A trip down memory lane.
If I had to describe Lost Odyssey in one phrase, it would be old school. From the turn-based random battles to the frequent cut scenes to the game's 40-50 hour length (spread over four discs, even), this is a game that would have been at home on the Playstation 1, albeit without the shiny graphics. With Lost Odyssey, Hironobu Sakaguchi (he of Final Fantasy fame) aims to bring back the glory days of Japanese RPGs, and in a lot of ways, he even manages to succeed. The game feels like a Final Fantasy, and it almost has the same level of polish as most entries in that series. Lost Odyssey breaks very little new ground for its genre, but purists will certainly appreciate the throwback nature of the game's design.
The story, any RPG's crutch, centers around Kaim, an immortal who has lost all his memories at the start of the game. Kaim starts out as a stoic, brooding introvert, typical of JRPGs. But he is supported by a colorful cast of characters with distinct personalities, all of whom are interesting in their own right. As the story progresses, you learn more about Kaim and his fellow immortals, and Kaim opens up more as he regains his memories. The story itself unfolds rather predictably and is really little more than window dressing for the development of the game's characters, which is where the real story lies. Lost Odyssey has one of the most memorable and likeable casts of any RPG I've ever played. Even the token comic relief character works as intended most of the time. The only remotely uninteresting characters are Kaim's wife, who doesn't do very much to justify her place in the party besides the fact that she's his wife, and Ming, a rather boring royalty.
One of Lost Odyssey's most unique aspects is the way it handles Kaim's character development. Throughout the game, Kaim's memories will return, mostly in the form of mini novels. While it may seem lazy to develop characters in a video game through text, it works really well, and the stories are well written (if sometimes a bit awkwardly translated). They do an excellent job of conveying the loneliness of being an immortal in a world where everyone else dies around you. While the central theme of these stories usually deals with just that, there are also themes of justice, love, friendship, tragedy, life and death. They rarely overstay their welcome, and some are genuinely moving. The music, written by fellow Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu, does an excellent job of capturing the melancholy feel of these stories.
The gameplay of Lost Odyssey, as said, is very reminiscent of old Final Fantasy games. You select a location on the world map, you walk around, and every so often the screen will swirl and your party will be facing a bunch of monsters. The battles are strictly turn-based affairs, with no real-time shenanigans or anything to hide that fact. You select the actions of all your party members, and then you watch as they and their enemies act out their moves according to their speed stats. The only twist here is that your characters can equip rings with certain attack-enhancing properties, which must be triggered just as they attack by holding down the right trigger and letting it go when the two circles that appear overlap. This is a useful feature and makes battles a bit more active, but only slightly. The random battles generally aren't very challenging, but there are a couple of spots in the game where the enemies you run into are suddenly much, much tougher than the enemies you faced previously, which can make for a bit of a rude awakening. It's pretty frustrating to die in a random battle and have your progress erased since the last save point, simply because the game decided to throw a curveball at you. These difficulty spikes leave you with little recourse other than to run circles around a save point and doing a few battles to level up just so you are actually prepared for these encounters. You can't really level up by grinding on weaker monsters, because those stop giving out enough experience points to level up after you reach a certain level. Other than a couple of difficulty spikes, the only other problem with the battles is that they can occasionally overstay their welcome. In some areas you'll often face groups of six or seven monsters, which means you have to watch all those monsters act as well, since there is no way to skip this, and it just feels more like a chore because it takes so long to kill them but they don't actually pose a challenge. Boss battles are more interesting and generally require a fair bit of strategizing and utilizing the strengths of each party member wisely. Support magic plays a very useful role in these encounters, and learning your enemy's weak points can often prove instrumental in achieving victory. Overall, the game's difficulty strikes a pretty good balance, and it's mercifully free of mandatory grinding. The random encounter rate is also kept very modest, which is one of the few areas where this game breaks JRPG tradition.
The slow pace of the battles themselves is exacerbated by the game's frequent and lengthy load times. Before every battle you will have to watch around ten seconds of the camera panning the scenery and your characters getting ready before the battle actually starts, and transitions between areas also accompanied by rather lengthy load times. The load times even pop up between cut scenes and really hamper the sense of immersion.
Some technical and pacing issues aside, Lost Odyssey is a fine, if very traditional, game. If you're absolutely sick of random, turn-based battles and lengthy cut scenes, you won't find anything to like here. But if you don't mind some throwback gameplay mechanics and you're interested in experiencing a pretty good story with great characters, Lost Odyssey is definitely worth playing.