Odyssey of the mind

A Lost art resurfaces on the 360
By RYAN STEWART  |  February 25, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

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If this current generation of gaming lacks anything, it’s traditional role-playing games (RPGs). The kind with turn-based combat, random enemy encounters, characters who can be customized only through the endless process of leveling up, and an epic story line set in a world filled with mages and knights. Last year saw some solid attempts to revitalize the genre with mixed-bag 360 titles like Eternal Sonata and Blue Dragon, but it’s the recently released Lost Odyssey that purports to be the true heir to the legacy of games like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy franchise, and though it doesn’t match the grandeur of those classics, it reminds us what the genre is capable of.

Lost Odyssey comes with an impressive pedigree. It’s produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man responsible for creating the Final Fantasy games, and the score comes courtesy of Nobuo Uematsu, another Final Fantasy veteran. The result is, yes, a game that borrows heavily from that venerable franchise. Kaim is a brooding warrior cursed with both eternal life and perpetual long-term amnesia. As he, Seth (another immortal, but she’s a pirate), and Jansen (the obnoxious mortal) set off to investigate some suspicious magical activity, it becomes clear that he is haunted by what small fragments of his past remain buried in the corners of his brain. These memories, penned by Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu, might be Lost Odyssey’s biggest achievement: rather than triggering a series of interminable cutscenes, they’re presented in text-only form, to be perused at your leisure whenever you stay at an inn. They’re well written, and worth reading even if you aren’t hooked by the story.

Although it might seem that Kaim is yet another in a long line of taciturn loners trying to put together the pieces of a dark past, it turns out that he was part of a team of immortals who fought together before his memory was erased, and he has a wife and a kid. This break from tradition is aimed to get players to make an emotional connection with him; its success depends on your ability to tolerate two precocious children getting significant screen time.

Combat here is unremarkable. You don’t just input the same commands over and over — by pushing the right trigger at a certain moment, you can add an extra effect to your attacks. There’s a degree of strategy required in battle, particularly for boss fights, but it still grows tedious. Some characters’ natural abilities are redundant and, in some cases, simply useless — which makes for some limiting party combinations.

But such criticisms miss the point of Lost Odyssey. Sakaguchi and company did not set out to reinvent the way we play RPGs. Their focus is on the story, which can be engrossing, even moving, and is filled with detailed characters. Persistent pacing issues, however, keep the game from feeling epic: the fleshing out of Kaim’s backstory comes too early and brings the narrative to a standstill. Lost Odyssey is spread across four discs, and given the speed at which things unfold, that division may have been unnecessary. The artistic decision to make the game experience more like an interactive film is laudable; I just wish the finished product had matched the designers’ ambitions.

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