Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lost Odyssey - The JRPG for Next Gen Gaming!

Before anything else, I'll warn you guys in advance that this is a LONG review spanning a total of around 7 pages. I did my very best to keep this review spoiler free. However, occasionally I do reference to some of the reviews this game got from major gaming sites. By now, most of you should have known that the average review score of Lost Odyssey falls around an 8. While its certainly not a bad score, once I read the content of the review I cringe. It seems to me that most of the reviewers just echo each other's opinion. They also seem to echo a startling lack of knowledge about the game and it makes me wonder if you have to FINISH a game BEFORE you can review it.

I have provided several impressions throughout the blog regarding Lost Odyssey, some of which are included in my final impressions. Please note that I do not wish to give numerical scores to any game since I don't think it reflects an accurate opinion. I apologize in advance for the seeming lack of cohesion in my impression but I do hope that most of you will understand what I want to say and that is:

LOST ODYSSEY IS AN AMAZING GAME!

PLOT AND PRESENTATION:

The basic event plot of Lost Odyssey is quite simple. Bad guy wants to rule the world while you and your party are out to stop him. These kind of events serve as the springing board for almost EVERY game in existence. Name any other game that lets you play as the protagonist and then look back at its plot. Unfortunately, this is where game reviewers fail to comprehend the beauty of the game. The truth is, the event plot merely serves as a backdrop to one of the most important aspects of the game, characterization and emotional development.

Lost Odyssey does not aim bore the gamer with the intricacies of the 'event'. The game does not linger on politics of war nor the motivations of the antagonist. The game is focused on the characters that will join you in this adventure. Many games get lost in the implementation of the overall plot. JRPGs, in particular, drown in the development of grandiose CGI sequences with the characters posing for a photo shoot. For some titles, the character's development play second or third fiddle to eye candy, providing gamers with little to no emotional attachment with the characters they will spend the next 20 hours or so with.

That is where Lost Odyssey is different; that is where it shines. In Lost Odyssey, the focus of the game are your characters; their thoughts and emotions. There are two types of characters in the game; immortals and mortals. While the mortal characters have simple concerns, immortals have a broader view on certain things. Characterization is implemented in two ways in Lost Odyssey.



First you have the 'A Thousand Year of Dreams' stories. There are some people who have complained that 'text-based' stories are a thing of a the past and we should progress to audio narratives or cut scenes to relay a story. I strongly disagree. There is something different about reading that cannot be captured by audio narrations and movies. When you read something, you process the words and interpret its meaning; in your mind's eye you encounter a 'cut scene' more beautiful than the what can be presented visually or orally for that scene becomes your own creation. The presentation of the 'A Thousand Year of Dreams' is by no means bland. The text is accompanied by background music, some sound effects and a creative way of scrolling the text to your screen.

'A Thousand Year of Dreams' stories was written by a famous Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu in line with Hironobu Sakaguchi's vision:



"The reason I've used Kiyoshi Shigematsu as part of this project because we don't see enough emotion in videogames yet. Whether to do with family, or some other emotional elements - something that bring tears to your eyes. The main element in these games is often fighting or whatever, but I want these emotional elements.”


Yes, indeed. Those simple, yet surprisingly heartwarming and deep short stories make the characters more 'realistic'. It draws the gamer to identify with what these characters are going through. The focus was never really on the event but more on the character's emotions. This is where the game sets itself apart from a ton of other RPGs, whose plot usually boils down to this:“Here's your big sword/gun , now go fight evil!”



The second element used to enhance the presentation of the game are the well crafted cutscenes and the dialogue. While not having the benefit of a thousand years of experience, it is in this element that mortal characters are given 'life'. While the concerns of mortals are more simple compared to the vast expanse of eternity that the immortals go through, the cutscenes and dialogue give the mortals much needed sense of personality. It is the interaction of both immortals and mortals that give rise to the strong emotions in the game. There are very powerful emotional cut scenes in Lost Odyssey, certainly enough to make this gamer cry several times throughout the game. The characters do not go through strange sequences when they are exchanging philosophies or the meaning of life. The exchange of words between characters are quite simple but these are things that people can relate with.

SOUND:

The music in the game was composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Unlike his Final Fantasy compositions, the music in Lost Odyssey is not only composed of orchestrally sweeping tracks, but also creative mixes with electronica and guitars. Judging from Uematsu's latest work in both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, he appears to be experimenting with different musical variations, most of which are quite pleasing. The good portion of the background music in the game are simple tunes which are replayed during the 'A Thousand Years of Dreams' sequences. These tracks do not have a complicated musical score so as not to divert the attention of the gamer from the actual text.



Another thing that is worth mentioning is that the battle themes of Lost Odyssey, which are some of the best that Uematsu has ever composed. The boss themes are so good that you'll find a long boss battle to be less tedious because of them. In fact, my favorite musical track in the game is the boss battle theme 'An Enemy Appears'. Other than that, the main theme of Lost Odyssey is quite memorable and fits the game in its own unique way.

Other than Uematsu's music, the voice actors and the VA director for the game deserve a lot of praise. Personally, I don't understand why 'professional' videogame reviewers scored this aspect of the game low. The VA direction of Lost Odyssey is superb! The strong emotional moments are accentuated by a great VA cast. In Lost Odyssey, the characters are not trying to sound 'cute' or upbeat, instead they try to sound natural. One of the things that surprised me are the voice actors for Cooke and Mack. Normally, I hate voice acting for children since the actors over exaggerate so much to the point of annoyance. But the performance of these actors enhanced one of the biggest emotional elements of the game. The performance was so powerful that I had tears in my eyes.

Lost Odyssey is probably the ONLY JRPG that I picked the English language option. For me, this is the best voice acting in a video game to date, even beating Mass Effect's voice acting. I strongly urge people to play the game with the English voice actors! Their powerful delivery definitely enhances the games focus on characters and emotional development.

GRAPHICS:

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints about the game has something to do with the graphics. Lost Odyssey is a game which is running on the Unreal Engine 3 and like every other game running on Epic's middleware, there are some graphical problems. Frame rate and tearing issues are present in the game, particularly during after the loading sequence and at the start of a battle. However, since the game uses turn-based combat, frame rate problems aren't as grave compared to other games which use real time combat. The game also has frequent loading times, although personally this doesn't really deter me from enjoying the game. Last but not the least are some aliasing issues on the character models.



The UE3 engine is certainly strange. The dark and gritty parts of the game are absolutely stunning, worthy of being used as backdrops for Gears of War. But the areas that appear 'cleaner' and simpler are less impressive. One thing that did surprise me, is that the character models are very good at showing emotion. Coming from an engine that is known to create extremely detailed monsters, this comes as a pleasant surprise.

Despite its flaws, the graphics of Lost Odyssey are clearly next-generation in quality. It definitely does not have PS2 graphics as some review sites have pointed out. Most of the cutscenes from Lost Odyssey are in-engine cut scenes while CG cut scenes are used sparingly in the game.

COMBAT:

This is another game element that most reviewers seem to dislike. So many people say that 'turn-based' RPGs are a thing of the past. Why go turn-based when developers have the more powerful hardware to be able to render real time combat? Well...I don't see anyone complaining about chess now do they?

The battles in Lost Odyssey are challenging. They are not as difficult as many reviewers claim. What is needed is a good strategy and a solid understanding of the battle system in the game. Several reviewers say that the gamer needs to subject himself to hours and hours of grinding and power-leveling in order to finish the game. Because of this, I took it upon myself to try to disprove that claim. And I have.



I clocked in a total of around 55 hours of game time with an average level of 48. I didn't pursue the side quests in the game which will level-up my characters and give me their ultimate weapons. All it took was defensive fighting, a good strategy and effective use of my inventory. In fact, I am surprised that in Lost Odyssey, there are moments where I had to turn to my inventory. Normally, when I play JRPGs I never even bother with my items, so imagine my surprise when I found myself using a lot of special magic potions so I can revive my characters in battle or even mount some extra offense against enemies.

In Lost Odyssey, a skill based system is in place. Your immortals are capable of learning every skill but they vary in their degree of competency with these skills. There are immortals that are better at casting magic rather than fighting and vice versa. Your immortals can learn skills from the mortals in your active party, or from accessories. The immortals learn skills through skill points which is something that is acquired after a battle sequence. You can increase the number of activated skills for your immortal by using a special item called Slot Seeds. The Slot Seeds cannot be found in NPC stores but is something that you will find as you explore the world.



Mortal characters do not learn skills compared to the immortals. Skills for mortal characters are unlocked as they level up. Mortal characters are also 'class' specific, in that they cannot change classes. It is important to give mortal characters some playtime since your immortals learn skills from them. Mortal characters also have non-spell based skills such as 'Steal', 'Combo Attacks', etc. Like spells, these skills also take up magic points (MP).

Another thing worth mentioning are the spells. There are 4 kinds of spells in the game. In Lost Odyssey, while your character may learn the ability to cast Level 7 or Level 8 spells, you will still need to obtain the said spells for that level. The game has 8 levels with 4 spells per level. You can obtain the spells by buying them from NPC shops, exploring the game or by fighting certain bosses. You also have to note that spells take some time to cast. The more powerful spells take more than 1 turn to execute, making the game far more strategic than usual. Because to this, you will have to be careful in choosing which spells to cast and plan ahead. Later on, your party gets options which can help your magic-casters cast spells faster, but this comes at a price (some of your characters may lose a turn or MP, depending on the type of skill used). Lastly, note that there are no summons in the game.

Another thing which I found to be interesting is the ring system. Rings are items that you can equip together with your weapons. By default weapons in Lost Odyssey have no other attribute other than attack strength. With rings you can have additional bonuses with your weapons, such as poison or steal. There are a lot of rings which you can build in the game, and the higher powered rings require a foundation of several other rings in order to craft.

While the combat is repetitive, I never found it to be tedious. Understanding the GC system will definitely aid you when it comes to the harder bosses. In fact, there are moments where I actually relish the combat rather than getting annoyed by it. A good portion of my time is also spent trying to decide which skills, accessories and items I should equip to my characters. It's also interesting to note that during combat itself, the game as an option to change the equipment that your character is carrying to fit the demands of that particular battle.

GAME LENGTH AND REPLAYABILITY:

Even without doing the major side quests, my total play time was around 55 hours. This is certainly well beyond the average play time of RPGs which is normally around 20 hours. There is even an option to rush the game by skipping the 'Thousand Years of Dreams' sequences and the cut scenes, but why bother doing that when the main focus of the RPG is the story? Boss battles here may take a while and going through some dungeons require a good portion of your free time, specially when the save points are few and far between. The good thing is the game employs the use of checkpoints. Normally checkpoints are set once you face the boss of that area. If you lose the fight you will have an option to retry rather than starting from the last save point.

There are numerous side quests, ranging from small delivery side quests to optional boss battles for the character's ultimate weapons or spells. While I cannot give a through description of the side quests since I didn't go through them, from what I have seen, this will certainly help extend the play time for the game. Prior to going to the final dungeon, I explored a good portion of the world map to have get an idea about these side quests. After seeing the a few of them, I simply reloaded by old save and proceeded with the last area.



The major side quests will be available once you are able to freely roam the world map. Some areas require a little bit more world map exploring so you can 'dock' your ship at the nearby shore which will trigger the discovery of a new area in your field list. From what I have seen the major side quests seem to be 'character specific'. There are some cut scenes that will be triggered when you do some side quests. The optional bosses that you will encounter for these side quests are among the strongest in the game. So if you want a challenge and you want to get all the achievements available in the game, these side quests are perfect for you.

Another element which will definitely lengthen the play time are the 'A Thousand Year of Dreams' sequences. These sequences are triggered when you explore the town and the various areas in the game. In some occasions, when you go back to town a new sequence will be available to you that wasn't there before. This gives gamers an incentive to go back to the areas that they have explored before.

OVERALL:

Having played numerous JRPGs such as Final Fantasy 6 – 10, Xenogears, Chrono Series and a whole lot more, I can safely say that Lost Odyssey now ranks as one of the best games in my JRPG list. I dare say it rivals my favorite Final Fantasy game. Those are bold words coming from me but as I finished the game, I had tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face! Hironobu Sakaguchi was correct in putting emphasis on characterization rather than eye candy. While it is a matter of opinion, several JRPGs do not build emotional attachments with the gamer. There are moments where I simply don't care anymore about the protagonists falling in love since I never felt anything that would lead me to think that.

I have stated this several times in my previous reviews but I feel that the love stories normally become the crutch of most JRPGs. JRPGs practically have a prerequisite for the male and female protagonist to fall in love in the blink of an eye. Whether it be under the moonlight or swimming in an ocean of stars, these elements normally make me roll my eyes in annoyance, not because I do not appreciate love stories but more because of their poor execution. Lost Odyssey does have a love story element but once again that is not the main focus of the game.

Lost Odyssey is the JRPG genre reaching new found maturity in its direction. While the turn based concepts remain traditional, they are very polished, and the focus on emotional development is something that is clearly lacking in most RPGs. Personally, Lost Odyssey is the JRPG game that many RPG fans have been waiting for, and it has the ability to spin off into a new franchise, complete with well written short stories to complement the plot of the game.

No doubt that Hironobu Sakaguchi has proven once again that he still has what it takes to be a master storyteller. If you like JRPGs then this game is a must buy. If you like a good story and you're tolerant of turn-based gameplay, then this game is worth a shot. Lost Odyssey is the definitive JRPG for the XBOX 360, and it clearly rivals other popular JRPG franchises in terms of scale and scope. It's definitely the best work of Mistwalker to date.

2 comments:

  1. Amazing review wuffy! This is definitely now a must-buy game for me.

    I passed on Blue Dragon since I've heard that it's a pretty so-so game. I'll probably wait for someone to sell his/her original copy before I buy one - I'd hate to spend my hard-earned cash on a game (esp an orignal copy at that) that may end up disappointing me.

    As for Lost Odyssey, I'm fully sold on this one. It's definitely on my must-buy list for this month right up there with DMC4.

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