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M$: Lost Odyssey Review
Jul 10th, 2008 by Dan

SPOILER ALERT: This review may contain story spoilers. Read at your own risk!

Sakaguchi’s new company Mistwalker has had its share of problems. For very perplexing reasons they chose to chiefly develop for the Xbox 360 with side development on the Nintendo DS. As a result, nothing they make for the home console, no matter how good, will ever sell all that well in their home country. His first 360 game, Blue Dragon, sold 200,000 copies in Japan, which may sound good at first, but when you look at Final Fantasy XII’s two million sales in Japan, a whole order of magnitude more, it suddenly doesn’t seem like Sakaguchi is getting a fair shake. In fact, both Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey are no better or worse than a typical Square Enix game, but their sales are typically much lower, with Lost Odyssey only selling around 100,000 in the Land of the Rising Sun.

So now that I’ve more or less made it clear that LO is about as good as any Final Fantasy game, lets delve a bit deeper into it, because there are some differentiating aspects that actually out-Final-Fantasy Final Fantasy.

The Story

Some of the greatest buzz about the release of Lost Odyssey revolved around the fact that its story was penned by the famed novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu. You’d be correct to be skeptical about this, bringing in outside, famous talent does not make a great story by default. So, does it fall flat on its face? Yes and no. The actual, plot-driven story is nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s about as Final Fantasy, clichéd of a story as you can find with an evil retainer, sorcerer dude who takes over a country, blah blah blah. I was able to predict most of the twists, which was disappointing, but there the real allure to the story comes from two things: the permise and the short stories.

Let’s start with the premise:

The main character, Kaim, is an immortal. He’s been around, as of the start of the game, for a thousand years. This factors into gameplay in a rather neat way, but also makes Kaim and his fellow immortals very compelling characters (unfortunately the only ones of the bunch). Kaim also suffers from amnesia (ugh…RPG cliché #1), but this actually informs and enhances our brand new gameplay mechanic: short stories.

What happens when you have an author write your story? You end up with short stories in your game. Depending on what part of the game you are in and what part of the map you walk by, you will trigger one of Kaim’s lost memories. These play out as breaks in gameplay as you read these expertly written short stories illustrating the various themes of the game. This is basically hell for gamers like my buddy Phil who hate gameplay interruptions like cutscenes, but for me these great little stories really flesh out the characters that would otherwise be pretty generic.

Lost Odyssey succeeds because its storytelling methods are so innovative and far-reaching. While the plot itself and its resolution is more or less mundane, the idea that these characters have literally been around for a thousand years and bring with them maturity and characterization to go with it makes for a satisfying experience.

Something should be said about the non-immortal cast though. Aside from Jansen, the rogue-ish comic relief (in personality, not in class. He’s a black mage), the mortal characters range from lame to downright irritating. The wonder twins, clear ripoffs of Palom and Porom from Final Fantasy IV, are the spunky girl that we’ve seen way too often and the shy, quiet, ANNOYING boy that comes from anime. Tolten is the whiny, un-confident, whiny (it needs to be said twice) king-in-training and Sed is just the uninspired grizzled old guy, although he’s the best of the riffraff.

Gameplay

This isn’t anything that radically different from any other turn-based RPG. You have the usual spells and techniques, with two small wrinkles.

The first of these gameplay differences comes from equippable rings. These rings that you equip can add effects to your attacks, from added effectiveness to enemy types to elements or status effects. In order to activate these effects, you must hold a trigger and time the intersection of two rings. Perfect alignment leads to higher damage or more probable status effects.

Immortals make up the next significant gameplay change. Since none of the immortals can die, according to the story, none of them can really die in battle either. If an enemy manages to fell one of your immortal characters, they will go down for about two turns, then automatically resurrect with close to half of their health. If everyone in your party happens to be down at the same time, you do lose the battle, but it’s a pretty nice to know that if an immortal goes down you can just wait it out. Tied into the immortal system is the way that skills are allocated to immortals. Partying with mortals allows immortals to “Skill Link” and learn the specialty skills of the rest of their party. These skills can then be implemented by the immortals at any time once learned, even if the mortals aren’t in the battle with them.

Like I said earlier, everything else is what you’d expect from a turn-based RPG, no surprises there.

Graphics

If you thought that Sakaguchi did some beautiful work on the PS2, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The second of his 360 RPGs and the first to feature more realistic characters (Blue Dragon’s characters were more anime-like, created by Akira Toriyama), Lost Odyssey is about the most gorgeous game I’ve ever seen. I just got a hold of a new, large, 1080p-capable television, and let me tell you, it looks fantastic. Let me also say that it’s not perfect, especially due to the Unreal engine that’s so in vogue nowadays.

As an Unreal engine game, Lost Odyssey suffers from most of the same shortcomings of other games of its type. Load times are long, framerates are far, FAR from stable. The game frequently stutters and is sometimes unstable. In my 60 to 70 hours of gameplay, I had the game freeze on me at least twice. The beauty and flexibility of the Unreal engine comes at a real price, but at least its not like the typical dark, drab, brown shooters mostly put on the Unreal engine, there are some genuinely bright and colorful vistas and locales.

Sound

A close friend of Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu composed the themes and music of Lost Odyssey, but he doesn’t do anything super-special in the score for this game. In fact, it’s more or less a forgettable soundtrack that I mostly kept turned down in favor of listening to my own music. Everything else is pretty crisp and clear, but the English voice cast is pretty boring and annoying. Lucky for you and anyone in auditory range, you can elect to listen to the Japanese voice cast, but you end up with odd lip syncing and subtitling since they are aligned to the English vocal track, not the Japanese one. This is disappointing to be in both video games and anime, since it means the subs cater to the dubs, meaning they aren’t translations, but transcriptions. The difference is subtle, but, like I said, disappointing.

Final Verdict

Final Fantasy XII was a pretty far departure from the typical Final Fantasy fare, with real-time combat, a different loot system, and a shift away from the more recent Final Fantasy narrative style. In a sense, Lost Odyssey is the true Final Fantasy XI. If that’s what you’re looking for, pick this game up. The concept and characterization of the immortals is spot on and the short stories really do flesh out the game’s story and make it stand apart. Lost Odyssey isn’t going to blow you away with its gameplay and story, it’s just gonna fill that RPG-shaped hole in your heart, especially if you only own an Xbox. While a bit lengthy for a rental, it’s more or less a one-playthrough event, so rent or buy used if this sounds appealing. It’s definitely a good game that’s worth playing if you can get your hands on it and love JRPGS.

M$: Squeenix RPGs on the Way / Sony: MG Week MGS Retrospective / Abbreviated Wednesday Morning Quarterback: FL Marlins Finally Overcoming Slump?
Jun 11th, 2008 by Dan

We interrupt your regularly scheduled sports updates to bring you trailers of three Square Enix announced RPGs for the Xbox 360:

The first is The Last Remnant:

Next we have Star Ocean 4 (AKA Star Ocean: The Last Hope):

And last we have Infinite Undiscovery:Of the three, The Last Remnant impresses and attracts me the most. Star Ocean has never really been a franchise that calls to me, but it also looks kind of neat. Infinite Undiscovery, on top of being an Action RPG (confirmed by IGN), seems to have pretty weak production values compared to the other two. Granted, Star Ocean didn’t really show any in-game footage, but its pre-rendered stuff looked better too. Maybe Infinite Undiscovery is always running in-engine?

All of these games are being released “For the Xbox,” but Square Enix has been relatively dodgy on the question of exclusivity with some games and I think they’ve even confirmed that PS3 versions would hit at some point with others (I’d have to go check and, well, I don’t care that much. The implications are clear though: Square Enix wants a greater market share. There could even be some Sakaguchi animosity hidden beneath their decision, since he’s more or less enjoyed a monopoly on the Xbox 360 JRPG market.

In other gaming news, Metal Gear Solid 4 comes out tomorrow! Two new MG Retrospectives have come out since I last wrote about them:

Part 4:

Part 5:

And last, some sports news:

Hanley Ramirez has finally been swinging that bat and knocking the ball over the fence. The past few games have seen his homerun count put him in the top 25, last I checked. Keep it up buddy.

This current series with the Phillies will be a vital test for the Marlins. With the Phils in 1st place, each game we lose will push us further away from the coveted top spot. We started out strong last night with a 5-4 win. Let’s keep it up for the next two.

Game Overview Editorial: Difficulty in Video Games
May 8th, 2008 by Dan

You’re playing through an RPG. You’ve gained five levels, found some sweet equipment drops, minimized the use of your precious items, and then it happens. You come up against a behemoth of a monster. Your party is decimated, your progress lost, your controller tossed through the screen.

Does this even begin to sound familiar to anyone? It’s like modern gaming, in an effort to bring in an even broader audience, has started to dumb down our video game experience. Think back to the last four, at the very least, Final Fantasy games (not counting XI). Aside from side quest bosses who are geared to be a challenge, how often did you even find yourself remotely challenged in these games? I honestly don’t think I worried much about save points in any of these games (aside from when I was hunting the harder mobs in XII) at all. There was none of that between-save-point stress and worry that a game with any difficulty might throw at me. I just go on through the game, breezing through the fights and find myself at the final boss, sometimes taking more than one try to kill him, but, more often than not, just breezing through him too.

It’s not just RPGs either. Think back to Mario Galaxy. The only challenge in that game came from the green stars where the developers were given free range to punish players into some of the toughest, most fun challenges possible. Even The Legend of Zelda isn’t safe. The last two console installments, The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, were among the easiest games I have ever played. Sure, their stories were epic and fun, but the bosses were jokes compared to past Zelda games. They dealt close to no heart damage, they had hyper-predictable patterns, and they were just plain not challenging. I don’t think that I’ve evolved much in skill as a gamer since about the sixth grade and I definitely remember more challenge in both Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past when I played them (late to the game, I know).

There is hope. Mistwalker’s latest RPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey, will actually make you hope that a save point is imminent. The enemies will brutalize you if you mess up. It seems odd that I’m actually hoping for a game to punish me for screwing up or not leveling up, but I just can’t take a game that doesn’t even challenge me in the slightest. I consume games mainly for story, this is true, but I don’t want the story-telling to come so easily that I might as well be watching a movie or reading a book. It can get frustrating when a game is difficult because it’s broken or the computer cheats :cough: Mario Kart Wii :cough:, but it’s also tremendously satisfying to spend an hour bashing your head against the wall trying to defeat a boss only to finally get it down and win with just a sliver of health left.

This is why I look forward to the day when I will be able to devote more time to Persona 3: FES. The short time I spent with the game already almost beat me in a random encounter and I’m sure that an actual boss will own me several times. I fully believe that a game should punish you for making a mistake and I already know from experience that Persona will wail on me for being an idiot.

There’s certainly a market for casual games and casual gamers out there, one only needs to look to the Wii to see that fact with obvious clarity, but surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for developers to go out and actually make a game tough for players. The inclusion of difficulty levels, even with the fact that it means more work, will satisfy me. Here’s hoping that we see harder games in the future.

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