Lost Odyssey (360) – Review

cover Lost Odyssey is a turn-based role playing game developed by Mistwalker studios and distributed by Microsoft Game Studios.  The game has a number of similarities with Blue Dragon, also from the same studio, in both looks, gameplay, and other aspects.  However, while it introduces a number of interesting game elements, the overall approach to the game as well as odd loading times for a next-gen console game make it very tedious to work through.

Story: A-

The game takes place on a planet where magic research and development is a key to the improvement of the quality of life for everyone.  A giant Grand Staff is being constructed to further this magic research, though the three countries that the world is split between are making preparations to go to war over it.  However, the Grand Staff’s magic power is not without side effects, as in the case of a large battle, thousands of men were wiped out by a stray meteor generated by the Staff.  Meanwhile, among the mortals of the planet walk immortal beings, including the main character Kaim.  While they have walked the planet for over a thousand years, they have no memories of their time before that point, and have no idea why they are immortal. Kaim is enlisted along with other allies to investigate the problems at Grand Staff, but as they learn more, they realize that there is a much more nefarious plan related to their immortality that is afoot that could destroy the entire planet.

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The story is pretty good, and most of the characters are pretty well written, with some nice subplots that develop in the game.  The bulk of the game is told through in-game cutscenes with a few pre-rendered movies.  However, it is a bit slow, and really only seems to move well in the second half of the game.

Gameplay: B-

It’s hard not to talk about Lost Odyssey and not mention Blue Dragon; the number of similarities in the games go more than just beyond the interface that these two games may not be siblings but certainly cousins from the same gameplay home.  The core aspects are typical for any JRPG: your overworld explorations mainly consist of visiting the various towns to rest up and shop for more goods, and then connect you to other locations between.  There’s no real “overworld field” per se – you just go from one location to another, though you do gain a ship in the last disk to let you wander more, but… this is on the last disk of four so unfortunately, you don’t get to explore much until that point, a similar problem with Blue Dragon that makes the game rather linear.

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Dungeons are typically complex paths with offshoots to look down for goodies.  Unfortunately, the game loses some points because unlike Blue Dragon, you have random monster encounters that you can’t prepare for beyond making sure to heal up between fights.  Battles are turn based, though there is an order for when actions take place, some actions taking one or more turns to prepare based on the speed of the character.  As with most RPGs, you can opt to use weapons, skills, or magic to defeat your foes.

One interesting feature of combat is the idea of a “Guard Character” wall.  You can set up to 5 party members in your attack group, either split between front and back.  The strength of the GC wall is set by the hit points of your front characters; the most points there, the stronger the wall is, meaning that any attacks on your rear characters will be diminished.  However, the GC strength diminishes in battle as your front characters take hits and cannot be restored without a special skill.  This of course also works for your foes, and thus if there’s a powerful spell-casting being behind their wall, you have to decide if to try to work through the front lines to get to it for higher damage, or take weaker hits on it directly in order to take it down.  It’s a nice alternative to the usual “back lines can’t attack, but also take less damage” and also give flexibility to arranging your character lines.

An additional feature of the combat system is an attack modifier based on timing.  For melee attacks, your character will start running towards the enemy as a ring shrinks down towards a target ring.  By holding down the right trigger and releasing at the right time, you can modify the attack slightly, with perfect timing helping to inflict maximum damage, while missed attempts may fail altogether.  Unfortunately, this system doesn’t allow for necessarily turning away once you initiated the actions for each character in that turn, since failing to land a hit could be disastrous.

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Magic comes in four flavors: white magic for your healing needs, black for your elemental and status effects, shadow magic which generally increases characters power and speed while with limited damaging spells, and combination magic which have various combinations of these three such as allows certain white or black spells to apply to all friends or foes respectively (these often take longer times to cast).  The annoying part about the magic system is that while you can learn magic skill levels, allowing you to cast any magic spell up to that level, you actually have to find the spells for that, and although a handful are through stores, most of the more potent ones are hidden in objects in dungeons and towns.  Thus, if you don’t spend time exploring all corners of these places, you may find yourself without key healing or elemental spells in the later part of the game.

The skill system is rather interesting.  The standard mortal characters gain skills with level growth, and pretty much is out of your hands beyond making sure to rotate characters in to gain levels.  The immortal characters don’t gain skills this way, but instead have to learn one skill at a time through skill linking with an active mortal character; they can also learn skills by equipping accessories; skill points earned in battle affect the speed at which these are learned.  However, learning the skills is just not enough; you then need to assign which skills you want “equipped” in a limited number of skill slots, though these can be expanded with a specific item in the game.  In this way, while your mortal characters aren’t really customizable, your four immortal ones can be customized … somewhat.  Unfortunately, your hit points and mana points grow at rates specific for each character, and as a result, you’ll have two strong immortal attackers that are bad at magic, and two great magic users that are bad at attacking, and further, by the late game, there are specific resistences and bonuses you want each character to have so customizing them really doesn’t help much.  Your mortal characters’ skill set can be fined tuned a bit by these same accessories; they don’t gain the skills from these but can use their effects.

There’s also a ring assembly feature of the game that allows you create rings that give additional benefits in combat such as increasing damage, providing resistance to certain attacks, or damaging specific types of foe more.  The rings are assembled from loot dropped by monsters (similar to Final Fantasy XII‘s loot system), with more powerful rings made by modifying existing ones.  Select characters can also combine rings to a single ring that provides two or three benefits.

From an overall viewpoints, the game suffers some significant problems that make it rather tedious and rather unrewarding.  The experience system is very odd.  Each experience level requires 100 points from the last, but this number is exponentially scaled, so the actual value of the killing the same monster gets drastically lower for each level you gain, to a point where you may gain nothing for fighting.  Normally this type of system isn’t so bad if the exponential rate is low, but it seems really high for this game, such that if you enter a dungeon below a given level that seems to have been present for that dungeon, each battle will pretty much guaranty a level increase, but once you hit that level, your progression slows to a crawl.  This may be good to prevent the typical dungeon crawling that RPGs gain, but it also means the game has put an artificial limitation on how fast you grow your characters.  It doesn’t help that characters not part of the party do not gain experience for sitting out, and that side missions really do not come up until the last disk, basically meaning that you’re funneled through the game in the first three disks.  However, to its benefit, the last boss fights are quite doable without doing the side missions or dungeon crawling, and only made easier with that, a rarity among most RPGs.

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Another aspect is the fact that there are just too many playable characters.  As mentioned, non-battle characters don’t gain experience as you play, but more so, the rate at which characters are added are a little odd.  You start with a very magic-heavy party which could be argued to help you get used to the system, but it is not until the 2/3rd mark where you really gain more heavy hitters.  There’s also one point where the party is split among 4 different groups, and though battles with these groups are not hard as long as you have been leveling, it feels really forced and comes late enough in the game to make it a strange addition.  The only major benefit is that these side characters can be your healers between battles since you’re not burning through their mana quickly.

The game is also just slow enough between battle animations, menu animations, and the speed of disk loading as to make running around dungeons a bore.  Before playing through Lost Odyssey, I had just finished a PS2 RPG, and while loading and saving games were slow, the actual transitions between all elements were quick and responsive.  While I can understand that for next-gen consoles, graphics and visuals are important (and this game certainly does a good job there), spending as much time on pre and post-animations got annoying.  I also don’t understand the loading times for this – I can understand loading between switching maps, but loading before and after battle just became tedious to watch.  If GTA IV can have you drive around a whole map without a loading screen, why can’t field to battle and back have the same?

Value/Replayability: B

The game took me shy of 40 hours to complete (or at least, until my 360 decided to bail on me on the very final boss) without doing any side quests, and while the gameplay may have been tedious, the length was just about right for such games.  On completing the game, you can restart with powered up characters, but as with most RPGs, there’s no variation on the main plot, thus leaving little new to see again.

Graphics: A

One thing that cannot be denies is that Lost Odyssey looks really good.  Characters are well done (though I couldn’t count how many times I wanted to cut the lone lock of hair off Kaim’s head), and the various environments are nicely detailed.  The last few dungeons do show a bit of copy/paste effects, but not to too much detriment.  Facial animations of the main characters during cutscenes is pretty outstanding and do help bring emotion to the game.

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Audio: B+

The audio is a bit mixed in the game.  Musically, the game feels like it is borrowing a lot from Final Fantasy VII, and though there’s still a lot of unique songs in this, there’s not that much variety and gets tiring near the end.  On the other hand, the voice artists are pretty good and do their roles well – of particularly not is the character of Jansen, who is written and voiced pretty much like Rob Scheinder as in his “Judge Dredd” character, which really makes it work.  The two lead children characters have just enough lines and are not shrill, a common problem when child characters are voiced in such games.

Overall: B

Lost Odyssey is not really bad for one of the few next-gen console games, but though there’s a lot of similarities between this and Blue Dragon, some of the concepts it brings from older RPGs (particularly random monster encounters) make the gameplay rather weak despite some decent ideas added to the mix.  The gameplay is just too funneled along a single path, and with just enough delay in between combat and exploration, it gets very tedious very fast.  However, it is an interesting story with a few good characters and some interesting positive gameplay aspects, and it does look particularly good; I just wish it didn’t fall back onto what has become cliched gameplay elements.

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