Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Odin's Sphere Leifthrasir Review

Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Dragon's Crown are sort of a trinity of Vanillaware games people actually care about.  All three use George Kamitami's fantastic artwork and tell classical stories using certain mythological inspirations.  Among the trinity, I've always considered Odin Sphere to be the best one overall, even after playing Muramasa, a faster-paced game on a stronger system.

I got the original Odin's Sphere on a whim.  I was at Gamestop to buy a copy of The King of Fighters 11 and 13, but since there was a buy 2 get 1 free sale on used games I also got Odin Sphere, which I remember being referenced in Nintendo Power as one of the Muramasa creator's previous games.  Essentially I walked out of a store with the two greatest fighting games ever made and a decent action game.

There was a lot to like in Odin Sphere, but technological restraints of the time weighed it down a bit.  It could get too unforgiving, loading times for the pretty graphics added up, some of the enemies required exploiting some kind of arbitrary flow-breaking weakness and the final part of the game, without spoiling anything, is bullshit at worst and vague at best.

I beat it, but never got the best ending, as that required doing repeating a certain set of missions, refilling the success-critical items for each time and having to wait through several loading times.  If it weren't for all the little problems Odin Sphere had I would've finished it fully.

Even with those gripes it's still my favorite Vanillaware game thanks to its story, a classical mythological tale of dueling kingdoms, dragons, forbidden magic and the underworld told across five different characters with their own play styles.  With the wrinkles ironed out it could almost be considered a masterpiece.

Lo and behold, Vanillaware promised to make it the fantastic game it could be with Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, an HD update to the game for the PS3, PS4 and Vita.  With my fond memories driving me, I got the Vita version, because with Muramasa Rebirth and Dragon's Crown on there, why not complete the set?

The story I revere so much takes place in the magical land of Erion, where a number of kingdoms reign over different parts of the land.  There's a forest of fairies, a glowing city with valkyries and dwarves and even the underworld has its own spot where people can walk in and out if they can traverse it.
One of the kingdoms, however, is more of a smoking crater of the long-since destroyed kingdom of Valentine.  It was once the mightiest kingdom of all thanks to its forbidden magic, but after their giant death machine using that magic malfunctioned the entire kingdom was destroyed.
Now, as the fairy queen Elfaria and Aesir king Odin fight for control of said death machine, each of the five playable characters go on their own journeys to fight for what they believe in while a prophesized armageddon approaches.

The first of these characters is Gwendolyn, Odin's valkyrie warrior daughter who goes on a journey of questioning loyalty and following her own path.

Hailing from the east is the prince of Titania, Cornelius, who is turned into a cursed creature called a pooka and given a sword by a mysterious voice in the underworld to save his kingdom and find out what's happened to him.

In the fairy kingdom is the princess Mercedes.  After queen Elfaria dies early on, Mercedes goes on something of a coming of age story as she learns to take the responsibility of leading her people to victory against Odin.

Also from the fairy kingdom is the shadow knight Oswald, except he himself is not a fairy.  After being abandoned as a baby, Oswald was raised by Elfaria's nephew Melvin, whom Oswald dedicates his life to.  Oswald's story is one of finding purpose in life.

And finally there's Velvet.  She along with her brother Ingway are the only two survivors of the royal house of Valentine who take refuge in the forest.  She is Cornelius' lover whose story revolves around the responsibility of protecting her family's kingdom-destroying death machine.

It's a tale of love, loss, war and self-discovery.  Someone could make a three-part Lord of the Rings-style movie trilogy out of Odin Sphere.
There's a lot of detail put not just into the well-developed characters, but also the different elements that put the story together to make it complex and absorbing.  The weapons of the game and how they're used, for example.

Each character uses a weapon called a psypher, crafted from jewels found in the underworld (that the queen is very protective of).  Psyphers are the most powerful weapons around.  They can let the wielders use powerful spells and are even strong enough to pierce dragon scales (something no other weapon is capable of), but that power comes at a cost.  The psyphers are powered by phozons, which are basically bits of life energy that come out of dead people.  Normally phozons are supposed to return to the earth for the cycle of life, but one of the core mechanics of the games is absorbing phozons from dead enemies and plants to get the power your psypher needs.  Because of that, they aren't looked fondly upon within the context of the story.

The attention to narrative detail gives enough explanation for everything to have weight and context, but never overstays its welcome, perhaps be because it feels natural with the dialogue.  All of it is in a classical, Shakespearean tone, which I suppose sounds stiff at times, but I live for this stuff, and the voice actors sell it all really well.

I read somewhere that Leifthreasir would have a new, re-dubbed English translation.  That turned out to be a lie, but it's not a problem.  Odin Sphere has the usual anime and game voice actors with roles they know all too well.  Derek Stephen Prince, Karen Strassman, Richard Epcar and Liam O' Brien are in their element for these roles and they all give good performances, if a little plain.  The titular character Odin has a good voice too, but for some reason he isn't credited.

If I had to give an Oscar to one of Odin Sphere's voice actors it would be to Keith Silverstein.  He does an outstanding performance as the undead, skeletal king of Valentine, portraying his maelstrom of pain, mania, sorrow, care and anger perfectly.  Being a skeleton, the character itself is mostly expressionless, but Silverstein is able to act everything out using only his voice.  For such a strong and tragic figure written to emotionally sway the player to hate and pity him at the same time, that's impressive.

Out of all the Vanillaware stories presented thus far, Odin Sphere's is the most epic and I love it.

I do not, however, love the way the story is presented, which is something I was hoping this new HD version would correct.
In a game with five playable characters and their own perspectives of events, you would expect to be able to pick any one of them and play through each story at your leisure.  That's how most games seem to do it, but Odin Sphere decided to be different.  You can only play through each character’s story in a pre-determined order, which I would be fine with if it weren’t so disjointed that way.

See, when two of the playable characters interact with each other, those parts are only shown in one character’s story, meaning that when you get to that point in the timeline in another character’s, the game either vaguely alludes to it or forgets it ever happened.  It’s a quite literal case of scenes missing.

For example: Early in Mercedes’ story you fight Oswald as a boss and defeat him.  In Oswald’s story, the fight is never once even referred to and he’s shown limping as though defeated by someone right after a scene in which he was just fine.
In Cornelius’ story you fight Mercedes, but of course, in her story, that never happens and it’s only mentioned that she was going to the location it takes place at.

Each cutscene is laid out on a timeline you can view them from, which you’ll want to do more times than you should because as good as it is, Odin Sphere’s story is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.  It isn’t until you unlock every single cutscene in the game that you can rearrange the timeline into a linear one, but that’s something I wish they’d done in the first place.

The only thing better than the story is the action, but that applies moreso to the original.  I wish I could say Leifthrasir blows the original out of the water, but I don’t really like the new combat system they’ve given this update.  Instead of the slower, weightier, permanently zoomed-in combat style of the original Odin Sphere, this new version is much faster paced with a (optional) zoomed-out camera, faster and longer combos that are easy to cancel into and a stamina bar used for specific special attacks instead of limiting guarding and attacking.  The special attacks themselves have gone from basic, but useful moves like blinding flashes and little cyclones to firestorms, automatic combos and big flashy crowd-clearers, all the while everything is upgradeable for even more power.

The special skills used are selectively upgraded with phozons in Leifthrasir.
I’m not the kind of person to normally complain about this, but the new game style is too easy!  The developers gave enemies more health and increased their numbers to balance it out, but it still doesn’t feel balanced.  It’s all too easy to beat a boss down with an onslaught of attack combos and special attacks before they can so much as scratch their nose.  You can switch to hard mode, but then it’s too hard and enemies have so much health it’s tedious.  It never hits that sweet spot of being both challenging and satisfying until the boss fights, but even those are far easier than I remember.

Playing Leifthrasir the first time through I dreaded fighting the dragon Belial at a certain point in the story.  I had to get psyched up for the fight because it was one of the hardest in the old Odin Sphere.  Imagine my disappointment when the unfair beatdown was laid upon him rather than me.  Instead of feeling cathartic I felt sorry for my fallen foe, as if I barely gave him a chance.  It was almost like the “fight” with Letz Shake in the original No More heroes.

It doesn’t feel like the gameplay they wanted to give Odin Sphere fit with what was already there.  Quick-cutting swordplay worked in Muramasa because you weightlessly jumped and dashed around slashing the hell out of your enemies with the swiftness of a blade.  Odin Sphere has a more down to earth feel with its movement and settings and the game design clashes with the high speed combat Leifthrasir gives us.  This must be how some people felt about Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.

It can feel satisfying, but not as much as it used to.

I do like some of the other changes Leifthrasir made.  As overpowered as they are, it was a good idea to give each character unique special attacks corresponding to an element.  The new minibosses are also a neat addition, the bullshit enemies had their bullshit removed and new straight areas with special ability stones to collect give players more to look at and do.  I could do without the new touring restaurant that lets you give ingredients for experience and health-boosting food though.  As if the combat didn’t make things easy enough now they hand health out on a silver platter, even if you do have to get the ingredients yourself.

A lot of my complaining is rendered moot by the inclusion of a classic mode that lets you play Odin Sphere the original way with the refinement of HD visuals, shorter loading times and extra minibosses, but I would have liked a game that balanced the two versions and upgraded the classic Odin Sphere in the right ways.  Looking back, both the original and Leifthrasir update have since been surpassed by the likes of Muramasa when it comes to boss battles.

Odin Sphere still has big, fun battles against dragons, grim reapers and a big bulky booze-binging Richard Epcar, but most of the bosses are reused and fought multiple times by different characters.  They sometimes have a unique attack and new characters means a new flavor of play, but hacking and slashing to whittle a boss' health down is largely the same no matter who fights them and the boss music never changes except for a character’s final battle and the bosses at the very end.  Odin Sphere’s soundtrack is beautiful, but even the best music can start to feel droning after it’s been played a dozen times.

Part of the reason this is my favorite track is because it's used sparingly.

Compare that to Muramasa, where there are only two characters, but they each have eight bosses with different music for each set.  Odin Sphere Leifthrasir gives bosses some new attacks, but that's a token effort to give them the spice they really could have used.

No matter what I may type about missed potential, none of it changes the fact that you're ultimately getting a touched-up version of Odin Sphere with this new version.  It was already a good game, so with some new content, better graphics and all the loading abolished plus being portable on the Vita, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir elevates this good game into a great game.  If you haven’t played Odin Sphere before, this is the time to.  If you have, the improvements and new combat will make it a different enough of an experience (for better or worse) to replay without feeling like a simple re-release.  I give Odin Sphere Leifthrasir an 8 out of 10.


  1. Any differences between the Vita version and the PS4 version?

    1. No. All 3 versions are the exact same game.