February 18, 2008
Lost Odyssey is the newest Japanese-style RPG to hit the Xbox 360, the second from newly formed Mistwalker and their publishing giant Microsoft Game Studios. Mistwalker was formed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the mind behind the Final Fantasy franchise and a legend in general for RPG gamers. Hiro brought along his musical partner-in-crime Nobuo Uematsu to handle the scores for Mistwalker. Odyssey was developed in tandem with Feelplus, a studio created specifically for Mistwalker and comprised of many members of the team behind the Shadow Hearts series.
To be honest, my first experience once I bought Lost Odyssey was not a good one. The game is impressively long, clocking in at four game discs, so when I came home and opened the case to find three discs free-floating inside, with a fourth inside a sleeve and tucked in front of the game manual, I was a bit upset. A similar system was used for Mistwalker's Blue Dragon, which had three discs, but my spindle on that one didn't break and the discs were firm in place. Once I inspected the discs, I didn't feel I had any reason to worry, but you'd think they could have sprung for better packaging, especially considering the Asian release got a fancy dual-sided holder, with the four discs spread out over the two inside faces of the case. Anyway, shoddy packing aside, my experience only got better from there and did not disappoint even once on screen.
Garnering a unique story is chief among RPG creations. The genre has been beat to death by the generic "farm boy saves the world and marries a princess" theme we've seen so many times. In fact, Mistwalker's first outing in Blue Dragon didn't depart all that much from that concept. However, they really stepped up with Lost Odyssey. The main character is a man named Kaim who has been immortal for going on 1,000 years. At this point in his life, literally all he remembers is pain and battle; his memories have been wiped clean. All he knows for certain is that he is an agent of the city Uhra. Very early in the story you are joined by yet another immortal by the name of Seth. Once a pirate, Seth is now also an agent of Uhra. She provides a much-needed balance to Kaim's moping, looking more hopeful on the events of the world. A third man also joins your party, a mortal by the name of Jansen, who provides comedic relief of the party reminding me very much of an over-the-top Bruce Campbell.
The rest of the cast includes two other immortals: Sarah, a researcher who has strong ties to another immortal and Ming, the Queen and founder of the ocean-city Numara. Other mortals aside from Jansen join you as well. Mack and Cooke are two children who claim a strong tie to one of the immortals. Tolten is the only remaining blood-line to the former monarchy in Uhra, which has since switched to a republic. And finally Sed, who is basically the Mistwalker equivalent of Sid from the Final Fantasy franchise, though he also claims a strong tie to one of the immortals and is not just some random character thrown into the game. All the characters fit very well for the most part, except maybe Tolten.
Your journey in Lost Odyssey is multi-faceted, something I am very grateful for. Most games you set out from the start to beat the bad guy and rescue someone, while the journey is a somewhat backseat concern. However, Lost Odyssey switches gears many times; your original agenda is that of your supposed loyalty to Uhra. You begin by setting off to investigate the apparent magic leak from a place called Grand Staff. Once there, you are captured by the rival country of Numara. However, you lie and claim yourselves as travelers and they release you in an attempt to prove your loyalty to Uhra. It is in the old, ruined section of this city that the game first shifts gears. I really don't want to go into detail, for the reveal there is very dear to the story, as are all the twists and reveals throughout the game. Later on you'll switch your drive from a more personal outlook to more of an overall sense of duty to the world, which is where most games would start.
Another high priority for the RPG genre is a unique or well developed battle system. People don't always want to simply press a button and see what happens anymore. Phantasy Star Universe was one extreme of this, with the action completely controlled by the player, while Eternal Sonata met in the middle with a turn-based system mixed together with the free control during your turn. Lost Odyssey focuses more on the traditional side. Depending on a character's quickness rating, a battle order is assigned and you choose your action from a menu, containing the normal attack, item, skill, spell or defend. Most of these are instant, but some skills and spells need to be concentrated longer and may take two or more turns before being unleashed. The only deviation from the classic turn-based system is the Ring function. By equipping your character with a ring, when they choose the attack command you should hold down the right trigger when their turn comes. As they rush toward their opponent to attack, a large ring will close ranks on a stationary ring in the middle of the screen. By timing correctly, you can get three ratings: bad, good or perfect. Getting a bad rating will lower your accuracy and damage; good will have no positive or negative effect; perfect will increase the damage and critical chance.
Aside from the actual use of the ring system in battle, creating and equipping rings is a very important part of your battle plans. Different rings will have different effects. Some will imbue your weapon with an elemental property, while some are designed specifically to increase damage to a certain type of enemy. Enemies you defeat will reward you with not your typical healing items and whatnot, but instead with materials used to create your rings. From the system menu, you can see the different types or rings you are able to combine with these materials and choose at any time to create them.
Another small tweak in the gameplay lies in the magic sub-menu during battle. Aside from your normal White (healing) or Black (damage) options, some mortals will have the option for Spirit or Composite magic. Spirit magic is a blend of healing, damage and assistance spells (raising attack damage or cast speed, for instance) using more supernatural forces. Composite magic is just that, a composite of different types of existing magic to create a new magic. For instance, combining Cure and Heal, you create a new spell that can both fix status effects and restore the target’s HP at the same time. Likewise, the damage spells can be increased in both potency and range, hitting multiple targets instead of one.
Now, I mentioned above that some “mortals” will have the option for those types of spells. The kicker to this game is that your immortal characters have no abilities of their own. Every spell or ability they get throughout the game is taught to them. By defeating enemies, you gain your normal experience, gold and ring materials, but also SP which progresses their skill learning. There are two ways of doing this, and both can be done simultaneously to give your immortals a good range of spells to work with. Each character can have one accessory equipped to begin, with certain skills available to increase this later in the game. Mortals will simply keep the effect of that accessory so long as it is worn, but immortals can learn the effect for good and place it later in one of their skill slots. Additionally, you can link your immortal with one of their mortal allies to learn a skill from the mortal and have it for later use. With over 160 skills in the game, it is important to keep track of your skill links and accessories to make sure your immortals are always learning new skills. Mortals will simply learn skills as they level up normally.
One strange thing about Lost Odyssey is the simplicity of equipping your characters. Each can have as I mentioned one ring and one or more accessories (depending on their skills), but other than that, you simply need to find them a weapon. Their defensive skills are all linked directly to their levels. Even onto the second disc, I only remember switching weapons a total of three times, so even that is not very important. However, after most battles you will be switching out skill links and accessories for your immortals to keep them learning, so I suppose if you also had to keep track of weapons and multiple armors it would be even more time consuming. Definitely not a bad thing, but that is sort of unusual for an RPG.
Now, the place where this game truly shines (even more so than the amazing story), is the ridiculously beautiful graphics and cinematics. I don’t know if anyone actually calculated it after its release, but in articles that were coming out a few months ago, it was reported to have upwards of 20 hours worth if cinema, on top of the already impressive 50 hours of gameplay. And believe you me, each one is worth watching. They rarely feel forced or excessive because the story is so gripping and emotional, while even if you muted the game you’d probably watch them just to see how good they look. The in-game graphics are no different. The environments are excellently detailed, both up close and far away objects seem to have been put under the same microscope, giving a very good sense of the scale of the locations.. The only graphical problem might be that the camera does once in a while switch up on you as you’ve trying to go in one direction, sending you in another for a second until you change the thumbstick location, but other than that it is very controlled.
If you want a good scope of how awesome the cinematics are in this game, search around for a video called "the first 10 minutes of lost odyssey" because that whole thing is the opening cinematic. The camera-work is something akin to Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart, and the action is up there as well. This battle sets the stage for just how skilled your main character is, and just what type of world it is set in. Two opposing armies in highly detailed armors with war machines and elaborate magics, bringing the dead back to life to fight once more. After watching that, if you don't immediately buy the game, you don't deserve to call yourself an RPG fan. Or, if you're like me and avoided the film until you actually played it, you'll have a hard time tearing yourself away.
The only place I ever found problems in the graphics were not actually in the way they look, but the way they load. Once in a while the battle intros will be a bit jerky and hesitate for less than a second before continuing, as well as somewhat rarely the battle animations. I noticed it more after my system had a little run-in with the Ring of Death (which I fixed with the towel trick), so I'm not sure how much of it had to do with that and how much was there to begin with. However, I don't really think that is all that important, since the cinematics and parts where you actually control your party and move about are so crisp. Battles tend to be somewhat mindless in RPGs until the boss battles, so you won't be paying too much attention to the details at those points anyway.
The sound is pretty much on par with the graphics and story. As I mentioned in the opening statement, the musical director was on board during most of the Final Fantasy installments, which have spawned numerous albums and concerts, so without even hearing the music in the game, you can probably imagine how good it is. Luckily, the one thing that normally destroys a game’s score in the sound department was done with great care in Lost Odyssey. The voice work is phenomenal. Bringing in veteran voice actors, the characters really come to life under their guidance. I have played many a port from Japan that had simply awful voice work with little to no emotion and even sometimes a bad understanding of the English language. All your base are belong to us, anyone?
Last and perhaps not least to some, the achievements in Lost Odyssey are actually very well done compared to Mistwalker’s other effort in Blue Dragon. Whereas you pretty much got no achievements for story-related events in Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey rewards you 125 points per disc completed, 500 in total. I also like that system better than a game like Phantasy Star that gave all thousand points for completing the game. Aside from that, there are various special bosses, combat requirements and collection quests to do, all pretty standard for an RPG. The whole scope of the game is definitely taken into consideration, though it may require a bit of backtracking and searching, which most people don't enjoy. The story alone will most likely take 40+ hours, so take into consideration the collecting and whatnot, you're look at 60-100 hours for the full score.
The biggest pitfall in RPGs is always horrible voice-acting, but this is definitely the exception. The voice actors in this have vast video game, hollywood and television experience, giving a very good depth to the characters. The sound effects and music are all absolutely top-notch as well, handled by a grizzled Final Fantasy vet.
Simply put, this is one of the looking games out right now. The style is more realistic and down to earth than some of the 360's other RPGs, but I think they look better that way. The characters, environments and especially the battles are all fabulous. The only hiccup is some of the battle animations jerking once in a while, but you won't really notice it much.
RPG is not a difficult genre to understand. The menu systems are always very detailed and easy to navigate. This one is no different. The story sometimes leaves you to figure out what to do next, which might annoy some people who like things spelled out, but for the most part, it is a linear path.
The story is simply awesome and very detailed. The world is actually quite small compared to some RPGs, mostly because you can't explore the world map that much. For most of the game, you simply select a town and go. However, once you complete the game and go back to do the rest of the achievements, you find many unique battles and whatnot. Very good throughout.
I really like that half the points are given for doing the story. Considering that will take the better part of forty hours, 500G is a fair reward. The rest will actually take about the same amount of time, depending on how well you searched for items around towns and dungeons during your normal play. Good for a casual and great for a completionist.
I know some people will hate this score, as it's up there with Gears of War and BioShock. However, you have to take into consideration its score against other RPGs. Blue Dragon got a 90, Eternal Sonata a 92. This game is much better than both. I never score a game against something of a different genre, and neither should you. Plain and simple, this is the best RPG I've played in a long, long time and by far the best available for the 360 at the moment. I did really like Eternal Sonata and Blue Dragon was a breath of fresh air after the 360's earlier efforts, but they somewhat pale in the greatness that is Lost Odyssey. Amazing graphics, audio, gameplay and story. Really nothing more you could ask for in a game.