After the false promise that was Blue Dragon, Mistwalker has delivered a truly enjoyable RPG in Lost Odyssey.
It's clear from the beginning that Lost Odyssey is an emotionally-charged and heavily story-driven experience. A lot of factors contribute to this, but none more so than the marvellous cast of characters. At first glance Kaim appears to be the stereotypical angst-ridden protagonist, but this myth is quickly debunked with some deep character development. Segments of Kaim's memory will return as you progress which reveal a lot about his past. It becomes clear that there's a kind and gentle side to him, although he has witnessed many tragedies and harbours a heart full of sorrow. The memories recover themselves slowly, and you'll find yourself eagerly demanding to know all about the experiences Kaim has endured. The rest of the cast serve as effective contrasts to the tormented protagonist; the happy-go-lucky pirate (and fellow immortal) Seth, mischievous brother-sister combo Mack & Cooke, and ladies man Jansen (definitely one of the most refreshing and hilarious RPG characters of recent times) are but a few of the colourful characters that make the game so memorable.
Seeing as developers Mistwalker were formed by ex-Square-Enix employees, you'll be right at home if you've ever played a Final Fantasy game. Arguably the best manifestation of such a claim is in the excellent soundtrack, headed up by long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. Character development and script-writing is nothing if not accompanied by a worthy soundtrack, so it's a good thing that this is some of Uematsu-san's best work. The intensity of a fierce battle, the joy of reuniting with acquaintances of the past, or the sorrow of losing a loved one… the music is spot on in every situation and gives you the extra capacity to immerse yourself in the story and care about its characters. The voice-acting, however, is more of a mixed bag. While Jansen's voice captures the spirit of the charming, cowardly, and ultimately sincere man he is, Mack's whining young tone will start to grate on you.
Parallel to the story-telling side of the game, Lost Odyssey's game system is based on old-skool RPGs with some twists. Random encounters play out in a turn-based battle format; you select an action (attack, spell, item, etc.) for each of your characters and the battle unfolds. Every RPG deals in its own way with the monotony that will inevitably develop from turn-based battling, and Lost Odyssey uses the ring system and the guard wall.
Each character can equip a ring infused with one or many different effects, such as increasing damage output or adding an element to the attack. But in order to activate these effects you need to score a good or perfect rating in the ring mini-game. When you initiate an attack a small target ring appears over the enemy; holding the right trigger will cause a second ring to appear around the target ring, the goal being to release the trigger when the two overlap. The timing for perfect ratings is tricky at first, but practise and good ring selection are rewarded by increased effectiveness in battle.
When you're on the defensive, you'll be more concerned with the guard wall. Each of your five active characters can be placed into either the front or back row; being in the front contributes to the guard wall and being in the back means you'll be defended by it. The sum of every front row character's health points determines your guard condition; at full condition, anyone in the back row will take minimal damage from even the most fearsome attacks. This works for your enemies too, so you need to take down front row foes first before inflicting any meaningful damage on the back row. It's a simple concept but plays a huge part in strategic planning; how many do you want to put in the front row? Can you use any skills to bypass the enemy wall? You'll need to find the right balance to succeed against the tougher bosses.
Outfitting your characters with the right skills is the key to having them play roles such as the attacker, the healer, or the support unit. In this regard, there is a distinction between how the mortal and immortal characters learn new skills. As mortals level up, they'll naturally learn skills that can be used at any time. In addition to this, they can benefit from the skill associated with the accessory they have equipped. Immortals don't learn skills by themselves but can learn skills from accessories permanently over time. They can also skill link with mortals; if the linked mortal and immortal fight in the same battles, the immortal will eventually learn the skill. It's an interesting concept, but towards the end game, the immortal characters can become so powerful that the mortals are only there for skill linking purposes.
Any RPG worth its salt is packed full of side-quests, and you'll find plenty in this gargantuan four-disc adventure. Although the majority of the larger side-quests can't be undertaken until the latter stages, you'll be quickly introduced to the Thousand Years of Dreams quest. As you trek between towns and dungeons, certain events will trigger Kaim's mind to recall a memory. If you choose to view the dream there and then (you can also view them when you rest at an inn), you'll be treated to a short story from Kaim's long life. Although there are no actual cut-scenes to depict what's going on, these stories are extremely well written and a joy to read. The minimalist design of these dreams mean the text is accompanied only by music and a slide show of still images, but still, they have a profound effect. These memories aren't related to the main story of Lost Odyssey, rather they act as anecdotes with strong moral themes behind them, but they still provide a fascinating glimpse into Kaim's history and personality. Not everyone is going to enjoy reading a short story for a couple of minutes, but they're undoubtedly a fantastic (and unique) way to enhance the story and character development.
Part of the reason for the four-discs is an abundance of beautifully rendered CG cut-scenes. The intro sequence depicting a fierce battle between two warring nations is particularly breath-taking, and really sets the bar across the system. You might be worried about being bogged down by sequence after sequence, but you're rarely bombarded with them. Outside of extravagant CG, Lost Odyssey's visuals are inconsistent. Environments are well crafted and diverse, but some of the character modelling looks unimpressive and low-res (this is more an issue with NPCs rather than your party). It's particularly noticeable during in-engine cut-scenes where the camera gets in close; jaggy edges and poor textures are noticeable at times. The other side of the coin is the great use of camera tricks. Those same in-engine sequences that can have some technical deficiencies are given an extra sense of tension with subtle camera choreography; it serves to add more tension or emotion to a scene where relevant, and even during battles, the dynamic camera work can make a dungeon full of battles a lot more exciting.
For all its merits, Lost Odyssey has relatively few flaws. Frame-rate stuttering is the main culprit, and it's often at its worst in the pre-battle stages and in particularly busy environments. Although the encounter rate is steady, the relatively long load times for battles is frustrating and can bog you down. This is worse in the few dungeons that have frustrating and context-less puzzles, but on the whole the dungeon design is impressive.
After the few disappointing games that promised to be the solution to the 360's RPG problem, we finally have the answer in Lost Odyssey. Well crafted in every-which way with only a series of minor faults, this is an epic and charged adventure that any RPG fan is going to want to play. The box may not be adorned with the famous name of Final Fantasy, but it shares those impressive production values whilst managing to escape stand outside the shadow of its illustrious counterpart.