There’s a game I keep coming back to every few years. It’s Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360. Developed by Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker Studios, it’s basically Final Fantasy mixed with the old show about immortals, Highlander.
The first two times I played it, I got to the White Boa, then stopped. Life just got in the way and while I really enjoyed it, I moved onto something else. The third time I came back to it, I promised myself I’d actually finish the game. I’m glad I did, as I’m having a blast.
Final Fantasy has changed a lot in its last three main series single-player outings. FFXII, XIII, and XV have incorporated simulation and action RPG elements to the point where they feel like very different games. So I was pleasantly surprised when I loaded up Lost Odyssey and it felt like I’d warped back to the PS1 era of Final Fantasy games. That meant turn-based combat, intricate stories that focus on character interactions, and gorgeous worlds that are fun to explore. Even the menus reminded me of the PS1 JRPGs.
Lost Odyssey is about the immortal, Kaim, who’s lost his memory. He doesn’t seem interested in retrieving it as we learn how his past is bound up in tragedy. We first come across him in the midst of a battle between the nations of the Uhra and the Khent. As the conflict intensifies, a meteor that would have made Sephiroth proud wipes out both forces. Kaim is one of the few survivors thanks to his immortality. He walks through the decimated ruins of the battlefield, embers, ash, and smoke everywhere. The sense of futility and desperation weighs down on him. He’s not a hero running to the rescue. His actions on behalf of the Uhra were pointless. Despite his strength, he can’t actually help anyone. It’s as bleak an introduction to a game as I’ve seen.
He eventually bumps into another immortal, Seth. She, too, has lost her memories. I’m not immortal, but it’s hard for me to remember most things from 10-20 years ago. I can’t imagine what shape my memory would be in with a thousand years of history weighing down on me. For Kaim, memories start seeping back through his dreams. I love how they’re triggered by random events. At one point, he meets a kid who exuberantly declares he wants to be a mercenary when he grows up. This evokes Kaim’s past memory of a time he was in war with a young mercenary who talked big, but eventually was so overcome by fear, he fled the battle scene. There’s a wistful pain to these memories, as time has dulled the wounds and experience has given Kaim a broader perspective on human nature.
Many of these memories come in the form of textual short stories. Honestly, I feel conflicted about these. On one hand, they’re beautifully written and are poignant short stories. But they also break the immersion in the game and feel like a jarring diversion. I wish somehow these sequences could have better blended into the game, maybe with a stronger visual element that would have helped make them more cohesive.
The interactions between the characters of Lost Odyssey are a lot of fun. I’m probably going to sound like a broken record, but I had flashbacks to the dialogue in games like FFIX and even Chrono Trigger. The party members argue, banter, get on each other’s nerves, but somehow find a way to come together to fight a greater evil. The magician, Jansen, acts as comedic relief for the party. When he initially joined, I couldn’t decide whether he was annoying or amusing. After spending some time with him, he became one of the most interesting characters in the game and always has a perfectly timed quip to shake things up.
Kaim is reserved and brooding, but he’s also surprisingly vulnerable. When the party gets locked up in a prison, Kaim actually confesses he’s scared – not by his imprisonment, but by his own dreams and what they portend. As an immortal, he basically doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about him.
Seth’s memories as a pirate slowly creep back to her, all while she’s trying to understand the political machinations going on around her. She balances Jansen’s ridiculous whining, but also tries to bring more cheer for Kaim as they try to figure out the mysteries behind the giant magical Staff protruding high up into the sky.
The world of Lost Odyssey is spectacular, combining fixed cameras and full 3D environments. The kingdom of Numara looks stunning with its seaside locale and sprawling architecture. I could see how their isolationist philosophy and long peace had inspired its people to focus on their culture. People debate art in the Artists’ Salon, a Philosopher’s Chamber welcomes the brightest minds of the kingdom, and there’s even special types of custom-made equipment in a boutique. When we learn their General Kakanas wants to shift priorities and take on a more belligerent position, I was as angry and upset as their queen. Paradise was being threatened.
It’s also really nice to enter a new town and hear people say weirdly quizzical things while they go about their business. A lot of RPGs these days do have towns bustling with people, but they don’t interact with you unless they’re giving you a sidequest or selling you something. The cities of Lost Odyssey felt a lot more alive in that sense.
The battle system is turn-based, which may feel archaic to some. I didn’t mind it at all, and the addition of an Aim Ring System, similar to the Shadow Hearts series, adds a timing element to it that makes the attacks feel like a rush. Party arrangement is important as the front line forms a wall that protects the rear forces, usually composed of magicians who are physically weaker. The battles themselves are tough and there were a few times I actually lost because I didn’t plan carefully enough. There’s a story-based encounter against Numarian cavalry in the Ghost Town that I struggled with the first two times I faced them. After getting my butt handed to me, I re-strategised, starting the battle off with some shield spells to make my immortals stronger against the cavalry’s charge, then using flare bombs to dispose of the soldiers. I also changed up the rings I’d assembled to give a slight boost to my offensive skills and that made the difference.
I’ve long harped about RPGs that offer you a huge cast of playable characters, but only allow you to take three of them into battle. Lost Odyssey allows a party of up to five, which feels like the perfect balance. Thank you, Mistwalker.
Towards the end of the first disc, Kaim meets up with two kids, Cooke and Mack, who are defending a flower garden. Something about them seems familiar to Kaim and the party goes home with the children after they invite them to stay over. When Kaim sees their mother, Lirum, memories flood back into him. He realises she is actually his daughter and these two siblings are his grandkids. Lirum is on her deathbed, but she is so happy to see her father one last time. Relieved that Kaim can take care of her children, she passes on.
The funeral procession that follows is sombre, but also incredibly moving. Lirum’s body is resting on a boat that is tied to the shore by multiple ropes. Friends of the family hold unlit torches and speak with Cooke and Mack, telling them how important Lirum was to their lives. The children in turn light the torches, which the respective people then use to burn one of the ropes holding Lirum’s boat. Once they finish, Cooke and Mack burn the final two ropes, causing her vessel to float away.
Kaim, who’d mostly been reserved until that point in the game, opens up to his grandchildren, doing his best to comfort them. Even Jansen is surprised at how different Kaim is around them. The little details here make the difference. When you check the shelves, you can get a medical prognosis about Lirum’s deteriorating condition. Rather than buy flowers or torches, you have to gather them from the ghost town, and it’s a slow, almost laborious process. To further illustrate how impoverished they were, when you check Lirum’s bedroom cabinet, you find only one gold piece in contrast to most other homes where you find a lot more.
I got choked up thinking about how heartbreaking it must have been for Kaim to see his child this way.
I’m totally hooked on Lost Odyssey. I’ve wondered why I never finished it the first two times through. Fortunately, similar to the immortals, I forget the story every time I come back. I’m hoping the third time is the charm and I can finally make my way through and uncover more answers to the questions I have, like why is the villain, Gongora, plotting to re-establish the monarchy? How is he involved with the amnesia of the immortals? Where did all the monsters infecting the Grand Staff come from? And who threw that big-ass meteor down on me at the beginning of the game?
One of the bigger questions I have is about JRPGs themselves: do I prefer JRPGs in the older traditional style I’d grown up with?
My honest opinion is that I hope there’s room for games like Lost Odyssey as much as FFXV. Persona V and Dragon Quest XI are turn-based, but had enough evolution in their systems where the battles never felt tedious. They both also told really great stories and had memorable characters that made them some of the best games of the generation. I really did enjoy the combat of FFXV and found there were even things I liked about the paradigm shifts of FFXIII. But Lost Odyssey hits a sweet spot for me and I like the old school mechanics. I still have a ways to go before I finish Lost Odyssey, but it feels like I’m spending time with a friend I haven’t seen in ages again. I might not have a thousand years, but I’m in no rush to speed through.