Hironubu Sakaguchi is a legend among game developers.
The man responsible for putting the Final Fantasy series on the map has been doing his own thing recently by making games for the Xbox 360 under the Mistwalker moniker. Mistwalker's first title, Blue Dragon, was an interesting, yet ultimately unfulfilling adventure that was too immature and sugary sweet to hold most adult Xbox gamers' attention. However, if Blue Dragon left you feeling blue, you may want to give Lost Odyssey a try.
Lost Odyssey is an affectionate tribute to the RPGs of yesteryear, specifically those from the PlayStation era. The turn based battle system, random encounters, largely text based storyline are all lovingly recreated for the Xbox generation. If you grew up playing Final Fantasy on the Super NES and PlayStation, then you are in for a real treat with Lost Odyssey.
The game begins with the armies of Uhra and Khent clashing on a battlefield. These armies have been at war for many years, and with the discovery of magic, their wars have taken a brutal turn. It is here that we are introduced to our hero Kaim, an immortal who has lived for 1,000 years and counting. It's obvious that he's picked up some fighting skill over his lifetime, which is put on full display in the stunning opening cinematic. As Kaim is kicking ass, a giant meteor appears over the battlefield, wiping out both armies in a smattering of lava and hellfire. Since Kaim is immortal, however, he survives the encounter, with no memory of the past 1,000 years. The Uhra government wants to know what caused the meteor, and demands that Kaim investigate the Grand Staff, a malfunctioning magical tower. He is given some support in Seth, another immortal survivor of the clash, and Jansen; a wisecracking, womanizing, mortal magic user. All the while, Gongora, the resident magician for the Uhra is placed under house arrest by the Uhra government.
The question of Gongora's affiliation with the meteor and Uhra's clashes with other kingdoms is what drives the narrative forward, but to be honest, the plot is inconsequential. If you've played any Final Fantasy title before, you'll recognize many different cliches here and be able to predict most of the plot twists before the game actually reveals them. You'll witness your characters get imprisoned, be double crossed by villains in disguise, be joined by twin magic users, and have to take part in simple mini-games as you progress, and lots of other events just like every other Final Fantasy title.
No, the reason you'll actually want to keep playing is to find out what happens to the fantastically developed characters, especially Kaim. Kaim is a fantastic protagonist who at first seems shallow and detached much like Final Fantasy VIII's emotional leader, Squall. However, by the end of the first disc, Kaim is revealed to be more of a badass with a heart of gold, who has seen much suffering, sorrow, and joy in his never-ending life. Kaim's back story is revealed throughout the game in dream sequences called "A Thousand Years of Dreams." As you play through the game and witness occurrences that trigger Kaim's memories, the screen will go blurry and ask you if you want to hear about Kaim's past. These occurrences can be as simple as walking in the rain or watching children at play. A Thousand Years of Dreams, more than anything else in this game, shows that this is an adult storyline at play here.
Once you choose to view his dreams, be prepared for some reading. Rather than present his memories in overdone cutscenes, the sequences are presented like an interactive novel. The developers brought in an honest-to-god novelist to write these portions, and each one reads like a carefully crafted short story. It is in these sequences that the true strength of the story shines through, and I defy you not to get a lump in your throat at a few of these emotional powerhouses. While you do have to do lots of reading, the sequences are still visually and acoustically stimulating, with animated fonts and Nobuo Uematsu's stunning soundtrack upping the emotional quotient.
The other characters in the game aren't quite as well developed as Kaim is, but they are all endearing and a pleasure to explore with. Jansen is an absolute hoot, and makes for fantastic comic relief. Seth makes for a good conscience for the other characters with her forgiving spirit. Mack and Cooke are a pair of magic using twins that are far less annoying than you'd expect. Eventually you'll also be joined by a kind-hearted Queen, an airship operator named Sed, and a half dozen other characters. All the characters are endearing, and none constitute cannon fodder.
The world you'll transverse is large, but not as massive as those you'll find in other RPGs. The game is set up very much like Final Fantasy X, with lots of fields, but no overworld map. When you go from one location to the next, a map will pop up asking you to select your next destination. Like most other RPGs on the market, you'll wander towns talking to people and buying items and equipment. When you're in the field, you'll get into random encounters, and hunt for treasure while going from point A to point B. It's all pretty linear stuff, but you likely won't mind a bit as you lose yourself in the storyline.
Lost Odyssey will take you a while. The game spans four discs, and each one takes approximately a dozen hours to complete, culminating in a fifty-hour monolith. It's due to the high amount of high definition cutscenes that forced the game to be split up in such a way. I don't mind having multiple discs though; it's just another way that the game feels like a throwback to the classic PS1 RPGs of yore. However, in an unfortunate move, Lost Odyssey's packaging a head-scratcher. The first three discs are on a single holder in a standard DVD case. The fourth disc can be found in a separate envelope behind the instruction manual. Why couldn't they just make a case with four separate disc holders? I don't know, but the stupid packaging is a damaged disc waiting to happen.
But I digress. As you traverse those four gigantic discs, you'll get to a few points where the pacing grinds to a halt. There's one portion towards the end of the first disc in particular that sticks out for me. Remember in Final Fantasy VII when they made you play a snowboarding mini-game right after an emotional funeral for Aerith? Lost Odyssey actually botches a funeral scene even worse. Right after the emotional farewell, the funeral director tells you to collect ten flowers. Nine won't do. Then you have to go out and gather ten sets of branches to make torches. Then, you have to play an irritating torch lighting mini-game at the funeral itself. This isn't an isolated incident in the game either, just the most glaring example of screwed up pacing.
Speaking of pacing, you'll have to contend with boat-loads of random battles. The frequency seems all over the map. Some dungeons seem to have you engaging in battles every six or seven steps and others will allow you to run from one end of a room to another with nary an encounter. If the frequent battles don't turn you off though, maybe the ten second load before each battle begins will. As the battle begins, the camera will pan and swoop on everything minus the actual enemies you're about to face.
Speaking of load times, Lost Odyssey is chock-full of them. You'll see a black loading screen after you win battles, between cutscenes, running from room to room, or sometimes even when talking to characters. The frequency is quite annoying, but at least the load times aren't excessively long, just excessively often.
A bigger problem than the load times, however, is the distant spacing of save points. On several occasions, you'll have to watch a half hour cinematic, do a fetch quest and fight two bosses before you're allowed to save again. Don't boot the game up unless you are fully prepared to devote a minimum of an hour and a half to it. At least cutscenes are skippable and the game gives you checkpoints in case you die. Still, real life is generally more important than a video game, and there's no excuse to not being able to save when you please.
Your characters are split into two main groups; immortals and mortals. Mortals have set skill templates, are you have very little input on how they level up and what abilities they gain as you go forward. Magic users will learn magic, physical characters will gain strength and agility, and so forth. Immortals, on the other hand, are a clean slate. Immortals can be developed nearly any way you see fit. Immortal characters gain their skills by linking to mortal characters in the party. As you gain experience, your immortals will keep any skills they have earned from mortals in the party, meaning you can go full steam ahead as a magic user or physical attacker, or make them a jack of all trades. Beyond linking with mortals, immortals can also learn skills by equipping rings that will teach them new skills. Mortals can also equip rings, but they won't permanently learn the skills that they provide
The battle system is heavily influenced by these factors too. Once a character has a ring equipped, a pair of rings will appear over an enemy when a physical attack is selected. By holding the right trigger, the larger ring will shrink to the size of the smaller one. You're supposed to let the right trigger go when the rings are the same size. If your timing is right, you'll get a substantial damage boost.
The battle system is your standard turn based affair. At the beginning of each turn, you select the action for each character in your party. Once all the actions are queued, the order of attack is revealed and you essentially sit back and watch the fireworks go, save for timing of ring attacks. It's here that the battle system starts to show some frustrating wrinkles, especially early on when your characters are slow and your party is small. Magic in particular takes forever to cast, sometimes even taking up two turns. If you're low on items and need to rely on healing magic, expect to watch the entire enemy party get free shots on you while you pray to have enough HP to survive another turn. Physical attacks and items typically move your further up on the queue. This becomes less of a problem later in the game since your characters become more powerful and numerous, but it makes the first disc in particular more frustrating than it should be. For immortal characters, you actually will die. A lot. Lost Odyssey comprises a substantial challenge. Immortal characters can get knocked down, but will get back up after a few turns. Game over occurs when everyone is knocked down.
Once you have enough characters, you'll be able to put as many as five in your party at once in two separate rows. The placement of your characters in the front in back rows is key, more so than in past Final Fantasy titles. The characters in the front will protect the ones in the back, meaning that you'll want to put your stronger characters in the front, and your weaker magic users in the back row. When the front row is at full HP, the characters in the back row take significantly less damage from all attacks, even magic. However, as your front row takes more damage, the defence bonus is significantly lessened. Your enemies have to abide by this system too.
In all, the battle system is very solid, with a few tweaks to keep it fresh and interesting. It's definitely nothing revolutionary though.
Lost Odyssey is probably the ugliest gorgeous game I've ever played. I'm aware that statement doesn't make a ton of sense, but it's truly the case here. It's very clear that Mistwalker studios has very little experience with the Unreal 3 engine, and you won't find anything here that can compete visually with other Unreal powerhouses like Mass Effect, Gears of War, and BioShock. The framerate is all over the place, pixels will occasionally smear and tear, shadows can look awkward, and sometimes high-res textures won't appear, leaving behind a blurry mess. You also only see Kaim instead of your whole party when you're navigating the environment, and his running animation is spectacularly bad. At the same time, the characters faces and hair are incredibly meticulous and expressive, the environments look amazing and crammed full of elements, and enemy creatures are very detailed and varied. The CG cutscenes also are real stunners, rivalling anything that has been released in the commercial realm to date. It's not the prettiest RPG on the Xbox 360, but in the moments it shines, it shines bright.
Acoustically, however, there is no debate. Lost Odyssey is aural masterpiece, and it all begins with Nobuo Uematsu's superlative soundtrack. This guy isn't the most accomplished game composer in the world for nothing, and here he proves again while he's been an industry force for more than twenty years. He seems to find the perfect balance of strings, horns, percussion and wind instruments to maximize the emotion in every scene. Uematsu's still got it.
The voice acting is also very strong, especially for the main characters. Jansen in particular could have easily teetered into annoying territory, but the actor who plays him keeps it subtle and hilarious. The actor portraying Kaim also does a fantastic job voicing a man who has seen so much suffering. He reaches that perfect balance between broken down and badass. The rest of the cast does an admirable job as well. It's a bit of a shame that the whole game isn't voiced though, and most minor characters have to be read instead listened to.
Playing Lost Odyssey is like running into an old friend that you haven't seen in ages. They may be a little more rotund around the edges, a little balder up high, and a little more wrinkled around the eyes, but they still have that spirit and life to them that shows you that the good old days are never that far away. It's fair to call Lost Odyssey an unofficial sequel to the Final Fantasy series, seeing as how it shares so much in common with its brethren. The high production values, outstanding storyline, deep characters, and solid battle system will allow you to forgive Lost Odyssey's other warts, especially if you grew up playing the genre.