Considering that it was released in 2008 as a PS2 exclusive, there is a good chance that Odin Sphere went under your radar. Fortunately, in recent years Japanese publisher Atlus has shown how good it is at curating the best Japanese products for the West, and as far as JRPG’s go, remaster Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is perhaps the weirdest and most wonderful RPG you never knew you wanted.
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, though very much Japanese in its storytelling and tone, is heavily inspired by western fairy tales and specifically, Nordic culture. The story, broken up into acts, follows five warring nations and the lives of their rulers. Each act puts you in the role of a different ruler, and tells a standalone story that intersects with each of the previous acts in glancing ways. This storytelling approach is like a series of short stories within an interconnected world, and is highly successful in how it builds a grander meta-narrative while telling compelling stories about the personal struggles of each ruler and the politics of their kingdom.
Despite the strength of the story arcs, the characterisation doesn’t live to the same standards. The characters are very reminiscent of fairy tale characters in how they are completely defined by one thing – typically love for another character. Though this was clearly a tonal choice, it results in painfully stilted characters.
Part of Odin Sphere Leifthrasir’s weirdness comes from its mechanical amalgamation of RPG with 2D side-scroller. This combination, though strange in concept, sacrifices very little compared to its 3D counterpart, and the game still has plenty of exploration to offer. Maps are constructed from a series of arenas, which are inter-connected by diverging passages, and each chapter is a different series within one of Odin Sphere’s kingdoms, ending with a boss battle. It’s a strange layout at first, but once you get your head around the construction and learn to read the map, it quickly becomes an interesting way to explore, and a rewarding way to clear maps of all points of interest.
Adding to the game's distinct personality is in how its progression systems primarily involve eating food. To progress your characters you need to grow, cultivate, and buy ingredients to be eaten or given to a cook to turn into more experience-rewarding meals. Like most aspects of this game, it sounds weird, but it is incredibly endearing. Part of what makes this particular system work well is how it combines with the economy of the game to create an almost strategic level to character progression.
The game’s three progression currencies are coins, food, and phozons, the latter of which are an energy used to grow food but also to level up attacks. A common strategic challenge of the game is balancing these three currencies to produce the most experience possible for your character. A common scenario, for example, would be trying to decide what fruits you should grow with phozons, and what ingredients you should buy with coins to make the most experience-yielding recipe that the cook currently has available. It sounds finicky, but it is a very well conceived and executed system which adds to the game in deep and surprising ways.
The combat is confined to battle areas dispersed throughout the map. The fighting itself is vaguely reminiscent of something like Bayonetta in its heavy emphasis on variety of attacks and combo chains, and in how it awards a letter score upon completing an encounter. This is kept interesting by the ever-expanding arsenal of attacks earned through exploration, as well as by a varied enemy set with diverse approaches and strategies.
Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is an incredibly unique JRPG gem. Its emphasis on creating something original results in a distinct story, progression system and world in one very charming package.