I hate going into a game prejudiced about it. Usually I try to have as little foreknowledge as possible; I stay away from previews, don’t watch the commercials, and don’t even play the demos. Unfortunately, with Lost Odyssey there was one source of bias I couldn’t avoid: I knew it was developed by Mistwalker. I find Hironobu Sakaguchi to be a terrible storyteller these days, with the more recent Final Fantasy titles under his direction epitomizing what is wrong in JRPG storytelling today. I don’t find predictable plotlines, 2-dimensional characters, and antagonists without any nuanced motivation appealing. I’ve grown up, I’ve seen what RPGs can offer, and I’m done with being force-fed narratives with the depth of a kiddie pool. So when Sakaguchi decided to create his own development studio to make the kinds of games he likes to make, those games, I immediately decided that nothing that came out of the company would be worth playing, at least in terms of storyline.
With Lost Odyssey, I was almost right.
Lost Odyssey tells the tale of the immortal Kaim Argonar, who has lived for 1000 years but has memory of only the last 30 or so. He doesn’t remember his past and doesn’t wish to remember it; he simply follows orders. Currently, he is following the orders of Gongora, a member of the council of Uhra- a nation that has been at war with the neighboring kingdom of Gohtze for the last few years. The origins of the war are ambiguous but center around gaining control of the vast sources of magic energy that appeared 30 years ago, and which ushered in the Magic-Industrial revolution *cough* FFVI *cough*. Kaim is Uhra’s secret weapon in that war, along with Seth Balmore, a spunky immortal pirate-turned-amnesiac.
After Kaim decimates the Gohtzan army at the Wohl Highlands, a meteor falls, killing everyone except Kaim, who is then sent on a mission to investigate difficulties with Uhra’s big project, Grand Staff. This begins a journey that will take Kaim, Seth, and a group of other clichés around the world in an effort to save it from a power crazed madman. Ho hum.
Honestly, throughout the game I found the plot to be the weakest point next to the gameplay, and for the same reason: both are so overused, uninspired, and stilted, that I as a gamer felt insulted. Plots in RPGs no more have to be about one-dimensional madmen trying to take over the world than they have to be about rescuing the princess from the evil wizard. Can we please move beyond this?
On top of that, the dialogue is trite and uninteresting, with the exception of one PC who is fairly well written, but whose voice acting ruins the delivery. Yet, the game is not a complete failure when it comes to story, for one bright, shining reason: the memories. As you travel through the world, you occasionally run into situations which will trigger memories locked deep within Kaim’s heart. These memories relate anecdotes from Kaim’s past and are presented in what I can only describe as “Powerpoint format.” Text appears on the screen – sometimes normally, sometimes slightly animated – accompanied by music and still background images. While at first I found this method of storytelling baffling (aren’t video games supposed to present the story cinematically?), the power and beauty of these memories are hard to describe. They are poignant tales of human frailty, strength, and evanescence, all viewed through the eyes of a man who cannot die. They range from the tragic to the uplifting, but are almost always touching in some way. This is the type of storytelling that the main game doesn’t even attempt to touch on, and once I saw the credits I understood why – Sakaguchi didn’t write them. Award winning novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu is responsible for bringing some of the richest, most emotionally charged storytelling seen in any RPG to date to Lost Odyssey, and for that, the story goes up from a 60% to a 75%.
If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy title, you’ve played Lost Odyssey. The game borrows heavily from established Final Fantasy gameplay conventions, including turn-based battles, learning skills from equipment, and timed button presses to achieve better attack results. In short, much like the plot, the gameplay involves overused, unoriginal conventions that fall flat when it comes to the fun factor. For those of you coming into Lost Odyssey as your first JRPG, you’re getting a taste of outdated battle, exploration, and character growth mechanics. The game progresses as follows: explore a town, get a cutscene which leads you to a dungeon and a boss, head to another town. Along the way you fight random battles that come out of nowhere, involve entering in your commands (attack, skill, spell, item, defend, change equipment, change formation, or run away) and then having your party and enemies trade blows while each stands watching the other. From time to time there is a puzzle to solve or a fetch quest which grants you an item or 5, and there’s a system where you collect materials to create rings that add special properties to your attacks in battle, as long as you get the timing right. All in all, there is nothing you haven’t seen anywhere (or possibly everywhere) else.
Aside from using tired concepts, there are a few puzzles in the game which involve running back and forth through the dungeon changing things, a task which has its difficulty exacerbated by the overlong random battles. Even at higher levels, battles still take longer than they should, and from the early part of the game up until near the end, they’re tough. Of course, by the time you get to the end of the game, if you’ve been looking for even half the hidden stuff in the game and have sufficiently leveled up, you’ll be so overpowered that the final dungeons and bosses will be jokes. So boo on you, gameplay: 70%
Visually, Lost Odyssey does a decent job of looking good. We’re not talking Oblivion or Mass Effect graphics here, but all the characters, dungeon areas, and enemies are well detailed, and the cities all have a sense of bigness to them. Textures could be a little boring in places, but character facial expressions were good, especially for Kaim, Seth, and Sed. My main complaint has to do with the ridiculous clothing designs for the characters, which are not only impractical but impossible to wear. And the double standard of fully-clothing the males while having all the females wear incredibly revealing tunics, bodices, and “dresses,” if they can even be called that, is sexist, fan service-y, and intended to kick off the hormones of 13-17 year old males. I’d probably be insulted if I was a female gamer, but at the very least, I’m not aroused.
On another note, as previously mentioned, I take issue with the characters standing around in battle, acting as if they are waiting on line at the DMV while an enemy comes to attack them. Frankly, with the quality of the character animation as good as it was, there was no reason for the characters in Lost Odyssey to have such limited battle animations.
Lost Odyssey gets an 85% for graphics, and we’ll call it a day on that front.
It has been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a game soundtrack that Nobuo Uematsu’s composed; the last was probably Final Fantasy X, and then really only the track entitled Otherworld. Lost Odyssey, however, sports an above average soundtrack that complements most scenes very well. Uematsu presents epic fantasy pieces, both ominous and peaceful town themes, and oddly inappropriate battle music, as usual, but alongside that, he gives us some very simple, touching melodies to accompany the memory sequences. These tracks perfectly accompany, and help to emotionally vivify, these already emotionally poignant bits of story. And while Uematsu does experiment with his rock persona a bit towards the endgame, overall, it works.
Special note needs to be paid to the voice acting, though. Lost Odyssey is amazing in that it gives you the option of listening to the dialogue in English, Japanese, French, Italian, and German – no love for Espanol, unfortunately – and yet manages to present only a mediocre showing in all of them. I found there to be one or two good performances in each language, but no language option, not even Japanese, had above-average voice acting across the board. That’s not to say that the VA was bad, just that, like the gameplay and story, it was nothing you haven’t heard before. And boo on Jansen’s voice actor for his delivery. The character had some decently funny lines, and they just felt rushed and awkward. So the voice acting pulls the sound/music score down to 80%, when it could have been an 85%.
While I usually don’t have much to say about controls in traditional RPGs, Lost Odyssey’s deserve mention. The first big problem is that the camera is only slightly movable, and in such large environments as exist in this game, that is a big problem. There were times I needed to get a better idea of the layout of an area to solve a puzzle, and the camera wouldn’t allow me to do so. The second issue has to do with the analog stick, which is oversensitive. The result is that I frequently wound up selecting the wrong menu option during battle. In addition, there are quite a few objects to interact with on the area maps, and actually getting positioned in just the right spot for the game to recognize my intention often resulted in lengthy periods of lining my character up just right. Control was average at best and frustrating at worst, netting control a stinky 75%.
To say that Lost Odyssey is a bad game is to do it an injustice. It’s not a fun game, though, and maybe that’s the same thing. A mixture of uninteresting gameplay, story, and voice acting, and sometimes frustrating controls combine to make a game that should only appeal to JRPG fanboys who can’t get enough of the uninspired mishmash of pseudo-philosophical drivel that passes for a deep story and characters that Japan spews out nowadays. Fortunately, said fanboys are legion, so LO should sell well, though at least those who play it will be exposed to some really excellent writing in the form of Kaim’s memories, and in the above average musical score. Still, I’d rather have read a Kiyoshi Shigematsu novel. Lost Odyssey, I dub thee a 75%.