The seventh generation of consoles was an… interesting time for the Japanese game industry. The ballooning costs of high-definition game development and the rising popularity of mobile devices meant that the kind of big-budget experiences console players craved were few and far between. As technology and design trends shifted in favor of more Western sensibilities, so did popular perception. Anyone active on the Internet during this time would likely hear Phil Fish’s quote “Japanese games suck” taken as gospel rather than as the short-sighted and disrespectful statement it was. It was, in short, not a great time to be a JRPG fan.
Enter Mistwalker Studios, a company formed by legendary Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi following his departure from Square Enix. Lost Odyssey, the second game put out by the studio and developed by Feelplus, is a game I’ve meant to play for a long time. I missed it when it first came out, as a Nintendo and Sony kid during the late aughts, but while Lost Odyssey hadn’t been a sales juggernaut, those who had played it swore by it, with many calling it “the true Final Fantasy XIII” (a game I happen to like, but that’s a whole other conversation. Listen to the podcast about it!). Fifteen years after its initial release, I finally played it, and I’m extremely glad I did. I’ll put this bluntly: if you’re the sort of gamer who wants Final Fantasy to return to its turn-based roots, you owe it to yourself to play Lost Odyssey. Like a band getting back together to play their greatest hits, Lost Odyssey is a game fashioned by absolute masters of their craft, and it’s incredible.
The world of Lost Odyssey occurs after a Magic-Industrial Revolution, following the discovery of latent magical energy that permeates the world. This discovery has rapidly changed how society functions in a short period, causing significant shifts in industry, commerce, and war. Amidst this chaotic backdrop, two armies clash on the Wohl Highlands, with neither side giving an inch of ground. Amidst the turmoil is a lone warrior: our protagonist, Kaim Argonar, carving a path through those who stand in his way with minimal effort. But something goes horribly wrong, and a cataclysmic meteor shower engulfs the battlefield, killing everyone except for Kaim, who survives miraculously unscathed. As it turns out, Kaim is an immortal who has been around for a thousand years and has participated in countless wars, yet has no recollection of his past. Accompanied by fellow immortal Seth Balmore and the lecherous mage Jansen Friedh, Kaim sets out to investigate the source of the meteor shower, gradually recruiting new allies while discovering who he is and unveiling the true purpose of the immortals along the way.
Lost Odyssey’s opening scenes immediately set a striking tone. Kaim’s life has been somber and solitary, persisting through the ages as the ephemeral lives around him wither and die. Despite this, the story is more about the tenacity of mortal life and how ordinary people use finite time to burn all the brighter than it is about the sadness of one man. This is captured beautifully in the Thousand Years of Dreams, a collection of short stories penned by famous Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu and translated into English by Harvard academic Jay Rubin for the game. As the story progresses, you’ll unlock Kaim’s lost memories, presented to the player as a written short story. The use of text to convey Kaim’s past is one of Lost Odyssey’s claims to fame, and it’s a unique stylistic choice that does well to set the game apart from its contemporaries. These stories are poignant, tragic, and above all, hopeful, touching on the nature of mortality and what people will do in the face of it, be it for their own sake or the sake of their loved ones.
Gameplay-wise, Lost Odyssey is as traditional an RPG as they come. The game features an overworld map consisting of a menu of locations to visit: these locations can be anything from a sprawling town full of NPCs and items to field areas or one of the game’s expansive and labyrinthine dungeons. I greatly appreciate Lost Odyssey’s emphasis on light puzzle-solving and environmental awareness as you navigate these treacherous biomes. If I have one niggling complaint, the player’s default run speed amounts to little more than a light jog. There is a sprint button, which sometimes makes it difficult to line up your character just right to interact with the environment. Still, this is a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. Later in the game, once you get access to a boat, you can sail across the overworld freely to reach previously inaccessible areas.
Random encounters are the name of the game in Lost Odyssey: while navigating field areas or dungeons, fights will pull you in. The encounter rate is reasonable in the grand scheme of things, and I rarely felt like I could not take a step before being launched into another battle. Combat is, naturally, a turn-based affair, with your party of up to five characters facing off against a group of enemies and taking turns whacking them with swords, staves, and other accouterments. Turn order is handled similarly to the older Final Fantasy titles, where it’s based on the speed of each character or enemy, although there are skills and other factors that can affect the turn order.
One innovation Lost Odyssey brings is the Aim Ring System. Whenever a character performs a standard attack, you see an animation of them running toward their target and a targeting ring will appear. Pressing the button in time with the ring will cause their attack to do more damage to the target. Getting the timing perfect will trigger additional effects, including dealing more damage to certain enemy types, adding an elemental buff to the attack, increasing the chance of a critical hit, and much more, depending on the ring equipped. If you miss the target, don’t worry: you still do damage. You just won’t get the bonus effects of your equipped ring. New rings can be crafted from the main menu at any time using materials dropped by enemies, and you’ll gain access to more powerful variants as you progress through the game. You can change your equipment at any time in the middle of combat, too, which makes sizing up enemies and figuring out their weaknesses crucial to your strategy.
A small but relevant part of Lost Odyssey’s battle system is GC or Guard Condition. Your party is split into a front and back row, with those in the front serving as a protective barrier for those in the back, which is typical for classic RPGs. However, Lost Odyssey innovates by adding a GC meter that goes down with inflicted damage, requiring you to wear down the enemies in the front before you can worry about the ones behind them. This adds an interesting wrinkle to battles, although managing your GC is rarely as much of an issue as the game makes it out to be. By the time your mages start to feel vulnerable, the fight will already be over, and while some boss fights can do a number on your GC, a persistent offense will usually win out.
I also enjoy the game’s skill system. Your immortal characters don’t learn new abilities by leveling up. Instead, they gain them by equipping accessories or linking up with one of your mortal party members, who earn new skills by leveling up. In addition to being an excellent encapsulation of the game’s themes, this also means that if one of your mortal allies has a valuable skill, you can eventually equip it on your immortals, giving you flexibility in building your party. Emerging victorious from battle will earn you AP that will eventually allow you to permanently equip whatever skills previously tied to your equipment or party member. However, each immortal only has a finite number of skill slots to equip new skills, so choose carefully. Rare “Slot Seed” items will give you more skill slots and a couple of accessories boost the number of skill slots a character has, so those are worth seeking out. You’re well rewarded for exploring off the beaten path, as Lost Odyssey comes packed to the gills with side content.
Visually, Lost Odyssey is an absolute treat, and it holds up remarkably well despite being a fifteen-year-old game. The game runs on the Unreal engine 3, a cutting-edge (for the time) graphics engine that makes the environments pop, especially in regards to the game’s lighting, which is excellent. Character models are expressive and lively, even if they sometimes suffer from a bit of the ol’ craggy face syndrome. Reportedly, the team had issues adjusting to the engine, so Lost Odyssey was somewhat infamous on Xbox 360 for having long load times and a fair amount of lag. However, on the Xbox One or the Xbox Series X/S: load times are snappy, and I barely encountered a hint of slowdown during my 60-hour playthrough.
Where the game shines brightest is in its art direction. Talent from across industries came together to make Lost Odyssey a true standout. Takehiko Inoue’s distinctive art style makes these outlandish character designs feel grounded and earthly. Takamasa Ohsawa and Hideo Minaba also contribute to bringing Lost Odyssey’s fantastical world to life, as does Christian Lorenz Scheurer, who contributed to Final Fantasy IX and the film The Fifth Element. I do wish female cast members’ clothing designs were less revealing. Still, the fanservice is equal opportunity: Kaim’s armor is certainly more revealing than the average heavily armored male hero typically would be. The cinematic direction is also something to behold, with Roy Sato serving as visual director after working with Sakaguchi on The Spirits Within. The mix of pre-rendered and in-engine scenes sometimes clashes with the quality of the two being somewhat inconsistent, but overall, Lost Odyssey looks dang good.
And the music! Oh, the music, how my heart sings. Featuring the talents of Nobuo Uematsu, the legendary composer behind the Final Fantasies of yore, along with arrangements by Satoshi Henmi and Hiroyuki Nakayama, Lost Odyssey’s soundtrack consists of strong central motifs that use stirring piano and soaring strings to evoke emotion in the player. Unsurprising for Uematsu, these tracks also aren’t afraid to get playful or to cut loose and rock out when the need arises. I often left the game open on the overworld map to listen to “Neverending Journey.” I’m especially fond of the game’s final boss theme, “Howl of the Departed.”
I can’t recommend Lost Odyssey enough. While the game has languished in relative obscurity thanks to its unfortunate console exclusivity, I think that it deserves a second chance in an age where more people than ever are craving traditionally-minded RPGs. It’s no longer 2008, and the Phil Fishes of the world have moved on: we now enjoy a gaming landscape where projects on Kickstarter, such as Eiyuden Chronicle or Sea of Stars, can make a killing by promising precisely the sort of experience that Lost Odyssey delivered, making Lost Odyssey an orphan stranded between two different RPG golden ages. Maybe one day, we’ll luck out, and Microsoft will see fit to release the game on PC for a broader audience to enjoy, but until then, if you have access to an Xbox console, Lost Odyssey is a journey worth undertaking.