I rented Lost Odyssey a few weeks ago largely because I asked Ashley (who writes a really good gaming-focused blog) about Japanese RPGs and how I could learn to like them. Her foreseeable comeback was to ask me what I didn’t like about them, to which my response was “uh….” Yeah, I’d never played one except for demos. So since she’d spent a long while with Lost Odyssey and spoke highly of it, I thought I’d use it for my J-RPG test.
And here are the results – the things I liked and didn’t like. The question now is what this means about my future with J-RPGs. Are the things I disliked common in J-RPGs? Am I likely to open a new category of gaming for myself, or should I stick with Western RPGs, which I already know I love?
1) The story and characters. I loved the care with which the story was crafted. There were moments when I laughed (mostly due to Jansen, who annoyed me slightly, but was definitely hilarious), and moments when I cried. It’s not always that video games are that moving. I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, as you learned more and more about why certain characters are immortal and the way characters you thought were enemies turned into allies.
2) The length. Somewhere around 70-80 hours. The trend lately in game design has been toward shorter games, and I’m not altogether happy about that. If I can finish a game on a five-day rental, it’s too short. (That’s why I joined Gamefly – I’ve had Lost Odyssey for about three weeks now.)
3) The leveling/skills system. Leveling works much like most RPG games – you get experience in combat, which automatically grants your non-immortal characters new skills. But the immortals learn skills by a) wearing accessories and absorbing their attributes or b) linking to mortals and learning skills from them. That made it so you had to think not only about what skills your immortals need the most, but how to best manage your group so that the mortals they need to learn from are in it (you can only have five of your nine characters active at one time).
4) The ring part of the combat system. You can equip each character’s weapon with a power ring that gives specific kinds of damage boosts. For example, if you’re fighting a magic enemy, you can equip a ring that gives extra damage to magic entities; or you can equip a ring that deals fire damage. Matching the right kind of ring to deal maximum damage for each enemy added an extra bit of interest to the combat, as did the need to hold and release a button at the right time to increase the effectiveness of the ring.
5) The dreams. Your immortal characters have lost their memories, but they begin to get them back in the form of dreams throughout the game. I was shocked at how moving many of these dreams are, even though they’re presented as text on background. (Reading a video game? I know, right?) But the animation and music and writing in the dreams is really great, and even though you can skip them to save time (and reading if you’re not the reading sort), I found myself looking forward to them.
1) Turn-based combat. I knew this was going to be one of my biggest obstacles, because it’s a staple of J-RPGs, and I HATE IT. Okay, hate is a strong word for something I ended up putting in the “meh” category, because once I got the hang of it, I didn’t mind it as much. But I still find it really frustrating, and pretty boring once I did it, oh, a few hundred times. Now I know what people mean when they talk about level-grinding. So annoying, and distracting from getting on with the story, which was all I wanted to do.
2) The world. I loved it as a background; the graphics are gorgeous, and I love the idea of a magic-infused not-quite-steampunk world. But it was just that – a background. There was little opportunity to interact with it, and I never really felt a part of it. There are very few NPCs, most of them shopkeepers who are little more than an inventory screen. I longed for the sense I get in Mass Effect, KOTOR, and to a slightly lesser degree in Oblivion and Fable of there being a living world beyond the parts I see, and people with lives outside of my story. In Lost Odyssey, you only get that sense during the dreams.
1) The randomness of combat. Battles just start randomly as you’re running through somewhere. Everywhere is perfectly devoid of creatures and enemies until the combat music starts, the swirly gear graphic appears, and suddenly you’re asked to set combat maneuvers for each of your characters. Oh, and the battle isn’t even in the same physical place where you were – you might be running up a set of stairs, but if you get the battle graphic, you’re at the bottom to fight it, then back on the stairs after it’s over. At one point you’re running through a train car, and you get in a battle, and suddenly the train car is the size of a small stadium. It’s disorienting, takes you out of the game, and while it didn’t ruin the experience for me, it came really darn close.
2) The linearity. I’m used to associating RPGs with open worlds and lots of choices and options about what to do and where to go. Maybe that’s a western RPG thing, or maybe that’s something that my favorite RPGs have inherited from Grand Theft Auto-esque sandbox games. I don’t know. Granted, Lost Odyssey does give you the ability to move back and forth between areas you’ve been to largely at will, but beyond allowing you to see a few more dreams and buy things from stores, there’s not a lot of point to this. The story goes on a straight line, and there are essentially no sidequests. Even going through levels is largely a linear affair.
3) No choices/conversation options. In fact, you don’t control any of the conversations at all. That’s my FAVORITE THING about Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic. In Lost Odyssey there’s no good and evil, no choices about how you deal with things. It’s sort of like watching a movie that you control parts of – which is okay only because the story is good. Oh, and side note, having to press “A” constantly to get through most of the conversations? Really annoying when you’d like to let a cut-scene play out while you do something else (like that time I died and the save point was before a ten-minute cut scene, which you can’t skip).
Overall, I enjoyed the game. Really. I enjoyed the story and the characters enough to keep me coming back despite my lack of affection for random turn-based combat and linear design. (I will admit that I didn’t go all the way to the end, because I got Fable II, which fits my likes much better, and after having Lost Odyssey sitting around for a week without playing it, I opted to do the responsible renter thing and send it back. But I saw enough checking walkthroughs to know that I was within a few bosses of the end – and something else I don’t like is boss battles. At some point in the future, I may rent it again and finish it up.) But if the things that appear in the “didn’t like” section are common in J-RPGs, I might not be availing myself of any more of them unless someone can convince me that a specific game has pros that outweigh those cons.