After Blue Dragon fizzled, gamers desperate to see Japanese RPGs on the Xbox 360 turned their hopes toward Lost Odyssey. Much like Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey is really the game that people want it to be. What fans want is a 360-exclusive alternative to Final Fantasy, and Lost Odyssey is clearly a game created with hardcore RPG fans in mind, but it may be a must-buy for anyone who likes the intricacy of turn-based combat strategy.
This preview covers roughly the first 10 hours of Lost Odyssey, as the need to actually write about the game forced me to put down the controller about halfway through the Crimson Forest/Sorceror's Shrine dungeon. By this point, most of the major combat systems are in play, you've a wide range of customized skills and equipment at your disposable, and you've begun to acquire more party members beyond the initial trio of Kaim, Seth and Jansen. While I'm sure people who simply aren't interesting in RPGs are going to criticize Lost Odyssey for being generic, a warning to RPG lovers: It's absolutely not. My gameplay diet is roughly 50% RPGs, and I haven't seen anything quite like Lost Odyssey before. Various parts of the game are faintly reminiscent of others, but the way the whole fits together is unique and finally hints at the design prowess gamers have long expected from Mistwalker that wasn't really on display in the simplistic Blue Dragon.
Lost Odyssey does resemble Blue Dragon in some respects that bear discussion up front. The Kelolon enemies return, and so does the basic idea of having customizable characters with combat abilities that are a direct reflection of the skills you equip to them. Where Blue Dragon used a class system for teaching skills, Lost Odyssey does something more original. There are two types of characters in Lost Odyssey, mortals and immortals. Kaim, the protagonist, and Seth are your first immortals, while your initial mortal character is Jansen. Immortals literally cannot be killed in combat; if their HP is reduced to 0, they will automatically resurrect themselves roughly three turns later. A mortal whose HP is reduced to 0 stays down for the rest of the battle. Mortals have predefined skill selections, but they automatically gain new skills, along with the necessary skill slots, simply by leveling up. Immortals never gain skills unless they learn them by equipping accessories, which grant one skill each (usually minor), or using Skill Links to learn the skills of their mortal allies, which is usually the only way to get more potent skills like black and white magic. Your Immortals start with a mere three skill slots, and the only way to add more slots seems to be finding seed slot items hidden throughout the game.
Now, this might seem to hint at a min-max game where you can simply give everyone all of the best skills and call it a day, a flaw that deeply marred Blue Dragon. You can't get away with that in Lost Odyssey because character stat progressions are deeply individualized. You may be able to teach Jansen's Black Magic skills to Kaim, but he gains little MP as he levels up and has poor casting ability. Kaim may be able to cast Jansen's spells, but will not be able to cast them at anywhere near the same level of effectiveness, nor will he be able to cast as many. Seth is more versatile and can be taught to become a passable mage and a passable fighter, but she's unlikely to excel in any particular area due to her middling stats. Skills are learned with Skill Points acquired at the end of combat, so this means that you need to make sure you're teaching characters the skills best suited to their basic stats as your first priority. Kaim does best with physical skills that augment his naturally high damage, and Seth needs to be fine-tuned in whatever direction you choose to build her.
You also need to keep these basic character strengths and weaknesses in mind when you equip your characters with rings. A ring takes advantage of the game's Target Ring system, adding extra effects to your attacks if you successfully complete a timing game that takes place every time you attack. A ring-shaped target appears onscreen, with a ring-shaped cursor shrinking toward it. If you hold down the right trigger while the cursor approaches and then release when the two rings are matched up perfectly, you gain a Perfect. If you get close, you get a Good. On a Perfect ranking, an equipped ring discharges its full effect. On a Good, it discharges perhaps 10% of its total effect. If you miss entirely, then you just do a basic attack.
The actual nature of the timing game is comparable to Shadow Hearts' Judgment Ring system, but it is at once less and more critical. You can do most of your attack damage if you get a bad score on the Target Ring, but the farther into the game you get, the more you need to make sure you're getting the full effects of your equipped rings on every attack, especially in boss battles. Unlike Shadow Hearts, there appear to be (thus far) no items that let you simply "turn off" the Target Ring system. You absolutely must learn the timing and then learn how to do it every single time you attack.
Ultimately, rings are the heart of the combat system, and they have a variety of effects at full discharge. Some add status ailments to your attacks, which can be quite valuable, while some let you regain MP on every attack, which is surprisingly not useful to pure casting characters like Jansen, since the amount of MP you gain is calculated based on your attack damage, and Jansen can do little. The most useful rings give elemental branding to your attacks or traits that do more damage against specific enemies, and juggling these is essential for getting the most out of Kaim in boss battles. As you progress, you can get rings that make it easier to score Goods and Perfects and rings that combine several effects at once. You can acquire rings several ways: finding them as treasure, forging them out of materials purchased or dropped by monsters, or combining different rings together to stack their effects.
Fortunately, you can change your equipment on the fly during individual encounters. Encounters are random and frequent, in the manner of classic Final Fantasy, but can be as brutally challenging as what you might encounter in a Shin Megami Tensei game. Once you're beyond the game's first few hours, most areas have one or two possible random encounters that can easily one-shot your entire party. You need to pay careful attention to the formation system to keep this from happening. As your party exchanges blows with a group of enemies, both sides' formation grows weaker. The weaker it is, the more damage you can do to enemies waiting for you on the back rank — and the more damage enemies can do to your back-rank casters.
Effectively, the longer a battle goes on in Lost Odyssey, the more dangerous it becomes. This is satisfying for a hardcore RPG player, but it may grow frustrating to more casual audiences. It can also grow annoying when trying to solve puzzles, which is part of what prompted me to put down my controller and check the time in the first place. The puzzles in Lost Odyssey are fairly typical for RPGs but not especially well-designed, and sometimes have solutions that don't really make a whole lot of sense. The rigorous combat that's easy to relish when you're making a straightforward trip through the dungeon begins to feel like a punishment then.
When you aren't fighting in Lost Odyssey, you're usually exploring towns or watching one of the game's many, many cut scenes. They come in both pre-rendered and in-engine varieties, and there's no shortage of proper dramatizing of the complicated plot, which involves both Kaim's mysteriously eternal life and political maneuverings in the fictional nation of Uhra. Town exploration is more or less what you'd expect from an RPG, but it also lets you play around with an interesting feature called A Thousand Nights of Dreams. Kaim is a stoic character who talks rarely; his personality does change over time, but largely because of movements in the plot that grant memories immediately relevant to the action. To find out Kaim's older memories, you need to trigger them by finding particular interactions or locations in towns that jog his memory. Each dream you unlock this way is presented as a short story rather than a rendered cut scene, and you can choose to read them immediately or to skip them.
Reading the dreams fleshes out Kaim's personality in a wonderfully deep way, although these stories also tend to be very depressing. Where most RPGs are about J. Random Dude saving the world, Kaim is a drifter who is either unmotivated or primarily concerned with momentary revenge. Many of his hidden memories involve dealing with the constant death he witnesses as he goes through a thousand years of immortality, and these are not dramatic, glamorized deaths. It's old women sliding off into the humiliating agony of Alzheimer's, political prisoners starving to death, and sad foreign brides committing suicide after years of prejudiced treatment from townspeople. The stories are written powerfully and can be incredibly moving, usually evoking deep sadness. If you're a gamer who turns to games to escape real-life difficulties, Lost Odyssey may be too much for you. It's a bleak and frank title about the frailty of human nature in a way that no one has any reason to expect a video game to be. I find it wonderful as an experimental change of pace, but I am all too conscious in writing this preview that Lost Odyssey is going to be marketed at a far wider range of people than just myself.
Finishing out the Lost Odyssey first impression is a beautiful score by Nobuo Uematsu that equals and surpasses his excellent work in Blue Dragon. Part of why combat is such a joy in Lost Odyssey is its selection of truly gorgeous combat themes. Fans of RPG music shouldn't pass up this game at all, as Uematsu's score is also very prominent in the Thousand Nights of Dreams stories.
In short, Lost Odyssey is a game for very hardcore, die-hard RPG fans who play a lot of games and, as a result, have very specific tastes. As of this preview build, the game may be too difficult to appeal to a mass audience. If you want a title that challenges you and presents incredibly unusual stories and characters, this is the game for you. If you simply want to play Final Fantasy, then keep waiting because Lost Odyssey is not what you want. It may well be the opposite.
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