By Etienne Vlok
Before starting this review, I should state that this is the first JRPG (Japanese role playing game) I’ve ever spent more than 30 minutes on. I was too young to get onto the Final Fantasy bandwagon, and by the time I approached my mid-teens, my gaming tastes had been locked into a (predictable) diet of mostly â€˜western’ games. That said, I rate a number of RPG’s as among the best games I’ve ever played – the Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape, Knights of the Old Republic, and most recently Mass Effect – so I definitely consider myself a fan of the genre. I’m a big proponent of the school of thought that believes games can be an incredible medium to tell a deep, interesting and moving story – the realm of books or movies, previously. Since games are, by nature, an interactive experience, I actually believe a good game can involve you in the story in ways that more traditional media cannot.
Keeping this in mind, I confess that I never really â€˜got’ JRPGs, and after playing just one, it’s probably premature to say that I’ve experienced an 180Â° turnaround. I dabbled in last year’s beautiful Eternal Sonata – a game which I’ve yet to finish, due to workload at the time. However, after playing Lost Odyssey, I can say this much: firstly, I’ll definitely take the entire JRPG genre somewhat more seriously in future, and secondly, I really need to make time to get back to Eternal Sonata.
With all that out of the way, allow me to say that Lost Odyssey is an immense game, with a single playthrough heading comfortably for the 40-hour mark. The game is stretched over 4 DVD’s, if that is any indication. Add in a compelling plot, some solid – if sometimes repetitive and frustrating – gameplay, absolutely stunning music, great voice acting and beautiful graphics, and you get a game that adds up to a very enjoyable experience, albeit with some noticeable flaws to keep it from achieving top honours.
Lost Odyssey takes place in a quasi-steampunk inspired fantasy setting, against the backdrop of a (get this) â€˜magical-industrial revolution.’ While it sounds and reads as incredibly stupid and contrived, it works surprisingly well to establish a mood of a largely agrarian society caught in the turmoil of being dragged into the â€˜modern’ age, along with all the attendant upheaval and conflict that accompanies such change. The main protagonist is a man called Kaim Argonar – an immortal, he’s lived for a thousand years, and has seen and experienced triumph, defeat, love, joy and sorrow during his millennium of life. The problem is that he – and all other immortals – have mysteriously lost all memory prior to only a few years before the events of the game. The main plot is epic, dealing with political intrigue, personal betrayal and all out war, while interweaving such diverse elements as discussion on purpose and destiny. While the latter sounds like cheap pop-philosophy, it’s done in a way that you never feel beaten over the head with a tome of philosophical arguments – the game mostly opts for demonstrating the characters grappling with these issues, rather having characters spout off for 10 minutes straight on their personal understanding of life, the universe and everything. (The latter does happen, but thankfully, not very often.)
The reason for the loss of the immortals’ memory is one of the main drivers of the plot, but it segues nicely into what I regard as the true highlight of the game. As you continue playing, you encounter situations that help Kaim regain some of his lost memories. This feature, called A Thousand Years of Dreams, plays out as a mini-novella, with some appropriate art, sound effects and music in the background. While this sounds incredibly lame, the first sign of redemption is that an actual novelist writes these sections. Between 3 and 5 minutes long, these brief interludes add a colossal amount of depth to the character of Kaim, who basically starts off the game with an epic chip on his shoulder. However, the real redeeming factor in this seemingly bizarre addition is that all the â€˜dreams’ are – without fail – emotionally engaging the player. Some of the stories are pretty damn poignant and meaningful, if you consider that it only take a few minutes to deliver. Thus, as out of place as it may seem, believe me when I tell you that A Thousand Years of Dreams features heavily into how deep the plot finally turns out to be. To close off about the plot: it is, in my opinion, the strongest aspect of the game. It is marred by a few immature scenes that seem completely at odds with the rest of the tone of the plot (a friend who does play JRPGs regularly assure me that this is practically a staple of the genre), but overall, it has good depth and is enjoyable.
On the gameplay side, the game makes a few missteps. Your progression through the game is very linear. It is possible to visit previously explored locations, but aside from doing it in an attempt to collect as much experience and items as possible, there’s no reason to really do so. The plot doesn’t offer branches or any choice on how you tackle it – something that western RPGs are doing as standard, these days. While I accept it as a genre convention, it does take away from the feeling of freedom I’ve come to expect in RPGs of late. However, the game regularly throws out a new mini-game or gameplay mechanic that changes things up a bit and keeps you interested.
Manipulating objects in the world can be a chore, since your character has to be positioned just so to be able to interact with the objects. It gets irritating after a while, and your tolerance of it will vary depending on how forgiving you are inclined to be based on the positive features the game brings to the table.
Combat offers some interesting choice and depth, although it can be an exercise in frustration when you take on a boss for the umpteenth time, only to get your ass handed to you because you didn’t equip your character exactly right before the fight. Then again, I suppose the point of boss fights is to get stuck on them for a while. At any rate, combat is turned based, with you and your party lining up against opponents, and taking turns to attack, defend, use items or cast spells. I’m told that this system is a deliberate throwback to the combat system in previous Final Fantasy titles, espousing a â€˜back to basics’ approach. Part of this â€˜throwback’ approach includes having a character spout off a one-liner at the start of combat, and engage in some fist-pumping after you’ve won. This happens before and after every fight, and can’t be skipped. It can get pretty irritating after several hours, believe me.
An interesting feature is that your immortal characters cannot learn spells or skills on their own, and must be â€˜linked’ to a mortal character. As the mortal gains experience in a certain skill, it transfers to the immortal character (such as Kaim) as well. It provides some interesting options on how your party will look and fight. There is also a timing based mini-game that takes place when your characters attack, requiring you to pull and release the right trigger at the correct moment to maximise the damage you deal.
Technically, the game is a marvel. Although it’s not the most detailed graphics engine out there, it’s more than adequate in providing epic vistas and good facial and character animation. I’d rather ascribe the beauty of the game to some unique and innovate visual design. The voice acting is very good for all the adult character. Children are portrayed with somewhat exaggerated enthusiasm, which can become grating after a while.
The music in this game deserves a special mention. It’s clear that each piece was written to fulfil a very specific purpose or accompany a particular scene, and in that regard, it really works to supplement the story very well.
In closing, I enjoyed Lost Odyssey. The game has a number of small, irritating issues that keep are just irritating enough to notice, and your patience with these flaws will depend largely on whether the plot and characters keep you interested. If you love JRPGs, I’d definitely recommend it, while it may be worth a look for any RPG fan looking for something somewhat out of the usual. For most casual gamers, though, it’s probably too much of an investment of your time to make it a worthwhile purchase. That is a shame, as I’d love to see storytelling of this calibre become more of the norm than the exception in the industry.
Gameplay: 70 %
Originality: 70 %
Tilt: 80 %
Overall: 75 %
Last Updated: April 10, 2008