Another Take – Lost Odyssey

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The Xbox brand has struggled to find success in the Japanese market with and with the continued poor sales of the Xbox One, it seems the struggle is pretty much over. Nobody can say it’s for lack of trying. Considerable effort was made to attract Japanese gamers over the lifetime of the original Xbox and Xbox 360. Titles such as Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive 3 from Team Ninja for the Xbox and the RPGs Tales of Vesperia, Eternal Sonata and Infinite Undiscovery for 360 (though the first two titles were later ported to PlayStation 3). One of the most significant attempt to court Japanese gamers has to be the projects with Hironobu Sakaguichi’s Mistwalker.

If the name isn’t familiar, Sakaguchi is the creator of the Final Fantasy series of video games. Mistwalker also involved Nobuo Uematsu, the long-time composer for the Final Fantasy series. The first game produced was the generally well received Blue Dragon. This was followed by Lost Odyssey with Mistwalker responsible for the story and music and the game itself being developed by Feelplus.

Lost Odyssey is often described as a traditional JRPG and in many ways this is true. Enemy encounters are randomised, combat is turn-based and the main character Kaim, even begins the game with amnesia – a notoriously overused plot device. The game also (perhaps unavoidably), contains many common elements from Final Fantasy which can be seen in the save system, menus and even in the way the story develops as the world opens up. I\’ll cover some of the differences in following paragraphs but the ring system does make the random encounters a lot more entertaining. Characters can equip rings that when used correctly in combat aid the party, cause status effects or additional damage to enemies. These powers only work with physical attacks to the enemy but add a useful and fun tactical layer to the combat.

The story of Lost Odyssey centres around a group of immortals, including the aforementioned Kaim, who long ago entered the world made up of four major nations – Uhra, Numara, Gohtza and the significantly diminished, Khent. When the game begins, they have been in the world for a millennium and all have prominent positions in these nations. The world itself has gone through a “Magic-Industrial Revolution” and the newly powerful magic is used to power vehicles and the great cities. The moody man of few words, Kaim is first introduced on a battlefield and you take control of him shortly after a meteor decisively ends the battle. You’re soon introduced to another immortal, Seth along with a wise-cracking magician called Jansen who is mortal. From there you are sent to investigate a magic machine known as the “Grand Staff” and this brings us to the border of spoiler territory.

Although the game is fresh in my memory as I write, I still had to look up many of the above details to get everything from names to plot details right. There is a lot going on in the world of Lost Odyssey, and enormous amounts of both text and spoken dialogue bringing the world alive. A lot of the themes are familiar for the genre but the world building is excellent and the writing is too. Sakaguchi wrote the story with a famous Japanese author named Kiyoshi Shigematsu and it is something I early identified as the games major strength. To put in perspective how good the writing is, there are “memories” that tell stories about the immortals within the game. Many of these stories are tragic and often relate to the sense of loss the immortals feel when they lose mortals they have come to care for or fallen in love with. There is no spoken dialogue but each one is complemented by striking images and music. Although there is no interaction except for pressing a button for the next line of dialogue, I found them all enthralling. The way they are slowly earned also helps even out the pace of the game so if you don’t quite feel like moving on after a save point, you can take a break to read one.

The immortal nature of many of the main characters is not only part of the story but integral to the gameplay. One of the most unique aspects of the progressions system is the way immortals can learn skills from the mortal characters by linking. Mortals learn more traditionally by levelling up but anything one of your mortal characters knows can be learned by all your immortals. While characters are generally better used the way they are built, this skills system adds a lot of variety to the combat and characters are not necessarily limited by their class. The other significant way the immortals are integrated is when they fall in combat. All party members going down will see you too the game over screen but any fallen immortal will automatically revive after a few turns. You are also able to set formations so having immortals taking the most savage blows at the front and knowing they’ll come back if they fall is a useful tactic. This is especially so early on as your party starts out small.

When Lost Odyssey was reviewed by critics in early 2008, they were apparently provided with copies of the game that had longer load times than the retail release. This certainly wasn’t an issue for me, especially because I’d installed each disc on the console as I progressed. It is hard not to notice the technical issues though. The game was built on the Unreal 3 engine and like most games of the generation (and still now), was running at 30fps. Even in early 2008 the game was technically dated with the awkward character movements and stiff facial animation being particularly noticeable. The art design itself though is excellent. There is a definite steampunk influence with many of the cities and machinery. But this also contrasts well with the many natural environments from snowy forests to dense forests. There are even some darker horror-themed areas. The most notable area for me is the ocean city of Numara which looks like what you’d get if you designed every building in a city like the Sydney Opera house. The characters unlike many JRPGs are designed in a more realistic way but without the accompanying journey into the uncanny valley. The clothing is also elaborate and sometimes outrageous with such a mixture of styles that make it hard to place in any human time period or culture.

The involvement of Nobuo Uematsu certainly shows and I’d personally consider the Lost Odyssey soundtrack one of the best last generation. The map screen music actually inspired a Friday Castle Jukebox late last year. The major dialogue in the game is voiced in both Japanese and English. I played through the game with the Japanese which I enjoyed. Although I haven’t played through the game listening to the English voices, I understand Jansen’s voice actor in particular, did an excellent job.

Earlier on I described this as a traditional JRPG and this is largely true. I can make far more comparisons with the Final Fantasy titles from VII than with those from the early 90s though. The game world doesn’t fully open up for exploration until right near the end and there are long periods throughout the story where you are restricted to one area. The combat is the classical turn-based design but this doesn’t mean you’ll be grinding levels. It really isn’t necessary to grind much if at all, as sensible tactics are more likely to win battles than anything. I found Lost Odyssey particularly challenging early on and especially during the first few boss battles. Once I had a good grasp of the skills and mechanics and good timing with the ring system I found the balance between challenge and frustration just right.

Microsoft’s attempts to capture part of the Japanese game market were ultimately unsuccessful but resulted in some excellent titles. Lost Odyssey is one of the best, especially when compared to many other JRPGs of the time. This is especially true of the Final Fantasy series and I’d be much happier to call it Final Fantasy XIII than what we actually got. Despite the inevitable similarities brought with the creator and composer, Lost Odyssey is very much its own game. It is certainly the best JRPG on the Xbox 360 and one of the best of last generation. As well as this, it is certainly one of the best exclusives available on the system. I would end by adding that it is not unique enough to attract those not usually interested in the genre but a recommendation to everyone else.

March, 2016

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