Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review: Lost Odyssey


Xbox 360

Despite its impressive graphics, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Lost Odyssey still doesn’t tick enough boxes to make the 360 exclusive a must-play game. It’s still a solid RPG, but odd camera control and stale combat systems hold the game back from its potential, despite small attempts to freshen up the latter.

Sakaguchi, of course, shot to prominence on the back of the early Final Fantasy games, and with new studio Mistwalker, he’s still churning out quality, albeit by-the-book, JRPG fare. Sakaguchi’s previous epic for the 360, Blue Dragon, leaned towards cartoonish imaginings of the characters and enemies, and the whole design team has turned almost completely in the other direction for Lost Odyssey – characters, sets and cities are beautifully realistic, although still stylised just enough to avoid a downturn into the uncanny valley.

You play the game as the amnesiac immortal Kaim Argonar, caught in political intrigue between two nations as a magic-industrial revolution changes the world around him. Sakaguchi worked with Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu to write Kaim’s backstory, which is revealed in fragments throughout the game, and is collectively entitled 'A Thousand Years of Dreams'. These text-only story elements are skippable, but they add immeasurably to the emotional heft of the game, which probably has one of the most engaging storylines I’ve seen in an RPG for years, even if it borrows tropes from sources as varied as Tolkien and the later Final Fantasy games.

The game’s spread over four discs, primarily to compensate for the amount of cut-scenes, which apparently take up about a third of the data spread across the discs. It took me five or six hours to get a full party together, by which time I’d reached the end of the first disc – the whole game clocks in at around 30-40 hours, a not-inconsiderable chunk of which is spent waiting for the enemy battles and cut-scenes to load. It’s worth the wait, though; the cut-scenes are beautifully rendered, and character design is fantastic, just as it was in Blue Dragon. Battles, though, are randomly placed in the wilderness maps, which means that trying to get anywhere in a hurry can be very quickly bogged down by loading screens.

During battle, it’s interesting to note that mortal and immortal characters in your party have different styles of play, and how you pair the two styles will have a great impact on your party’s effectiveness. Mortals, for example, level up normally and can use skills at any point once they’re unlocked, whereas immortals must be ‘linked’ to mortals in order to learn skills. There’s a lot of depth available in linking the two types together, and it’s also rewarding to play around with different combinations.

Twitch gamers will appreciate the addition of the combat ring system, which adds a timing-based bonus to any attacks, but this does little to make up for the incredibly slow pace of the rest of the game. It’s what you’d expect from long-form RPGs, to be sure, but if Lost Odyssey didn’t have such an appealing story, the pace would be a killer blow. As it stands, you’ll need at least a week without distractions to crack the main story.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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