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Lost Odyssey retrospective: rediscovering the Xbox 360's greatest JRPG

The journey of a thousand years

Half of Lost Odyssey is spent poking static backdrops for treasures, the other half participating in highly choreographed, randomly generated battles - and if you think all that sounds desperately, painfully over-familiar, walk a few miles in the shoes of Kaim Argonar, immortal man. The game's ageless, little-spoken hero makes a fitting emblem for a genre in decline, gazing upon humanity with an apathy born of centuries of fruitless wandering.

Other leading men can't help but seem hollow by comparison, their private struggles with destiny trivial and contrived. When Cloud Strife was in potty-training, Kaim was slaughtering men a thousand years his junior at the behest of vainglorious princelings. By the time Squall Leonhart picked up a gunblade, Kaim had criss-crossed the world a dozen times over - a sword for hire, distinguished from the rest by inhuman prowess and a sort of mournful serenity.

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He's seen kingdoms rise in splendour only to crumble mere decades later, eaten away from within, and spent lifetimes in captivity, looking on unmoved as fellow prisoners succumb to isolation and despair. He's witnessed entire generations fall victim to bigotry, greed, cowardice or simple mischance. But in a poignant twist, the memories that haunt him most vividly are of small things. Tiny domestic dramas, brief encounters on the endless road, poking through the veil of amnesia like outstretched hands.

These are the sights and sounds that ultimately thaw our hero's travel-worn gloom, not the spectacle of battle, or the prospect of a continent-dooming conspiracy. As Lost Odyssey begins, somebody drops a meteor on Kaim. He barely even blinks.

Couched as a collection of animated short stories, Kaim's scattered memories are the things that most obviously distinguish Mistwalker's opus from its inspiration, Final Fantasy. Microsoft picked an interesting time to invite the comparison; by late 2007, Square Enix had steered the Final Fantasy series away from some of its most famous tropes and devices, experimenting with more cinematic, reflex-driven combat and consolidating its toehold on the MMO scene. Ultimately, Lost Odyssey feels less like a clone of Final Fantasy as a vision of what Final Fantasy might have been, had Square resisted the temptation to strike out for the horizon.

On the road
It's bafflingly, beguilingly anachronistic - a painstaking recollection of the genre's glory days which revives every tradition, however misguided. Well, not quite. True, the storytelling and interactive elements aren't so much "distinct" as locked in windowless rooms and obliged to communicate by tapping the wall. And yes, the base ingredients of combat and character development lean heavily on Square's efforts - there are the usual spells, status effects and items, some (like the restorative 'Angel's Plume') almost brazen in their derivativeness.

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But in terms of how everything comes together, Lost Odyssey introduces delicate innovations that add up to more than their sum. It's that capacity for the small, for the individual brushstroke, which singles this game out for attention. The question of positioning is more sharply defined, for one - both your and the enemy's front rank will block a proportion of damage aimed at the rear, creating a great push-pull rhythm between savaging the grunts to lower the other side's guard rating, and blitzing the damage-dealers tucked behind them. Spells take time to cast, for another, and you can delay those aimed at your party by sucker-punching the caster.

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