As I discussed in my Last Remnant article, Japanese Role Playing Games are something of a unique bunch. They differ from other genres in a great many ways, both stylistically and mechanically. Perhaps because of this, they tend to divide opinion more than any other genre. For me, they are the best example of ‘Marmite’ games; you either love them or hate them, there’s usually little middle ground to be found.
But the thing is; the genre is extremely varied and diverse, with one JRPG being markedly different from another. Not surprisingly, this means there is a lot of division amongst the JRPG fraternity as to what type is best, or even what truly defines a JRPG.
Well, for my money, the best way to look at it through the context of a specific game to define what, to me, JRPGs stand for. To that end, I present to you Lost Odyssey, perhaps the most Japanese of all JRPGs of recent memory.
First of all, let’s talk visuals and design style. Perhaps I’m starting out in a controversial manner, as Lost Odyssey does not feature what many people would first name as a JRPG visual feature: androgynous teenagers. Yes, the…idiosyncratic… tendency of eastern developers to feature a youthful and oddly dressed cast as its protagonists is common, it’s not the be all and end all for a JRPG. That being said, I suspect the conscious courting of the western market by Square for Lost Odyssey was a main factor for the decision to choose older looking main characters. In addition, the studio’s preceding title, Blue Dragon (acknowledged as being in many ways a warm up for Lost Odyssey for the developers) was based around anime-style visuals of very young children, and received widespread negative feedback on said visuals in the west, which was most likely a factor.
That being said, Lost Odyssey, to me, is still inherently Eastern in its visual design. I mean, all you have to do is look at the wardrobes on show and my argument is sealed. Every character is dressed in a manner that would make even the most extravagant fashion designers blush. Queen Ming in particular dresses in a manner that makes me embarrassed to be playing the game. She rocks up in, I kid you not, what appear to be denim suspenders and thong, with some sort of waistcoat, which is cut down from her shoulders to below the navel, showing more flesh than not. This, need I remind you, for the apparently innocent and good queen of Numara…
The other characters to all have highly, shall we say unique, clothing choices, lending the game a pretty typical JRPG feel, even if everyone involved seems to be old enough to, frankly, know better.
Oh, and two of the main characters are little kids. We are never told how old they are, but they’re no more than 12/13 years old at best, and they wade into combat with everyone else without so much as batting an eyelid. You don’t get that in your standard western RPG my friend.
You can also check off the wacky architecture and vehicle design on the list too, as the towns and vehicles are all breathtakingly mental. Pretty, no doubt, but mental all the same. The main flying ship is a sleek, dragon-like flying ship too, by the way, did I mention that? (check!)
So far so JRPG right? Well, yes, but in any game, especially a JRPG, the visuals are only ever half the story. If we stop puzzling over the paintwork and pop the hood for a look at the engine, will what’s within prove to be Eastern promise or western muscle?
From the off, it’s evident that Lost Odyssey, while perhaps making some visual concessions to the western sensibilities, has made no such acquiescence in the game mechanics department. The game mechanics and narrative structure are so eastern I half expect to see the sun rise out of them.
The combat system, key in any RPG let alone a JRPG, is reassuringly turn-based. Call me old fashioned, but the recent move towards more ‘real time’ combat in RPGs feels like a regression in gameplay terms to me (sharp glare at Final Fantasy XIII et al). The combat in Lost Odyssey it notable for its refined and polished feel. While initially appearing intimidating, the stats surrounding the characters turn out to be reassuringly simple. There are two types of characters; Mortals and Immortals and each work differently. The Mortals, such as the tow kids, progress as you would expect up the levels and learn new abilities. They can equip weapons and accessories pretty much as standard too. Immortals, however, do not learn new moves as they level up. They learn new skills through equipped items and by ‘skill linking’ with a Mortal character. In essence, when a battle is won, Action Points are awarded, which go towards learning the skill associated with equipped items and linked skills. When the requisite total for that skill is reached, it is ‘learned’ and can be applied to the character as one of their skill slot allocation. It’s a simple and effective system that really allows you to develop the characters as you see fit. It also means tactical loadouts can be changed for specific areas and battles, adding a level of intuitive tactical manoeuvring.
The narrative is an odd prospect, feeling somehow at once standard and weird. So pretty standard JRPG fare really. I won’t go into details to avoid spoilers, but the narrative is in interesting one, which, is initially a bit baffling but does eventually make sense. This is a game that, narratively speaking, is best enjoyed on a second play through. That being said, the characters are fairly engaging, with Jansen especially, being one of the funniest characters in gaming I’ve come across in a long time.
So, in summary, to me Lost Odyssey is the epitome of what makes a JRPG, well, a JRPG. It’s quirky, epic, daft and dramatic. It’s that special mix of the glorious and the absurd that, while not perfect in the grand sense of a game, is the perfect blend of game aspects for the genre it is in.
Hardcore, in gaming terms, is a term thrown around all too often, but Lost Odyssey is an unashamedly hardcore JRPG and all the better for it.
Lost Odyssey will appeal to fans of any of the old Final Fantasy games and their ilk, but if you’re not a fan of the genre though, it would probably be one of the least enjoyable game’s you’ve played.
That alone makes it a fitting example of all that is good about the JRPG genre
Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org