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Text-laden, cut-scene heavy, and across four DVDs - yes, it's another self-indulgent J-RPG from Sakaguchi-san...
- Thousand Years of Dreams offer narrative depth.
- Emotional impact at times.
- Uematsu's stunning score.
- Slow build up.
- 'Traditional' mechanics.
- Skimps on originality.
The second Xbox 360 exclusive RPG from famed producer Hironobu Sakaguchi following 2007's Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey's tale of a 1,000 year old immortal with next to no memory of his past, is the latest attempt to get some sort of equivalent to Final Fantasy on Microsoft's platform. Once again teaming Sakaguchi-san with long-standing Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, and joined this time by Manga artist Takehike Inoue and Japanese author Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Lost Odyssey's core production and conceptual team does at least have the components required to push towards capturing the magic and reverence that Square-Enix's RPG franchise (itself created by Sakaguchi-san) enjoys.
At the time of its release, Blue Dragon laid claim to being the product of Sakaguchi at his most self-indulgent, something that has surely been superseded by Lost Odyssey, which is quite literally crammed onto four (yes, four!) dual-layer DVDs. But does the epic storyline weave the magic of a classic, or does it get bogged down in a narrative thicker than the class dunce?
TVG followed the winds of time to find out...
The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.
Developed by Microsoft Game Studios subsidiary FreePlus in conjunction with Mistwalker, Lost Odyssey's story of Kaim, an immortal over a millennia old, and his increasing party of cohorts seems far from offering anything really original to what is a very traditional genre. With a background tale of fictitious warring nations going for each other's jugular , and their respective attempts at bringing 'peace' to the world acting as a driving force behind Kaim's adventure in the game, the truth is that Lost Odyssey's broad storyline is one that could be torn from the pages of many a Final Fantasy synopsis.
But there's more going on that just that.
Lost Odyssey's tortured protagonist doesn't want to remember his past, though throughout the adventure, Kaim finds himself doing exactly that. Forming a compilation of mini-stories that go on to form a Thousand Year of Dreams, the text-based pieces of his past for the player's benefit, and Kaim himself. Not only that, but as the story progresses, players go on to recognise the locations they've read about hours before hand. The use of dreams and progressively unlocked memories throughout the game prove to work very well in Lost Odyssey, as Kaim and the player find themselves in the same situation. And with nearly three dozen dream/memory sequences to uncover as the storyline unfolds, there's a lot of Kaim's past to uncover. Well written and presented, with key bits of text animated for an extra dab of emphasis, for example floating the word 'tear' down the screen at the appropriate moment, the addition of Uematsu-san's stunning score (as per usual) only strengths the haunting atmosphere to the memories, in what could have all too easily been bland, superfluous elements in the game. It's an obviously clever dynamic to have in the game, to the point where it's difficult to wonder why more and more amnesiac characters don't make their way into videogames.
Beyond an excuse to get players reading reams of lines, there are actually a couple of gameplay features that try to twist and streamline the traditional J-RPG standard. Introduced early on is a 'Ring Assembly' mechanic that's used to give party members the chance to wear rings of varying power, such as buffing them to steal small amounts of Magic Points or increasing the chances of scoring a critical hit against an opponents. The use of the rings is slightly extended beyond passive buffs; players have to trigger the power of the rings as a character attacks an opponent, timing it so that two rings that appear on screen overlap by the time the strike is made. Judging the success of the overlap as 'Bad', 'Good', or 'Perfect' determines whether the power of the ring is fully exploited, throwing in an element of twitch skill that's a rare feature of any turn-based RPG. It also means that players have a little bit to do on the battlefield than just select a power and watch it automatically fire.
Whilst the ability of the rings and the player's strategy is assembling the appropriate ones throws in an extra layer of strategy into a genre already teeming with tactical depth, the actual effect on gameplay is minimal at best, serving only to stop players from taking a traditional breather as they watch their decisions play out on screen for a few seconds. It's not quite a gimmick, but firing the power of the rings during the heat of battle isn't fully exploited, and wouldn't be missed if their lines of code got mysteriously overlooked thanks to an anomalous Xbox 360 Update.
Who Wants To Live Forever???
For all its various tinkering, Lost Odyssey is very much traditional Japanese RPG fare with turn-based gameplay littered with enemy ambushes, extensive exposition and story-telling - oh, and miles of trudging around too. It's quite a backward step from Blue Dragon in this regard, though it perhaps strengthens Sakaguchi's attempts at doing an 'Xbox 360 Final Fantasy'. If all that makes Lost Odyssey sound like little more than an old school experience, then you'd be correct, but that's not the only thing that the game has to offer. Perhaps we were just in a vulnerable position at the time, having dragged ourselves through several hours of memories, battles, and cut-scenes, but some way into the story, Sakaguchi revealed the his Lost Odyssey masterpiece: emotion.
Specifically, the emotion is one of sadness and absolute tragedy. Early memory sequences frequently see Kaim running to the edge of a cliff, only to see his young daughter jump off. The obvious pain of such an event isn't enough, so it's with some relief when he comes across his now adult daughter - and mother of two - years later. The somewhat inevitable news that she's on her death bed is enough to hear, but the cut-scene where she does pop her clogs is truly heartfelt, especially when her young kids (who subsequently join the battle party) start calling to her with tears streaming their faces. Not content with that, Mistwalker then puts us through something of a rarity in videogames - a funeral. Of course, this is something that Sakaguchi-san could have shown in one of the many hours of cut-scenes that are burnt onto each DVD, but he doesn't. Instead, players take on very important responsibilities, with the collection of funeral flowers, dry branches for torches, and ultimately taking a direct part in lighting the torches according to the rituals of the land. Emotion in a videogame is certainly something that we're not used to, at least to this very real extent, and it forms a very memorable turn of events in the Lost Odyssey experience.
If there's a message or morality tale to be found in Lost Odyssey, it's this: living for a thousand years sucks, thanks to centuries of painful tragedies, and only fleeting glimpses of happiness. Kaim literally is a tortured soul, whose endless adventuring and warring only serves to taunt him further, creating an additional emotion of pity and sympathy in the player for him. If Sakaguchi-san can create such emotions already, then we can only wonder what his deliberate attempt at creating an emotion-packed title - the upcoming Cry On - will achieve when that gets its launch.
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