Coming out very late in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle, Odin Sphere perhaps didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. It was a critical darling (and rightly so) and sold fairly well, but it was niche game fighting against a newly-released PlayStation 3 and all the hype that goes with that. For Europe and Australasia, it was even worse, not coming out until a year later when the PS3 had even more of a foothold. I never got a chance to play the original, despite it being exactly the kind of game I love, and now that Vanillaware is better known, I’m sure I won’t be alone in relishing the chance to revisit the studio’s origins.
This is one reason that I’m so pleased to see the game get an enhanced PS4 release as Odin Sphere Leifthrasir. People complain and accuse remasters of being “cash grabs”, but they’re a solution to the very important problem of preserving game history – an inelegant solution at times, I’ll admit, but one that’s better than nothing. If it weren’t for Leifthrasir or some sort of PS2-to-PS4 emulated port, I doubt I’d ever have gotten to play Odin Sphere, and that would be a damn shame.
Which brings me to my second point: Odin Sphere, both the original and Leifthrasir, is an incredible game, and a testament to the artistry that games as a medium can achieve – not just from a visual design perspective, but also from with regard to narrative and even basic mechanics.
Odin Sphere’s artistry is most immediately apparent in its visual art direction. Shunning the near-ubiquity of 3D animation in games, Vanillaware has committed itself to the dying art of 2D sprite-based designs. No amount of polygons or texture resolution can match 2D art when it’s done well, and Odin Sphere is a stunning example of that.
There’s a strange mix of influences at play here – anime, fantasy pin-up art, caricature – that all come together to create something unique and utterly gorgeous. It’s a style that’s come to define Vanillaware, yet as good as the studio’s subsequent games have looked, none have quite matched the bar set by Odin Sphere, and with Leifthrasir, you get all of this at a pristine 1080p resolution. One of the best-looking games on PlayStation 2 is now one of the best-looking games on PlayStation 4.
With this fantasy pin-up style comes a degree of sexualisation that Vanillaware has come under fire for in the past, most notably around their previous game, Dragon’s Crown. I’ll admit that I had my issues with Dragon’s Crown for exactly that reason, but in Odin Sphere, it works. Yes, there is a degree of titillation and fan-service in most of the female character designs, but it never goes far enough that I’d say the women in this game are objectified – that they’re reduced to being nothing more than objects of desire. They are sexy, and that sexiness is accentuated, but it’s part of an overall style of caricature that gives the whole game, and the characters within it, a deep sense of personality.
You could write off Queen Elfaria and her exaggerated hourglass figure as a crass case of fan-service, but her design also speaks to her role as the matriarch of Ringford; the bosom of the forest. Mercedes’ lolita-esque appearance symbolises her naivety and how relatively sheltered she’s been from the horrors of war. Velvet, conversely, has seen far too much war, and her bared skin and slender, almost emaciated form shows a woman who is emotionally wrought.
The exaggeration of physical, gendered characteristics extends across the entire cast, too, men included. There’s a raw, unbridled masculinity in General Brigan’s comically large muscles, which reflects his violent brashness. Oswald’s conflict between his role as a warrior and his wish to leave that life behind him shows through his pretty-boy looks hidden beneath fierce, black armour.
This isn’t an attempt to denounce accusations of sexism because “it happens to men too!”, and men in Odin Sphere certainly aren’t sexualised in the way that the women are. Rather, it’s to show how that sexualisation fits, importantly, into the overall direction and themes of the game, and even takes on a subversive tone. It certainly doesn’t reduce them to objects, and to suggest otherwise denies the agency of an impressive and complex cast of women.
Spanning five intertwined stories, Odin Sphere explores themes of war, love, and loss, and, despite the fantasy trappings, it does so with a potent sense of groundedness. Everyone will be able to relate, to some degree, with Gwendolyn’s struggle for fatherly acknowledgement, or Oswald’s plight of unrequited love. Not many would have lived experience of Velvet’s position as one of the last survivors of a fallen kingdom, but that feeling of loss and hopelessness is universally human.
Put simply, Odin Sphere is a collection of Shakespearean tragedies. Not only does it court similar stories and themes, but there’s a theatrical element that pervades the game. The backgrounds, in all their 2D, sprite-based glory, feel like particularly elaborate stage sets. The dialogue, complete with spotlighted soliloquies, has a very thespian feel to it. The pacing and narrative structures lean heavily on those of the stage. In fact, so convincing is this presentation that the action and exploration that make up the bulk of Odin Sphere and serve the transition from cutscene to cutscene could almost be written off as stagehands working on a scene change.
Well, it could if it wasn’t so captivating. This is essentially a side-scrolling hack-and-slash RPG, but between the responsive controls, gorgeous animations, and fluid momentum, combat takes on an artful quality of its own. There’s an elegance and gracefulness to the multitude of skirmishes that invoke classical dance as much as they do the beat-’em-up games of yore by which Odin Sphere is so clearly inspired. There’s plenty of satisfaction in cutting down swathes of enemies, stringing together all manner of special moves to never let the combo counter drop.
Beyond the more traditional art forms that inspire visual design, storytelling, and music, a well-designed game can make the act of playing itself artistic, and that’s something that at which Odin Sphere excels.
Leifthrasir is, of course, a remaster, and so it comes with the improvements typical of such a release – an improved native resolution and other such technical improvements – as well as a refined combat and movement mechanics, but these are nice bonuses. Odin Sphere Leifthrasir’s most important achievement is in preserving art for generations to come; something that the game industry in general is terrible at. And Odin Sphere is, without a doubt, a work of art, and something that should never be lost to the sands of time.
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus. It will be available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita on June 7 in North America and June 24 in Europe.
A press copy was supplied by Atlus for this review.