(First published on Gamepad Magazine, 31st January 2011)
LOST ODYSSEY (2008) – MISTWALKER
The classic Japanese RPG is somewhat of a dying breed. Whereas at one time it was considered ludicrous not to have a turn based system in an RPG, over the last decade Western RPG’s such as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Mass Effect have shifted the goalposts, and sadly the JRPG started to die as new approaches to battling were introduced, primarily in the Final Fantasy series. Not every developer has been persuaded to change though: Mistwalker (a division of Microsoft headed up by the creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi) has continued the old fashioned trends, initially in Blue Dragon, and now in Lost Odyssey. The point is though, does it have the quality necessary to revive the genre?
Sadly over time Sakaguchi appears to have lost his way with regards to storylines (notably present in Blue Dragon which is clichéd to the max), but Lost Odyssey’s plot shows that the old master still has some good ideas. The story of Lost Odyssesy takes place in the middle of a ‘Magical Industrial Revolution’, where three great civilizations have come against each other; The Republic of Uhra, The Free Ocean State of Numara and the Kingdom of Gohtza. You play as Kaim Argonar, a lieutenant of Uhra who just so happens to have a useful skill for battle: he is immortal, and has lived for 1,000 years. The plot opens as Kaim participates in the battle at the Highlands Of Wohl, when a giant meteor rips open the skies and lays waste to everyone and everything…except Kaim. Upon returning to the capital, Kaim is informed of a disturbance at Grand Staff, the generator for Uhra’s power, and is sent to investigate with a fellow immortal, the pirate Seth, and a womanising drunk, Jansen.
Now this may seem overly ridiculous, but it does lead to some great storytelling. Kaim, Seth and the other Immortals that you encounter have no memories of the past, and are constantly searching for answers, not matter how bitter the consequences. There is also some pretty funny moments, with Jansen standing out as the comic of the group. Its also quite a long story to get your teeth into, and is much more mature than that of Blue Dragon. Frustratingly, Sakaguchi’s obsession with ruining a cast by putting in whiny children is still present though, and this time there are two of them in the form of Cooke and Mack (think Palom and Parom from FF4 redux). Also of disappointment is the main villain, he is made too obvious too early on, and his motives are revealed too late on to have any real impact. I suspect traditionalists will enjoy the plot, but it could have done with a bit of refinement. Happily, the main plot is backed up with the ‘Thousand Years Of Dreams’, a selection of stories from Kaim’s past that will unlock at various points during the storyline. What you get is around 30 small stories, all of them beautifully written; seriously I spent about an hour or so just reading the memories. It’s a great addition, but I must admit I was left wondering why the guy who wrote them wasn’t asked to write the main script.
Thankfully, the gameplay on show here is stellar. The game takes place in two different environments: you have various towns and settlements spread out across the map where you can buy items and weapons, rest in an inn to recover HP/MP and learn about events from the folk of the town, and then there are several ‘field maps’ across the world in which the battling and general questing is done. Sadly, there isn’t a traditional world map, instead you pick from a list of places you have visited and warp there instead. However, the world environments are interesting places to search (with some mind-bending puzzles thrown in for good measure later on), if not a bit linear, and later on in the game you will have access to ships to sail the seas and visit some hidden places not previously accessible. It should be said at this point that there is a hell of a lot to find in the field maps, and even with careful searching you can miss a fair chunk of it, so if you like treasure hunting and exploring then this is the game for you.
The battle system in Lost Odyssey is dripping in nostalgia; take a step back and you could be fooled into thinking that you are playing a early version of Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. The thing is though, its nice to have a system that you are already acquainted with. So you have the traditional attack, defend and magic options all set in a turn based combat system, but then there are a few small tweaks to make the experience new. The main thing to consider with battling is the role of the Immortal characters; they have the very handy ability of reviving themselves automatically within two turns if they happen to die and are generally the strongest characters, but they do not learn skills as they level up. Instead, they learn through a ‘skill link’ system, by where you set an Immortal to learn a skill from the mortal characters (who learn various abilities such as higher level White & Black magic as they level up), and as they gain skill points from battling they will eventually learn the skill permanently. It’s a nice little system to have, although it can become a tad annoying as you constantly have to manually change the skill link whenever a new skill is learned.
Another important element to battling is the ‘Ring’ system; basically, you can equip the characters with various status inducing rings (for example, a strength ring will boost attack and a Poison ring has a chance of poisoning the opponent), and when their turn comes up, a ring will close in upon another on the screen when pulling the Right Trigger. Releasing the trigger at the right time (when the rings overlap each other) will result in a ‘Perfect’ hit and apply the effect, getting the timing near will result in a ‘Good’ hit meaning the chance of the effect occurring is greatly reduced, and if you miss the ring completely you will get a ‘Bad’ rating, which means you suck. While this may seem intrusive, it becomes second nature very quickly, and making the best use of the many rings available becomes a key part of winning the tougher battles.
Lost Odyssey allows a maximum of five members in any one battle, and employs something called a ‘Wall’ system, by where the characters in the front row offer a damage barrier to those in the back row dependant on their total HP: the more HP, the better the barrier. I personally like the system, as it allows an assignment of tanks and healers throughout the game. My one major annoyance with the battle system is the distribution of EXP; whereas in other games it will carry over when you reach a new level, Lost Odyssey has a cap of 100 EXP points for levels. While this makes grinding somewhat unnecessary to complete the game, I really don’t see why spare EXP can’t be carried over.
So, Lost Odyssey offers old fashioned stories and gameplay, but don’t think that you get the same experience with the graphics; it’s a remarkable game to look at. It was the first RPG to use the Unreal 3.0 engine, and it really does make the best use of it: the characters models are excellent, the towns are full of detail, caves are suitably gloomy. Basically, everything seems right. Add to this some breathtaking FMV’s that take place during the big events of the game, and you have a great game to look at…but only if you install the discs. Yep, even with four discs (a record on the Xbox 360), Lost Odyssey is pushing the boundaries of what the console can take. Without installation, pop-up occurs everywhere, and there is some pretty bad lag getting into battles and even moving between screens. If you intend to play this game without a hard drive, then I wish you luck.
One of the reasons why I like Mistwalker is that they also managed to convince Nobuo Uematsu to come over from Square Enix and do music for them. And while Lost Odyssey doesn’t have a immediately memorable soundtrack, it shows that Uematsu can still do a sterling job. The battle theme is catchy, and there’s even a jingle which is quite similar to that of the Final Fantasy victory fanfare. My pick for the standout track is the Dark Saint Battle, which sets the backdrop for one of the best battles in the game. Lost Odyssey also contains a large amount of voice acting, and makes use of tried and tested actors from anime dubbing rather than any big names in particular. It’s pretty solid all round, and the script they work from is sound; I just wish that Mack would grow some balls and stop being such a wuss throughout.
I pondered at the start whether Lost Odyssey was good enough to revive the JRPG genre; I believe that it is. The nostalgic gameplay combined with modern production values means that it has enough quality to appeal to fans, and it stands as the best JRPG available on the Xbox 360 in Europe and America. But is it good enough to stop the ongoing Western domination? Put simply, no: it doesn’t do enough new to appeal to those who have been entranced by Mass Effect for example, but it does raise hope that Mistwalker will one day produce a title to match the new Western efforts. Well worth trying out.