When Hironobu Sakaguchi resigned from Square Enix shortly after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within bombed at the box office, many in the industry worried what that loss would mean to the Final Fantasy series. Obviously the flagship franchise had little more than a buffet in the waves and continues to sail strongly along, but what of its creator? Never to be left out of the action, Sakaguchi announced the formation of Mistwalker, his new development studio, and in a bizarre twist, pledged unequivocal support for Microsoft’s Xbox 360. His studio’s first release, Blue Dragon, was met with modest success in the United States, but fared poorly in Japan due to the 360’s minute installed base. Lost Odyssey is Mistwalker’s second RPG release for the Xbox 360, and is in many regards a self-proclaimed testament to Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy legacy. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but what happens when the copycat is the original creator?
Pomp and Circumstance
Lost Odyssey begins, somewhat typically, in the midst of conflict between nations. The Magic Republic of Uhra and the nation of Khent have been engaging in a lengthy and complicated war. On the Wohl Highlands, both armies face each other in horrific combat. Soldiers are crushed beneath war machines, while others are impaled and left to die in the muck. With the power of magic, the newly deceased are resurrected, only to be thrown into death’s jaws once more. Amid this chaos, a lone soldier fights with the ferocity of a legion. Kaim Argonar is a killer, cold and calculatingly brutal. His presence on the battlefield is enough to make the soldiers of Khent hesitant. To the onlooker, the fighting seemed to be endless, until an impossible cataclysm occurs. A meteor impacts the highlands, decimating both armies and charring the landscape as far as the eye can see, and Kaim is the only survivor. He is rescued by his military, those far enough away to avoid the blast, and is ordered home to give his account of the battle to the leaders of his nation.
The stoic Kaim is just as baffled by his survival as the rest of the officers, and is soon rumored to be an immortal. During Kaim’s testimony, one of the wizards of the council, Gongora, reveals that Kaim has indeed become an immortal by his own hand. Kaim accepts this knowledge, but his memory is a fog. How long has be been alive? How could he be an immortal and not know it? Nothing could have survived the impact on the highlands. But he was there, he watched as lava consumed the flesh of his comrades and his enemies. He stood at ground zero when the blast hit, and walked away without a scratch. Having been in the service of Uhra for as long as he can remember, which isn’t particularly specific, Kaim realizes his amnesia is profound. Accepting this knowledge, Kaim pushes away his concerns and accepts his new mission from the council.
The meteor that landed on the highlands might have been the product of magic gone haywire. Uhra had been in the process of constructing a massive device off the coast called Grand Staff for the purposes of harnessing magic energy to improve the lives of their citizens and industry. Recently all communication to the facility has been cut off, and the council believes that foul play might be afoot. Only Grand Staff could have had the power to summon a meteor of that size from space, and if dangerous elements are involved, who better to investigate than an immortal? To accompany Kaim, the council sends another survivor from the crash, Seth Balmore. Seth appears to know Kaim but she also seems to be suffering from amnesia, and unsurprisingly is also an immortal, much to Gongora’s annoyance. Not to be pre-empted, the cunning wizard sends along his lackey, Jansen Friedh to make sure the two immortals follow orders, with specific instructions to intervene if either seems to recover their memories. Together, this unlikely trio sets out to investigate, and like any good RPG romp, find themselves caught up in a series of events none of them ever bargained for.
Slowly, Kaim and Seth begin to recover their memories and with them, all the pain and loss of a millennium. Their journey will take them across the globe, reuniting them with fellow immortals and many of their mortal offspring in a grand adventure to save two worlds from destruction.
Lost Odyssey begins by doing a seemingly wonderful job of weaving a tale we’re all too familiar with as people, but not one we’re experienced with in gaming. The journey of Kaim and his fellow immortals starts out as an exploration of the human soul. As he remembers his past, we’re given a poignant glimpse of his experiences with mortals. Through his 1,000 years of memories, we share the birth and loss of loved ones, the sacrifice parents make for their children, the pain of separation and joy of reunion, the fear of incarceration and the crippling burden of dementia with old age. Via a collection of over two dozen text vignettes by novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu, we get a glimpse of something all too rare in a console RPG, depth of character. However, though beautifully composed, these episodes are all too frequent in the first few hours of the game and highly contrast and sometimes detract from the context of the storyline. Inversely, as the central plot reveals itself as the anemic “save the world from obvious megalomaniac,” we see far less of these insightful dialogues and intriguing character portraits. All too abruptly the player experiences the shift from character development to world crushing events and the subsequent race to save everything worthwhile from annihilation, again.
Overall, it seems as if Lost Odyssey tries vainly to be the antithesis to the run-of-the-mill RPG with its focus on the human experience, but finds itself unable to maintain that artistic velour. Before long, the plot takes a nosedive into all too familiar territory in what is basically a retread of every Final Fantasy ever produced. This is not to say that the experience was shallow or that the time spent was wasted. In fact, I found myself more involved with the storyline, despite its unoriginality, because of the exposition of the characters beforehand. Had the novelist designed the character scenarios and dialogue in tandem with the novella, Lost Odyssey would have broken many barriers. Sadly, the end result is two related storylines that are told from two diametrically different authors.
Despite these discrepancies, Lost Odyssey has some of the most thoughtful characterization I’ve seen in a while. While many of the characters are obviously inspired by previous FF archetypes (some more blatantly than others), it was refreshing to find some depth in what is usually a very shallow pool. Even the achingly predictable climax held new gravitas because I actually cared about some of the characters, similarities aside.
Here Comes the Rain Again
Visually, Lost Odyssey is an enigma. As one of the first of several up and coming Japanese RPGs to use the latest iteration of the Unreal Engine, the game is lusciously displayed in 720p for gamers with HDTVs. However, don’t expect the same degree of fidelity you’d expect to see from other Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War. Lighting effects are minimal, and weather patterns are all but non-existent with the exception of two areas. The color palette tends to lean toward monochrome based on locale. The city of Uhra is so awash in gold tones that wearing blue must be a capital offense.
Lost Odyssey takes a very traditional approach to environments, opting for full 3D backgrounds with a static camera angle very similar to the style used in Final Fantasy X. The only manipulation allowed is a moderate zoom and limited left-to-right panning. Some of the backdrops are impressive, ranging from the baroque skyline of Gohtza to the tropics of Crater Island. However, many of the landscapes are so sterile they seem little more than pre-rendered re-cycled artwork, which is not surprising given the static camera, and fail to evoke any sense of depth. The overall impression is that Mistwalker intended to create a game that mimics the presentation and style of the early PS2 Final Fantasies. Sadly, the genre has evolved past this but Lost Odyssey stays true to form for reasons known only to the developer. Some of the locations are inspired, but are few and far between to really warrant attention.
Like so many other RPGs, Mistwalker employed a well-known manga artist, Takehiko Inoue of “Slam Dunk” fame, to handle character designs in Lost Odyssey, and he does a respectable job. Unfortunately, much of the artist’s original vision was lost in translation to polygons; in some cases dramatically as evidenced by Prince Tolten. Tolten’s original design showed him as masculine, despite his pacifistic nature, yet was rendered to resemble an underfed effeminate wimp. Sadly, the pantheon of NPCs not central to the storyline have their character models regurgitated so frequently, that I wonder if I’m playing a console RPG or an MMORPG.
Thankfully, combat fares much better in variety with an enormous collection of monsters and an impressive array of battle animations. We do see some noticeable use of lighting and particle effects, but very few incidents of the eye-popping, over-the-top abilities we’ve grown to love from big budget RPGs. The game is also marred with frequent loading times and occasionally choppy animation while data is being streamed from the disc. It escapes me why so many new games don’t have a HDD option when they come standard in most of the new consoles. I digress.
Despite these flaws, Lost Odyssey maintains a solid visual presence with plenty of variety in some arenas, if not much inspiration in others. Considering the capabilities of the Unreal Engine, it’s a shame Mistwalker didn’t tap the graphic potential they had available.
Songbird Stuck in a Rut?
Never to be found too far from Sakaguchi’s creations, Nobuo Uematsu returns to score the soundtrack of Lost Odyssey and manages something extraordinary: modest originality. After having been directly or indirectly involved with no less than a dozen Final Fantasy titles, I was starting to worry that Uematsu’s proclivity for rehashing the same melodies would rear its ugly head in Lost Odyssey. Thankfully, he manages to flesh out a surprising array of melodies that range from the grandiose to the melancholy. The central theme is unadulterated gothic complete with a chorus line haunting enough to send a shiver down your spine. In contrast, we see quite a bit of piano used in the Dream of 1,000 Years text vignette series, which is refreshing. We do see a bit of his rock influence in the combat music, and a splash of trance during the final battle. While you can certainly pick out certain thematic ties to the old FF tunes, I cannot discount the degree of freshness I found in this new collection of music. I didn’t find a single instance of music that didn’t complement what the player was experiencing at any given time.
The two vocal tracks in the game, however, don’t impress as I had hoped. I never quite understood the need to have a vocal track in every RPG. This staple, introduced in late Super Famicom titles such as Tales of Phantasia and early PSOne titles, never seemed to fade into obscurity. The two tracks in question are sung by none other than ’80s pop diva Sheena Easton. Yes, that’s right, Sheena Easton. If you don’t know who that is, I’m not explaining it to you, as I’m obviously feeling my old age, so ask your older sibling or your parents. Despite her history with another famous musician and his ass-less bell bottoms, Mrs. Easton has a wonderfully rich, lilting voice that would be an asset to any work of art, if only the lyrics she was given weren’t so trite and banal. Obviously no serious musician would have written such hideous prose, so who did? None other than Hironobu Sakaguchi; the irony doesn’t escape me. Again we have a similar situation to the storytelling: we have a genuine artist, Kiyoshi Shigematsu, who is involved with an aspect of the game, but wasn’t given enough creative freedom or responsibility to really impact the product meaningfully.
Orchestrations aside, Mistwalker and Microsoft Game Studios were kind enough to hire professional voice acting company Walla Group to breathe life into Inoue’s characters. The actors involved have a range of experience from other video games and anime. The result is very good however there is more than one occasion where the actors try to do their best with clips of absolutely awful dialogue. This seems to occur most often when covering the esoteric points of immortality and other ethereal matters, but is obviously a flaw of poor writing than poor acting. From the stoic Kaim to the dead-pan jokester Jansen, the voice acting is commendable. Even the kids Mack and Cooke are convincingly juvenile without being over expressed or forced. I’ve seen a lot of criticism about them and I find the commentary hilarious because their detractors obviously have little exposure to real children or tolerance thereof.
Lost Odyssey sports a surprisingly robust score considering its heritage, and while the orchestration remains conservative, there is enough originality to make the experience enjoyable. Sadly, though the songs “What You Are” and “Eclipse of Time” don’t stand up to scrutiny due to poor writing, they are nonetheless sung competently by Sheena Easton. The adventure benefits greatly from having a seasoned cast of voice actors, but hits a few bumps due to awkward dialogue.
As evident with Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey subscribes to the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The game revolves around a highly traditional combat system and item creation mechanic with a few interesting caveats. Combat takes place after random encounters in dungeons and is methodically turn-based and utilizes the aptly named Ring system and the surprisingly deep Guard Condition system.
The Ring system allows the player to create rings with a variety of damaging qualities from various items that are found off monsters of purchasable in stores. These range from elemental damage to inducing status ailments. To trigger a ring’s capabilities in combat, the player must closely align a large outer ring that begins to constrict when the Right Trigger button is held down, with a small rotating inner ring that is placed over the target. The degree of effect is determined by a rating (Good, Bad or Perfect) of how close the outer ring is to the target area of the inner ring when the button is released. This mini-game is highly reminiscent of Shadow Hearts among other rhythm/timing oriented battle systems we’ve seen for years. The mechanic loses its novelty very quickly due to the fact that the sheer number of rings you can create is immense, the materials are very rare, and the mechanic isn’t used for any special abilities or spells. That’s right, the Ring system and all its attributes are only activated when the player chooses a simple melee attack, which is next to never after the first 4 hours of the game. The fact that so much design effort was tied to an underutilized action seems to be a laughable oversight in what was obviously intended to be a central aspect of battle.
The Guard Condition system, however, really adds depth to the strategic nature of combat. Basically, there is a front and back row in each battle. The back row is protected by a shield known as the Guard Condition that is a rated on a defensive scale of 0 to 4. The depth of this scale is the sum of the HP of the front row characters. As the front line gets beaten down via physical attacks or spells, the Guard Condition rating drops, which open up the vulnerable back row to the full force of attacks. Even though you can recover HP in the front line via healing spells, only special abilities such as “Wall” can replenish the actual Guard Condition rating. Therein lies the crux of the strategy; you can only recover GC fully with restored HP since the scale will be based on the maximum potential HP pool. So in long fights it is very important to keep both high. Also, since GC is reset after each fight based on current HP in relation to maximum HP, healing up after each fight is important as some of the random encounters can be brutal with a low GC. Mastering the GC system can completely turn the tables on some enemies who attack the back row exclusively, since it’s the front row HP that determines the shield, you can basically force the baddies to waste their turns.
Last, and certainly the least original is the Ability Link system. Basically this allows your immortals to learn special attacks, statistical boosts and techniques from equipment and/or the mortals in your party. Essentially, as your mortal companions gain levels, they will learn new spells and abilities. The immortal characters aren’t able to learn anything on their own, which isn’t surprising after 1,000 years of forgetfulness. So, in order to gain any useful talents, the immortals must be “linked” to a skill known by a mortal in order to learn that ability for use. Likewise, accessories contain vital talents that can be learned in the same fashion. Mortals however can only use the skills of their currently equipped item and don’t have the vast ability hoarding DNA of their immortal oppressors. We’ve seen this skill leeching system used and abused in several RPGs in the last decade, and though Lost Odyssey tries to put this into the context of its storyline, it still sucks. The system creates a time-sink grind over and beyond the usual leveling treadmill and is exacerbated by the fact that the player must undergo an Easter egg hunt for Slot Seeds with which to equip these purloined abilities. In the end, the system creates no real differentiation between immortal characters, since they all pull from an identical skill set, which was the same cloning problem we’ve seen since Final Fantasy VI. To make matters worse, completing each character’s available skills is an Xbox Live Achievement, which makes the pursuit de facto for many.
There’s something to be said about collision detection issues in an RPG, and Lost Odyssey is guilty as charged. There are many instances where Kaim has to interact with his environment, and by virtue of his need to rotate instead of facing the direction he’s pointed in, he ends up overshooting his hotspots. This isn’t helped by the fact that many areas of interaction are limited to a diameter of 1mm. To make matters even worse are that, in the fine tradition of Blue Dragon, items are hidden in the most damnable places. That you have (and actually need) the capacity to zoom-in the camera to investigate minute anomalies that just might be an object of interest makes you wonder if the developers truly believe RPG fans are obsessive compulsive. Aside from this persistent annoyance, Lost Odyssey controls relatively well in combat, during menu navigation and vehicular steering, even with the analog stick. The rumble is used to great effect throughout, but over the course of the 75 hours it took to complete the game and its myriad of side-quests, bring along an extra pair of batteries or a recharge kit.
The GUI is extremely utilitarian to the point of feeling tacked-on, but after years of having so much pervasive onscreen data in other RPGs, it’s nice not to have to decipher a tickertape stock report after each spell cast. The information on enemy abilities, turn order, casting times etc. are thoughtfully expressed with a minimum of fanfare.
An Immortal End
There’s no doubt that Lost Odyssey succeeds as a big budget adventure in the vein of Final Fantasy by virtue of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, especially on a console as RPG starved as the Xbox 360. The game is massive and sports high production values, even if it plays with the ridiculous notion of being unique despite its lineage. Like any Hollywood blockbuster, there isn’t so much as a thread of originality in the finished product, but is rather an amalgam of tried-and-true concepts which lends to a solid experience.
Lost Odyssey packs a visual punch thanks to some amazing CG and well done in-game graphics, but never lets the beast of the Unreal Engine out of its cage. I was highly impressed with the short stories created within the confines of the game, though I pine to see Kiyoshi Shigematsu crafting the entire storyline, as the main plot is strictly paint-by-numbers. Acoustically, Uematsu surprised me with his score, breaking further away from his comfort zone than I thought possible, however I’m tired of seeing game designers who are not real musicians (I’m looking at you Hironobu) write lyrics. This practice is tacky, unprofessional and just plain bad. Don’t think I forgot the Faye Wong fiasco of FFVIII. I feel for Sheena Easton, and I hope her next gaming gig lands her some better tunes. Lost Odyssey’s combat system is competent, if somewhat methodical. While the Ring system is completely arbitrary, the Guard Condition system adds strategic depth to each encounter. There are a few collision detection hiccups, but the GUI and controls are appreciably austere, and sport a meaty rumble to boot.
In closing, Lost Odyssey is a worthy addition to any RPG fan’s collection, and will no doubt satisfy gamers who enjoy Final Fantasy and others of their ilk. The adventure spans 4 DVDs and over 70 hours of solid playtime, which makes the MSRP of $59.99 seem like a bargain. There are also enough Xbox Live Achievements to chase to keep the addicts happy. Though, for those who are burned out on the formulaic Japanese RPG and want something more outside the box, you might want to look elsewhere for your next generation fix.