With the release of the fantasy beat-em-up tribute Dragon’s Crown in 2013, Japanese developer Vanillaware finally became a major name in gaming, with the title going on to sell almost a million copies worldwide and in-turn outselling every other Vanillaware release up to that point. Its gorgeous art direction, surprisingly challenging gameplay, and old-school sensibility attracted both seasoned and younger gamers alike, creating a truly cross-generational hit in the process.
But Vanillaware was no New Kid On The Block. By that time, they were an established developer with a grand total of four original titles under their belt. And it was with their second release, the criminally underrated PS2 action RPG Odin Sphere, that gamers all over the world first became aware of Vanillaware’s artistry. And now, almost a decade after the original’s release, a new generation can discover this overlooked classic, retuned and updated for modern Sony consoles.
But is it worth it? Find out below.
What Is It?
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is a HD remake of the original 2007 PS2 release, itself a narratively driven, 2D action RPG. The game’s narrative is framed around a series of books, being read by a young girl named Alice, detailing the personal stories of five different protagonists in the world of Erion. This particular fantasy world features storylines and characters heavily inspired by Norse and Germanic mythology and folklore (with a bit of Wagner thrown in for good measure). This fantasy world is in serious turmoil, as the Demon Lord of the realm of Ragnival has invaded the fellow forested realm of Ringford. Betwixt them is a blasted wasteland, now only inhabited by cursed rabbit-like creatures called Pooka, that was once a prosperous nation called Valentin. The other two nations precariously caught in the crossfire are Titania, itself suffering an internal crisis, and Volkenon, a fiery volcanic realm ruled by the impetuous Inferno King Onyx. There are other, more secretive forces at work as well behind the scenes, such as a conspiracy of wizards and the machinations of the Queen of the Underworld.
The reason for all of this bloodshed, betrayal and devastation is a sacred object known as the Crystilization Cauldron, which is believed to create an endless source of energy called Psypher crystals, which fuel the magical weapons and technology of this world.
The player will experience all sides of this conflict, as each of the game’s narratives (divided up as books), will require them to take the role of five different protagonists with different strengths, weaknesses and playing styles.
There’s Gwendolyn, a valkyrie of Ragnival who fights with a spear. Cornelius, a cursed Prince of Titania who fights with a crystal sword. Mercedes, a fairy Princess of Ringford who fights with a magical crossbow. Oswald, an adopted son of Ringford who fights with a magic sword. And Velvet, a refugee and survivor of Valentin who battles with a crystal-tipped chain–each with their own hopes, dreams, and problems. Each have a part to play in this overall epic.
Why Should I Care?
As with all Vanillaware releases, the very first thing the player will encounter is the astonishing artwork and animation. Company head and artist George Kamitani, himself heavily inspired by the likes of Frank Frazetta and Walt Disney, pushes himself and his team to create games with a lush, painterly art style reminiscent of 18th century Rococo and Watercolor artworks. This is further enhanced by the gorgeous sprite-based animation that, while not as smooth as motion capture, has a breath and a life to it that is reminiscent of the best sprite-based graphics of today and yesteryear.
In the original release, these lush graphics were sometimes too much for the PS2 to handle, causing occasional but infuriating cases of slowdown and halting animation. In this new release, with its smoothed-out graphics and animation, slowdown is no problem on the much more powerful modern hardware.
As mentioned earlier, each of the five protagonists each have their own style of combat, each with its own strengths and witnesses. Gwendolin, for example, fights with a Psypher-tipped spear that relies on close-range combo-fueled combat. Mercedes, however, fights with a Psypher-tipped crossbow and relies on long and mid-range combat with various projectile attacks of increasing strength. Both Oswald and Cornelius fight with Psypher-enhanced swords, and Velvet’s Psyher-enhanced chain uses lightning fast attacks of various ranges. Each character gains experience and progresses over time, earning new moves, combos, and ultimate attacks that increase in strength (and sometimes, length) as the game goes on. Furthermore, the character can also purchase and sell various items and equipment before the start of each mission (and you’ll need to, as your inventory space is limited), as well as obtain information about both the game’s universe and the upcoming challenges they may face.
This new version of the game smooths over and in some cases completely does away with many of the issues and problems of the original release. Along with the graphical upgrade, the Skills function has been overhauled with individual skill sets for each character instead of the generic skills of the original. Combat is also more refined, with combos now allowing more complexity and length. Add such new editions as new game modes and an overhauled grading system (with new additional rewards), and in some ways it’s almost like a completely different game. Of course, if you prefer the old playing style, that option is included as well.
But despite the upgrades from the previous release, there are still some flaws that migrate over to this new version that bring the overall presentation down. Although the game’s narrative is quite gripping and enthralling, the way it is told is not always perfect. Because you experience the game’s narrative from the point of view of all five protagonists, this also means that you will be replaying moments from other storylines when they intersect, which in turn means that you will be required to redo old battles and objectives over and over again. There are subtle differences, but overall it’s an almost complete retread, only with a different player character. This can be especially frustrating when you realize that the narrative itself is affected by both the order of storylines you play, and the choices you make within them. There’s even an entire section of the game that is completely closed off from the player unless it is played in an exact sequence. And for all of the game’s scope, it does sort of end rather abruptly.
Then there’s the voice acting. This version keeps the original voice audio from the original release. Now, the original voice acting wasn’t bad, per se. It was at least competent, and different from character to character. However, the tone of the voice acting doesn’t always match the tone of the story. Some voice actors were definitely better than others, and this is especially obvious when players encounter the more harrowing and tragic parts of the game’s narrative. Although the story explores themes of war, betrayal, desperation and tragedy, in comparison the voice acting can sometimes feel flat, having less pomp and circumstance and more Friday night dinner theater quality.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
When it was first released in 2007, Odin Sphere earned many awards from gaming publications, yet sadly it went largely overlooked by the mainstream gaming public. With this new edition, upgraded and available for all Sony systems, gamers will now get a second chance to play this critically-acclaimed yet obscure classic. The game’s narrative, while not without its flaws, is complex and enthralling with all the literary quality of literary fantasy classics and fairy tales. Its themes of conflict and tragedy perhaps resonate as strongly as it did in 2007. It’s deceitfully elaborate combat is as addictive as it is fast-paced, now with even more complex combos to be used on the game’s numerous foes.
And of course, there’s the visual aspect. Though it’s true that various areas will often be revisited along with narrative portions, they always look as astonishingly beautiful as the first time you see them, along with the creatures and characters that inhabit them. Gamers were already flabbergasted with the quality of the visuals nine years ago, and with the updates they can be enjoyed by both veterans and a new generation.
Although it still has some flaws the original did, this game is still as magical and compelling as it was on the PS2, only better. It’s not perfect, but its successes strongly outweigh its problems. The experience may be finite, but the story and characters you encounter will stay with you long after you shut the game off.
This game was sadly overlooked on the PS2. Now you have another chance. You won’t be disappointed.