'Lost Odyssey' Impressions - The Xbox 360 Delivers A February 'Final Fantasy' Clone That's Fun To... Read?

Lost OdysseyBack when I was playing "Final Fantasy X" and not completely loving it, it did not occur to me that one way the developers could have made the game better would have been to include text-based short stories that I could read on my TV.

That's what has been done with "Lost Odyssey," an Xbox 360 role-playing game overseen by "Final Fantasy" creator Hironobu Sakaguchi set to go on sale in North America on February 12.

I received a preview build of the game's first disc, of four, last Wednesday. (Readers of this blog's What We're NOT Playing series, this was the secret game mentioned in the most recent entry).

I clocked a paltry two hours and 10 minutes in the game this weekend. I know that is paltry because this game looks, walks, and quacks like a "Final Fantasy," and therefore must be dozens of hours long.

I'll get to the reading thing in a moment, but first, here is how it met many of my "Final Fantasy" expectations:

  • "Lost Odyssey" begins with a very cool cut-scene: The opening cinematic shows armies empowered by the "magic industrial revolution" waging sword-and sorcery war under a darkened sky. They stab impossibly broad swords into each other and get creamed by tank-like machines that spit fire and wield single barge-long giant notched blade. They will soon all be crushed by a massive meteor.

  • The game teases players with a taste -- just a taste -- of very easy ,early combat: I was allowed to control the game's immortal, amnesiac hero Kaim Argonar in just a few opening turn-based battles. I used Kaim to tap-tap-tap the A button and smash through a series of attack animations, obliterating a line of armored men one victim at a time. Then I tapped the A button to take down one of those giant-blade tanks, targeting one side and then the other. It took little skill and looked very cool, just like the opening of "FF X." This was about five minutes into the game. The next time I was able to fight was at the two hours, seven minutes mark.

  • The game sends you to a Japanese role-playing game town: You know these types of towns. The architecture is baroque. The people wear lots of layers of colorful clothes (though, if female, not over their their stomach). Boxes and treasure chests sit in the corners waiting to be opened or, in the case of the jars in "Lost Odyssey," to be "probed." There are non-player-characters standing around in doorways and next to carts. If they have something important to say, they say it in voice-over. If they are just making idle chatter, they speak only via text. In a touch that actually doesn't feel like "Final Fantasy," the game's opening city has real physics. This is made clear in a playground area that includes a ball that can be kicked, a scarecrow-kind-of-statue that can be rattled and a merry-go-round of big jingling bells.

So when you start playing the game, you will feel like you're playing a "Final Fantasy." The music is soaring. The stakes are high. And the characters are flirtatious with each other. When your rouge party member "Do or Die" Jansen Friedh isn't asking for 15 minutes more with each of his groupies he is commenting to lovely immortal heroine Seth Balmore about her shaved legs. More shades of Sakaguchi's old series? Battles take place in standard role-playing-game "Final Fantasy X"-style line-dancing format. Heroes in the battle party take their turns. Enemies take their turns. Heroes go again. This one has a couple of twists: Kaim's attacks can be enhanced with a well-timed button-press; immortals Kaim and Seth can learn special skills -- like black magic, white magic, and steal, for example -- from Jansen and other mortals also placed in the battle party.

Stories Worth Reading

What doesn't feel like "Final Fantasy" or any other Japanese role-playing games is the worthwhile reading.

Kaim has lived a long life but doesn't remember much of it. In the first two hours we're told that he was made immortal because of a magic spell. His immortal female companion, Seth, knows she was a pirate. Kaim isn't sure who he was. But twice in the two hours I played the game he experienced flashes of memory. One seemed to happen automatically at a set time. The second occurred because I made him talk to a little girl in a train station. In both cases, his flash of memory manifested itself as a text-based dream which I could either read right away or whenever I made Kaim go to sleep at an inn.

When a "Lost Odyssey" dream begins, text scrolls onto the screen, somewhat stylishly, with some words popping in letter by letter, others unfurling smoothly, until the screen is full of a few lines. There is supposed to be a background image, but the build I have of the game just had a placeholder marking the background of the first dream.

I was skeptical about what I was going to read in these dreams. The first story began in a tavern and seemed like it was going to be tedious and dreary. Here's an early one-screen excerpt:

The tavern's din hushes instantly. Every drunken eye in the place fastens on the soldier with awe and gratitude.

The long war with the neighboring country has ended at last, and the men who fought on the front lines are returning to their homes. So it is with this military man.

The soldier takes a seat at the table next to Kaim's, and downs a slug of liquor with the forcefulness of a hard drinker -- a man who drinks to kill his pain.

The soldier and Kaim talk about war, sin and guilt. Kaim encourages the soldier to return to his family. A third man gets involved and tries to kill Kaim. The soldier intervenes and what follows isn't exactly as expected. It's a good little story. Faint praise? Maybe. But I'm sorry to say that most Japanese role-playing games I have played fail to present a narrative that isn't exactly as expected. This short story does. And it tells me something about Kaim that feels like it has weight, void of the flashy emotion of the standard bombastic "FF" cinematic scene, and instead anchored in something more solid and substantial.

The second dream I read, the one I discovered in the train station, was called "Little Liar." It is about an little girl who used to hang out near a market where Kaim once worked. "Everyone at the marketplace hates the little girl," it began. The girl is a compulsive liar and gets herself in trouble This story didn't turn out surprisingly, but I liked its placement in the game. I enjoyed the idea that walking Kaim up to a little girl in the game's present day would trigger an old story, the connection to Kaim's present era a matter for me to merely guess at.

What does our hero see in the people he meets? Who do they remind him of? How does that inform his world view? I don't know how far the game carries this concept. The game's dream menu has slots for 31 memories total. Are they just another form of RPG collectible? Or do they add depth and deal with the idea of memory in a way that few games do? Consider me intrigued.

Short Waits And Long Waits

I had read about the game's short stories last week on the NeoGAF message board. Two gamers who played the already-released Japanese version of "Lost Odyssey" posted a review on the forums that praised the text-based dreams, giving me the idea to investigate. These two gamers also grumbled miserably about the game's load times. The loading is a cause for concern. In the preview build I played, loads were frequent: walk into a mansion -- load -- see a cut scene -- load -- walk inside the mansion -- load -- go up an elevator -- load. Like many "Final Fantasy" games, it seems this will be the kind of game that makes you regret going down the wrong hallway, because a bad turn will trigger a 15-second load that you'll then need to experience a second time as soon as you have a chance to do an about-face.

The NeoGAF guys cautioned that the battle scenes take a long time to load. One of them said the loads sometimes lasted 20 seconds to get into a single random encounter (yes, this game has random battles). The preview build I had displayed some programmer-oriented information, including a timer for those loads. A load into one random battle took 20.352 seconds. For another it took 15.036 (the display carried the decimal out several more places, but that's all I could write down in time).

For some those waits will be tolerable and well worth it for a graphically splendid game. But you're reading a post right now by a guy who plays "Fire Emblem" with the battle animations turned off. If you want quick, immediate action, this game will be trying. Maybe they'll smooth the load times, but with the game's release set for less than a month from now, I wouldn't expect a big improvement.

I stopped playing the game at the 2:10 mark. My party of three was heading toward the Ipsilon Mountains to inspect a magical construction. It seems like the journey will be grand. Is it worth it? It seems like it may be for those who have the taste for "Final Fantasy." For me, I'm just intrigued by the reading.