Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lost Odyssey (Xbox 360)

You may have noticed my seeming disappearance from the site, and that is because in general game reviews take a lot longer to prepare than film reviews. Not just that, but I’ve been fucking slack. Recently, however, I have been entangled with in Mystwalker’s fantastically epic Lost Odyssey. Before I get into the review itself, I feel that I should qualify my experience with it. Presently, my play time of this game is 21 hours and on the third DVD of four, so bear in mind this review is not relevant to the whole game but so far it has been very consistent so unless it goes drastically wrong at the end, this should be accurate.

So, on to the game itself. In many ways, the game is the spiritual successor to the Final Fantasy series, though seeing as my experience of those was the woeful third instalment on the Nintendo DS, I feel it’s an improvement. It’s an incredibly linear game, to the extent that they may as well have just left you walking forwards constantly and given options for route changes every now and again (a la Killer 7). You can usually move three metres to the left or right of the path, but it doesn’t make too much difference. It has about as much of an impact as tilting your head while sitting in a train- you get a slightly different view, but you’re still on rails. There are no narrative choices to affect the outcome either. Literally it’s a case of moving from A to Z via the rest of the alphabet. In fact, bollocks to it, it could have just been a movie- you have that much control over the world. Which isn't so much of a problem when the world is this well developed.

But seeing as this is going to be an overwhelmingly positive review, there must be something worth playing, right?! Well yes, but that comes with the battle system and the story itself. Combat is a purely turn based affair, with each side patiently waiting to lay the smackdown on one another in a highly civilised manner, kind of how I’d imagine a Jane Austin rewrite of Fight Club. But aside from eschewing realism, it does add a lot to the game as it leaves room for a huge amount of micro management of your team and makes you think about the actions of every team member. It’s easy to do otherwise, most action games degenerate into button mashing for the average person. Or maybe just me.

It’s fun, but I’m pretty sure that the battle system could have been done in about 1980, but then again most games these days are shiny rehashes of ones from ten years ago, so it’d be harsh to single this one out. The only downside is the reliance on random encounters and a stealth section, both of which I’d hoped would fuck right off a long time ago.

The story is absolutely superb for the most part and this is why I praise Lost Odyssey so highly. It focuses on the lonely journey of skimpily dressed, immortal warrior Kaim trying to understand why he can’t remember the last thousand years. However, his luck is mixed henceforth; on the plus side he finds himself not so lonely with a further three amnesiac immortals, but on the downside also finding out that he’s pretty much lumbered with saving the world. The story is delivered through cut scenes, as well as memories re-emerging from Kaim’s past life. The cut scenes are beautifully animated (just watch the opening battle sequence) and really do help build the steampunk style world of the game. The game design and Unreal 3 powered visuals continue this quality into the gameplay, and they’ve created a very immersive experience, with a wealth of storytelling portrayed simply through looking at the architecture, fashions and creatures, something rarely done this well.

As well as these, the memories are short stories presented in text. This may seem slightly anachronistic (another flashback to the Eighties? Depeche Mode should’ve done the soundtrack) and it is, but the quality of the writing is absolutely superb for a game and really creates a sense of depth to the protagonist not often seen in virtual worlds. Unfortunately, it appears there are different writers for the back-story and the game narrative, with the memory authors seemingly more capable of avoiding cliché than the in game ones. There are some unforgivable logic jumps, but overall it’s much better than most games. Anyway, Doctor Who shows that mass audiences had no problems accepting the Deus Ex Machina.

The characters themselves are a mixed bag. The immortals are split between the close combat and magic, and bizarrely also fits with how interesting they are. The close combat characters (Kaim and the lady pirate Seth) are both finely written, and have a strange good-cop-bad-cop dynamic on conversation. The magic users are terrible though. Have you ever been to the pub and there’s someone who just refuses to say anything, or at best remains monosyllabic? Well these are their digital cousins. The character design is bizarrely kinky especially, for the QUEEN of one of the regions. It actually does detract from the game as it really serves no purpose, and frankly looks ridiculous. The mortals suffer with a similar qualitative disparity, with the mage Jansen providing a highlight. Basically he’s a hard drinking, foppish character with a penchant for sleeping around. Basically imagine Russell Brand in pixel format. There are also some children who join the party but they really only serve to be both A- annoying and B- remove any menace from the enemies.

Despite the generally good hero design, the villainous Gondora (it’s revealed early on, and hammered home for the rest of the game so don’t worry) is about as one dimensional as they come. All belly laughs and world destruction plans; he might as well just set some sharks with head mounted laser beams and be done with it.

Still with me? Good. The game is lengthy too, so you’d best be able to commit to reading text from the screen for protracted periods of time. In terms of length you’re probably looking at forty hours for the main game and god knows how many for the side quests. The side quests presented here seem to involve wandering around for hours looking for several gems/ flowers/ sandwiches/ robot turkeys, and combined with the random encounters can drag somewhat. I generally ignore these, but I know some people love this sort of thing, and it’s hard to mark a game down for extra content.

Incidentally, if you can cope with subtitles remember to play the game in Japanese with English subtitles. Not only does the story seem to make more sense (not sure why, the same applies with the movie "Akira") in its native language, but the English voice acting is genuinely terrible.

Although I’ve given mixed remarks, I really recommend Lost Odyssey and really couldn’t knock it for value. The pacing is slow, but the game is very lengthy and packed with things to do. I like the pace though, it’s the kind of thing you can sit back and relax with, rather than the hyper frenetic in your face nature of most games. It’s a wonderful experience, and one that you can find yourself very easily Lost in. Always good to finish on a new low.