symphony's Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360) review

A JRPG that doesn't take many risks, but still has its charm

TL:DR version
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Too tired: Didn't write. Sorry!

Skim down to the Closing section if you want.
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Long Version

Wouldn't it have been crazy if our industrial revolution was not so much the invention of things like the conveyer belt or the cotton gin, or the move away from feudalism, but rather revolved around the discovery and application of magic? That's the case in Mistwalker's Lost Odyssey, and the results of that revolution look pretty impressive.

Skytrains, massive battleships, fancy looking fountains, and floating signs are just a few of the results of this revolution that give the game a modern-steampunk feel and for the most part, it looks terrific. Granted, fashionsense might take a while to catch up as some of the clothing characters wear is downright atrocious. The guards of Uhra stand out in particular, though I'm sure the big rings on their head surve some purpose.... maybe? Besides the weird choice in armor for many different types of knights, the common NPCs tend to wear fairly generic clothing and get a passing grade. Your characters, on the other hand... I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

Fashionsense (or lack there of) aside, the game revolves around an immortal named Kaim Argonar -- the sole-survivor (for obvious reasons -- eg. He's IMMORTAL) of a major conflict between two warring factions after a huge meteor decended on the battlefield wiping everyone but him out. You are quickly introduced to a mortal man named Jansen who seems like a troublemaking streetrat and another immortal named Seth -- a quick-witted (ex?)pirate who actually looks pretty cool! I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything by saying that soon thereafter you are introduced to the main antagonist of the story, Gongora, who appears to be Kaim's commanding officer at that point, sending him off with Jansen and Seth on a fool's errand.

From the getgo, you're given the sense that Gongora is up to no good -- flashing false smiles with a tone of thick plotting. While some of the dialogue he says is rather hammy or downright nonsensical, the (English) voice actor does a good job of portraying Gongora with the right amount of emotion and "I'm a bad guy"ery.

On the opposite spectrum, Kaim is an emotionless shell of a man, who's memories from the last thousand years (up to the most recent 30 years) have been wiped out. His tone and demeanor are stoic and the voice acting just feels kind of lacking. Granted, trying to do the voice work of a character who is essentially lacking his soul at the beginning is no easy feat.

Kaim is able to regain some of his memories, bit by bit, by encountering random situations that remind him of something and begin a "dream" sequence. The dreams are just stories that appear in "pages" on the screen for the player to read and give us a sense of what he was like.

Dreams

-- A breath of originality

These dreams are both beautiful and a bit off-setting. I found that the Kaim in the stories had a lot more compassion and heart than the one we get to control. Through the first half of the game, this is easily shrugged off as "Well he is just a shell of a man without his memories, after all". But he regains his memories after a certain point but his stoicism and awkwardness remains. At that point, the Kaim in the stories and the one in reality feel like two completely different people.

I also found that the quality of those dreams ranged from heartwrenching to eye-rolling. Of course with over 20 stories, you can't expect all of them to bring you to tears or put a smile on your face, but a few were children's stories basically reprinted word for word and felt like they were trying to teach you a lesson about sharing and caring that we all heard back in first grade. The ones that were good though, had me bawling my eyes out at times. Heck, I found the very first story about a dying child on her death bed was especially moving.

I felt the option to reread these whenever you slept at an inn a bit redudant, as these stories take a good 5-10 minutes to read if you let the animations of the text play out. I never felt myself feeling the need to reread any of them, but oh well it's not like giving that option is a bad thing that takes away from the game.

If you don't have a lot of patience for reading blocks of text, or don't particularly care about the plot, you can skip the dreams entirely, though I found they helped draw me into the game and turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of Lost Odyssey. As an added bonus, some dreams reveal hidden treasures somewhere in the world.

The Overworld

-- It's not sure what it wants to be

Speaking of the world, it sort of suffers from multiple personality disorder -- it wants to be an overworld at times but really isn't. For a good chunk of the game you navigate different sections of the world much like Final Fantasy X -- you exit an area and are presented with a menu of available locations to move directly to. After some time in the game you get a boat which switched to an overworld view and you navigate a small area of water.

It seems rather tacked on, and while you are able to find treasures in the water later on, navigating with the boat feels tedious for the most part. Why add an overworld ocean but not land? Sure it serves the purpose of not letting you into certain areas and letting you find little secret areas by searching for underground caves or breaking through thin ice areas, but I think it could have been executed better. Especially when combined with the fact that the controls for the large boat later in the game are attrocious. I found myself trying to turn left, only to turn right when I was holding left... then I tried holding right thinking I'd turn the other way. Nope, still turning right... tried to change the camera angle and tried both directions again -- STILL turning the way I didn't want to turn.

Overworld criticism and nitpickiness aside, Lost Odyssey does give you the option later on to quickly dock your boat at the nearest docking point, so you don't have to slowly navigate your way from one side of the map to the other unless you're looking for secret areas that are out of the way.

Combat

-- Tedious and generic

Ahh, that was a short break from criticsm -- it's time to talk about combat. Lost Odyssey's combat is the most generic turn-based RPG combat I've played in a long time and there's nothing wrong with that. It also does try to differentiate itself by including two features -- the first is the ring system that pops up when you do a physical attack. If you press RT at the right time you get a "Perfect" on the screen and deal more damage with your character. If you miss it slightly, you get a "Good" but still deal a little bit more damage than if you miss it entirely.

The second inclusion is the GC system, where your front characters protect the rear ones based on their total health. If enemies try to hit the back row of characters when the GC bar is full, they'll do next to no damage. As they damage the front row, that GC bar will drop and make the back row more vulnerable. It's a pretty cool idea, and acts as a more interactive "Back row takes less damage" since you can recover your GC bar in certain ways, but it doesn't remove the fact that the combat is still fairly generic turn-based attack/cast/defend.

Unfortunately the combat is bogged down by a few issues. The first is it has some pretty hefty load times it hides by doing panning camera shots of the background, the party, and then finally settles down and lets you use commands. Each fight takes these long load times and it drags the game down, especially when you're trying to leave a dungeon and just want to get out of there.

Another issue is that often times you will be forced to fight a LOT of mobs in one fight. My least favorite were encounters with 10 bats. They're not hard, but the tedium of those battles was very frustrating as you'd have to sit through 10 of them doing the same attack in a row and each attack took 5-10 seconds. That's over a minute of time during a trash fight you just sat there watching bats attack you one at a time. Sure, it was obviously intended to do an AoE spell to kill them all at once, but those spells are not quickly cast and inevitably the enemies went before the caster (especially if you don't have improved casting times, making those AoE spells sometimes take two turns to cast).

There were also fights with a plethora of mobs who didn't all suffer from the same weaknesses, so even if you AoE'd them, you wouldn't necessarily hurt all of the mobs, forcing you to kill them one at a time, dealing with watching 8 of them attack the first turn, 7 the second, 6 the third, and so on. It just made combat incredibly tedius and boring.

A third issue is the way the game handles experience. Instead of being assigned a specific amount of experience points, each character has a % bar that fills up and when it hits 100%, that character gains a level. Regardless of how much exp a character gets in a fight, if they hit 100% they don't gain any additional experience into the next level; they start at 0%. A silly handicap that gets in the way when you're trying to play catch up with low level characters, getting only one level per fight when the character should have easily got multiple levels.

The experience also seems to cap relatively quickly, with monsters in areas you're currently supposed to be in to progress the story only rewarding your characters with 1%-5% of a level, and I definitely wasn't overleveled as the bosses were still challenging. This just drilled in the fact that combat was a tedious grind.

Challengewise, the combat can range from no-brainer to being frustrating. I found myself dying on a few boss fights because they used their most powerful attack over and over (the gryphon type boss on the mountain pass early in the game, for example. If he spams his AoE that hits everyone for 250-300 damage, you're screwed), and yet the last boss was possibly the easiest fight in the game. A few fights actually require you to think and not just attack mindlessly -- punishing you severly for doing so (eg. Game Over).

Items

-- Not thought through enough

Moving on to equipment, there are three types -- weapons, rings, and accessories. Unfortunately, the first two types are pratically useless for casters. Weapons only boost your attack power and rings only take effect when you attack physically, something of which casters seldom do for obvious reasons.

Accessories, on the other hand, provide your character with an ability when equip that immortals can learn permanently and equip into skill slots after earning enough Skill Points while wearing it. They grant abilities ranging from more attack power, to faster spell casting, to immunity to certain spells or effects. There are a TON of them and many are completely useless, while others are obvious "Go to" types. I found myself giving all my casters the highest "Able to cast black magic and white magic" so that everyone was able to heal and use offensive spells when needed, and gave my melee more health or immunity accessories.

Later in the game, the accessories were practically useless once your immortals have enough skill slots to equip all of the useful abilities and not needing to equip accessories for them, but until that point the accessories serve their purpose well.

Back to rings -- this is a prime example of an interesting system that is poorly executed. Throughout the world and through combat you find tons and tons of materials used to craft rings. Each ring has a different ability such as "Raises damage against flying monsters" or "Sometimes poisons target" or "drains a bit of health". All of the crafted ones only grant one ability and the materials for the more useful rings are often hard to find.

I found myself finding better rings in treasure chests that had multiple abilities long before I was able to even craft the decent single-ability ones which left me wondering what the point of crafting them was. Even by the end of the game I was still sticking to ones I had found in treasure chests. You do have the ability to combine crafted rings into better multiple-ability ones through a ring vendor, but again, by the time I had crafted ones that could be upgraded like that, I already had found better ones than the upgraded ones he offered.

Add to that the fact that rings do nothing for casters (except make their staves glow different colors), and it definitely feels like a needless aspect of the game that should have been thought through better.

Character Design

-- The endearing characters outnumber the oddities.

I've already mentioned the main protagonist and antagonist, so how about the supporting cast? Most of them are really well voiced and flushed out, even if some fall into typical JRPG archetypes. You've got the quick-witted, takes-no-crap pirate girl; the silver-tongued rogue; the quiet and reserved queen; the rebellious twins; etc. Many definitely felt like they were pulled directly from Final Fantasies, but I still enjoyed them for the most part -- especially Jensen. He had a lot of genuinely funny dialogue and his voice actor did a fantastic job. His in-game facial expressions were also done really well.

The one I didn't care for was Porom, err, sorry, I mean Mack, as he makes some incredibly stupid decisions during the game that endanger everyone else; never seems to learn his lesson (nor does anyone punish him for it... or throw him off a cliff... or just let the things he unleash kill him). Apparently going into the forbidden forest alone to find his dead mother without telling anyone made sense at the time...? Riiiight...

Besides him, the rest of the supporting cast contributes in varying amounts to the story and tend to do a fine job, making believable decisions and sounding relatable given their individual situations. Sure, a 60something man calling Seth "Momma" all the time is sorta silly, but even the other characters point that out.

The romantic relationships that form (or reform) in the game brought a smile to my face. Kaim finding Sarah again and her slowly remembering her feelings was heartwarming, and while the relationship between the "rogue and princess" was a bit cheesy at times, it paid off in the end (in even more grandiose cheesiness, but I could help but smile from cheek to cheek).

To get nitpicky about Kaim -- for some reason, near the end of the game he goes into a quick rant that really doesn't fit his character. Just as quickly, he suddenly shuts up and seems to change his tune. I'm really not sure why they decided to bother with that scene and make him seem like a heartless moron, when the dreams made you feel he was anything but.

Plot

-- Proves that making your characters "immortal" is risky

Lost Odyssey's plot could have easily been ripped from a Final Fantasy (no surprise considering some of the creative minds behind the game). Magical world at war, check. Crazy badguy with illusions of grandeur, check; plenty of obscure references and things veiled in mystery until the end, check. The game tends to do a decent job of pulling back that veil of mystery as it progresses, but there is always that one glooming problem that doesn't quite get addressed --

Your main characters are immortal, so why do you get a game over if you party dies in combat? Why do your characters panic that Sarah and Kaim might be dead when they fell down a pit? Sure they were frozen in ice (inside the middle of a cave that the rest of the party complains keeps getting hotter and hotter.... yay for cognitive dissonance), but they weren't gonna die -- just be frozen. Why do they all act like their dead after one spell from the antagonist and need the healing of two of the mortals to revive them?

Obviously when you make the developement decision that "The characters are going to be immortal", you're walking on a tightrope between making the conflict feel too trivial or break any suspension of disbelief by saying one thing but doing the other. Mistwalker went with the latter, and say the heroes immortal but present us with situations that try to tell us otherwise.

The plot does suffer from some nonsensical points other than the immortal dilemma. Nothing really huge (besides maybe most, if not all of what the General of Numara does... that guy would have been better left out of the game), but you will find yourself listening to some monologues, scratching your head in befuddlement and thinking to yourself "Uhh... what...?" The ending begins like that but doesn't derail entirely, phew.

Personal Gripe

-- Raaaaawr! Tedium is tedius!

I actually played through the first three CDs of Lost Odyssey and stopped near the end of the third nearly a year ago before coming back and starting over, finishing it this time. I couldn't figure out why I did that at first, but as I hit that point a second time, it dawned on me. Your party is split up into three groups at that point -- one group is Sarah and Kaim who can easily hold their own, another is Seth who meets some others along the way, and her story is a joke it's so easy, and third is everyone else -- all casters.

So you're having to do a fairly large chunk of the story with a group of casters who can't take hits very well, especially if you didn't use them before that point. I hadn't used Mack (I tend to avoid using characters with stupid personalities, on principle), who could take a bit of hits, in theory (though it seems they weren't sure what to do with him. His stats are split between casting and melee, so he's not as good as either pure melee like Seth nor as good as pure casters like Cook). Considering I hadn't used him, he was just there to cast some spirit spell buffs.

I wanted to level, but random encounters at that point were a crapshoot -- I went over a minute between fights in the area more often than not, which would have been great had I not wanted to fight, but I did! Why? Because the boss at the end was an anti-caster boss who cast reflect -- sending all my casters spells back at them and it can't be dispelled (rending that spell entirely useless, imo -- reflect is the only buff ever worth dispelling, everything else is trivial or doesn't last long enough to bother with). So I wanted to try to unload lots of damage before he got that spell up and finish him off with a leveled up Mack.

After only getting in a handful of fights after 30 minutes, I decided to just wing it and went after the boss. It came down to getting lucky using the "Deals a random amount of damage" spell with everyone, and getting a few huge hits from that. That really seemed like a silly way to win a fight, but whatever, the boss died and I was able to move on.

Unfortunately, reuniting with my melee characters was still a distance away and I was having to stick with my gimpy all-caster group for another area. The game felt like a chore at this point, and I just wanted to reunite with my group. But wait! Another boss with reflect cast right off the bat this time! This time I had to rely on spamming him with bombs that cast the same spells my party had but the items didn't get reflected! Again, totally silly way to win and made me wonder why they bothered with the whole reflect thing in the first place.

The game just started to feel tedius and more of a chore for me at this point, especially with the problems combat suffers from. I'm sure for people who use Mack a lot or love super-caster-heavy groups would have had no problem, but I lost 3 of the 5 primary characters I used -- Seth, Sarah, and Kaim, so being forced to play the game using the B team for a prolonged amount of time was not fun at all.

Closing

-- If I were to give it a rating, I'd say about 7.5 / 10.

Lost Odyssey is a run-by-the-numbers JRPG that feels a lot like a Final Fantasy without all the polish. It has it's share of problems and things that were overlooked, but overall it's a solid RPG that will provide many hours of enjoyment for most xbox fans of JRPGs. Combat can get tedius, especially near the end of the game, and it would have been nice if there was an "avoid encounters for X amount of time" item or ability, but at least you can learn a skill that guarantees you escape battles.

Kaim's a oddity as a main character and is hard to care for outside of the dreams, but this is just another thing that makes it feel like a Final Fantasy.

Certainly worth a shot if you're looking for a current-gen console JRPG, especially since it's not hard to find at a reduced price point. As a final aside: you can also choose to listen to the voices in multiple different languages, but truth be told, the English felt like it fit the best (and I'm a pretty die-hard Japanese voices + English subtitles fan). 
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