The influx of Western RPGs in this generation of gaming has perhaps been a little worrying for those with a taste for the Japanese style of game, and so as we (possibly) near the end of this cycle of consoles how well does one of the earlier and least-talked about JRPGs of this gen hold up on the rather lightly-filled canvas of Japanese role-playing games? Is it just another attempt by Hironobu Sakaguchi to give himself the chance to create a series based on the idea of something being 'final' or the 'last' of its kind? Is this genuinely a title that belongs to what is becoming a dying breed in the western gaming market and that can hold its own against Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy titles and that can be an example to that same series which hasn't seemed to recreate the magic of those titles before he left to create Mistwalker?
Lost Odyssey is a game produced and written by famed Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi at Mistwalker about a group of people linked by their thousand-year old mission but who have lost all known connection to each other and to their past. The game begins in the middle of a battlefield - a place and theme the game continually returns to - with a fight that is brought to an abrupt end by a bizarre and seemingly unexplainable event. The focus shifts to the centre of one of the main nations, Uhra, where the council is meeting to discuss and to try and understand what happened on the battlefield, and from here the protagonist Kaim is sent on his first mission which puts him into contact with Seth and Jansen under the advisory of one of the council members, Lord Gongora, as the effects of magic energy and the magic-industrial revolution begin to make their mark on the world.
Lost Odyssey's gameplay is similar to that of most of the older Final Fantasy games using a turn-based battle system, but it does have some additional features compared to the basic system. The row system is different in that instead of characters in the back-row only being able to attack at a lower damage rate, characters in either the front or back rows attack with the same damage, but the combined HP of the characters in the front row creates a defensive wall that shields all the characters in the back row and as a result they take less damage. This defensive wall, called "Guard Condition", can be broken down by attacking and reducing the health of the characters in the front row and will not be refilled by those characters being healed, although there are other skills which can be used to restore the GC bar. One of the other key differences with Lost Odyssey's battle system compared to some typical turn-based battle systems is that magic-casting characters can have their turns delayed (or even removed altogether) if they are on the receiving-end of physical attacks before they have cast their spell, although a simple way to avoid this problem is usually by keeping your magic-casters in the back row (although with reduced GC this may not prove to be enough to keep your magic attacks casting on time). They are fairly small differences but they can have a big influence on how you play your battles in Lost Odyssey as you will notice as you make your way through the game.
There is also what is called the "Aim Ring System", which can give your physical attacks an additional boost in power and in effect when you have a ring equipped if you can manage to allow the ring that you control to intersect the other ring shown on screen. This can be useful especially if you have a ring equipped which can inflict a status ailment on an enemy but realistically the novelty of this idea wears off after your first few rounds of fighting. That's not to say that it's useless, because achieving the "Good" or "Perfect" ranks most often will boost your attack power slightly and give you a better chance of hitting critical hits, but once you get to the later stages of the game the only big difference it makes will be when you're backtracking through areas you have already visited and fighting slightly-weaker enemies. Perhaps making it a bit tougher to attain the "Good" and "Perfect" ranks (since it's pretty impossible to miss and get the "Bad" rank when you're actually trying to make use of the rings) would have been better, along with reducing your attack damage if you attain the "Bad" rank. Lost Odyssey's general take on the turn-based battle system doesn't by any means reinvent the wheel but the small additions and changes do make it a bit more interesting than the simplified Attack, Defend, Magic system, and with the use of equippable rings it does keep you a bit more interested and active during battle rather than just choosing your moves and sitting back, but it does take a fairly traditional approach to combat.
Characters are divided in this game as being either an Immortal, or being a Mortal. Immortal characters can only learn skills and magic from the mortal characters through skill links, while the mortal characters will learn different moves and spells as they level up but can't learn anything from each other or from the immortals. Immortal characters can also learn a variety of skills and spells from accessories. Immortals, however, can't choose from (or use) every one of the abilities they have learned whenever they want, as they have what are called Skill Slots, which allows you to choose a certain number of skills from all of those you have learned to use in your battles.
Nobuo Uematsu is another name familiar to Final Fantasy fans and he's the man behind the wonderful soundtrack of Lost Odyssey (honestly does this man know how to do anything else than make a stellar video-game OST?). Lost Odyssey's OST boasts an impressive 56 tracks but the pure brilliance of some of those tracks that play more regularly - and the timing of them - set the tone for the game so well, particularly those tracks which are used mostly for the short-stories. Great Ruins of the East is one of those more peaceful and pensive titles which contains a vast array of instrumental music, from bells, pianos, violins, tambourines, and a flute which lends to the beautiful Eastern areas in the game which have been almost reduced to rubble but which still maintain that eerie feel to them. Parting Forever is one of those genuinely heart-wrenching, tear-inducing titles as that simple and sorrowful sole piano melody plays throughout the track.
It's not all about sadness and tears though. There is also a number of more loud and enthralling titles on the soundtrack to match those "it's all about to kick off" moments. Gongora's Plot is an almost-perfect track to describe and accompany the evil-doer, with a haunting violin and a ringing piano medley that almost sounds evil in itself (if, you know, pianos medleys can be evil). Then there's the vibrant, energetic and frankly awesome Dark Saint title with an adrenaline-pumping mixture of trumpets, violins and guitar, ending on a funky piano tune with some heavy operatic singing to boot. In the end there are tons of titles I could suggest and talk about but my limited vocabulary for describing music wouldn't do all of the beautiful tracks in Lost Odyssey justice, and I could be here all day.
One of the disappointing features of the game, however, is the story. It's not terrible, in fact it's probably not actually even bad, but for someone who has become fairly well-acquainted with the JRPG genre in the past few years it is a very typical, cliché JRPG story and there isn't much in it or to it that I can say I have never seen or heard of before. The background for the immortal characters and their story is decent, but the foundations of the game lay on the very typical setting of a group of people connected in differing ways who set out on a mission to stop that oh-so evil man or organisation who wish(es) to take over the world. Even in one of the earliest cutscenes of the game the main antagonist is made blindingly obvious without him even needing to say a word - his crazy eyebrows and devious smile say it all (but seriously look at those eyebrows). There are also some rather odd features of the story which aren't really ever explained, such as certain characters being able to summon strange magic used to save people from what is seemingly a near-dead state, and even one moment where the singing of kids is able to bring someone who has been taken over by dark forces (no not the meme) back to their regular selves (and yes, if you're not light of heart and you tend to cringe at extremely cheesy dialogue and moments this game at times may be a little much for you).
The characters of Lost Odyssey are, in my eyes at least, a bit of an odd bunch, and unfortunately they sometimes don't really lend that much to the game in terms of their personalities. Jansen is pretty much just a comic character for the majority of the game (and admittedly does throw out some genuinely humorous lines every now and again, but for the most part the humour is forced and loses any effect), Kaim doesn't tend to talk much and is that wise-guy who knows a lot about the world and doesn't really tend to get things wrong so he's not really someone you would take much of an interest in since there's not much else to him, and Ming is just kind of there, watching from the background. But it's not all bad, Seth's story becomes more interesting as her background is fleshed out as the game progresses, and while the kids are just kids they're not annoying, pouty brats who ruin every scene (*cough FFXIII *cough*), and it's good that the game does always remind you that they are just kids who are somehow tied-up in the stories of the other characters and the war.
The general progression of the story, however, is decent, and the game is quite long even when just playing through for the story and ignoring most of everything else (a good 40 hours or so, which is pretty much the norm for a JRPG), although one issue is that some areas do seem to drag on for a bit, and unfortunately there are quite a few areas that have pretty much just 2 or 3 same types of enemy constantly appearing which can make fighting pretty tedious, especially against those enemies that can withstand certain attacks. But that "everything else" that the game has really is a lot. There is a huge amount of quests you can do, from rather menial things like just putting down magic gauges in different areas, to more interesting things such as searching for royal seals (not the mammals). There are a number of mini-games (some of which are in the main story) such as paying your respect to the Kelolon with the treasure hunt in Tosca, and there are puzzles throughout the game (although most of them are sort of chucked into areas you'll go through rather than being puzzles on their own). There are also treasures that you can search for (although you will only be able to find them once you have received a hint about it from someone), music scores which you can find and then play in order to receive items, there's the backyard, the list of things to do goes on and on, and perhaps the best thing about these quests which you can do is that, even with those simple ones where you're just asked to go to a place and pick up or set down something, you are given a little background on it. So there's the artist in Numara who wants some of the crystal fragments from the Crimson Forest as he is (clearly) so muffled by his life he can't focus on his work unless he finds something shiny. There are the Pipots which live in pots around the world and which just love to eat any of those seeds you find and which will give you items in return for some of your own, and there is even a Pipot-exclusive quest which will send you all over the place visiting each of these Pipots for a special reward. If you're an explorer and a completionist then you'll undoubtedly have plenty to do in this game (which I found out the hard way as I reached disc 4 at 35 hours on saying "I'll probably be finished the game by 45 hours" and didn't end up attempting the final run until hour 78).
Yet arguably the best thing about Lost Odyssey is the dreams, or the short-stories. These dreams - which are activated in different places by interacting with different people, or sometimes even by just walking by a view - tell short-stories which are all linked in one way or another to one of the immortals, with the vast majority being related to Kaim and his long and detailed past. True, the main story can seem a bit derivative at times to anyone well versed with the JRPG genre as it follows a number of typical traits, but the tales that these short-stories tell are all so brilliant, so interesting, and so genuinely touching that there's no need to fret about the main plot as these dreams will easily make up for any issues you may have with that, and they'll give you a whole lot more too. Not many of the tales these stories tell are that similar so it's hard to try and sum them up, especially as, really, it wouldn't do justice to the stories and to what will be most likely some of the best writing you're likely to ever see in a video-game, and what will most likely be some of the best short-stories you will ever read, to try and sum them up in a sentence or two. One of the most impressive things about these dreams is how short they are, yet at the same time they suck you in, and so quickly, and they keep you hooked and waiting to find and read more.
Yet the best thing about these short-stories - and much of the game itself - is the vast array of themes and issues that they address and make you think about, and how Mistwalker have interlinked all of these in one game and in one world so well. Racism, cold war, life for a soldier / life on a battlefield, the concept of eternity or 'forever', a child's view of war, time, approaches to death and the meaning of it, differing meanings of 'happiness', the preservation of nature, societal prejudices, ... the list really is endless.
There is a strange sense of humour that pervades Lost Odyssey and it's another reason why this game can be so addictive and in general, fun. One thing you'll notice as you begin to chat to NPCs in the game is the descriptive nickname beside each person's name, so you have someone like "Business Minded Technician Tatoms", or "Curious Quenta". Then there are odd occurrences in certain areas, like what could only be described as the freaky city of Saman. Talking (and frankly rude) cars, ghostly children, a man who literally can't take his eyes off his giant pile of money in his house, and some bloke who stopped paying attention to his wife because he fell in love with a doll (we've all been there, don't pretend you haven't). Last, but definitely not least, is the accessories in the game which actually appear on your characters as they are using them. There's nothing better than prepping yourself up for one of the biggest boss battles (and one of the most interesting points) of the game and having the tension broken by macho Kaim's sparkling emerald-green earrings swaying (along with that darn hair always in the middle of his face) as he confronts his opponent.
Lost Odyssey is a pretty typical JRPG but it's part of that that makes the game great. The story isn't anything to shout about since there's not much new here, and the combat while flaunting some changes which can keep you on your toes in battle is still at heart a fairly simple turn-based combat system, but the amount of side-quests and extras in the game, the more-tactical combat features which keep you active, the environments and music, and the humour are all the things that make it a really good game. The story does flounder a bit at times but the themes the game touches on are well woven into the world of Lost Odyssey, and by far the best thing about the game, the wonderful short-stories make up for any fumbling around in the main plot and are alone reason enough to experience and enjoy what Lost Odyssey has to offer.