IGN Review of Lost Odyssey
If the ESRB had any heart, it would put Japanese RPGs on the endangered species list. With Western action-oriented role-playing games such as Mass Effect, Fable, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion selling millions, some have questioned the validity of turn-based JRPGs. If one man can save the traditional RPG, it would be Hironobu Sakaguchi, father of Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi's fledgling development house, Mistwalker Studios, previously released Blue Dragon on 360 and returns with a stronger, more adult offering in Lost Odyssey.
Your journey begins as Kaim Argonar, a 1000-year-old immortal, survives the impact of a meteor crashing onto a battlefield. From this spectacular intro, you're thrust into a world on the verge of all-out war. The political intrigue of city-states caught in a staring contest is just a sideshow for Lost Odyssey's true conflict. Kaim has lost his memories, the past 1000 years mysteriously stripped from him. Kaim is not the only immortal wandering the Earth searching for his past. In fact, three other immortals have also forgotten the events of the last millennium. Unlocking these memories proves the key to thwarting a sinister plot that threatens two worlds.
It's a promising premise that's never fully realized. The main plot quickly becomes clichéd, convoluted, and (in the end) silly. The story's villain is revealed to be a power-mad tyrant straight from central casting. Most people play RPGs for the story and Lost Odyssey's primary storyline is average in its best moments. But intertwined with the main plot are several smaller stories that are intriguing, engaging, and adult. No, not "bare-assed blue aliens" adult, but mature nonetheless.
Kaim is our first beleaguered soul. In the first few hours of Lost Odyssey, he is portrayed as a quiet loner, with little persona. But around six or seven hours in to Lost Odyssey, we get our first significant revelation about Kaim and suddenly the character opens up and we learn the pains of being immortal. Though Kaim must reclaim his memories to save the world, he would prefer they never be recovered. A thousand years brings a lot of regret and a lot of pain. This melancholy touches each of the immortals, but none as poignantly as Kaim. Though the main story is a throwaway, it's the personal stories of Kaim and his band of not-so-merry men that will live on after the last bad guy's been slain.
Combat in Lost Odyssey is about as traditional as you will find in a modern-day game. It is completely turn-based with a menu system that seems taken straight from 1998. Everything you would expect is included. You can attack, use an item, cast magic, or activate a skill. Weapons in Lost Odyssey are pretty boring as none hold any special properties whatsoever -- they are merely an Attack rating and nothing else. And the magic is the same thing you've experienced for the past 20 years. It's based on the elements (earth, fire, wind and water) and uses classic nomenclature to signify more powerful versions of spells.
On the surface, Lost Odyssey appears to do nothing new. That changes as you plunge deeper into the adventure. As you progress, an addictive system of micro-managing rings and skills turns what is a very traditional combat system into something interesting and (if you are obsessive) exciting.
Your party consists of a mixture of humans and immortals. Humans gains skills as they level up and require no fiddling. You just wind 'em up and watch 'em go. Immortals are quite different. They learn skills from the humans in their party and from the accessories they use. At the end of combat, you earn your standard XP, but also Skill Points. You don't spend SP as you might in other RPGs. Instead, SP progresses you towards learning a specific skill you have linked to a human in your party or from accessories you're currently wearing. Earn the requisite SP and you learn the skill, which can then be slotted for your character to use in combat. For those who love the minutiae in RPGs, this is heaven as you can spend hours trying to maximize the skills of your immortals. There's strategy both in how you learn new skills and how best to utilize skills for each character.
This also creates an interesting dynamic between mortals and immortals. You may be tempted to stack your combat squad with immortals, because when an immortal falls in battle they resurrect after a few turns. But your immortals can only learn certain skills from humans -- who must be fighting in combat alongside the immortal. You may find yourself keeping your least favorite human character just to learn their valuable skills.
As if that weren't enough to eat away the time of obsessive gamers, there's also a ring-building system. Defeating enemies and searching the thousands of ceramic pots in the world earn you components. There are dozens upon dozens of different components to be found. You can combine components to create rings, which offer hand-to-hand combat bonuses. The initial rings you create can then be upgraded with other components or combined with other rings to make for even spicier creations. In combat, you'll end up with a plethora of rings to equip. And you can switch rings at any time, allowing you to use an Ocean Ring for bonus damage against a fire-based creature, then once he's defeated switch to a Hunter Ring to take on an aerial foe. If you don't like micro-managing your inventory, you can play dumb with rings and skills. But you won't get the most out of the Lost Odyssey experience.
Equipping a ring also adds an interactive element to combat. As your character runs towards the enemy for a hand-to-hand attack, a targeting ring appears on screen. This is the Aim Ring System in action. Holding the left trigger creates a second "aim" ring which begins at the edges of the screen and quickly shrinks until it overlaps the target ring. Release the trigger when the aim ring is overlapping the target ring. Miss and you may actually whiff on your swing. Nail a "perfect" and you gain bonus damage. At first, this is a few measly points, but by the end of the game this can mean hundreds of additional points of damage.
As with Blue Dragon, the enemy design in Lost Odyssey is top-notch. Each environment has about a half-dozen unique enemies almost all of which look fantastic. Whether it's the blazing wooly mammoth or luminous fairies, the enemies (and their magical attacks) are superb. While these creatures do change from one locale to the next, you will see the same enemies repeated within a single dungeon. Fortunately, the random encounters are moderate and the need to grind (in order to level up) is minimal.
Along with some slick enemies (and scores of bosses to battle), the dungeon-crawling benefits from some solid level design. While some of the dungeons are linear, quite a few feature crisscrossing paths and a surprising amount of verticality. Some of the best dungeons are reserved for side quests, which come (in Final Fantasy fashion) just before fighting the last boss. One of these dungeons is built like a puzzle, with pathways that can be shifted vertically and horizontally to open access to new areas.
If Mistwalker had left Lost Odyssey at this, I'd be all smiles. But in an effort to "modernize" the JRPG, Mistwalker made a few horrible additions. These various bad apples show up randomly and then often disappear never to be seen again. There's the obnoxious stealth mission, the pointless seafaring ship to pilot (with worthless "jump" capabilities), narrow paths that must be carefully navigated using controls fit for a drunken sailor and so much more. Sakaguchi and company apparently bought into the talk that there is something severely wrong with Japanese RPGs and, unfortunately, decided to do something about it. While these mistakes don't dominate the majority of game time, they certainly disrupt the flow of an otherwise worthwhile RPG.
Lost Odyssey is spread over four discs, a first for a 360 title. Don't let the number of discs scare you off. The game world is not enormous and even with every side quest you should be done within 50 hours. The extra discs are needed, apparently, because of the considerable amount of cutscenes. This is a story-heavy game that mixes beautiful CG and in-game cinematics.
Lost Odyssey uses Unreal Engine 3 to both its benefit and detriment. There are parts of Lost Odyssey that are simply gorgeous. Some of the locations are rendered with amazing detail as are all of the playable characters. These stand out in stark contrast to a few locations that look, by comparison, unfinished. The enemies are beautiful and at times intentionally grotesque and the spell effects are spectacular. But there are some serious performance issues. I haven't seen this many loading screens since I played the first Resident Evil. And I'm not trying to be funny. The framerate also has a bad habit of falling off during some of the picture-in-picture cut-scenes. And, for whatever reason, the framerate is always at its worst during combat intros.
The aural portion of the program has its own share of ups and downs. Famed Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu provides the music for this immortal journey. So does Sheena Easton. Apparently you can't have ying without some yang. Uematsu's soundtrack often strikes as the b-side of a Final Fantasy game, with a few slow-tempo tracks that fit oddly when battling against soul-sucking demons. The main theme is lovely, however, and makes up for the other inconsistencies. Nothing can make up for the sub-standard English voice acting. Fortunately there is an option for Japanese dubbing.
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