If you look purely at the Japanese role-playing games that hit Western shores, you’d think they were obsessed with Norse mythology. Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, Valkyrie Profile, and many others are replete with references to the ancient religion. It brings to mind a conversation conveyed to me by a friend between him (a Westerner) and a producer at a J-RPG publisher. When asked why Japanese developers seem to love Norse mythology, the answer was rather odd. “It’s only because in Japan, Norse names are really cool sounding,” the producer replied.
They aren’t wrong. Norse names have a distinctly strong and combative quality to them. All of which brings us to the return of one of the most impressive crossovers between cool-sounding Norse names and distinctly Japanese design—Odin Sphere. Originally released in 2008 on the PlayStation 2, Odin Sphere was a game whose design and artistic goals outpaced the hardware it was built on. The gorgeous, colorful graphics and superb, fast-paced combat were simply too much for the now-ancient system and the game suffered from frequent bouts of slowdown and choppiness as a result.
Fast forward to today’s powerhouse consoles and Odin Sphere can finally realize its original vision. The result is Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, and out of the seemingly endless line of HD remakes hittings all current platforms, this is one of the best. This is an epic action adventure game, smoothly mixing side-scrolling beat ‘em ups with J-RPG tropes into a melange of surprisingly dramatic vignettes centering around five different but related stories and characters.
BATTLES OF THE GODS
The world of Erion is in a constant state of war, as different factions vie for domination and a powerful magical artifact—a massive cauldron that can create the energy used to power the magic of the realm. The first story revolves around a valkyrie and daughter of the Demon Lord Odin named Gwendolyn, whose sister, Griselda (another important name in Norse lore), is killed in battle. Through a series of unfortunate events Gwen ends up traveling all over the realm, first on a quest for her father, then for the love of family she never knew about, and then for the love of a husband she was magically forced to marry by her father.
Despite some weirdly troublesome overtones about free will and, oh, women being treated more as property than autonomous beings, this first story sets the surprisingly mature and tragic tone for the whole game. Gwendolyn ignites events that can’t be undone and have an impact that lasts far beyond her story.
Each of the five characters adds to this downward spiral of a world at war. There’s a lot of breaks for the narrative to push things forward, but despite the lush and colorful cartoonish graphics and set-up of an adorable little girl reading stories from a book, Odin Sphere feels like anything but a “kid’s” game.
What’s so brilliant about the overall story is how grim and uncompromising it is. Even the so-called happy ending is remarkably bitter sweet. Not every character gets a Disney ending. There are no neat and clean resolves. Love gets lost, people get sacrificed, and nothing is easy. Comparisons to Game of Thrones won’t go amiss, although Odin Sphere isn’t as outlandishly sadistic and gore-hungry.
So while Odin Sphere Leifthrasir certainly doesn’t follow the myths of its namesake, the grim scope matches perfectly with the overall fatalistic themes of Norse mythology. Both ultimately end in pyrrhic victories, because war doesn’t have a happy ending. That Odin Sphere embraces this truth speaks volumes and makes it unique among the sea of cliched stories we see in so many other games.
The odds are good you missed Odin Sphere the first time around, but this is the version that makes the game truly shine. Available on the PlayStation 3 and 4 and the Vita, it feels damn near perfect on the current platforms. Odin Sphere Leifthrasir isn’t just using the names of classic Norse myths—it manages to weave an epic story worthy of ancient legends and modern fantasy both.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
RELATED: The Gamers Next Door Face Their Fears in Virtual Reality Horror