Publisher: Atlus USA
Platform: PS4, PS3, and PS Vita
Release Date: June 7, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game
It was often prophesied that 2D pixel art in gaming was going to meet its end. With the rise of HD fidelity and photo-realistic 3D aesthetics becoming the norm, a negative stigma started to become attached to 2D. However, as stubborn as the Playstation 2 was to call it quits before the next gaming generation, the same was true for 2D art in gaming. A strong testament to both notions was Vanillaware's 2007 action-RPG release: Odin Sphere.
Odin Sphere was beautiful, both aurally and visually. It enticed many fans and critics alike with its excellent art direction in addition to its engaging take on Norse mythology as well. Even more impressive is that it proved that it could achieve all this in the two-dimensional plane and on dated PS2 hardware.
Still, for as much as I respected what Odin Sphere achieved, it was a title I failed to love despite however much I attempted to do so. Simply put, Odin Sphere's biggest issues were within its gameplay. Not only was the combat and level design very one-note, the US release also happened to be plagued with near-unforgivable gameplay slowdown throughout. As if to hear my complaints nine years later, Vanillaware decided to revisit the cult classic and improve upon it. Rather than opting for a shallow HD port like many titles this console generation, Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir is pretty much a complete remake of the original release.
The least dramatic change Leifthrasir makes is in regards to the setup. Though the English script has been made to have a slightly more Middle English flair, and the narrative dialogue re-dubbed to complement it, the five character perspective switching tale remains almost identical to the PS2 incarnation. This is by no means bad as the Norse-themed narrative that unfolds is actually rather engaging despite some pacing problems. I personally grew to appreciate the storytelling more so my second time around as it it is dense with foreshadowing before reaching the rather satisfying, and quite intense, narrative conclusion. Leifthrasir even makes certain lore complexities within it more comprehensive with short historical-like excerpts after each chapter, which is appreciated.
After a few familiar introduction story scenes, however, I was shocked at how quickly Leifthrasir exponentially refines the whole experience. There are so many quality of life improvements from combat, level design, character progression, to even user interface that I was continuously impressed by the smart changes throughout. I'll say this here and now, there is literally no reason to play the original release because Leithrasir is better in every conceivable way.
The most immediate example of improvement is in regards to combat. Each of the diverse five characters have been entirely revamped for the better. I could break down how obnoxious aspects like managing stamina used to be in the original release, but the end result is that the immense amount of changes to gameplay makes Leifthrasir feel far more fast-paced, mobile, and varied overall. It is extra cool to see combat flourishes like the witch Velvet basically weaving her psypher chains about like Spider-Man to the dark knight Oswald skewering his enemies and draining their life force to fill his berserk gauge. Vanillaware has learned a lot from their more recent Action-RPG efforts such as Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Dragon's Crown, going as far as to homage both them with many new and useful skills, and it certainly shows.
The leveling progression has also been changed quite a bit to give players control over the abilities and magic that they would prefer to power up to give it a more proper Action-RPG feel. Odin Sphere veterans themselves will likely just be happy to be hear that leveling itself is far less tedious now. Gone are the days where standing still mid-battle to absorb phozons was required level up attack power. Just the same, gone are also the unfortunate times of having to backtrack to the pooka village to level up health because of a new traveling chef and mid-dungeon teleporters.
Another aspect that needed much-fixing in original Odin Sphere was the level design for dungeons. To be honest, the dungeon design in the original is best described as a series of monotonous circular battle arenas until hitting a boss room. Much worse, both dungeons and bosses were entirely recycled between the playable leads and they did almost zero to differentiate them for the lengthy adventure.
Now, admittedly, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is not entirely immune to the sins of its former self. Like the original, Leifthrasir still unfortunately has you fight certain bosses a few too many times because of the main story. What it does do, however, is vary up the trek through areas considerably. Concepts that seem minor on paper like several new mini-bosses, the new sense of verticality/platforming to stages, and also adding Metroidvania gameplay elements truly enhance the game's overall flow in a way I really can not stress properly.
They even go as far as to personalize even familiar locales based on the playable character. I remember being totally bewildered by the pleasant surprise that was when the flying fairy princess, Mercedes, had an entertaining side-scrolling shmup segment mid-dungeon specific to her, just because.
Much of the other additions are of the quality of life variety: easier to understand tutorials, better interface (especially with item management), quick travel options to significantly cut down on backtracking, and plenty more. I think the biggest surprise, beyond the sheer quantity of enhancements, is how all these combined didn't just make me dramatically enjoy the title more, but... it even cut my total play time by almost ten hours on the normal difficulty.
Though I did find Leifthrasir noticeably easier -- because characters are that much more capable (and I didn't have to grind at all) -- the option to challenge myself is certainly there during regular and New Game + playthroughs. If that wasn't enough content, there is also a toggle at the title screen to switch the original release (as if to remind you how Leifthrasir is so much better), though saves are incompatible between the two versions.
Last, but certainly not least to mention, is the near timeless 2D art direction and excellent soundtrack. George Kamitani's 2D art style holds phenomenally well even nine years later. While the added backdrops to levels in Leifthrasir do not quite have that standard Kamitani visual polish, like most of the game they are treat to see in motion. And yes, for those wondering about the awful gameplay slowdown and load times that plagued the original PS2 release, they are basically entirely gone now.
That said, the Vita version does have some minor technical hiccups in some spots. Also more than worthy to note, Hitoshi Sakamoto's classical music score is still a treat to listen to. Cooler than that, however, Sakamoto reprises his musical role to noticeably add more musical variety during Leifthrasir's gameplay as well as crafting a few arrangements of the memorable main theme.
I had thought that Odin Sphere was simply one of those games I was never going to change my mind on. A title that, despite appreciating the storytelling and the eye candy of a presentation, it would ultimately leave me with the bitter taste of disappointment in nearly every other respect for years to come. However, the deceptively big remake Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir does not simply improve upon its former composition, it dramatically sweetens its severely flawed former gameplay composition to an unimaginable degree. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir awakens the dormant potential of the original and now proves itself as a worthy classic among many of the best action-RPGs.
+ Entirely overhauled combat that is significantly faster and more fun to play
+ Goes a very long way towards refining the moment to moment gameplay with the hugely altered level design, interface, and character progression
+ Engaging storytelling
+ Both the captivating 2D art and impressive soundtrack more than stand the test of time
- Main story remains exactly the same, which makes it not immune to noticeable pacing and boss repetition problems
- Some minor technical hiccups on Vita in busier fights
Overall Score: 9 (out of 10)
Going far above and beyond the call of typical enhanced releases, Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir manages to not only become one of the best gaming remakes ever but it also truly turn its source material into a worthy RPG classic.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.