Lost Odyssey, A Ten Year Reunion
As a gamer, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up as a part of the generation that got to experience the golden age of the Final Fantasy franchise as it happened. But as years passed, this proved to be a double edged sword, as turned-based Japanese role playing games became outdated and stale. I longed for characters as quirky as the airship pirates of Final Fantasy IX, for villains as mysterious and menacing as Sephiroth, and for heroes as conflicted and noble as Cecil Harvey of Final Fantasy IV. There were certainly some good JRPGs that have followed the genius we got to experience on the original Playstation, but few could hold their ground against masterpiece predecessors like Chrono Trigger.
Back in the summer of 2008, I found myself browsing through Gamestop for some rainy day entertainment. Coming off the excitement of completing Bioshock and Mass Effect back to back, it was difficult to find anything of interest. I thought that it would be nice to find something more relaxing than another shooter so I began reminiscing over my favorite Final Fantasy games and I narrowed my search down to turn based JRPGs. Owning only an Xbox 360 and a Gamecube, my options were limited. Of course I wanted to play something on the most current generation of consoles. What fool wouldn’t want combat menus in HD? This grossly limited my options down to two games: Blue Dragon and something called Lost Odyssey which just had to be terrible. I hadn’t even heard of it before, so how good could it really be? And yet, Blue Dragon just looked so childish. I shrugged my shoulders, went to the counter, and bought a freshly sealed copy of some garbage JRPG that was sure to give me buyer’s remorse.
Weeks passed before I bothered to so much as tear off the shrink wrap, but when I finally did, I rolled my eyes yet again at the set of four game discs, knowing I’d never finish a game this long. Reluctantly, I placed disc one into the slot and booted up my bad purchase. Once the title card animations ran their course, I was brought to a bland and unimpressive gray menu that simply said ‘Lost Odyssey’ in a minimalist and underwhelming way. My only option was to jump in and get it over with.
Lost Odyssey opened with a cutscene of two clashing armies with inexcusably tall helmets destroying each other as large spider-like tanks rejected from the Terminator franchise dropped hammer like arms on the soldiers below. After each army laid waste to the other, bodies scattered the battlefield until mage upon tall spires reached down with magic and revived armies below, dooming them to fight and die again. It was the logical next step for fantasy games where revival magic existed and it was a beautiful reprieve to see a game address some more complicated implications of magic’s existence in the world. I was already starting to feel better.
My hope quickly faded when the main character rushed into the fray, flipping over soldiers and cutting down foes with a minimal effort. With no understanding who this person was, the brief glimpses of them between clashing swords made it hard for me to determine what I was looking at. The character looked gruff, but slender and their chest armor exposed their midriff. Between the 90’s pop style clothing and the shoulder-length hair, I couldn’t tell who this person was. And then it dawned on me. This was the main character, and was indeed a ‘he’, despite the feminine frame. Just another too ambiguously gendered Japanese character that I’m supposed to care about (looking at you Vaan) who can’t seem to get that pesky strand of hair out of his face.
My cynicism continued as I followed the protagonist, Kaim, through the very lengthy and slowly paced tutorial-esque first chapter of the game. My hope for the game’s potential dwindled further as Seth Balmore, the female pirate, and two-dimensional drunkard, Jansen Friedh, were introduced. I found these two to be annoying, but a welcome relief from Kaim’s monotone moping. But as I set off, for the game’s first mission, I began to understand the charm of Lost Odyssey, and I’ve yet to experience anything else quite like it.
The early stages of the game focus on Kaim being assigned by the council who governs the nation of Uhra to investigate the cause of a magic leak at a facility not far from the capital city. For unknown reasons, Kaim and Seth remember very little of their lives and where they come from, leaving the council uneasy. Jansen accompanies Kaim under the instruction of council member, Gongora to keep an eye on him, while Seth simply chooses to tag along, after recognizing Kaim, but being unable to place where she knows him from. It’s a simple start to what becomes an emotionally charged story, driven by who these characters are, rather than what they’ve been assigned to do.
It’s important to note, that there are some spoilers ahead.
As the game progresses, you soon learn that Kaim and Seth are immortals who have known each other for a very long time. Unbeknownst to them, someone has been using magic to erase their’ memories and use them as puppet soldiers in a political coup. As Seth and Kaim travel the world, they begin to conveniently recover their memories through story progression and collectible items. So too do Kaim and Seth stumble across their fellow immortals and other family members. The odds of accidentally reuniting with long lost family members are one-in-a-million, but to run into family members through four different chance encounters is just absurd.
But if you can look past the impossibilities and take Lost Odyssey for the game that it is, it’s a charming experience that should not be missed. Most game narratives arguably focus on the characters and events that befall them, but not who they are as people. For example, Kaim, Seth, and Jansen come across a trio of Numaran soldiers pushing around two young children. The Jansen and the immortals fend off the soldiers to defend the children. In return, the children lead the party back to their home to say thank you, only for Kaim to discover his daugher, the children’s mother, lying in bed, deathly ill. Clinging to life, Kaim’s daughter passes away after spending a few moments with her long absent father. Kaim’s grandchildren, Cooke and Mack, then join the party as Kaim attempts to atone for his previous absence. It’s a charming moment, even if it does feels a tad forced.
What separates Lost Odyssey‘s story from other RPGs is that it shrinks in scale as the plot develops. Rather than a classic storytelling structure that reunites side characters and recalls subplots increasing the scale of the climax, Lost Odyssey cuts back on the complexity of the game, and focuses on family matters and a fifth immortal who betrayed the others. Best defined as a “family of five,” the plot is centralized around their history together, what drove them apart, and ultimately back together again. Around them, countries war and empires rise and fall. These moments are relevant to the story, but primarily act as plot devices that continue to drive the conflict between the five immortals.
The concept of immortal party members is more than just a plot device, but functions as a strategic game mechanic. Like so many JRPGs before it, Lost Odyssey‘s battles appear randomly as you progress through the map. With a brief alert sound and flash of the screen, the game quick cuts into the battle menu and camera and the turn-based combat commences. Playable characters function in Lost Odyssey as they would in most other games of the genre, with each character having a specialized class, stats, and skillsets that gives player strategic advantages and disadvantages to having certain characters in their party. But the immortals break the mold on this framework. When an immortal character is downed in combat, they do not require a healing item in order to return to fighting status like their counterparts. Players can use a revival item to bring them back from the brink of death, or simply wait a few turns for them to get back up on their own at a fraction of their maximum health. But in contrast, other party members will have to be revived using white magic or revival items, incentivizing players to put together a party exclusively full of immortals.
However, players would quickly discover how wasted those efforts would be. Immortals are powerful, but are unable to learn new skills on their own. Instead, immortal characters gain new abilities using the ‘Skill Link’ feature. Skill Link ties the ability growth of an immortal to any skill that another party member has previously learned. For example, if Seth wanted to learn the second tier of black magic spells, player can Skill Link Seth to the black magic specialist, Jansen, and his Black Magic 2. For as long as they are both active party members, Seth will gain skill points toward learning the second class of black magic at the end of each battle. Seth will eventually learn to use the same spells as Jansen, just by observing him in battle. While mortal characters are restricted to a specific class of abilities, it’s possible to teach each immortal party member the game’s full range of abilities using Skill Link. In the end, the immortals will be players’ most vital asset, but they can only grow to be as strong as the rest of team.
Lost Odyssey‘s combat relies heavily on magic spells and buffs, but there’s plenty more depth to the combat system. Each character can be equipped with various weapons, accessories, and arguably the most important, rings. Players familiar with JRPGs know that rings are equippable items that typically provide small stat bonuses to max health, strength, magic, etc. but they serve a much more practical function in Lost Odyssey. Equipped rings add special stats, damage boosts, or elemental damage to each physical attack. When players choose to forgo using magic to attack their opponent, they can physically attack enemies. After issuing the attack command, the selected character will charge forward toward their target; where most games would only provide a passive animation, rings keep the player involved. When characters have rings equipped, two circles will appear during the physical attack animation; one remains positioned over the target will the other rushes toward the first. Players are instructed to hold down the right trigger as the outer ring closes in on the inner one, only releasing the trigger when the two circles are aligned. Depending on how successful the player is in their timing, they are awarded bonuses associated with that rings stats on a rating system of “Bad”, “Good”, or “Perfect”. The ring system replaces the element of chance in delivering critical hits, so mastering the timing is crucial to long term success.
By today’s standards, Lost Odyssey‘s story unfolds at a painfully slow pace for such a simple plot and it could be a tremendous turn off for most players, and it certainly doesn’t help that the voice acting can be grating at times. However, in a genre filled with over the top archetype exclusive characters, there’s something so refreshingly authentic about this band of misfits that I simply couldn’t stop playing. It’s the little details in Lost Odyssey that drive players to continue on, learning more and more about who the immortals are and the different lives they’ve lived. For those who enjoy reading, one of the best parts of the game are the Dream Trigger collectibles. Scattered throughout the world lie interactions that trigger memories from the immortal’s past in the form of short stories. With a wide variety of authors, some of the tales are far better than others, but they rarely fail to deliver. Beginning first with the tragic ‘Hanna’s Departure’, these stories reveal a great deal more about the immortals than the lengthy four-disc game could ever have time for.
Fans of JRPGs will find Lost Odyssey to be a charming gem, but it’s otherwise not for most. Thankfully, Microsoft made Lost Odyssey playable through their Xbox One backwards compatible program, as well as included it as a part of Games with Gold back in December 2016. Anyone who missed out their opportunity to purchase it in the past can purchase it for the possibly-too-steep price of $24.99 or take their chance finding a used copy at a local retailer for a significantly more reasonable price. Regardless of what you choose to pay, Lost Odyssey is an adventure worthy of its creator.