Lost Odyssey – “The (Real) Final Fantasy”
Few “Final Fantasy” fans like the new course of the series, with Yasumi Matsuno’s different approach in “FFXII” and the growing number of uninspired series’ spin offs. Let’s face it, after Square and Enix merged, Square’s brands have been milked far beyond comprehension: in between remakes, spin-offs, special editions and sequels, SquareEnix has released several dozens of games in the past years. And though that has netted a steady flow of cash into the company, it has sprouted a wave of disbelief in the company’s standards by long-time fans. For all of the motives above, it is fair to say that FFXIII is the least expected episode in the series in many years. So, when word got out that after leaving Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi formed a new company named Mistwalker, expectations reached an all time high for the “Final Fantasy” hardcore fans. “Blue Dragon” came out, and those expectations faded: it featured an archaic battle system and a horribly childish script. So, “Lost Odyssey” was released with little fanfare: reviewers everywhere dismissed the game as mild effort to repeat the “Final Fantasy” formula once more, and the hardcore fan-base of the 360 wasn’t mildly interested in a classical JRPG. So, the question that needs answering is: how does “Lost Odyssey” stack up when compared with the “Final fantasy” legacy?
“Lost Odyssey” is the tale of Kaim Argonar, an immortal man that has lived for over a thousand years. It is set in a high fantasy scenario with sci-fi elements, in everything similar to that of “FFVIII”, where a number of political conflicts have engaged the world’s countries in a series of wars. Of course, the reason why the world is at war is rather simple: there is a powerful and somewhat mad wizard that wants to take over the world with his magic, and uses these conflicts to gain power; alas, nothing new on this front. Sakaguchi’s scenario is really poor, so much that it pains me to write so. The plot is so obvious and dull it hurts: in the first few hours it will be plainly obvious who the bad guys are and what they’re plotting, and what the good guys’ purpose is. No plot twists, no grand finale, no hidden meanings, no nothing. Yet, the old Sakaguchi charm still manages to creep up, with a cast of touching and funny characters giving the story a much needed interest. Jansen, a womanizer with the appetite for booze and prostitutes is delightfully funny; Seth, a cynical pirate that is Jansen’s complete opposite, picks on him throughout the game making them a great duo for any comedic act; and then there’s Sed, Seth’s son, an elderly pirate that still calls his mother “Momma”. The rest of the cast isn’t as interesting, and can seem mostly underdeveloped, especially, the main character Kaim, who is so “emo” it becomes annoying: all his dialogues can be resumed to a series of careless, dry, uninteresting one-liners. But that is where things get interesting…
As you might already know, “Lost Odyssey” features collaboration from (supposedly) famous Japanese writer Kiyoshi Shigematsu with the name of “A 1000 years of dreams”, a collection of memories belonging to Kaim’s one thousand years of living. These memories were translated to screen only using text, a few abstract images and sound, and of course, Uematsu’s riveting soundtrack. The result is, by far, the best narratives “Lost Odyssey” has to offer. Here, Kaim is portrayed as a real, multifaceted character, with proper feelings and personality, and his life-episodes are much more deep and emotionally provocative than anything Sakaguchi can come up with. They can be described as somewhat philosophical tales about war and peace, love and hate, life and death, but nothing I could ever write could transmit how powerful and well written they really are. After the first one, I was literally hooked to these pieces of literary magic, that managed to make me weep (yes, weep) every single time, due to the intensity of those vivid dramatic moments, made all the more touching thanks to Uematsu’s music. It’s so damn good, that if “Lost Odyssey” focused on these “1000 Years of Memories” instead of the silly “Madman wants to take over the world” plot, it would probably have the best JRPG story ever. It’s not that Sakaguchi’s plot doesn’t have its share of powerful emotional moments, it does, it’s just that there are a lot of silly clichéd subplots in between each one, and they lack the depth present in Shigematsu’s tales.
The gameplay, as would be expected from Sakaguchi, is the standard in classical turn-based RPG’s, i.e. nothing new here as well. And if it does feel dated and overused, one must admit that at least it’s well executed. Some things have been improved: the player is fairly rewarded for exploring the world; grinding is not an issue, thanks to the use of an experience system that grants levels with great speed; and very importantly, the tradition of obscure side-quests is gone, with most of the hidden secrets in the game only requiring a healthy amount of exploration and reasoning to find. So if you like to reminisce about classical “Final fantasies”, then the gameplay will surely make you happy with nostalgia. Nobuo Uematsu’s fully orchestrated score will also make you very happy, as it follows the spirit of the series, meaning its one hell of a soundtrack. And it’s completely original, which allowed Uematsu to go to new, unvisited places, instead of having to rearrange time and time again the same melodies. The result does bear some nostalgia, but also manages to go forward in creating new sounds and styles: expect everything from metal to erudite music to be present.
On the technical side, the game has its share of ups and downs. The art-direction is very good and translates well into the extremely detailed Unreal Engine, producing beautiful sets and characters. It isn’t, by any means, nothing that hasn’t been done before: most of the aesthetic is reminiscent of past “Final Fantasy” games, and the usual Japanese quirky silliness (like dresses that lack fabric in bosom and rear) is all too present to make the world’s environment feel believable. The fact that the game doesn’t run all that well, doesn’t help: there are many loading-screens and stuttering-cutscenes waiting players who want to get through to the end of the game. At least, the cutscenes and FMV are the best I’ve ever seen, with fast cut editing, dynamic directing (finally a game that masters the use of low and high-angle shots) and use of simultaneous multiple POVs (giving a comic-book feel similar to that of Ang Lee’s underappreciated “Hulk”). Apart from the simplistic lighting, the marvelous visual direction by Roy Sato (animator of “The Flight of the Osiris” from the “Animatrix” short stories) is highly commendable.
So, is “Lost Odyssey” a worthy successor of the “Final Fantasy” legacy? The answer is… yes. Though “Lost Odyssey” has many flaws, it fares remarkably well in upholding the series’ concepts and production values. Everything one would expect from a “Final Fantasy” is present. Yet, “Final Fantasy” has always been a series that, in each episode, went further in the genre and “Lost Odyssey” feels exactly the opposite: it tries to go back to the roots of the genre. At first, that might be a letdown, but after crying endless times from reading every “1000 Years of Memories” and watching the gorgeous cutscenes, you’ll understand what Sakaguchi is trying to say with his game: why go forward, when the dramatic potential of the genre is still underachieved? “Lost Odyssey” is Sakaguchi’s greatest masterpiece, a game so heartbreaking, profound and beautiful that it fully deserves the title of “The (real) Final Fantasy”.