EDGE REVIEW: Lost Odyssey
Lost Odyssey, perhaps more than any other 360 game yet, typifies its stereotyped genre. While it’s resolutely conformist, it is also a resounding success within those tight constraints.
Lost Odyssey contains some of the most tender writing ever committed to a videogame. Kaim, the game’s protagonist, is cursed with immortality. Cursed because, for all of life’s joys and triumphs, there is inevitable and equal sadness and loss. It is these burdens – wives and children departed, homes razed by natural disaster, the unforgettable death masks of 10,000 enemy soldiers – which, when multiplied over eternity, become a weight too heavy for any man to bear.
Despite Kaim’s amnesia, that scourge of so many an RPG hero, these far-flung memories break into his consciousness by way of dreams, triggered by people, places or events encountered through the game. Each of the 31 dreams is presented by text that reveals as you read it, soundtracked by music boxes and melancholy tinkling pianos, touching and sparse vignettes of narrative that examine the human condition with keen eloquence. Penned by Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu and translated by Jay Rubin, a Harvard professor best known for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s novels, each brims with sentiment but remains shy of sentimentality. These segments of the game are special, beautiful even, but they are shining jewels set in a surround of more contentious material.
moscalloutThe game’s flow is predictable: explore a corridored environment while fighting random battles, face off against a boss./moscalloutThis, the second Xbox 360 RPG from Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker, is almost as traditional as the first. The genre’s most recent journeys into innovation are all forgotten here in favor of a framework reminiscent of the nine-year-old Final Fantasy VIII. The game’s flow is predictable and orthodox: explore a corridored environment while fighting random battles, face off against a boss, and finally trigger the next narrative interlude. Save for the fact that the protagonist is past his petulant teenage years (although making him 1,000 years old was perhaps overkill in answering complaints) the game conforms to all the genre’s strengths and weaknesses, yet more evidence that it’s Sakaguchi’s departure from Square Enix that has freed the rival company to explore the interactive story’s modern potential.
Principal among the game’s achievements is the storyline, which, even outside of Shigematsu’s exemplary work, is compelling, only occasionally slipping into the sentimentality the dream interludes so deftly avoid. Told via long and frequent cutscenes, the narrative is well-directed, utilizing frame-in-frame film techniques and enhanced by Nobuo Uematsu’s thoughtful score. Similarly, the motion-captured and Japanese-voiced characters bring humor and believability to every scene. Thanks largely to the flashbacks, Kaim emerges as a deep and interesting lead character, lending additional weight and sincerity to some of the game’s standout moments, which include what is surely the most affecting death yet seen in an RPG.
Lost Odyssey displays considerable visual flair, too. A sprawling and awesome battlefield cutscene slips smoothly into an interactive fight in the game’s early stages; Kaim leans into the heavy rain as you traverse a mountain top; a flock of crows disperse into the menacing sky as you cross the threshold of an aged haunted mansion. These memorable visual moments modernize the musty internal mechanics in such a way as to make them more palatable, even if the Unreal Engine 3 tech sitting beneath sometimes shudders under the burden.
However, so much attention has been lavished on the story and its presentation that, when interactivity rears its head, it’s done almost begrudgingly. Occasionally a tedious minigame is crowbarred into the middle of a serious story scene as some desperate means to involve the viewer as a player. Often it’s ineffective, breaking the spell created by the filmic direction and reminding you that you’re in an antiquated videogame after all, with all the clicking on dustbins to find coins, banal and incessant NPC conversations and unimaginative find and fetch side-quests of old.
The turn-based battle system, however, offers enough idiosyncrasies and ideas to maintain interest over the game’s four discs. The formation of your team (created from up to five of the story characters) is of special importance, those members positioned in the front row acting as a shield (complete with its own separate HP) to protect those in the rear. Additionally, a complex skill system in which team members can study and acquire each other’s moves adds much-needed flexibility. The ring system, which adds rhythm-action timing to increase the effectiveness of physical hits, works well, and enemy design demands the use of the full range of attacks and techniques as well as attentive strategizing to overcome.
Despite its length, Lost Odyssey is essentially a celebration of finite things. Its lasting message, a message punched home at every opportunity, is a warning to those who wish for immortality. Everything has its day, says the game, and nothing should last forever. An apt lesson, perhaps, for the game itself.