It's hard to dismiss the pedigree of Lost Odyssey, the latest role-playing game from Mistwalker Studios. Famed Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi is heading the project, and the game's musical score is being provided by another FF alum, the much-loved composer Nobuo Uematsu. Little wonder, then, that despite being powered by the Xbox 360, the nuts and bolts of Lost Odyssey feel very familiar. Having last seen the game at the 2007 Tokyo Game Show, we recently spent some time with an updated build, specifically to see how the first couple of hours of gameplay set the stage for the adventure to come.
Lost Odyssey begins with a bang, quite literally. After showing an opening cinematic that centers on an epic battle of two warring armies, the camera cuts to a long-haired hero who's doing his best to single-handedly wipe out the opposing forces. In a smooth gameplay cut, you're taken from merely watching the as-yet-unnamed hero to playing as him as he takes out a handful of enemies and then sets his sights on a massive fire-spewing war machine. It's a slick introduction to the turn-based battle system in Lost Odyssey, but as we found out, it's an all-too-short introduction. After the tank enemy is taken down, the sky above literally rips open as a massive meteorite slams onto the battlefield, annihilating everyone in its path.
Well, almost everyone. For reasons explained later, your battle-hardened hero, whose name is Kaim Argonar, survived the meteor strike. As he makes his way across the blasted, desolate landscape, Kaim encounters enemies who've been "changed" by the meteor strike. Combat here serves as an introduction to Lost Odyssey's ring combat system, which lets you arm Kaim and his allies with rings that add powers to their attack or defense. The system also adds a bit more interactivity to combat: During a physical attack, a ring will appear around your opponent, and you need to hold down the right trigger while your character attacks. A second ring will collapse on the first, and when the time is right (that is, the second ring is close to the first), you let go of the trigger. Your timing will determine the relative strength or weakness of your attack. As you progress, you'll be able to build new rings, provided you have the required ingredients, which you'll pick up as you go. New rings mean new powers, such as the ability to add elemental damage to your attacks.
Eventually Kaim manages to find a band of allies from the Uhar army who marvel at his ability to survive a point-blank encounter with a falling meteorite. In true emo fashion, Kaim isn't impressed by much, even his own seeming invulnerability. Kaim and the soldiers hitch a ride on an armored cart, then head back to the Uhar city to regroup. While in transit, Kaim encounters a mysterious girl named Seth who also managed to survive the attack.
Once arriving in the city, Kaim is summoned by the high council to report his findings from the battlefield. This begins a long stretch of gameplay where you find yourself in a city with not much to do but run around and explore. On the positive side, there are plenty of items to find hidden in pots and barrels, even stuck behind what look to be propaganda posters stuck on walls all over town. Before heading to the council, you can take Kaim to the local establishments, including an item shop, whose owner is out on business, and a local inn, where you can catch some sleep.
The first question the council has for Kaim is an obvious one: How did he manage to survive the meteor crash? Kaim doesn't seem to have many answers but another character, Gorgora, does. Apparently Gorgora cast an immortality spell on Kaim, though Kaim doesn't seem to remember this spell. The council immediately recognizes the advantage of having an immortal operative; thus, Kaim and Seth are sent on a mission to check out the disturbance at Grand Staff, which is a magic research facility located in the Sea of Baus not far from the city.
It seems that Gorgora is more than he appears in Lost Odyssey because shortly after Kaim is assigned on the Grand Staff mission, he is placed under house arrest. When Kaim visits him at his house, Gorgora assigns a magic user named Jansen to accompany Kaim and Seth on their mission. Jansen, unlike the other two, is a mortal. In Lost Odyssey, mortal characters can learn new skills simply by leveling up; immortals, on the other hand, don't learn new skills when their levels increase. However, by linking their skills with a mortal, immortals can learn new skills. For example, linking Kaim to Jansen will allow him to learn both white and black magic spells or the steal ability, which Jansen already possesses. After a few battles, Jansen will learn level-two black magic, whereas Kaim will earn level-one black magic.
As the trio heads off toward Grand Staff, the roles each plays in the story become clear. Kaim is the dour hero, a stringy-haired badass who is all about the mission; Seth is the good-natured, wide-eyed flirt; and Jansen is the comic relief. How they fit into battle, however, will be up to you; thanks not only to the aforementioned skill system, which will let you customize your characters' skills, but also the formation system. Final Fantasy games have distinguished between characters on the "front" and "back" line, but in Lost Odyssey, that distinction is made all the more explicit. Meters on the upper left- and right-hand side of the screen point out a party's front line strength, which is calculated as a total of the hit points of characters set on the front row. Front-row characters act as a buffer for those in the rear of the formation, so it's a good idea to put your weaker characters in the back. However, once the front line is destroyed, those characters in the back won't have any further protection.
The road to Grand Staff begins in the forest outside of town, where the party will randomly encounter enemies who are really no match for the power of the party. If the main characters in Lost Odyssey are reminiscent of Final Fantasy characters--with frilly outfits, outrageous weapons, and intricate armor--then the enemies are doubly so, ranging from vicious-looking plant life to miniature spear-wielding soldiers wearing helmets that give them a distinctive mushroom-like appearance. As the party trudges up a mountain range in search of Grand Staff, it will encounter biting rain showers and, at the peak, a huge griffon-like creature that provides the first real test of the party's combat skills.
With elaborate visuals (and lots and lots of depth-of-field visual tricks), Lost Odyssey certainly looks like an Xbox 360 RPG, even if it plays like something a bit older. Nonetheless, the tried-and-true approach of Sakaguchi has proven to be a winning formula. One thing's for sure, you won't be at a loss for things to do in Lost Odyssey: The game will come on four discs when it lands on store shelves next month. That's means a ton of content for Kaim and his crew to battle their way through. Stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks.