Lost Odyssey - Staff Review  

Who Wants to Live Forever?
by Adriaan den Ouden

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Xbox 360
40-60 Hours
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   For thousands of years, immortality has been one of mankind's greatest dreams. From tales of undying vampires to Ponce de León's search for the Fountain of Youth, stories of everlasting life are viewed with both longing and fear. Lost Odyssey, the latest game from the mind of legendary Hironobu Sakaguchi, presents the player with a unique take on life and death and the ups and downs of living forever.

   Placing you in the well-worn shoes of the immortal Kaim Argonar, Lost Odyssey begins with one of the most spectacular fantasy battle sequences ever conceived. After the battlefield is wiped out by a meteor, Kaim finds himself the only man alive in a sea of bone, ash, and rubble. With the awe-inspiring Grand Staff the likely cause of the calamity, Kaim joins together with several allies to investigate, while at the same time trying to recover over a thousand years of lost memories.

   Kaim is only one of nine eventual party members Lost Odyssey provides, and each of them is extensively developed and highly likeable. While the plot is well written and provides an excellent backdrop, the characters are the true focus of the story and Lost Odyssey ensures that the player gets to know each of them thoroughly by the time the game reaches its conclusion. The best moments in the game are all focused on the characters, and will easily bring tears to the eyes of players on several occasions.

   Aside from the main plot, unquestionably the most impressive and unique element of the story are a series of short stories entitled "A Thousand Years of Dreams." While occasionally these stories are told from the point of view of other immortals met during the game, the majority are about Kaim and the many things he's seen. These stories are unlocked when Kaim sees something in the world that sparks his lost memories, and are presented through a mix of animated text, still artwork, sound effects, and music. The stories themselves generally reflect on the nature of life and death, the pain of war, and the inevitability of change—all things an immortal would have to deal with during an endless life. Although they can be skipped by those who aren't interested, doing so would remove one of the best and most enjoyable aspects of the game experience.

Squint just right and you can see Sephiroth on the mountain! Squint just right and you can see Sephiroth on the mountain!

   Lost Odyssey's excellent story is supported by impressive visuals and absolutely incredible music and sound. Although the graphics are not the most gorgeous ever seen, they have a very unique style to them that combines gritty, steam-punk mechanical settings with an ethereal, magical element, producing a world reminiscent of the industrial revolution, appropriately titled the "Magic Industrial Revolution" within the game. The character designs are also excellent, particularly hair and clothing which have a style to them that breaks away from traditional Japanese anime clichés. The style is backed up by an excellent technical backend, although loadtimes are frequent and often interrupt cutscenes, something that quickly becomes irritating.

   Nobuo Uematsu's amazing score is another of the game's highlights and provides an appropriate mood to virtually all events within the game. The main themes in particular are hauntingly beautiful and heard regularly throughout, especially during the many "Thousand Years of Dreams" sequences. Voice acting is also well-done, though not perfect. Cooke's voice in particular sounds inappropriate for her character, and is easily recognizable from a certain children's cartoon show. All the other characters are done well, but Jansen truly stands out, as his nervous muttering, backtracking, and sarcastic comments are brilliantly performed and provide a personality that is both unique and charming.

   Unfortunately, artistic flair can't support a game on its own, and while Lost Odyssey has provided plenty, the gameplay is notably less up to par. The problems begin with the menu. Changing your party can be a nuisance, as the cursor highlighting party members tends to move in unwanted directions, and once your party is selected, exitting the menu with the B button, as one would normally assume the appropriate method, will cancel any changes made. The party must first be confirmed with a separate "Confirm Formation" icon, which is completely unnecessary and unintuitive.

   From there, issues arise when exploring dungeons. Any object that can be interacted with usually has a ridiculously small area from which it can be used, forcing the player to repeatedly reposition himself until he is able. It doesn't help that movement itself is fairly inaccurate, although on the bright side it is quite expedient. The run speed in Lost Odyssey is quite a bit faster than any other similar RPG.

   The rest of the gameplay issues arise from the truly underwhelming battle system, which is just about as simple as it can get. For the most part, Lost Odyssey features the simplest turn based system imaginable. At the beginning of each round, the player selects each character's move and then both the player's and the enemy's moves are performed, the order determined by casting and attack speeds. There are three additions to this basic system that attempt to make the battle system more unique, but they fail miserably and are, in fact, at odds with each other.

We told you not to touch anything! We told you not to touch anything!

   The first of these systems involves equippable rings that add various effects to character attacks. By holding down the right trigger when the attack begins and releasing it at the right time, anything from additional damage to status ailments can be applied. While these rings are interesting in design, they unfortunately prove to be little more than a gimmick. For starters, they can only be applied to the "Attack" command. Skills and spells make no use of them, and over half of Lost Odyssey's playable cast is made up of spell-casters. So not only can half the cast not make effective use of the rings, but the characters that can are only able to do so if they forego using the various offensive and defensive skills the game provides. It also doesn't help that until the midway point of the game, the effects of the rings are so negligible that they are virtually undetectable.

   The second system also had a lot of promise, but in the end failed to be of any real use in the battles where it really mattered. The "Guard Condition" system provides a buffer against enemy attacks equal to the combined health of the party's front row. As long as it holds out, the back row takes less damage. This system would work wonderfully if there were a better way to maintain it, but unfortunately only a few select skills (not healing) are able to restore the GC gauge, and in the battles where it matters—boss fights—it goes down so quickly that recovering it is virtually impossible. Even if the player does take time to maintain it, the result is that the ring system goes unused.

   The final system is intriguing, but winds up being more of a frustration than anything else, and it has to do with spell casting times. In Lost Odyssey, there are spells that cannot be cast in a single turn. Furthermore, attacks against characters that are attempting to cast a spell—not only party members, but your enemies as well—can cause them to be delayed, sometimes pushing them back a full turn. While this provides some interesting defense maneuvers against enemy spell casters, being unable to cast important healing spells in a single turn makes recovering from particularly devastating attacks very difficult. This does add a bit more strategy to the game, but limits the effect of emergency reactions—a mixed blessing. Of course, this system causes problems with Guard Condition, as the skills that restore it are often slow to use.

   Thankfully, the combat isn't all bad. Lost Odyssey features some very creative boss fights that require some unusual strategies and the use of skills and spells that would otherwise go untouched. The experience and skill systems are also designed to limit the amount of battling required, allowing the player to enjoy the story and move from one boss fight to the next without too much grinding in between. Why Lost Odyssey abandoned the encounter system found in Mistwalker's other Xbox 360 game, Blue Dragon, in favor of random encounters is a question not even a thousand years of pondering could answer, but luckily the encounter rate is quite low in most places, preventing it from being annoying (except, of course, when you want a battle.) The oddity of it is furthered by the fact that the mechanics for such a system are in place within the game and appear during a few select events.

   Overall, Lost Odyssey's immeasurable artistic value make it a game that shouldn't be passed up by anyone who desires a great story. While its gameplay is unimpressive, though far from terrible, the amazing boss and story sequences more than make up for it. The main story takes about 50 hours to play through, but an impressive amount of additonal content can extend that quite a bit. There is also a new game plus mode, but only character levels are transferred to the new game, not skills or equipment, removing any challenge and leaving behind all the work the player might have actually wanted to transfer. Lost Odyssey is hardly the greatest RPG of our time, nor even the best RPG on the Xbox 360. It does, however, craft one of the best stories in recent memory, and is well worth playing for that reason alone.

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