electrifying combat with its RPG-lite elements. But chief among Odin Sphere’s praise stemmed from its beautifully rendered storybook world dipped in rich, vibrant color that could easily be mistaken for a lost Disney classic.
The game has earned itself quite the reputation in the years since, and with its timeless looks and the ever-present demand for all things Vanillaware, it’s really no wonder why we’re seeing the studio revisit its debut project just in time for Odin Sphere’s 10th anniversary. However, just because the game worked a decade ago doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the knock-out beauty it once was, right? After all, we’re told in good faith by old folks that vanity succumbs to this pesky thing called time — fades to dust, even. Well, turns out the hard facts of life don’t apply to anything Vanillaware touches because Odin Sphere sings in HD now that it has escaped the dingy low-res confines of the PS2, but better yet, the game is both beautiful on the outside AND inside thanks to some much-needed work done underneath the hood.
The real appeal of Leifthrasir lies in its overhauling of systems that weren’t quite realized in Odin Sphere despite the original’s best intentions. The most obvious of these changes is in the elaborate combat wherein wizened designers have distilled their decade’s worth of side-scrolling action to achieve a fluidity only rivaled by the game’s iridescent fairy tale sights. Once clunky combos encumbered by nagging PS2 slowdown are set free by the hardware leap, not to mention their animations have been smoothed over with added keyframes to keep up with the silky 60fps framerate. It’s slick, it’s fast, and above all it’s a thrill to unleash a flurry of attacks against hordes of goblin goons or hellish boss monstrosities now that combos chain together considerably better than they once did. There’s also an included Classic Mode that strips back the refinements in favor of emulating the PS2 experience, but it feels comparatively bland without the new, much-appreciated tweaks to each character’s movesets.
Special attention has been paid to RPG mechanics, too. Leifthrasir includes a dizzying amount of upgradable skills and abilities for expanded customization and, in doing so, plays up the precious Phozon in-game resource. These magical motes function as they did before, cultivating EXP-riddled crops or powering up active and passive skills, yet the inclusion of new character-oriented skills provides added imperative to tinker with each protagonist and shape their overall play style. As such, economy constantly weighs on the player’s choices since item management and leveling-up are two sides of the same coin, which rings even truer now than when Odin Sphere lacked this bevy of skills, including flashy screen-filling ultimates ripe for boss encounters. And though disparate, the influx of character skills act as means of bolstering Odin Sphere’s role-playing aspects by drawing upon the acclaimed point-allotted skill system of 2013’s high-fantasy brawler Dragon’s Crown. The result is a game that feels much less like a action game with tacked on RPG mechanics and more like a proper action RPG as was always intended.
Outside of fine tuning the gameplay and a dazzling coat of fresh paint, Leifthrasir honestly sticks pretty close to the original in terms of overall content save for two post-game modes geared towards combo fiends: A boss rush where players throw down for 30 rounds with no checkpoints and a new game+ featuring unseen and nastier foes alike. Together, both act as a master quest-like challenge wherein rearranged campaign content from Odin Sphere pushes the player to explore the nuance of the revamped combat or die trying. Both are welcomed additions to an already satisfying and well-paced 20 to 30 hour story, but neither are bound to wow anyone like Muramasa Rebirth’s Genroku Legends DLC expansion which comprised of four brand new playable characters along with even more scenarios entrenched in Japanese folklore. Alas, a recent interview with programmer Kentaro Onishi revealed that additional content such as a randomly generated dungeon area and an entire chapter dedicated to Velvet’s brother Ingway were initially planned, but concerns over time constraints left said ideas on the cutting room floor, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see this content eventually see the light of day — perhaps when the game’s 20th anniversary rolls around in ten years.
There’s a valid argument to be made that Odin Sphere is readily available on both its original platform as well as a digital PS2 Classic on PS3 for a much lower going rate than Leifthrasir, and those options are fine, albeit rendered woefully obsolete given what Vanillaware has accomplished here with this PS4 port. Visually-speaking, the game is as breath-taking as ever in HD and will continue to stand the test of time years and years down the line thanks to Kamitani and team’s clever imagineering, but good looks alone can only carry a game so far. Thankfully, Leifthrasir looks to its unpronounceable name for inspiration by building on what the previous generation dreamed of doing, yet tragically fell short. But now there’s a new book on Odin Sphere, one relieved of its past shortcomings and filled top to bottom with charm and allure you’d expect from the makers of Muramasa and Dragon’s Crown, and it’s one seriously good read.