Review: Blue Dragon (**** stars) and Lost Odyssey (**** stars) (Part 2)

Part One

Lost Odyssey’s combat often consists in puzzle-like sets of enemies which require you to think about what order and what weaknesses enemies exhibit. That mostly comes in the form of the traditional elemental weaknesses, but it also emerges in the turn-based elements Blue Dragon exhibits as well. Back and front rows actually matter; the combined HP total of the party creates “wall” of sorts that reduces the total damage any member of your party can take. Any HP damage from the beginning of this battle will reduce the effectiveness of the party’s Guard Condition, progressing from Level 4 to Level 0. This makes the back row of healers/casters more vulnerable as the battle goes on, and you can’t just re-up the Guard Condition via heals; specific spells and items restore it, and spells that guard against damage both physical and elemental keep the GC up as long as possible. The same goes for the enemies as well; break their GC quickly, and they’ll take massive damage throughout the fight unless they restore it.

Each battle requires careful management to eliminate enemies quickly and efficiently, since you never know how long a dungeon will be and what unique set-up a boss will throw at your party. They tend to be quite complex, requiring new approaches to each encounter; the first few will knock you flat on your butt, especially the Bogimoray fight (oh, how I hated thee). Planning in advance, however, makes things much easier once you died and know what will happen. That plays into the skill management system for this game as well. Like Final Fantasy X, each character holds a unique set of skills, but the progression in said skills differs on whether said character is Mortal or Immortal. Mortal characters learn skills as they level (much like human beings learn things as they age, duh), and can know additional ones through equipping accessories. Immortals, on the other hand, learn them via Skill Linking with a Mortal who knows said skill or from an accessory; they learning it after acquiring a set number of SP (take a wild guess what that acronym stands for), and can equip as many as their skill slots will allow (based on level). The Skills allow you to plan and create the largest advantage possible, whether protecting against status ailments or equipping healing magic on multiple party members – all of these prove useful at some point or another. I kinda love it, even if those boss battles frustrate you a whole lot.

Both games exhibit lots of refinements to a relatively stale turn-based battle system that also take their stories into account as well. Blue Dragon’s Shadows play into all combat scenarios, while Lost Odyssey’s Immortals can never actually die (they revive after one turn of death in any fight, which is pretty interesting from a strategy standpoint). At the same time, both become easier as you become more familiar with this strange refinements, but by that point you’re already hooked! It’s probably safe to say I don’t even need to mention Nobuo Uematsu’s wonderful scores for each, which both feel completely out of his usual wheelhouse and yet utterly unique to both games. The prog-rock influence definitely shows in the boss battles, though; heck, when you’ve got Deep Purple’s lead singer on your boss theme, you know that you’re doing something very right, or very wrong.

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And yet, I don’t think I could ever give an unequivocal recommendation for either of them. Both display Japan’s relative unfamiliarity with exterior engine use; both games use the Unreal Engine 3, and both show a lack of experience and optimization. Slowdown exists everywhere, and neither game represented the peak of graphical design even then. Thankfully, the art design of Akira Toriyama and Takehiko Inoue knock things out of the park, and there’s never a dearth of wonderful sights. Secondly, the battle pacing on both just LAGS and LAGS. Yes, all the battle feel exciting even in their wonderful turn-based way, but each action in battle contains its own elaborate canned animation. Fighting a few enemies won’t pose a time problem, but when you’ve got five party members and five enemies or more enemies each doing unique things, random battles turn into a total drag where you’re just waiting for the next turn to start. Blue Dragon alleviates this somewhat by letting you snag multiple foes on the field (no random battles) through its ring system, but this just strings battles together rather than letting you skip tedious animations. Lost Odyssey contains none of these time savers, instead forcing you into random battles.

Furthermore, the “quick timer” events in both games (The Charge Meter in Blue Dragon and the Aim Ring System in Lost Odyssey) both grow tedious after a time. Yes, they boost your combat potential, but the cconsequences feelmore akin to 90 damage versus 100 damage than a truly rewarding mechanic. They seem like filler to make tedious battle less tedious – an admirable goal, but animation skipping would do the same thing! Both also suffer from what I call “sidequest syndrome”. I did all the sidequests before the final boss (that I could, of course), and they make the last foe look like a total pushover. I kinda hate myself for doing that, given all the work put into these games, but that’s a design flaw if I ever saw one.

And yet, all of these things do not make me hate either game. They are, for better or worse, incredibly well-crafted but derivative of JRPG design by one of the guys who basically created the genre. They display decades of refinement, but also the same flaws that plague the genre now and then. If you hate JRPGs, you will hate these; if you like JRPGs, you will love them. If you fall into the former category, then take one star off each game; if you fall into the latter category, then both ratings stand. Like Ian Gillan’s highly pitched screams or Japanese rap, both remain very exclusive experiences that will only really work for a certain kind of person (i.e., me) who loves all the good and bad in this genre equally.

I like these games regardless of their flaws, and believe they deserved something better than they got. Neglected games deserve love too! You know, I think Jesus would echo my sentiments.

37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

Matthew 25

Even the least of these deserve a break now and then. Get yourself a cheap Xbox 360 and these two games, which run under ten dollars these days (how sad), and have yourself a great time! I know I sure did when I played them years ago!

Recommendation: Please play with Japanese language and subtitles. The dubbing grates on me in both, and the Japanese voicework is much, much better by comparison.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.