One Year of Wasted Dreams

Without intending this to become a review site at all, I did waste over 120 hours of gaming playing Lost Odyssey during the last year, so I feel it would be remiss of me to let this experience pass by without some detailed Agoner musings on it. Note, there will be some spoilers in this post, so if that bothers you, please look away now – although of course I’d love it if you’d also come back and have a read later. 🙂

You may be questioning why someone with my general taste in games was even playing a Japanese RPG. Without getting into the topic of my history with JRPGs too heavily, in the past I have really enjoyed the very best of this genre (eg. Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 6, Panzer Dragoon Saga). Yet I have been so utterly disgusted by the worst of this genre, that some of the games I consider the worst games ever made fall into this category – eg. Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics. In fact it was this phase of atrocious JRPG’s on the Sony Playstation that seemed to rip everything I loved out of the genre, cruelly destroying the gameplay I enjoyed with the combined assault of terrible 3d graphics, fixed story cut scenes, huge on-rails game sections, cutout characters and moronic game systems, that had led me to all but give up on JRPGs entirely. I’d certainly given up all hope with Squaresoft/Squenix.

However it had been a long time now, and I guess I didn’t really have high hopes for much anymore, but at least a game slightly apart from ‘mainstream’ JRPG crowd had a chance it could be better, so I took a look around. The other major reason I was looking for one was that I was specifically wanting a game on my 360 that I term a ‘mong’ game, by that I mean a game I can play when I am ‘monged out’ – ie: tired, distracted, eating etc. This meant I wanted it to have little-to-no arcade skills at all – as almost every other game I had on my 360 needed some. I tried out a few other titles like Blue Dragon and Eternal Sonata, and even Western RPGs like Mass Effect, but all of them seemed to have too much of some kind of dexterity skill element in their games, whereas Lost Odyssey, short of it’s very easy and also non-essential ring attack system, had none at all. I also went into the game, and this critique, effectively blind on purpose, reading very little about it at all as I wanted to get away from any preconceptions I might have about this kind of game.

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For a while, despite it suffering from many things I lament about the ‘modern’ JRPG, I was calling Lost Odyssey the first JRPG in years that didn’t annoy me. The game system didn’t seem to be moronic for a long time, but in the end, it did break down. Right from the start it contained the usual wealth of completely useless attacks and abilities, yet there did seem to also be an interesting set of viable options, at least for optimising and ‘power gaming’ that it kept things interesting, and I was very impressed to actually get killed by the first boss in the game. And oddly, that tiny bit of skill needed with the ring attacks did keep my interest, as it added an element to the combat that meant perfecting the logistics of any particular battle in the game was never an absolute certainty. However, by the mid to latter stages of the game I felt that I had completely broken the system. I was ending up coming out of every battle with a party of completely full health & magic with very little thought or clever tactics at all.

One of the problems was that even without purposefully trying to “level up” my main characters, the immortals, all reached the maximum experience level (99) long before the end of the game. Now I had deliberately tried to get all the available skills, showing the parts of my manager & hoarder nature when playing certain kinds of games, but it was only around level 94 or so I actually went for levelling, mainly just to see if 99 really was the maximum. One of the reasons for this was, appropriately perhaps given the title, I got so very lost many times. Whenever the areas became too maze-like I tended to get totally confused & ended up walking around in circles. I find that the fact that the random battles take you away from the main game screens (& maps) really disorientating, and the fact this was, as mentioned, a ‘mong game’ for me meant I was generally rather out of it and tired when playing it, really didn’t help. The excess of random battles I faced through getting lost repeatedly was very likely a contributing factor in making the game’s levelling curve seem bizarre to me.

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In the end, almost without realising I was at the end of the game, I killed the “last boss” in only a handful of turns without any of my characters even ending up damaged at all. In fact, whilst I was annoyed that the game made me wait until it’s last disk to offer much in the way of any kind of open ended gameplay, it was precisely when this open ended portion kicked in that the gameplay started to break and playing started to drag & become really tedious. Perhaps it would have been better off being ‘on rails’ throughout, but the fact it was all contained in one final ‘free play’ section was almost as poor design really. The game became so very easy for so long, it felt kind of pointless to me. When I did complete it, as you might have guessed by my tone and the title of this post, I felt rather empty, like I’d wasted my time on this game, and not to mention slightly glad it was over. Yet I was also annoyed by the game for not delivering more. I didn’t feel interested to go and hunt for all the things I’d missed, which judging by the Achievements there are quite a few, and I certainly wasn’t enticed by the offer of yet more content, especially not soon after the NXE launched:

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Worst use of MS Points ever? 😉

Yet another game system issue was how homogeneous the characters became towards the end of the game. All of the  non-immortal characters ended up being little more than “skill feeders” for the immortals, so they offered nothing else once they had maxed their skills. And because any skill set can be mapped to any immortal, you ended up finding the perfect mix and then keeping them identical. And of course two of the characters’ natural weapons and stats meant they were obviously perfect for being front-line fighters and the other two meant they were perfect for being back-row casters, so why would you try anything else? All of the interesting options offered by the front / back row system, such as taunting from a back row, all soon became worthless to anyone wanting to optimise combat. As usual, so many abilities were pointless as they failed to take the hidden action cost of a characters turn into account. Some of them were so obviously pointless it beggared belief; notably some of the special attacks like a 3-hit combo attack that took two turns to do, when during the in the same time you could’ve done two 2-hit combos…

But back to the characters; literally the only interesting decision I found myself having to make in the game was which of my mortals to ‘take along for the ride’ – and even then, it ended up being an obvious choice, as Sed was the only character offering anything unique in the entire game in fact, with his ability to always ignore the enemies back-row guarding effect with his gun attacks. I also don’t doubt there would be a way to map even this ability onto the immortals too if I’d completed everything in the game. It really is exasperating to me to see every multi-character JRPG I’ve played since the SNES make this mistake. I can’t believe that the concept of having a mixed party of characters with each offering truly unique game abilities is the sole domain of Final Fantasy 6 still. It makes any game of this kind so much more interesting tactically.

It was also somewhat jarring for me to find this game actually forced me to take notes in places. Yes, actual literal pencil and paper notes. Now whilst this was something of a regular occurance in games in the distant past, it was pretty odd to have to do it these days, especially when most ‘RPG’ style games, not to mention MMORPGs have such detailed Quest systems and the like.

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But, since this is an ‘RPG’ (even if it’s not at all really) what about the story? Well, for me, whilst the story can interest me a lot in a game, it’s really a very minor element, even for an ‘RPG’. It just isn’t the game. The reason I enjoy games and especially video games over all other forms of entertainment is for their interactive elements, and generally, that doesn’t include the story to any great degree. Again, this is a huge topic of discussion in itself, but suffice to say, like so many games I found the story in Lost Odyssey started out reasonably interesting & even touching at times, but ended up turning incredibly generic and boring, and then to worse.

What made this a really tragic shame for Odyssey, was that the immortal’s dream sequences, the “Thousand Years of Dreams” as the game calls them, were truly excellent. These were some of the best written pieces I’ve ever seen in any video game, and for a while, they seemed to really blend with and enhance the main story for the game. The dream sequences are just short stories of text, blended with music and generally static or slowly moving background graphics – the best examples of these became quite literally poetic in the way they blended the elements. Now whilst it does perhaps speak to my emotional state at times in the past year, and while it does nothing but prove a game has never made me cry, I did in fact get moved to tears a great deal of times by these narrative sections.

But once into the latter stages, instead of working with the main game story, they were actually pulling in opposite directions completely! It was as if they were written by completely different writers and teams; which in fact, they were. So as the game’s main plot descended to complete generic farce for the most part, with only touches of melodrama that appealed to me, the moving tragedies of the dream sequences became totally at odds with this. So in the ‘main game’ I’d be seeing some gobble-di-gook Star Trek “tech” explanation of how the immortal characters had come from some other dimension and had come into this other world to observe it’s effect on theirs or some other such mumbo-jumbo, and then a few minutes later I’d be seeing a morbidly emotional dream sequence where that same character would be questioning the reason for their immortal existence – which they, and more importantly you, the player, now had complete knowledge as to why.

I can’t really labour the starkness of this contrast enough, as it completely removed any vested interest I had in the the story or the characters. The main storyline ending was in fact simply atrocious in this regard, figuratively pissing over all of the earlier superb dream parts, seemingly laughing as it defecated on their every premise. You’ve witnessed harrowing thoughts on how soul-destroying immortality could actually be in terms of someone’s view on life, love, emotional state, war and philosophy. Then you are forced to bear witness to mortal and immortal characters chosing to get married and vowing to “love each other forever”… Now I’ve heard forever’s a long time, baby. Yeh, infinitely moreso for an immortal I’d imagine. The real final straw for me though was to hear the main character utter the immortal line “immortality’s not so bad…” without a care or consideration that he would outlive his fostered children that he was happily musing about bringing up.  It was almost as if it was mocking the player, assuming they would be too stupid to think of the flaws in what was being said, not to mention the writer of the Thousand Years of Dreams.

For my final thoughts though, I do wonder if I am simply too much of a challenge-seeking Agoner to ever really enjoy a game of this nature any more. But the fact remains that for large parts of the game I was enjoying it, even when it wasn’t especially challenging to actually ‘win’, it was challenging my ability to optimise and collect in a logistical play manner. I also even felt some fun of the Juggernaught player too. And dispatching the last boss with barely a scratch did unleash a small amount of fiero in me. Not that it proved to be actually challenging, but it was perhaps my own anticipation that it would be challenging that gave rise to this emotion perhaps. I have to completely agree that a good ‘c-RPG-style’ game is incredibly hard to make, and my big problem is, as much time as I do spend on video games, my time is still really limited. Why these games tend to annoy me the most, is that it often takes a very long time to figure out whether I even find them worth playing or not. It’s even given me doubts about playing other c-RPGs right now I had ‘on slate’, which included Oblivion, Mass Effect and perhaps one time in the very distant future, even Fallout 3.

For an excellent review and discussion on Lost Odyssey from a very different perspective to my own please also see: Lost Odyssey – “The (Real) Final Fantasy” on Metagame.

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