Before Final Fantasy VII, RPGs were 2D, with hand-drawn graphics and animation, emphasizing storytelling over graphics. Albert Odyssey fits the description of the better 16-bit RPGs, complete with sprite-based graphics and a good story. Released as Albert Odyssey Gaiden in Japan, Working Designs has polished the game's interface and translated the script to English for release in the US.
The game's story revolves around Pike, a young boy who has never known his real family - raised by harpies, surrounded by the tranquility of the forest. When Pike is a teenager, the harpy village is suddenly attacked, and Pike and his adopted sister Laia are turned to stone. Cirrus, the sword originally held by his father and then by his guardian, is able to rescue him - but Laia is not so lucky. Pike leaves the safety of the harpy village for the first time to find a way to save Laia from her prison of stone. Along the way, Pike meets up with others who have been affected by the same group of hell-bent magicians and warriors, who join him to fight them together.
Working Designs has done a great job scripting the game, with the right amount of serious story development paced with the comic relief that an RPG needs. Sometimes, the comedy does seem a bit out of place during serious moments, but overall it's done well and in the right places. One thing I noticed after playing parts of the game a second time is that the dialogue responses and choices you make don't affect the course of the game at all. Many times dialogue choices are so obvious (usually the right answer is on the top), that they draw you away from the progressing storyline. Answering incorrectly may add some dialogue in spots, but the outcome is almost always going to be the same.
In addition to refining the writing, Working Designs has made improvements to the way the game plays. The Japanese version was plagued by excessive load times going in and out of battles. WD has cut that time by almost half; although the load time still isn't nonexistent, it is tolerable. Other smaller improvements include cutting down on the frequency of battles, speeding up diagonal walking, adjusting experience points, and cleaning up the menu system.
The graphics are very clean hand-drawn 2D sprites, without hit-you-over-your-head graphic effects for attacks and magic until well into the game. Magic spells are impressive, but only a few characters have strong magic attacks. Not all characters will get every magic ability, and some are completely without recover spells. Therefore it's necessary to keep the whole party healthy instead of sacrificing a member or two to destroy a boss character. I found myself designating members of the party to replenish the energy of other characters during big battles, while stronger fighters focused on big attacks. The battle system is turn-based and is set up so that it remembers what attack you used last, in case you just want to continue the same attack throughout a battle.
The game's music is a selection of about 17 classical-style tunes, which fit the mood at just the right moments. Although not as good as the music in the Final Fantasy series, there are tunes here that will stick in your head until after the power is turned off. There is some speech at the very beginning but almost none throughout the remainder of the game.
It's very easy to get around the game's world. When you're close to the end of the game you can teleport between locations and eventually "fly the friendly skies" in your very own airship. Each of the game's towns has its own unique look, so it's not town after town with the same architecture and people. But with the attention to detail spent on the towns and locations, other areas and dungeons fall amazingly short on detail until the very end of the game. Some of the "shortest" areas of the game come right before the end, when the tension normally escalates. And then the end dungeon in Fargasta is completely unlike anything in the game before it and it takes hours to figure out. It would've been better to have a few of the challenging Fargasta elements in some of the earlier dungeons, or improved design so that the boss-holding dungeons themselves would have been more difficult than they ended up being.
If the progression through the dungeons had been a little better and been more imaginative in design, the game would've been more enjoyable. I liked playing through the Fargasta section of the game, even though it was really hard, but I would like to have seen that kind of design present in the areas leading up to it. Also, the game's ending lacked closure. With as strong a storyline as it has, I was looking for more after the last battle. On a positive note, the improvements Working Designs has made to the game place it above its Japanese counterpart, and the game's graphics and interface are excellent. Although there are better RPGs out there, Albert Odyssey delivers where it counts.