We're not sure what it is about the Japanese, but they seem to have a bit of a weakness for largely nonsensical English titles - ZHP: Unlosing Ranger VS Darkdeath Evilman, Arcana Heart 3: LOVE MAX!!! (those triple exclamation marks are very important) and htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary are just a few of the hits from our friends at NIS America, chief importers of the crazy and kooky from Japan. The latest on their list of nonsensical titles is Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, a title which, while we're a-ok with the Odin Sphere part, we're still not really sure how to pronounce in its entirety, even now after 40+ hours of playing.
Originally released on the Playstation 2 in 2007, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir takes developer Vanillaware's epic fairytale adventure and gives it a new lick of paint and more than a little bit of polish, turning it into one heck of a magical game.
In terms of story, Odin Sphere is a bit of a weird one - and all the better for it. Framed as a series of books being read by a young girl called Alice (and her cat Socrates) in an attic at home, the stage is set for a tale (mostly) inspired by Norse-mythology. Each book centres around a different protagonist, and the events leading up to the legendary Armageddon, as seen through their eyes, with each story interconnected with the others, often with the protagonist of one becoming the antagonist of another.
For what looks to be a basic hack-and-slash game, Odin Sphere weaves a surprisingly complex tale of death, destruction and dragons as the end of the world approaches. Key to the Armageddon is a mysterious device known as the Crystallization Cauldron, which is the source of the world's life force, Phozons - and each of the game's five protagonists has their own reasons for wanting to gain control of it. A war is raging between the fairies of the forest and the Demon Lord Odin and his Valkyrie army over said device, whilst the remnants of the Valentine civilisation, near wiped out by a previous Cauldron-related calamity fight to stop a similar disaster happening all over again.
Within these books, Odin Sphere fits together via a mixture of cutscenes and maze-like stages that take in everything from the lush green fairy forests to snow capped mountains, and the dank, dark Netherworld. Each level is comprised of a series of interconnecting rooms filled with enemies, treasure chests and secrets - round rooms, which loop around as you run along the 2D plane on screen, signify more extensive battle sections, often with better rewards. Depending on how well you do in the button-mashy, hack and slash combat, you'll be graded from S to D, with better results meaning better rewards at the end - stringing lots of uninterrupted attacks into a long combo, taking as little damage as possible and using various skills and special attacks are all easy ways to increase your grade, while taking too long to defeat enemies can knock it down into the lower levels instead.
Battling may fill up the bulk of your time with Odin Sphere, but that isn't to say the levels are purely a stroll from battle to battle and from boss fight to boss fight - far from it. Treasure chests and other valuable items litter the map, and for those who explore, more than a handful of secrets can be found too. Some require clever use of items, such as throwing a Volcano potion at an iced up wall to blast your way through, sweeping away leaves from a tree hollow with a Cyclone bottle or equipping a pair of heavy Stone Boots to weigh you down enough to pass through a sandstorm unperturbed. Our personal favourite is figuring out the little riddles and hints that lead you to a Phozon Prism, a special item which unlocks new moves and attacks, which are hidden somewhere in the level - you've just got to follow the clues, where you're searching for a room near "where the snowmen stare" to waiting in a room where you defeated a certain enemy, to searching for a secret entrance in a pile of bones.
Speaking of attacks, each of the five main characters plays a little differently, with their own unique weapons, powers and skills to master. Spear-wielding Valkyrie Gwendolyn and the sword-slashing Prince Cornelius are probably the most similar, both with move-sets packed with close-quarters melee attacks and slashes which juggle enemies in the air. Fairy queen Mercedes uses a bow instead, making her more of a ranged attacker - she's also the more difficult one to play as because of it, particularly as she has to reload after a period of time. It does however give rise to some more novel boss fights which are more akin to a side-scrolling shooter, with the fairy girl flying from left to right, shooting at her flying foe at the other end of the screen, dodging their projectile attacks too. Oswald the Shadow Knight is another interesting one, as on the surface, his frenzied sword slashes may seem similar to that of Cornelius and Gwen, but he has another trick up his sleeve - by charging up a meter through regular attacks, he has the option of entering a 'Beserk' state where both his speed and damage dealt are drastically increased, making him a heck of a force to be reckoned with in boss fights. Velvet meanwhile attacks with a weighted chain, which she can whip back and forth over great distances to hit enemies both near and far - and with fire spells at her finger tips, once you've trapped your enemies in your dancing, swirling vortex of chains, you can burn them too.
We've mentioned potions a couple of times already, which come in three major flavours - offensive spells trapped in bottles for battle, the obligatory health restoring potions, and various buffs to up damage, resist damage or increase the amount of money fallen foes drop. And while you can buy most of the basics from various merchants in each stage, the pros make them themselves through alchemy. Little walking 'vegetables' can be found throughout levels, and these form the basis of most of your potions, in various quantities, providing you have a bottle to put it in - better bottles, or more ingredients, will result in better potions which last for longer, do more damage or heal more extensively, and you'll learn new recipes as you play.
Speaking of recipes, a friendly Pooka chef called Maury can be found at set points in each world, and, via his Touring Restaurant, he'll cook you whatever you fancy, providing you can give him the relevant ingredients in lieu of payment. New recipes can be found throughout the game, in treasure chests, as rewards for beating bosses or bought from shops, and Maury will add each new one to the menu. By eating at his restaurant, you'll not only restore your health, but also earn significant experience point boosts, making your character more powerful as they level up. Maury even offers a few takeout options, pending the recipes of course, which can be handy to munch on mid-battle to restore more health than your average health potion. There are other bits and pieces you can eat too outside of the Touring Restaurant, all of which will boost your health and experience - collected seeds can be grown, and their fruit saved for a health-related emergency, for example.
For those that fancy a side of flashy, button-mashy combat with their role-playing games, you can do a lot, lot worse than Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, which mixes an engrossing story with a memorable cast of characters, all wrapped up in pretty, hand-painted style graphics. Exploration and searching out hidden chests, items and upgrades was a particular highlight, while stopping for a quick lunch at Maury's, collecting recipes and ingredients a plenty along the way, was a nice change of pace as we tried to try out everything on his vast and ever-growing menu. Combat can be a little repetitive however, with many enemies and bosses reused between the stories - however, the entwining nature the tales likely requires some amount of overlap at least.