It Will Fill that Square Enix-Shaped Hole in your Xbox 360 Heart
Orignally posted on my blog
SPOILER ALERT: This review may contain story spoilers. Read at your own risk!
Sakaguchi’s new company Mistwalker has had its share of problems. For very perplexing reasons they chose to chiefly develop for the Xbox 360 with side development on the Nintendo DS. As a result, nothing they make for the home console, no matter how good, will ever sell all that well in their home country. His first 360 game, Blue Dragon, sold 200,000 copies in Japan, which may sound good at first, but when you look at Final Fantasy XII’s two million sales in Japan, a whole order of magnitude more, it suddenly doesn’t seem like Sakaguchi is getting a fair shake. In fact, both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey are no better or worse than a typical Square Enix game, but their sales are typically much lower, with Lost Odyssey only selling around 100,000 in the Land of the Rising Sun.
So now that I’ve more or less made it clear that LO is about as good as any Final Fantasy game, lets delve a bit deeper into it, because there are some differentiating aspects that actually out-Final-Fantasy Final Fantasy.
Some of the greatest buzz about the release of Lost Odyssey revolved around the fact that its story was penned by the famed novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu. You’d be correct to be skeptical about this, bringing in outside, famous talent does not make a great story by default. So, does it fall flat on its face? Yes and no. The actual, plot-driven story is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s about as Final Fantasy, clichéd of a story as you can find with an evil retainer, sorcerer dude who takes over a country, blah blah blah. I was able to predict most of the twists, which was disappointing, but there the real allure to the story comes from two things: the permise and the short stories.
Let’s start with the premise:
The main character, Kaim, is an immortal. He’s been around, as of the start of the game, for a thousand years. This factors into gameplay in a rather neat way, but also makes Kaim and his fellow immortals very compelling characters (unfortunately the only ones of the bunch). Kaim also suffers from amnesia (ugh…RPG cliché #1), but this actually informs and enhances our brand new gameplay mechanic: short stories.
What happens when you have an author write your story? You end up with short stories in your game. Depending on what part of the game you are in and what part of the map you walk by, you will trigger one of Kaim’s lost memories. These play out as breaks in gameplay as you read these expertly written short stories illustrating the various themes of the game. This is basically hell for gamers like my buddy Phil who hate gameplay interruptions like cutscenes, but for me these great little stories really flesh out the characters that would otherwise be pretty generic.
Lost Odyssey succeeds because its storytelling methods are so innovative and far-reaching. While the plot itself and its resolution is more or less mundane, the idea that these characters have literally been around for a thousand years and bring with them maturity and characterization to go with it makes for a satisfying experience.
Something should be said about the non-immortal cast though. Aside from Jansen, the rogue-ish comic relief (in personality, not in class. He’s a black mage), the mortal characters range from lame to downright irritating. The wonder twins, clear ripoffs of Palom and Porom from Final Fantasy IV, are the spunky girl that we’ve seen way too often and the shy, quiet, ANNOYING boy that comes from anime. Tolten is the whiny, un-confident, whiny (it needs to be said twice) king-in-training and Sed is just the uninspired grizzled old guy, although he’s the best of the riffraff.
This isn’t anything that radically different from any other turn-based RPG. You have the usual spells and techniques, with two small wrinkles.
The first of these gameplay differences comes from equippable rings. These rings that you equip can add effects to your attacks, from added effectiveness to enemy types to elements or status effects. In order to activate these effects, you must hold a trigger and time the intersection of two rings. Perfect alignment leads to higher damage or more probable status effects.
Immortals make up the next significant gameplay change. Since none of the immortals can die, according to the story, none of them can really die in battle either. If an enemy manages to fell one of your immortal characters, they will go down for about two turns, then automatically resurrect with close to half of their health. If everyone in your party happens to be down at the same time, you do lose the battle, but it’s a pretty nice to know that if an immortal goes down you can just wait it out. Tied into the immortal system is the way that skills are allocated to immortals. Partying with mortals allows immortals to “Skill Link” and learn the specialty skills of the rest of their party. These skills can then be implemented by the immortals at any time once learned, even if the mortals aren’t in the battle with them.
Like I said earlier, everything else is what you’d expect from a turn-based RPG, no surprises there.
If you thought that Sakaguchi did some beautiful work on the PS2, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The second of his 360 RPGs and the first to feature more realistic characters (Blue Dragon’s characters were more anime-like, created by Akira Toriyama), Lost Odyssey is about the most gorgeous game I’ve ever seen. I just got a hold of a new, large, 1080p-capable television, and let me tell you, it looks fantastic. Let me also say that it’s not perfect, especially due to the Unreal engine that’s so in vogue nowadays.
As an Unreal engine game, Lost Odyssey suffers from most of the same shortcomings of other games of its type. Load times are long, framerates are far, FAR from stable. The game frequently stutters and is sometimes unstable. In my 60 to 70 hours of gameplay, I had the game freeze on me at least twice. The beauty and flexibility of the Unreal engine comes at a real price, but at least its not like the typical dark, drab, brown shooters mostly put on the Unreal engine, there are some genuinely bright and colorful vistas and locales.
A close friend of Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu composed the themes and music of Lost Odyssey, but he doesn’t do anything super-special in the score for this game. In fact, it’s more or less a forgettable soundtrack that I mostly kept turned down in favor of listening to my own music. Everything else is pretty crisp and clear, but the English voice cast is pretty boring and annoying. Lucky for you and anyone in auditory range, you can elect to listen to the Japanese voice cast, but you end up with odd lip syncing and subtitling since they are aligned to the English vocal track, not the Japanese one. This is disappointing to be in both video games and anime, since it means the subs cater to the dubs, meaning they aren’t translations, but transcriptions. The difference is subtle, but, like I said, disappointing.
Final Fantasy XII was a pretty far departure from the typical Final Fantasy fare, with real-time combat, a different loot system, and a shift away from the more recent Final Fantasy narrative style. In a sense, Lost Odyssey is the true Final Fantasy XI. If that’s what you’re looking for, pick this game up. The concept and characterization of the immortals is spot on and the short stories really do flesh out the game’s story and make it stand apart. Lost Odyssey isn’t going to blow you away with its gameplay and story, it’s just gonna fill that RPG-shaped hole in your heart, especially if you only own an Xbox. While a bit lengthy for a rental, it’s more or less a one-playthrough event, so rent or buy used if this sounds appealing. It’s definitely a good game that’s worth playing if you can get your hands on it and love JRPGS.