perjantai 29. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Lost Odyssey | Xbox 360 | 2007

RELEASED: December 6, 2007
DEVELOPER(S): Mistwalker, feelplus
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

The last RPG Time! fell more than a little short of my ambition; I wanted to do at least one more game, and the Xbox 360 cult favourite Lost Odyssey's pretty much the perfect game for the spotlight. First of all, here we have a strict exclusive for the Xbox 360 - how many times have I scoffed at the term "Xbox 360 exclusive"? Browsing through my backlog indicates that Lost Odyssey is the only Xbox 360 exclusive I've ever taken on to review besides Gears of War 2. Secondly, it is about as traditional as a J-RPG could've been back at the time of its release - it was generally a bad time for traditional J-RPG, since the more open-ended Western RPG's had just recently made their way to consoles. Which is exactly why Lost Odyssey didn't fare that well and is more of a cult favourite than a genre milestone. However, thirdly - and this is why I consider it a must-play - it's Final Fantasy creator and Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi's third post-Final Fantasy and post-Square project, and the music's written by Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu (all by) himself. Not only has Lost Odyssey all the potential to be my favourite Xbox 360 game, it was also the closest to real Final Fantasy you had seen in six years leading up to its release. It has potential, lots of it - and it certainly is a lot like a good old Final Fantasy game. But is Lost Odyssey my favourite Xbox 360 game? Not nearly.

A kind of magic

Keith Ferguson : Kaim Argonar
Tara Strong : Seth Balmore
Salli Saffioti : Ming Numara
Michael McGaharn : Jansen Friedh
Jesse Corti : Gongora
Kath Soucie : Cooke
Nika Futterman : Mack
Chad Brandon : Tolten
Kim Mai Guest : Sarah Sisulart
Michael Bell : Sed

The first scene of the game. Not a bad start.
After a meteor strike nearly wipes out not one, but two powerful military nations, an immortal soldier named Kaim is sent from the kingdom of Uhra to investigate the cause and consequences of the disaster, along with a fellow immortal, former pirate named Seth, and a wise-cracking mage named Jansen. As suppressed memories of his past begin to re-emerge, Kaim finds a far more serious threat than the chance of another meteor strike, originating from surprisingly and devastatingly close to home.

I can tell you right now that even though playing Lost Odyssey can be painful at times, at its best it feels like the perfect sequel to Final Fantasy X that Final Fantasy X-2 never was. It lives on its production values; even though it could almost be categorized as an indie game, you can see almost immediately that it couldn't have been a cheap game to make. It's so different from Mistwalker's previous major platform endeavor Blue Dragon, it is much more cinematic and life-like. And when it comes to cinematics, and realistically measured human characters, one immediately thinks of Final Fantasy X and those slow, horribly acted localized scenes nowadays trashed on the YouTube. Well, a slow and sometimes awkward tempo is just the Japanese way to go and it's quite present in Lost Odyssey as well, but it has very few awkward or horribly acted scenes. The voice cast features a few bad apples, and sometimes it feels like they're showering us with cutscenes, taking us away from a smooth _gaming_ experience - but as you go on, I think you'll notice how cinematic storytelling truly is the game's forte, and how great the characters and voice actors are. Combined with how the game plays out most of the time, it's the next step from Final Fantasy X. It's just a step in the wrong direction and a few years late, for starters. To delve deeper into the ocean of ugly, from time to time it seems that Sakaguchi and his henchmen were so hell bent on writing a great story they forgot they were making a game.

Our heroes, for the most parts of Discs 1 and 2.
(The kids too.)
At first, both lead immortals might hit you like a pair of cold bricks - competent fighters, yet senseless and emotionless characters, and when Jansen comes along, he's like the epitome of awesome. He has a semi-ad-libbed crack for every possible situation and he always sees things just the way we players would, like if a tyrannosaur's head suddenly crashed through my living room window and I'd come to realize the whole town's overrun by dinosaurs, the next thing to come out of my mouth would probably be something Jansen would say under similar conditions. Yep, that was a little surreal... I had a rough night... anyway, Jansen's arrival is a blessing in many ways. Not only does he make the game better all by himself, he makes the other characters stronger. It's absolutely hilarious to watch how his relationships with the characters develop, especially with Seth who won't stand for his unique antics at all, and his romantic pursuit of yet another immortal who comes along a bit later. Lead character Kaim also has his share of Jansen's golden touch, but he isn't dependent on it. He develops from a stiff one-word-answer kind of guy into a very interesting, enchanting personality all by himself, as his 1000-year backstory unfolds, through twists in the story as well as through his dreams, one of Lost Odyssey's unique gimmicks; every self-respecting Sakaguchi game has at least one.

The very first thing you'll gawk at when you simply unwrap this game is that it comes on four discs. Your reaction will probably be at least something along the lines of mine: "FOUR DISCS? How many Xbox 360 games come on more than two? Man, this has got to be epic!" I find myself returning to the time when I first got Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for the PS2, which came on two discs, the first two-disc game I had seen on the PS2, and it had good reasons for that, audiovisual achievements which totally justified the second disc's existence. Dynamic camera and map systems, full-3D combat, top-of-the-bill graphics, full voice track and a relatively large world. If they made an HD version of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, you probably wouldn't know the difference between the HD remaster and a standard PS3 game released about the same time as Lost Odyssey. Lost Odyssey on the other hand has text-based commands for traditionally linear combat with a 95% fixed camera, general graphics are probably not as good as you'd expect despite very good cinematic design, the voice track is far from "full", the world is small and extremely limited, and when it comes to any sort of dynamics, the game lags back for years. One disc contains about ten levels, and it's a constant back-and-forth run between similar layouts. It's not the size, it's not the graphics, it's not the sound, so what's left? Why are there four discs? I have no idea. I'll try to figure it out as I go - right now I'm smack on the starting line of Disc 3. I'll return to this by the end of the review, hoping to find a decent answer... but seriously doubting it judging by what I've seen so far.

What's good news is that the characters' facial expressions look great and the English lip sync is marvellous. When it comes to voiceover work, Lost Odyssey is far ahead its spiritual predecessor. Like I said, there are a few bad apples, but not bad enough to spoil the whole tree. Besides, there are some genuinely funny moments to be witnessed in this game, as particularly attractive to the Japanese sense of humour they are, and they're only made funnier by the spot-on voiceover work, especially that of Tara Strong (Seth) and Michael McGaharn (Jansen), and especially those two combined. Even the two kids of the squad manage not to annoy me at all (except for Mack in his most emotional fits from time to time), perhaps mainly because both are voiced by adults, and not just any adults, but voiceover veterans Kath Soucie and Nika Futterman.

There's no major Hironobu Sakaguchi project without Nobuo Uematsu, and the maestro crunches out one hell of a soundtrack which only gets better towards the end. You might not have seen this game's title on the top of Uematsu's resume, but personally I think Lost Odyssey is one of his best collections since the ultimate rise of the Final Fantasy series, and definitely a hundred times better than anything his successors involved with the Final Fantasy franchise have ever brewed up.

And here's our villain, Gongora; just like a
buzzcut version of Seymour from Final Fantasy X.
Lost Odyssey begins from a battle, so let's start with the combat system. Its basic setup brings us back to the time before Active Time Battle; you and your party (which you don't have at this point) get a turn, then it's the enemy group's turn. After both parties have set up a string of commands, each individual involved in the battle is placed in order determined by his/her speed. However, casting spells and using special skills takes casting time, which keeps these characters passive for several turns at worst - depending on their casting attributes. You can call off these time-consuming skills and spells at any passive turn, if need arises. You can even cancel them after giving 'em the green light to continue, as long as you haven't finished setting up commands for the entire party. It's all really, really strategic, and this old-school, pre-ATB system will surely please a lot of fans of really, really old Final Fantasy.

So here's the good news and the bad news. The good news is the very system itself. Unlike many critics who'd deem text-based commands and a fixed "battle cam" old and dated on first sight, I find 'em safe, familiar, and most of all in these times, cool. In other words, accessible and easy to adapt to. It's been recently proven that Lost Odyssey is the type of game you can stop playing for a whole year and never lose your touch along the way until you decide to play it again. Kind of a relief in this particular genre - it's more than kind of disheartening to have to start from scratch after 50 hours of playing time just because you don't get the game anymore. It's a problem with many Western RPG's and modern J-RPG's which have been influenced by Western games, including Final Fantasy XII. Even XIII, even if it is a semi-automatic mess of a game that can be successfully beaten while piss drunk and missing a right hand. It still demands a certain type of touch, I guess.

The bad news is that one battle in this game takes minutes. Any battle, for several reasons. First of all, you always have to set up commands for the whole party due to the absence of ATB. You have to use a lot of magic, because with just two physically adept people in your group for the longest time, you can't do shit in terms of crowd control. There are a few area-of-effect type of physical attacks, but the damage they do to one opponent in a row is but a fragment of your standard physical attack against a single opponent. Using a lot of magic consumes a lot of things, including casting time, and through that, eventually, your patience. Throughout the game, you are damn near forced to abuse your non-active party members to heal your party between each battle, 'cause as you will surely see, healing during battles takes a lot of precious time away from doing damage to the enemy. Especially in the beginning of the game, the battles feel like they take forever, but that's just because the game was specifically designed to be played with a party of five - doesn't mean having the whole party along makes 'em that much faster, though, as there are a lot of surplus enemies whose only intention is to slow the battle down and buff their much more useful and efficient companions. Usually these kinds of enemies have the tendency to flee at the brink of death to your further dismay; like it's not bad enough having to fight them, not gaining any EXP from showing these puny assholes what's what is something else. To return to the good news, the intervals between battles are moderately long as well; personally, I'm fine with even the most tedious battles as long as I've taken care of everything else in a dungeon first, if I'm in any mood for some grinding and if that particular dungeon doesn't have a whole set of purely annoying pricks to fight. Sadly there are just a few different groups of enemies to fight at each location.

When it comes to progress on the world map, the game is extremely similar to Final Fantasy X. You "move" on an invisible track through the world map, on a journey that's linear as an arrow up 'til a certain point and contains clear-cut levels instead of any type of open map exploration or free transition from one location to another. An hour or two into Disc 2, you get your first "boat", and as the game claims, you are now able to explore the wide open sea. Well, wide open sea is right, there's almost nothing besides it. There are only two places at that point you can travel to in addition to the one you're supposed to travel to: the place you just left, and a secret island that's filled with monsters you have absolutely no chance to beat at that point of the game. And when you go where you're supposed to, you lose your boat. Meh.

Exploring towns. Always my favourite part
about these games. What was the most
outstanding flaw in Final Fantasy XIII, again?
It's kinda funny that the masterpiece Final Fantasy X originally felt like somewhat of a letdown for me, for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the lack of a real world map. When you got the airship, the world map was revealed, but it was merely a list of locations; you just picked the destination and whoosh, you were there. The moment you realized there were secret destination coordinates to find on that map, that's where it got exciting and you realized how big the world actually was. Lost Odyssey doesn't have any substitute for that kind of excitement in store. Of course it has secret locations, they've been a Sakaguchi trademark since, well, Final Fantasy V, at least (which ironically was the last Final Fantasy game Sakaguchi actually directed), but you have to wait until the end of the game to even be able to travel to these locations. Besides those non-violent sidequests which take place within the limits of a city or village - most of which are ultra-boring, I might add - practically no sidestepping is allowed before you reach the very final disc.

The dreams, written by award-winning short story writer Kioyoshi Shigematsu, are some of Lost Odyssey's most praised features... but whether they're actually that praised anywhere else than Japan is questionable. The dreams, in other words the immortals' suppressed memories, are usually triggered by cutscene events or talking to certain NPC's, and they're presented to the player in the form of very well written, and scored visual novels. Actually reading through them sheds some extra light on the immortals' 1000-year past, but I can tell you that it's very hard. If they were actually cutscenes instead of just long-ass text on a fancy-looking background, then I would be more excited, and then I would probably also accept the need for a total of four discs. Every time you spend the night at an inn, you can pick a dream from a list of unlocked ones. You can also view these dreams from the menu, as well as the main menu instead of starting the game. If this sounds exciting to you, well then, good for you. If I wanted to read, I'd pick up a book instead of trying to play a game.

Back to the good news again with the acquisition of equipment. This game made shopping exciting again. One of my favourite things about old RPG's is getting to a new town, getting to know it inside out, its people and most of all its stores' variety of weapons. It's one of my favourite things about Lost Odyssey as well, as the towns can be quite interesting on the first visit, and the weapon shops have new stuff in stock almost each time, essential stuff. Many damn fine weapons are found from secure locations on the field as well, often accompanied by a ring or accessory of the same set.

About the rings... while the separately categorized accessories give you traditional defense perks such as an immunity to poison, the rings usually enhance your offense. The rings you get from stores ain't that good, as most of them have just one small perk that is of nearly no use to you. For example, anything that buffs a mage's physical offense in any way, whether it's a damage up or a status inflict; you just don't use these guys to attack, you don't have time for that. It doesn't pay either, not at all. The mages are not there to fight, they're there to help you fight. That's why it's amazing how many of them there are. One white mage, one black mage, perhaps one red mage, that's all we needed back in the day - and even that was too much. Here we have a white mage, a black mage, a "composite" mage (able to use area spells from the start), and finally, a black-white mage, which is this game's substitute for a red mage, someone who's specialized in both sides of magic. Unlike a traditional red mage however, even the black-white mage sucks dick when it comes to physical attacks. Anyway, there's an Aim Ring for each character's physical attack; holding the RT and releasing it at the exact right time results in a "critical hit". Damage does not increase by natural means, but the ring enhancement of that character is more likely to activate. For example, if you attack a robot with a character equipped with a ring that has the Machine Killer perk, you're bound to do a truckload of more damage on him than you usually do when you nail a critical hit.

So here's the most important thing about the rings. You can make 'em yourself - by scavenging all sorts of junk. You can only make basic rings with basic junk you find from plain sight, but explore a little and you'll find better junk, which results in a bigger chance to make a better ring. It's that simple, really. You can use excess rings to make better versions of them with some incentive junk, and when their usefulness runs its course, it's still advisable to keep them 'cause there's a ring maker in nearly every settlement who can use those rings (and a lil' bit of ultimate junk) to make you some AWESOME, complex rings, which grant you several perks instead of just one. Maybe, just maybe, your boatload of mages will become a bit more useful in terms of physical collision at some point along the way thanks to their finger wear.

The enemy design has Tetsuya Nomura written
all over it. He didn't design 'em, though.
Different spells from different spell categories are unlocked for each mage as you go, and even for your non-mage immortals. The immortals' development works very differently than the development of the other characters. You see, all the other characters' skills and perks are dependent on their current equipment and natural development. Let's take Jansen up for an example (I'll tell you again, that guy is magnificent!). Let's say Jansen has a ring that grants him total immunity to Seal, an accessory that allows him to use composite magic, and a natural knack for all sorts of black magic. Take the ring away, poof, his immunity to Seal is gone. Take the accessory away, no more composite spells from Jansen. But, you can't take away any of his skills that he's learned via leveling up, and you can't teach him any new, permanent skills outside of the game's plan. The immortals are the total opposite. Via a feature called Skill Link, they can learn any skill from any mortal character. Think Final Fantasy IX, and how each battle granted you AP, and through that AP, you permanently learned skills from different weapons, armour and accessories. This is basically the same thing, and you can actually teach the immortals skills with equipment as well. Once a skill is learned via any channel, it goes to the immortals' list of skills you can abuse in any way you want, even change the whole set at each save point to find what kind of setup suits you best. The warriors of the group are lousy mages, the way I see it, so I tend to invest in their offensive aptitude, vitality, and safety from all sorts of status ailments. The skill slots for each immortal are very limited in numbers, but you can get more slots via certain skills and a rare item called Slot Seed. You can't get more slots via leveling up like you could in Final Fantasy IX.

The immortals are also different in battle as they break just about every rule. Having such a wide array of skills at their disposal, they're automatically faster, stronger and better than any of their companions in everything they do. The most distinctive thing about 'em is that if they fall in battle, and you manage to survive a few turns, the immortals just might get back up. I almost shit my pants the first time this happened.

I promised early on I'd return to this subject by the end of the review - and the end of the game - and I must say... no. I didn't find a well-justified cause for four discs. Mistwalker says the game couldn't fit one disc. No, probably not, but even at its most advanced it wouldn't take more than two, I reckon, not with these qualities. I'm willing to bet it's just Sakaguchi's own personal "thing" to have as many or more discs as the most popular Final Fantasy games, to make the game look more epic on the outside than it actually is. What's funny, though, is that each disc could be reviewed separately, with greatly varying results. Discs one and two lay down the basics, disc three kinda tests you with extremely long cutscenes, set pieces and less members in your group almost throughout the disc, and disc four is the reward for all your time and patience, the true climax and closest to what you expected this whole game to be. It's funny 'cause usually J-RPG's have completely different progression in my opinion. Let's bring Final Fantasy IX up again as an example. Discs one and two were awesome, disc three took the awesomeness just one tiny step further, and disc four was a letdown (relatively speaking). These games tend to lose their attraction towards the end. Lost Odyssey is just the other way around, as it gets better towards the end... and then it just, well, ends. Just when you're finally getting into it.

Yep, it all looks extremely familiar. Just doesn't
play out as good.
Lost Odyssey is just as hard in the usual sense as any J-RPG; not very, but it has its difficulties, the most outstanding of which is the constantly inconvenient lack of save points. I usually play after work, which means I usually have just a couple of hours to spare before my inner clock shuts off and I fall asleep. There are many lengthy and puzzling dungeons - coupled with the long battles - that I have just quit halfway through, because I haven't found a save point and I just haven't been able to resist going to sleep anymore, and after that has happened in the same dungeon on many successive nights, it's a problem. There's a checkpoint system; a first for a J-RPG, and it shows. I beat one hard boss, and returned to the dungeon 'cause I knew there was a secret boss there; I wanted to try him. I just assumed that going to the world map and going back would raise the checkpoint to the start of my second trip to the dungeon, but no. I lost to the secret one and had to beat the previous boss to get to him again. These kind of difficulties are very common in this game, not much else if you're a veteran. The game was not made for Achievement hunters, either - it's extremely stingy with them. The most reckless and fastest players may even finish this game with under ten Achievements out of a total of 36.

Lost Odyssey is definitely not a failure, but despite having been built on some fantastic grounds, it's probably not the game you wanted it to be. Sakaguchi's brilliant, and surprisingly comprehensible story, and Uematsu's diverse, refreshing and awesome soundtrack are what make Lost Odyssey stand out - and as it happens, these guys' involvement is why you probably want to play this game in the first place. It's a collector's novelty for anyone who was ever into just one Final Fantasy game up 'til X or X-2, and I'll gladly tip you off that pre-owned copies easily go for under a ten. The overall score might not be that high, but I'd recommend this game for people within the margin.

+ Hironobu Sakaguchi's brilliant story and cinematic advisory
+ Nobuo Uematsu's energetic and diverse soundtrack with a couple of true classics (try the track "Escape!" or the Backyard theme, and feast on that guitar solo on the world map!)
+ Great characters; Jansen is one of the best J-RPG characters ever
+ Having immortals with completely different character development than their travel companions is neat, and plays out even more nicely
+ Ring Assembly can be a lot of fun, especially in the later parts of the game
+ Old-school shoppers and treasure hunters may rejoice, this game actually has decent stores and hidden treasures

- Nice in-game graphics to go with the amazing cinematics, but not nice enough to justify four discs; it's disappointing to see how poorly the epic capacity is ultimately utilized
- Small and constantly limited world
- A safe and familiar combat system, but the battles themselves can be very slow and tedious for many reasons, on top of all most of the playable cast comprising of mages who require a lot of precious casting time for the truly useful spells
- Streamlined and boring minigames
- Only a few different enemy groups to fight per location
- Lengthy periods of cutscene after cutscene
- Dreaming's a nice gimmick, but I don't know if the visual novel presentation was such a good idea
- One of the suckiest checkpoint systems ever seen

< 7.1 >

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