Lost Odyssey Hands-on Impressions

"Have you ever played a Final Fantasy game before?"

That's how I summed up my thoughts of Lost Odyssey after a presentation last July.

Now that I've had the chance to sit down and play through the first few hours of the game in the comfort of my own home, I would modify the question:

"Have you ever played a Final Fantasy game of radically inconsistent quality?"

With Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi driving the overall design, it's not that surprising to discover that Lost Odyssey is quite similar to the long-running RPG series. They share the same basic battle systems, the same emphasis on lengthy and frequent exposition, and some of the same conventions. The amnesia-afflicted, 1,000 year old protagonist Kaim could easily double as a Final Fantasy lead.

Now, please don't get me wrong. There's a reason the Final Fantasy series is popular, and while some may believe turn-based RPGs have grown a bit stale, I can see why others would be excited about a prettied-up Xbox 360 version.

Unfortunately, so far the game has been a spotty experience, even within the boundary of basic RPG elements.

Some attempt at innovation and next-gen polish has been made. Yes, it's awesome that checkpoints placed right before boss fights ensure you don't have to trudge back through the dungeon if you die. Hooray for cutscenes that can be both paused and skipped. Sure, those pre-rendered cinematics look amazing.

But then you get into the battle system, the meat of any satisfying RPG meal, and the game soon starts to lose its luster.

For starters, each one of the random battle encounters--yes, random encounters in this day and age--take roughly 15 seconds to load. That's 15 seconds of watching the camera swirl, sweep around the battle environment, and then display the quickly-tiresome battle animations. For every four encounters, you've lost a minute of your life. And in a game that ultimately spans four discs, well, I don't even want to think about it.

It wouldn't be so bad if the encounters and the relevant strategies weren't so formulaic. Facing off against an enemy you just encountered ten steps before, you've already figured out the most efficient way of murdering them. At this point, battle just boils down to choosing those same actions from the menu again and waiting for your characters to go through the motions. Some type of fast-forward or quick battle option would be a godsend.

Another issue with a core RPG mechanic is Lost Odyssey's turn bar. While it's theoretically helpful to see what order characters will take their turns, the fact that the turn bar isn't actually shown while you're selecting actions makes it pretty much useless. Believe it or not, knowing which characters are able to cast healing spells before a boss unleashes a deadly assault would be a huge benefit.

Speaking of healing, the game presently lacks the foresight to let me both revive and heal a downed character during the same turn. If I have two characters capable of performing actions, why can't one revive my downed character and the other heal him within the same turn? But inexplicably, after choosing to use a revival item on the unconscious party member, my other character can only heal herself and the other guy that's still alive.

Inconsistencies abound outside of battle as well. Some in-game cinematics call attention to characters' highly expressive faces, while others feature those same characters looking eerily static outside of minor lip motions. The music ranges from inspiring orchestral swells to 8-bit sounding bleeps and bloops.

The lacking design even extends to simple exploration sequences. At one point, I was tasked with escaping a jail cell. The proper solution? To wander around until I came across an item that wasn't viewable from the preset camera angle.

As I still haven't progressed that far into the overall narrative, I won't comment much on the characters, other than to say that they have yet to step outside of their cliches. Kaim is an angry, solitary amnesiac. Seth is a strong, independent woman. Jansen is a selfish dude, but you just know he'll eventually do the right thing. The manipulative bad guy is, obviously, bad.

As for the story itself, it's hard to guess where it's headed, so at least it's not wholly predictable. The game seems to center around the effects of the magic-industrial revolution, which inexplicably filled the world with magic energy a few decades back, and the political climate of three unique kingdoms. Protagonist Kaim's past will undoubtedly be a key factor as well, but at this time, the narrative lacks the driving force to make me curious about the following chapters.

I may be overlooking or understating some of the cool stuff that Lost Odyssey does. For instance, the way that equipped items such as glasses appear on the character models most of the time. The emphasis on using battle formation to protect weak characters. The way that immortal characters are automatically revived in battle after a time, which changes up the traditional routine of healing the character with the lowest health.

And to be fair, the version I'm playing is an incomplete work-in-progress from December, and I'm only six or seven hours in. Though the game released in Japan around that time, the English version wasn't quite done, so there is a remote chance this could all change before the North American release on February 12. Some of my complaints could be nullified later in the game. It might turn out to be great.

The thing is, thus far, it's hard to shake the feeling that Lost Odyssey is nothing more than that basic attempt at a gussied-up Final Fantasy. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but given the potential of the design team's pedigree coupled with the Xbox 360 hardware, it would be quite disappointing to see what could have been an evolutionary title turn out to be another pretty face that can't even master the same old song and dance.