In 2003, Hironobu Sakaguchi would depart from Square, a company he had worked with since 1983. While at Square, Sakaguchi worked on the likes of 3-D WorldRunner and Rad Racer but he is most famous as the father of Final Fantasy. In 2001, Square would release their first film adaptation of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Directed by Sakaguchi, it was the first photorealistic feature film and had a stellar cast, including Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland. However, the film would bomb at the box-office, with Sakaguchi stepping away from active involvement in Square. Sakaguchi would resign from his position later in the year before eventually departing from Square all together, with his last credited role being on Final Fantasy X-2.
Sakaguchi would not be finished with video games just yet. In 2004, he decided to found his own studio, Mistwalker. Microsoft would help fund the project as at the time they wanted to grow their market share in Japan. The first title the studio would release was Blue Dragon, coming to the Xbox 360 in 2006. Blue Dragon was one of the games I got with my Xbox 360. It was a charming JRPG, with character designs from Akira Toriyama, the artist behind Dragon Ball, Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest. If you’ve played either Chrono Trigger or Dragon Quest then you’ll have a fairly good idea of how this game looked and felt. Nobuo Uematsu (yes, that Nobuo Uematsu) would sign on to compose the wonderful orchestral score. The plot followed five friends as they travelled around the wonderfully colourful world to defeat the evil Nene. This grand adventure was set across three discs as the Xbox 360 used DVDs for its games. It was actually the first multi-disc release on the console but it wouldn’t be the last.
A year later, a new JRPG from Mistwalker hit the Xbox 360. And what a hit it was. Directed by Daisuke Fukugawa with Uematsu once again composing the soundtrack and Sakaguchi and Kiyoshi Shigematsu on writing duties, this epic tale would span four discs. In fact, it had so many discs that the fourth disc came in a paper sleeve as the disc holder could only take three at a time. Lost Odyssey would receive positive reviews from publishers and fans alike. It centred around Kaim, an immortal being who has lost his memories. Set in a world experiencing an industrial revolution, its setting draws parallels to Final Fantasy VI. Kaim sets out on a mission with another immortal, Seth, and a smart mouthed wizard, Jansen. Along the way, they’ll encounter more immortals, learn about Kaim’s past and the threat facing the world. The game swaps the cartoony look of Blue Dragon for a more realistic take, although it does retain a proper World Map, something the Final Fantasy series abandoned in its tenth entry. The music is simply epic and suits the locales, story beats and combat to the ground. The combat is turned-based, with five characters taking part at once. It uses a “ring” system to time your attacks and the immortals provide an interesting twist. Keep your mortal party members alive long enough and the immortal characters will resurrect themselves. Characters also serve a function in battle, some will be long range specialists, others tanks while some specialise in magic. This adds a tactical element as you decide who to bring with you and when. Each of the mortal characters will learn skills as they level up but the immortal characters cannot. Instead, they obtain skills by being paired with a mortal one. This allows players some range of customisation over the battle roles available.
I have drawn comparisons to Final Fantasy on a number of occasions and there’s a reason for it, its essentially a Final Fantasy game in another name. It even has a Cid (spelled Sed but you’re not fooling anyone Mistwalker). In fact, Sed has an interesting role when it comes to the whole “immortal” setting but I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t played it. For some, including me, it would be a far stronger game than any of the Final Fantasy games that appeared on PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Its wonderful narrative, told through a combination of cutscenes and hidden memories, gives us an in-depth look into the world as well as Kaim himself. I simply adore this game. It’s diverse cast of characters are well voiced and bring something refreshing to the table. They also experience growth throughout the story, with some irritating characters becoming loveable by the end (cough, Jansen, cough). Its vast world is a joy to behold, with differing regions, each with their own culture. I also love the fact it has a world map reminiscent of those found in earlier Final Fantasy titles. Its main antagonist is memorable and often psychotic. The skill system is an interesting take and it encourages you to rotate your party. Combat, despite having some interaction, doesn’t really stray from turn-based traditions and I love it for it. Despite being spread across four discs, there were very few times where I felt it dragged. Lost Odyssey does have some slow moments, which is common among a lot of long JRPGs, but I always felt myself wanting to push on, to find out what lay around the next bend. It also has some hidden dungeons to overcome, each with its own story that fits into this magical world.
Lost Odyssey is one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played but I don’t feel it gets enough recognition. The Xbox 360 is not really thought of as a home of JRPGs, despite having some greats in the genre, including Tales of Vesperia, Infinite Undiscovery and Eternal Sonata. There’s also the fact it hasn’t been ported anywhere. Even Tales of Vesperia and Eternal Sonata would make their way to other consoles. Then there’s the idea that it’s a Final Fantasy is a different skin, which it kind of is. I’ve a feeling that if it was named Final Fantasy XIII (the actual Final Fantasy XIII wouldn’t be released until 2009), fans would be raving about how it is one of the best in the series. Then again, fans can be a fickle bunch. Either way, it’s a fantastic JRPG that (stealing SteadySphere’s phrase) aficionados of the genre should have in their collection.
Mistwalker is still around today. After Lost Odyssey they would release several games on the Nintendo DS, before jumping to the Wii for their last home console game, The Last Story. I haven’t had the chance to play The Last Story just yet, but maybe one day I will, if it ever stops climbing in price. Today the studio is focused on mobile gaming, with Terra Battle being their big success. Recently, they released Fantasian for iOS, a beautiful looking JRPG. Maybe one day they’ll make the jump back to consoles or even Steam. Lost Odyssey showcased a lot of potential for the studio on consoles and it would be nice to see them return, even if they were to focus on indie titles instead of blockbuster releases.