Odin Sphere Leifthrasir review
I guess we have to live with the word ‘adolescent’ as shorthand adjective for describing zero-consequence power fantasies, but honestly I’m not into it. Not that these sorts of games aren’t super popular with adolescents, because what’s more adolescent than precociously consuming the most inappropriate junk you can find, that is exactly why games where you zoom around at 100mph murdering gore demons have such an adolescent connotation; at 14 video games so often hit that sweets spot of a) being incredibly inappropriate for you b) making you feel powerful for murdering gore demons because there are zero things in your life you have control over other than murdering gore demons.
You play adult things when you don’t feel like an adult yet, and games where you’re powerful when you feel mostly powerless, and the soothing dissociative repetition of it all is a nice bonus.
Games are not adolescent in the sense they are about any of the things their audience is playing them to avoid, they are not adolescent in the sense that they take adolescent fears and fascinations seriously, like anxiety about how sex might be real, and dying might be too, or how adults are not flawless and are capable of losing your trust. It’s hard to be about these things in a way that isn't patronizing, but if there’s going to be games for adults that are actually grown up, wherefore games for adolescents? Like where’s the YA lit? Could we get a His Dark Materials of games, or at least a Harry Potter?
It’s been almost ten years since the first edition of Odin Sphere, so I forgot how much this game is not about prophecies and magic rings and dragons and gods and is instead mostly about kids who are hoping the adults in their lives will love them, and finding them absolutely not there for them.
That’s a feeling that’s truly adolescent, and this game - that begins by playing as a young girl reading books in her attic with a cat, that is animated like the moving illustrations of an expensive hardcover, and draws more from Wagner’s Ring Cycle and A Midsummer’s Night Dream directly than their derivatives - is probably the closest we have to something YA lit for games. It’s mostly about women, mostly about older male relatives being scary and controlling, and mostly about being clever and brave in the face of terrible circumstances, which were the sorts of things that were huge to me when I first read about them, and still kind of are.
So, the first important thing is that the Leifthrasir remake is the same story, line for line and shot for shot, with only the sprites redrawn to match HD. The art was redrawn to look the same; that is, how you remembered it, not how it actually looked on SD CRT. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever played a remake that has both changed the story so little and the play of it so much, which is very nice for a game that was also so obtuse and inaccessible to play despite being so gorgeous and so easy to recommend otherwise.
The original Odin Sphere was very interesting, and I’m glad it’s included within the remake. The design decisions of the original were so unusual that they’re kind of fascinating, despite being a chore to engage with. Odin Sphere had such wonderful intentions; it was a brawler with five distinct and very fun to play characters, but it also wanted you to patiently grow delicious-looking fruit from trees and mix potions made from anthropomorphic vegetables in the middle of combat. I love it when ‘RPG’ really means a heavily detailed system about your life outside combat and I love love love cooking, so I was able to stick with it.
The remake is basically a different game, and it’s much more like Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa. The alchemy is simplified and the cooking is more forgiving, and the game introduces more environments and stages instead of the simple loop every level in the original used to be.
The original was a slog at any difficulty, but Leifthrasir on easy feels effortless, at normal the curve gently pushes you, and on hard you still feel powerful even when fail—winning always feels just that close. The story of Odin Sphere is heavy, but playing it feels like being light as a feather. It feels like being razor sharp, and invincible, and perfect, which is maybe more toward being an “adolescent power fantasy” than “narrative of adolescence.” Games in which I’m powerful and beautiful and effortless even when working hard are the kind of game I keep coming back to when I need peace for a moment, so for this, Odin Sphere is possibly my favorite game ever? I still feel a bit that this part of the game is dissociating from the real problems.
Still though, for a story about how adults make children feel powerless, getting to feel powerful in between those moments feels like getting a breath in. Just when everything is going according to the cruel manipulations of adults and everything looks hopeless, you get to outwit them. If it’s really a game about young people finding their strength, it needs to show that too. And in a small - but important - way it does.