Get Lost in this Odyssey
2008 is shaping up to be the year of the RPG. It's still early on and yet there are numerous titles being released across many platforms, the most interesting of them being the 360. Lost Odyssey isn't the first JRPG to grace the system, but it certainly is the best.
Lost Odyssey follows the story of Kaim, an immortal who has walked the earth for a thousand years. The catch is that he seems to have lost his memories from that period of time. He is a mercenary, and a proficient one at that - he is immortal, after all. The story throws several other characters into the mix ranging from Jansen the bumbling playboy, to Cooke and Mack the young brother and sister duo. All the characters have a unique and very likeable personality that play off each other very well. The plethora of heroes come together to go on an adventure that will see them trying to stop the evil lord Gongora in his attempt to take control of the political world and become a God amongst men. It's not breaking the RPG story mold by any means, but it shines in its delivery of the story and the characters that drive it.
The main game itself does a fantastic job of illustrating the story, and you will see your fair share of both in game and CG scenes, but when you are playing as someone who can't remember anything from his past, it makes it hard to connect with him as a character. This is where one of the game's key features comes into play. A Thousand Years of Dreams is a series of short stories that are unlocked and viewed after finding the places where an event will trigger the memory for Kaim. They tell various stories from Kaim's past and let you in on just what he's been up to for such a long time. The stories themselves are remarkably well written, and will play with your emotions more than you'll expect them too. Some of them are so good you will want to read them for a second (or tenth) time. Doing so is quite easy as whenever you use an inn to rest you may view any of the dreams you have unlocked so far. You can also view them from the games starting menu, if you so wish - and trust me, you will. They aren't just text on a white screen though. The stories come fully equipped with beautiful animated backgrounds and sounds that echo what text is on screen at the time. They truly are very well done. There are quite a few dreams to be found throughout the game and some will be revealed through normal play while others may be a bit more hidden. A good story in a RPG is great, but it won't hold up without great music to go with it. Luckily, Lost Odyssey delivers in the music department as well.
If you are a total role-playing geek, you will more than likely recognize the name Nobuo Uematsu. He has been bringing incredible music to games for a long time now, and so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has delivered yet again. The theme for the game itself is sweeping and infused with strength and powerful notes that will have your heart skipping beats. The battle theme is great the first hundred times you hear it, but having at least a few other themes for regular battles would have been nice. Bosses have their own theme, but again some variety would have been a good addition. The music is absolutely top notch, but even the best music can become droll after seventy hours of play. It isn't a kind of nagging that you can get from some music, it just becomes more unnoticeable as you play through the game, which is a shame because it is very well written and played. The sound effects during battle and in the general world are all well done and do a good job of making the world seem alive. The voice acting is also very well done on the whole, with only a couple of characters being a bit iffy. Gongora's voice actor has his moments, but in some places he just seems to be trying too hard, and General Kakanas suffers from the same issue.
Graphically, Lost Odyssey is really solid. It's running through the Unreal 3 engine, and it's used decently well. The character models all look great standing still or in action, but they start to crumble a bit when you get in closer, which does happen a lot during cut scenes. The color palette and overall artistic design is very well done and strays from the usual JRPG spiky-haired teenager theme just enough to pass as marginally unique. The battle animations are all well done, but the magical attacks are a bit lacking. Where there aren't any summoning abilities you kind of hope for some really flashy magical attacks but you will more than likely be a bit disappointed. The elemental attacks all look basically the same as you get stronger variations of them, and the fearsome game-ending magic you can acquire all look surprisingly similar, save one, which won't be mentioned for spoilers.
One of the two issues that stand out the most graphically speaking, is that during cut scenes that use the in game engine the emotion expressed by the voice actors aren't always very well portrayed in the actions and facial expressions of the character. The king of them all being Gongora who's voice actor seems to be way to over-zealous for the corresponding actions of the character on screen. A maniacal laugh looks more like a man who's had a stroke, giggling. The other major hitch, though hideously exaggerated by some, is the load times. It isn't so much the battle load times, or the transition load times for entering new areas, as it is during cut scenes. Nothing pulls you out of an emotional moment like a load screen showing you Jansen's battle rankings.
Some people would like to see the traditional game play elements of JRPGs to die, such as random encounters and turn-based battles. If you are one of those people, you might have a hard time playing this game. Lost Odyssey stays true to its JRPG roots, and is basically a graphically improved traditional JRPG. The battles are all random encounters, aside from a few instance battles thrown in the odd place like many of the genre have. The battles are also turn-based and offer the usual commands of attack, item, magic, defend, and flee.
To make the battles more strategic and involved, Mistwalker has included the ring system. Basically, there are numerous rings that can be found and crafted if you have the correct parts. These rings all have varying abilities to aid you in battle. The abilities range from increasing damage or critical levels, to status inducing or hp/mp absorbing. There are three levels to almost all the available abilities a ring can have, and so their effects increase. There are also ultra versions of many of the rings in the game, which give the same abilities but increase the attack circle size to make it easier to land a perfect attack - which we'll go over next.
The ring system adds an interesting twist to melee attacks in Lost Odyssey. As your character runs at the enemy, a circle contracts from outside the screen inward to match up with a stationary ring surrounding the enemy. You hold the right trigger to start the process, and you basically want to have the contracting ring land within the stationary circle to produce a "good," or preferably on the outer edge to produce a "perfect" attack. If you land outside the circle, or take too long and the timer runs out for your attack, you will be rewarded with a "bad" attack. You want to get good or perfect as these are the only outcomes that will result in your equipped rings' abilities to work. The better the attack, the more effective or higher the chances your rings' abilities will be against the enemy. It all might sound a bit convoluted, but it's very simple in action and works very well. You also have the ability to switch rings at any time during a battle to adapt to different enemy types if you so wish.
There are also accessories that you can equip to your characters to boost their attack, defense, etc. There are an incredible number of accessories to be found throughout the game, and they, like the rings, can vary in strength. The other usefulness of the accessories is that your immortals can learn the skills applied to them. This one way that immortals can learn skills for use, as they don't learn them through leveling like the mortals do
Immortals don't learn skills as they increase in level, as mentioned above. Instead, they learn them through one of two ways. They can equip accessories and earn SP through battling until they have enough to master the accessory. The other way they can learn skills is through skill linking. Skill linking is the process of simply linking an immortal to a mortal's skill though the main menu. From there, you learn the skill through gaining SP just as in using accessories. The mortal you are linked to must be in your party in order to learn the skill, so you can't just link to a mortal who is on the sidelines.
Learning skills for your immortal characters is a vital part to being successful, and you will be doing it quite a bit. It will rarely have you resorting to grinding, which is nice. You won't be grinding for levels either, or at least you won't have to. Each area in the game has a cap at which the enemies will eventually give you barely any experience. This effectively kills the grinding aspect that a lot of JRPGs suffer from and it makes for a smoother gaming experience.
Something that a lot of JRPG fans will miss, especially those who have played the Final Fantasy series of games, are summons and character specific special attacks. You are left with regular attacks and spells, nothing more, which can be a bit boring sometimes but you get used to it fairly quickly. It would have been nice to at least have some special attacks of some kind to add some more excitement to the battles, but the battling is just fine the way it is.
The only real gripe with the game play is that it is actually a fairly easy game. Most of us do not want to have our butt handed to us a million times before we beat a boss, but Lost Odyssey seems to reverse the difficulty curve - it gets easier as you get further. If you just play through the game and skip everything but the main track, you might have a struggle in one or two places. However, if you do an odd side quest here and there, the items you receive combined with the levels you gain make for a very easy game. Even the optional bosses are a breeze. If you thought you were going to dance with the cousins and close relatives of Emerald Weapon, you might be a bit disappointed. With that being said, the recent release of content for the game does throw some seriously challenging things your way, so if you spend some extra cash you might just get a run for your money so to speak. In all though, the lower difficulty level doesn't entirely detract from the enjoyment of the game, and you probably won't notice it unless you go looking for it.
The average player will more than likely be able to beat the game their first time around in about 70-80 hours if you do at least one or two side quests. If you are a veteran JRPG player you might be able to blast through in less than that, but you'll miss out on a lot of great story and character development. The newly added content will tack on another few hours of play but will only be for those who are looking for a good battle challenge. There is also the option to start a new game at level 50 for your immortals, but mortals get their regular levels. You also don't keep any items or weapons at all which kind of makes this a bit of an odd addition to the game, but it is there for those who want it nevertheless.
Those who were hoping for a fresh take on the genre will be a bit disappointed, but will still enjoy the game for what it brings to the table. At its heart, Lost Odyssey is a story-telling machine that sacrifices the flashy stuff for the delivery of the story. If you own a Xbox 360 and have that JRPG itch that needs to be scratched, Lost Odyssey is definitely going to do the trick. If you are new to the genre and want to dip your toes in without being in over your head, this is your best bet so far. A rewarding experience from start to finish, Lost Odyssey is a must play for fans of the genre and story lovers alike.