I can’t talk about Lost Odyssey without mentioning Hironobu Sakaguchi (and it seems like I can’t write an article lately without mentioning him either, but hey, I’m a big fan).
Sakaguchi created the first Final Fantasy and had significant input until leaving the company in 2004. Final Fantasy IX was his swan song and publicly stated favorite. After Square, he launched Mistwalker studios and signed a deal with Microsoft to finance two exclusive games for the Xbox 360: Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, both made in partnership with separate developers.
Blue Dragon was more of a direct throwback to simplistic fantasy, featuring the spiky haired art of Akira Toriyama, while Lost Odyssey went much further into realism. It released in 2007, shortly after Final Fantasy XII, which also went for a more realistic, grounded tone. Both games had a focus on politics and ousted royalty.
I was very excited to finally play Lost Odyssey. The opening had me hooked, parts dragged, and the ending was a flowery epilogue I haven’t seen the likes of since Return of the King.
Would I recommend it? Traditional JRPG fans will find lots to do here. There’s plenty of side content and a deep progression system spread amongst a mostly likable cast of characters. The writing was mostly solid, hitting a few points but also dipping into cheesy saccharine moments, usually centered around the kids. If you have the patience for looooooong battles and don’t mind a sometimes generic story, Lost Odyssey is a solid JRPG you might not have played yet.
JRPGs are all about combat and story, so let’s dive right into what you’ll be doing when not listening to story. The combat is a unique (to me, perhaps this was done before) simultaneous turn-based system. You choose your entire party’s actions before seeing all actions of both teams play out in order according to action and player speed. For example, the character you chose to use an item will usually go first, followed by fast hitting melee characters, with spell casters coming in last, or even taking two turns to complete a spell. The enemy chooses their actions behind the scenes and play out their turns amongst yours. Spells have a cast-time visible when selecting, but learning who goes first with items and attacks is trial and error. Getting hit by attacks can also disrupt a turn, pushing the character to the end of the queue or even knocking them into next turn.
On the positive, this gives the battle a feel of two forces clashing together and (to me) feels fresh. On the negative, it loses some of the strategic thinking I normally love about turn-based combat. I hold Final Fantasy X as the pinnacle of classic turn-based, and prefer it to the Active Time Battle of previous entries in the franchise. FF X displayed the turn order and still managed to incorporate different action speeds by showing you how the order was affected depending on the action highlighted. This allowed me to plan out my strategy many turns in advance. I loved spending long minutes agonizing over whether to heal/attack/cast/swap using the information provided. The ATB system may provide more urgency, but I’d rather not have a time limit when looking through menus.
Lost Odyssey only shows the turn order once all the actions have been completed. You get the most useful information once it’s too late to use it. You then have to remember everything that happened and apply that knowledge to the next round of actions. This introduces chaos which some may find exciting, but I feel it mostly detracts from satisfying strategy. You also run into issues of a character having to select a new target (if theirs had already been destroyed) and perhaps choosing a poor matchup (casting a fire spell on a fire creature for example).
I appreciate the effort put into trying something new (to me) but usually I was wishing for something more better or more traditional.
My biggest issue with the combat was how damn long it took. Once the random-battle-flash occurs, it takes an irritating amount of time for your characters to say a taunt and the camera to stop sweeping around. Whether this is to mask a loading time or is purely cinematic I don’t know, but it hindered my enjoyment and made me dread most battles. During dungeons with lots of backtracking and puzzles, I often ran away from every battle in order to progress quicker.
Adding to the time is the ability to freely swap out weapons before every attack, choosing elemental or ‘type’ specific weapons to do the most damage. This lets you perform significantly more damage, but adds more menu navigation and time.
I’m no game developer, but perhaps setting the enemies health much lower, increasing the damage output from both sides, or fighting smaller groups could have helped. The slog through mobs and dungeons often killed the momentum I had built up with the story.
The long combat unfortunately hurt many of the dungeons. While the designs were often fun to see, there were at least two that forced too much backtracking to tinker with puzzles. A few puzzle ideas started promising, but mostly reduced to ‘walk as far as you can and press the button available’. One dungeon’s areas in particular looked so similar throughout, it was easy to get lost, and tedious to explore. This frustration was compounded by the constant interruption to engage in a drawn out battle.
I’ve mentioned a lot of negatives regarding battle, but the boss battles were almost always enjoyable. From the very first large encounter, I was forced to truly learn the system and think of the correct order of my actions. Simply attacking any old enemy and healing when necessary wouldn’t cut it. Challenging boss battles that feel like combat puzzles are one of my favorite aspects of an RPG, and Lost Odyssey delivered.
Lost Odyssey’s characters are either immortal or mortal. Mortals learn skills on their own while immortals must ‘link’ with a character in the party and learn from them. Immortals can also learn skills from equipment á la Final Fantasy IX. There are more characters available than you can use in battle so constant swapping is required to keep levels balanced (no experience sharing unfortunately) and for immortals to keep learning from mortals. This was a very engaging system that dangled many carrots and provided motivation to battle mobs before big boss fights. Even by the end of the game, there were still very useful skills I would have liked my immortals to learn but ran out of time.
Although I didn’t enjoy constantly cycling through armor and equipment in FF IX, I found this system engaging. Because there were more useful skills than time to learn them, it created difficult choices that personalized my builds for that first run.
I often say that JRPGs can have all the fancy lore they want, but the heart should reside with how the characters are impacted if you want the audience to connect with the cast. For the most part, Sakaguchi succeeded. Focusing heavily on what it is to be immortal kept me engaged for the first quarter but story events deadened that impact later on. The main arc of political mystery and a power-hungry villain were fairly stock but told well. The antagonist was a bit cartoonish compared to the main cast, seeming from a different game. Perhaps when Mistwalker co-develops with studios, they each design different characters?
Sakaguchi also writes many ‘memories’ that the protagonist recalls. These are optional short stories played out in text. As I was streaming the game, I only indulged in the first few. Out of my limited experience I found them usually powerful and illuminating but also redundant and long-winded. Sakaguchi is a legend but this was one of the few games he’s credited as a writer. Perhaps no one was in a position to edit this material. Of course, without the pressure of streaming to an audience, the memory pacing may be perfectly fine.
The political plot was a fun diversion and the main plot did the job. The dialogue and inter-personal moments were the strongest portions.
Early on you’re introduced to the comic relief character. I was leery of their style falling flat but was consistently laughing along. The voice performance and direction lent a natural flow, adding to the comedic impact. In a long journey, this brevity was needed. Love blooms on the battlefield as well, and I enjoyed nearly every step of the pair’s ( I won’t spoil whose) romance, especially their first meeting. The connection takes its time and grows naturally. Stellar writing in my opinion.
As I said previously, a patient JRPG fan that loves to tinker with character builds and unlock skills will likely enjoy Lost Odyssey. There’s plenty to explore and grind for completionists, and the journey is worth taking. Those that prefer to whiz through the mainline path might feel weighed down by pacing issues and the slow combat. But if you just want to chill out and explore a big ol’ JRPG world in a grounded setting, Lost Odyssey could be a last-gen classic you never knew you wanted.