There aren’t many videogames beautiful and poignant enough to reduce me to tears, but Lost Odyssey was one of them. An exclusive JRPG for the Xbox 360, Lost Odyssey dealt with themes such as loss, love and isolation, and was criminally under-exposed. When gamers talk about the greatest RPGs of all-time, Lost Odyssey should be mentioned, as James Paton explains…
Celebrated game designer, Hironobu Sakaguchi, arguably developed, and later refined, the blueprint upon which an entire genre (what would become known as the JRPG) would be sculpted. He led Squaresoft towards universal acclaim and success, only to then part with the company after his first-and only-foray into film direction, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, resulted in a loss of over $50 million for the company as it failed to recoup its astronomical costs. Establishing his current studio, Mistwalker, in 2004 with financial backing from Microsoft, the company would go on to produce two magnificent, though wholly underappreciated, exclusive RPG titles for the Xbox 360. The latter of these, Lost Odyssey, being not only the superior of the two, but arguably one of the greatest, and most moving examples of a video game ever created.
Now whilst Sakaguchi’s former employers may have absconded, at least in part, from the ubiquitous traits that define, or rather defined, the traditionally insular RPG genre in an attempt to appeal to a broader market, Hironobu Sakaguchi instead opted to evolve and maintain these traditional systems and mechanics to ultimately craft a gaming experience that somehow managed to be both a beautifully realised homage to his past, and yet simultaneously being something utterly new and profound. And this is owed to, among other things, the inordinately high quality of writing that is prevalent throughout it.
Penned by Sakaguchi, along with award winning Japanese author, Kiyoshi Shigematsu, Lost Odyssey tells an altogether human story, a tale of a man in search of identity, a past – a man in search of himself. In this instance, the story’s protagonist is in fact an immortal by the name of Kaim Argonar, who slowly pieces together the scattered fragments of his storied past over the course of his adventure, these recollections are brought to life through more than thirty touching tales that delve into the very essence of what it means to be human, laying bare Kaim’s encounters with love, loss and struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity. The Athenian philosopher, Aristotle, said that “the aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” and this could not be truer of what Sakaguchi has managed to achieve with Lost Odyssey. So whilst the use of immortal characters and magic may condemn the story to reside within the realm of fantasy, its setting is ultimately derived from several important, real world events, primarily the industrial revolution and, of course, the cold war.
With the mass production of magic engines fully underway, an arms race erupts between the two pivotal nations in the world of Lost Odyssey (Uhra and Gohtze), pushing the planet towards the brink of full scale war. However, the weaponry that they yield fails to compare with the destructive might of the newly unearthed Grand Staff that the story’s antagonist (Gongorra) finds himself controlling, and it is power enough to claim the entire planet as his own dominion. This discovery could very well be interpreted as an allegorical mirroring of the creation of the nuclear bomb, which, for all of Germany’s scientific advancements, would be the decisive breakthrough in weapons technology during the Second World War. The opening sequence to the game further hints at this when it culminates in the eradication of two competing armies by the power of the Staff, the very fact that it is not used to the benefit of either of the two warring factions (Gongorra instead plans to instigate all-out war, and claim the world as his own) could very well be interpreted as an indication of Sakaguchi’s own belief that such weaponry will one day prove to be the undoing of all of mankind – though I can only speculate on this.
The most profoundly moving works of art are invariably those that tell us something about ourselves, bypassing societal diatribes in favour of emotional investment, not just from the creative forces behind it, but also from the many others lucky enough to witness its beauty and grasp its deeper meanings, forming bonds with it that will stand the test of time. There are so many aspects of the game that invariably create a gulf in quality between Lost Odyssey and the rest of the pack, features that define the experience and its lasting impact, and its wonderful narrative is just one of these.
Of almost equal importance, in terms of its contribution to this experience, is the wonderful score, written by the brilliant Nobuo Uematsu, it is, despite his many great contributions to video game music over the years, arguably his finest work to date. From the stirring strings and military style snare drumming of its epic main theme (made even more moving in its piano variation) to the flamenco inspired music of the world map screen, reminiscing the brilliant Vamo’ Alla Flamenco from Final Fantasy IX, the music of Lost Odyssey is as diverse as it is gorgeous. The battle music, in its many guises, is always a ferocious call to arms, and whilst the score perhaps relies a tad too much on the bombastic styling of composers such as Holst, it is punctuated by moments of such melancholic beauty as to remind the listener of Rachmaninov and, to a certain extent, Philip Glass too.
Though not in terms of its instrumentation or even the performances, but rather in tone and texture. The musical styles change repeatedly, hinting at Middle Eastern rhythms in one piece, only to then erupt into a boisterous rock song the next, it is surprising that Uematsu managed to keep it all so focused, never once failing to capture the right mood and never once losing sight of his end goal. There are nods to Vangelis too, as the music seems to subtly evoke the composers work on Blade Runner when it throbs over a deep, rumbling lower register and the arrangement pulls apart like a stage curtain to perfectly frame the on-screen action. There are hints towards Halo’s iconic percussion and numerous electronic compositions that would have sat comfortably alongside the composer’s pervious work on the much maligned, Blue Dragon. All of this is then wrapped up in delicate lines of harp and piano, the thunderous orchestral crescendos, filthy sounding guitars and spooky synthesisers all serving to add the finishing touches to an already ample audio package. Ultimately then, all that really needs be said is that Nobuo Uematsu has outdone himself yet again, his score is utterly magnificent in terms of its quality, diversity and its impact upon both the on screen proceedings as much as the player himself, with many themes and motifs living long in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have experienced this majestic masterpiece for themselves. It is a perfect accompaniment to an almost perfect game.
In regards to its gameplay mechanics, Lost Odyssey is a traditional turn based, Japanese RPG but with several important additions. The “wall” system sees the front row of characters creating a barrier that protects the rear line of the formation from damage, adding an element of strategy to the events, encouraging players to lead the front line with their physically strong characters and relegating magic users to take up position behind them. The strength of the wall is made up from the combined HP of the two front characters and is depleted when struck with successful attacks, resulting in increased damage being dealt to the rear guard, though the “wall” can be strengthened with certain forms of magic. Sakaguchi has also employed the “Aim Ring System” that encourages players to align two on screen concentric circles in order to perform one of the many additional moves that equipped rings can afford characters, including the addition of elemental attacks, enhanced physical damage or such moves as steal and the infliction of status ailments. Players are rated as “perfect”, “good” and “bad” depending on how closely aligned the rings are, and this naturally affects the relative effectiveness of the ring move itself.
Immortal characters start off the game with little or no special abilities and learn them in rather different ways from their mortal compatriots, who do so simply by levelling up or by equipping an item to temporarily gain additional powers. The immortal characters of Kaim, Sarah, Ming and Seth can permanently learn new moves through the equipping of items (this involves earning enough skill points whilst wearing it) and by “linking” with the mortal characters to study and eventually copy their own unique moves, these are again earned through the attainment of a set amount of skill points. So whilst primarily, the mechanics are based around systems that have been employed for many years, they have been given enough new content for them to feel fresh again, especially as so many other Japanese developers rush headlong towards a more action-RPG orientated feel, seeking additional interest from Western gamers and, ultimately, losing the very essence that defined their products in the process.
Whilst the majority of Western critics recognised the mature narrative, excellent character design and graphical splendour of Lost Odyssey, far too many ignored the intricacies of its truly brilliant combat system, declaring it as antiquated in the face of Square-Enix’s failed attempts to revitalise their own flagging fortunes with the faster paced, and yet surprisingly less interactive, combat found in the latest iterations of the Final Fantasy series. Critical performance, combined with the average gamer’s general lack of appreciation for the RPG genre, meant that Microsoft’s great hope for Japan failed to meet its expected sales figures, and ultimately led the U.S. giant to make one the most foolish moves in the company’s history, they parted ways with the developer, Mistwalker, and the dream that they had of creating a series to combat, and better, Final Fantasy died with it. One day, perhaps, future generations of gamers will look back and see the truly great games of our own time – owing to their general scarcity – as valuable antiquities, as though diamonds wrought from mines of mediocrity, and if so, then perhaps Lost Odyssey will finally find the recognition, as well as the audience, that it truly deserves.
– James Paton @TheBlackPage81
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Ever play Lost Odyssey? You really should. If you have, tell us about your experience in the comments below, as well as some of your favourite JRPGs.