I’ve never understood why so many RPGs hide information from the player. Want to know an enemy’s remaining HP or the exact numerical stat boost provided by a certain item? Well, a lot of the time, you’re out of luck — even though that info might help you make a decision on how to build your strategy. It seems like bad design to force players into this kind of situation, which often leaves them poring over a guide instead of focusing entirely on the gameplay (or worse, taking shot after shot in the dark). Playing Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, I was struck by just how much information Vanillaware was willing to share; in fact, there didn’t seem to be much of anything I couldn’t find out without looking at the in-game interface. And luckily, that’s just one of many things that makes this remake of the 2007 sleeper hit worth playing. If you missed this on PS2, read on: this might just be the thing to hold you over until late-year heavy-hitters like Final Fantasy XV.
Odin Sphere takes some of its narrative inspiration from Norse mythology, but it’s used more to lay the groundwork than flesh out the actual details of the story. Players take control of five members of the world’s warring royal families — Gwendolyn, Cornelius, Mercedes, Oswald and Velvet, in that order — and slowly piece together an overarching narrative, with a common antagonist pulling the strings behind all the fighting. Of course, until that’s revealed, it seems like anything goes: the heroes of one story are the bosses of another, which makes for a fun and interesting ride as you figure out each character’s motivations and the timeline of events (and if you’re stuck, the game even offers a neat visual timeline!). My only complaint is that, between all the high-falutin’ accented dialogue and “how-could-you!” betrayals, the game never really makes room for a sense of humor — something that feels completely to its detriment. Even the matter of the adorable rabbit-like Pooka race turns out to have a tragic spin, as every one of them has been cursed to take that form. This sort of thing had me begging for relief after a few hours of ultra-serious anime melodrama, but I was left high and dry — there’s just not much camaraderie or cheer in this tale.
Thankfully, there is some relief in the form of the gameplay, which offsets the relentless gloom of the story with its whimsical and lighthearted approach to hack-and-slash combat. Like so many of Vanillaware’s titles, Odin Sphere is a 2D side-scroller with surprising depth. Each character plays a little differently thanks to their “Psypher,” a glowing weapon powered by twinkly purple stars called “Phozons,” and can learn and upgrade a number of special moves by fleshing out their skill tree. Some Psyphers are decidedly trickier to use than others — for example, I found Gwendolyn’s spear and Cornelius’ sword a good deal more intuitive than Mercedes’s crossbow — but learning and adapting to how each character plays is part of the fun. The controls are, for their part, extremely easy to pick up, and I think most players will be able to pull off extensive combos and tricky-looking aerial maneuvers within an hour of getting to know each character. My only real gripe is that you’ll largely be going through the same levels over and over again with each character; though the map layouts are technically different, there’s not enough variety to offset the tedium that sets in by the time you’re fighting through an environment for the fourth or fifth time.
Grow Food, Get EXP
The most interesting wrinkle Odin Sphere introduces to the action-RPG fabric is its extensive list of items and the ways you can combine and use them. First and foremost, merely defeating enemies isn’t enough to level your character up here — instead, you’ve got to use the Phozons and seeds you get from beating them to grow food that yields EXP. As you progress through each story, you’ll find yourself with access to more and more food items (including some that can’t be grown, like cheese and “hot cross buns”), which can in turn be combined using recipes at a special Pooka restaurant for even greater EXP bonuses.
And then there’s the matter of the numerous bottles and adorable sentient vegetables (fine, fine, Mandragora) you’ll encounter in your quest, which can be utilized in various combinations through the game’s alchemy system. The different concoctions you can get include offensive spells like the fearsome, enemy-sucking Whirlwind, simple healing potions and antidotes, and special buffs that increase the likelihood of rare items or the coins enemies drop. My personal favorite is Yogurt, which increases the amount of EXP you receive from food. Late in the game, I found myself swigging down high-level Yogurts with a 100% EXP bonus, then watching the levels pile up as I downed one lamb chop after another. I will say that it’s a bit daunting just how many items there are to manage — at the beginning, sifting through the pages of your inventory is a nightmare. You learn to deal with it, though, especially when you ditch the oft-held RPG habit of hoarding items. Since you’re always collecting new stuff, there’s absolutely no shame in mixing up offensive potions and swigging down antidotes to clear some space.
Now That’s What I Call Remastered
If you’re wondering how Leifthrasir holds up in comparison to the PS2 original, I’m happy to report that its much-improved presentation gives the material a new lease on life. I pointed out in my review of Valkyria Chronicles Remastered that the game looked and played pretty much identically to its last-gen counterpart, and this Odin Sphere upgrade acts as a perfect counterpoint to my complaints there. Vanillaware’s trademark style looks absolutely brilliant in HD, and the terrible framerate issues of the PS2 original are absolutely nowhere to be found here. In addition, the silky-smooth controls I mentioned before — which make combat even more fluid and exciting — are a specific benefit of the fine-tuning Leifthrasir has gone through. And worry not, hardcore traditionalists: if you just want to play the classic Odin Sphere you know and love in HD, there’s a classic mode that lets you do just that.
Easy on the Ears
Audio-wise, we’re treated to another round of tunes by Hitoshi Sakimoto (after his compositions massaged our ears in the score of the aforementioned Valkyria remaster), this time accompanied by partner Masaharu Iwata. Their unmistakable stylings are an absolute pleasure to listen to, making me hope more than ever that Square Enix goes ahead and gives us that Final Fantasy XII remaster we’ve all been clamoring for. And on the subject of familiar and welcome sounds, Atlus’ stellar track record with English voice work continues here, bringing us great performances by the likes of veterans Karen Strassman, Yuri Lowenthal and Michelle Ruff. But if you’re a diehard fan of the equally-stellar Japanese voice track, you’ll be thrilled to know that Leifthrasir offers dual audio.
Don’t Miss It Again
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is an outstanding remaster of a game many JRPG fans missed on PS2. Perhaps its most striking feature is the refreshing availability of information that comes with its fantastic interface, from easy-to-read maps to detailed descriptions of each item that comes your way. There’s no denying that Vanillaware’s signature style looks its best in crisp HD, and the improvements made to the controls and combat make the game feel fresh and modern. If your fingers are itching for big titles like Final Fantasy XV or Persona 5, consider keeping them busy with Leifthrasir’s fast-paced and frantic battles — this is one of the best remasters on PS4, and a can’t-miss for JRPG fans if you already let it pass you by in 2007.
Review code for Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.