If you'd never played Final Fantasy XIII (and, when Lost Odyssey was released, you hadn't) you'd be forgiven, after a quick look at it, for thinking that all the stagnant, self-indulgent and negative parts of Square-Enix had been excised when the staff that went on to form Mistwalker studios left.
The game is only a relentless hype-machine and a searing doctrine of fanboy slavery (and, uh, a title) away from being a Final Fantasy game.
It seemed like nothing but good news when Hironobu Sakaguchi split from Squaresoft. We'd just seen a slew of three Final Fantasy titles in as many years, and they were all a terrifying new voyage into the depths of being absolutely fucking terrible. (I'm talking about X, XI, and X-2, for those keeping count) Perhaps, free of whatever debilitating influence that had crept into Squaresoft since he late nineties, we would see the revitalization of an ailing genre. We might even see the game we've been hoping for since 1997.
Well, we haven't. Lost Odyssey is a damning affirmation of everything that is so grossly wrong with the genre.
Namely sparkling fucking emo protagonists.
It's no secret that the people who grew up as JRPGs did have become disillusioned with them as nostalgia fades and reality sets in. The nineties were a good time for the RPG, there's no arguing with it; Fallout, Breath of Fire, Phantasy Star, Elder Scrolls, and of course, Final Fantasy. Growing up in that cascade of titles that range from brilliant to banal, it was damned easy to come out of it holding dear the idea that this genre was the vessel for enlightenment within the New Media. For the first time, we had games that contained something that no other did; a meaning or moral, something that none of us were quite sure of at the time. We've all managed to convince ourselves now that we know what it was, and what it should have been, and maybe that makes us the problem.
I remember my first encounter with the genre. I was seven, and I'd just finished reading The Lord of the Rings in its entirety, hungry for my fantasy fix in a way that the highly derivative modern fantasy literature could not satiate.
Nine, living in a city that even then was far too dangerous for an adult to venture out alone in, let alone a small child, my hands full of spare time and school, and no idea what to do with either save that it'd be damn nice to go a day without being in a fight because I was white.
Escapism was understandably high on my list of priorities. I traded an air rifle for a SNES, which seemed like a good idea at the time, though I'll always wonder what I'd have grown up like if I had spent my time as a kid shooting at pigeons in the back yard rather than killing goblins in my room. Probably would've got laid earlier, at least. So without a direction for all the love of fantasy Lord of the Rings had stirred in me, and with a new SNES collecting dust in my room, what else could I have bought but Final Fantasy V? I had no idea what the 'IV' meant, had no idea just why it was called 'Final' Fantasy; there was only one word on that box that interested me. And there were enough airships, Dark Knights, mystic villages and magic stones within the first half an hour to enrapture me for the next few years. And after playing it through for the fourteenth or so time, I heard that there was another one coming out, and pretty much lost my shit. And then came the New Philosophy; that videogames could contain messages and provoke thought, and convey plots worthy of anyone's attention. No one knows what happened to that; the common consensus seems to be that creativity gave way to corporate interest, or perhaps that the creators began to phone it in.
So without a direction for all the love of fantasy Lord of the Rings had stirred in me, and with a new SNES collecting dust in my room, what else could I have bought but Final Fantasy IV? I had no idea what the 'V' meant, had no idea just why it was called 'Final' Fantasy; there was only one word on that box that interested me.
And there were enough wizards, meteors, princesses and mysteries within the first half an hour to enrapture me for the next few years. And after playing it through for the fourteenth or so time, I heard that there was another one coming out, and pretty much lost my shit.
And then came the New Philosophy; that videogames could contain messages and provoke thought, and convey plots worthy of anyone's attention.
No one knows what happened to that; the common consensus seems to be that creativity gave way to corporate interest, or perhaps that the creators began to phone it in.
Perhaps the problem is us; with nostalgia clouding our view, with new hardware rapidly increasing the strain on developers to keep graphics in line with our expectations - because we only become feral when things aren't shiny enough to distract us - perhaps the problem is that we're expecting things to grow up with us, when they've always been set to appeal to a target audience that we've slid out of with time. Perhaps there was never anything but a series of happy accidents that collaborated to construct something more wonderful than we could have made alone. Maybe we just played too many of the damn things, made ourselves into jaded old men with no kind words left to say, hearts and minds full of nothing but hate and contempt. Maybe they're just not targeted at me anymore; there's no denying that there are dozens of elements within in them to suggest they're a shot at teens rather than twenty-somethings. Cleavage, gratuitous violence, philosophical tangents that come off as whiny and over-sensitive to anyone over the age of eighteen. All of those things would have been awesome when I was fourteen, when I thought Gundam Wing was deep and hung off Squall's every misanthropic word. I would like to forget that those are things that I ever did. Cleavage and gratuitous violence were all the sustenance I needed when I was fourteen, but it gets a little dull after you've been shot at a few times in the real world, and can look at cleavage (or better) whenever you please.
There will never be a satisfying answer to those suppositions, and because of this, the genre will continue to fall short of my expectations as a I try to navigate it.
It's hard to tackle Lost Odyssey with any semblance of order. The entire thing itself is a loud mess, a current of conflicting themes, jarring notes and vicarious contrast. The definitive JRPG word salad - this is an achievement when you consider the genre at large. Sci-fi and fantasy thrown together with little faith in logic and probability, plots mashed together with such ferocity that they almost begin to resemble intent. But I was determined; they have done me right in the past, so why should they not in the future?
So I did what I thought was right, and fired up the first disc with the depressing intent of fighting my way through this Madlemgen, barring the doors and smearing boot polish on the windows (for reasons that will be later made clear), stocking up on everything I would need to make this descent work - ironically, in the same way a relapsing drug addict would - and settled down into my improvised bunker to witness the affirmation of everything that I'd come to fear since The Future began; when the fireworks and static rang in the new millennium.
There's just no point in trying to witness things in the normal way. Your journey must be unique, or, well, who the fuck wants to hear about it? So I elected to drive myself half-crazy to experience this exhausted journey once again. Some people claim that you can buy crazy - about ten bucks a hit, but just as over-production destroys music, synthesis of irregularity will just make you say stupid shit. Synthesis of irregularity - this will be my opponent for the next few days, it seems - myself in one corner, where there is actually no corner at all, and Lost Odyssey in the other corner, where there actually is a corner, attempting to brutally perform a remote lobotomy brought on by shame and *shame*.
Minutes into the presentation before me, several things had struck me, things that I would not learn to be true until many hours of empirical evidence slammed shut the light on doubt. There was no substance to be had, but I cajoled myself along with false promises that the developers were simply trying to dazzle me with zazz, pizzazz, and all points in between, their opening gambit - I had to be impressed with this world they were presenting. People were presented with no dimension, their intent not only uncovered but thrust into the face with the intensity of a knuckleduster uppercut.
I reserved judgment. I told myself that was likely just a translation error. There were once games that said things, if only for a short time, and perhaps not very well. But it was the medium's adolescence, right? True greatness would come later.
But why did they present such a fantasy world as the stage for an industrial revolution fueled by magic? For contrast, I thought initially. The stark differences between sparse mountains, ancient Mesoamerican styled ruins, set next Uhra, the 12th century middle-eastern crossed with central Tokyo, or Gohtza, a place where you probably wouldn't turn a hair if you strolled by a Jedi in the street.
I soon began to doubt my theory; none of the characters seemed to give a shit about the ramifications of a magical revolution except to hinder the villain's ridiculous scheme. So that the fact that he was a villain could be smeared in our faces just a little more.
And just what was the purpose of the battle at the start of the game? A huge battle between two savage armies, equipped with only the flashiest hats, sketchy old magic dudes, and highly impractical tanks.
Once a meteor gets dropped on in the middle of the battle, the war ends, and well, that's kind of it. Nothing is said on the subject of two nations who are now likely expanding - and aggressively, from what we've seen - in the wake of a new and globally-exploitable resource. Fantasy, particularly in the eastern vein, has been used to draw interesting and insightful parallels between their fictionalized worlds and our own. Were the writers really so sure that there was nothing to be said on the matter of resources and conflict? *Really*?
The second thing that was immediately apparent - though still not readily admitted - was just how overwhelmingly silly the damn thing was. Not only did it say nothing, but it said nothing without patronizing you. The villain was introduced with a bout of pretenses and shifty eyes laid on so thick that the weight of it might well have crushed a man.
I was suddenly glad that I'd barred the door and blacked the windows. There was not a soul on this earth that I wished to witness this. I considered salting the doors and windows to ward of potential supernatural spectators, but thought better of it.
I began to realize something, as I reeled through the first 'dungeon' on autopilot. Not only had I been denying that the game was boring, patronizing and juvenile, but I had been denying that the genre as a whole had become just that. Worse yet, I was one of likely millions the world over. Roaring condemnation of the latest installation of Final Fantasy (XII at the time), I heard nothing on all sides but men and women trying to convince both me and their own selves that there were some redeeming qualities to the game, and others among the genre.
I've never considered that anyone would even have to argue the point that entertainment should do more than entertain. It seems core to the very concept of entertainment, that it should inform or argue or enlighten. Lost Odyssey argues that they should be nothing more than distraction, and I have nothing to counter it with - not because I agree, but because there aren't words compatible for human utterance to describe how vapid that idea is.
Random encounter after random encounter occurred, and I slipped deeper into the shackles of madness. Random encounters on seventh-gen hardware? I found myself mocking. But, wait - is there anything inherently wrong with random encounters?
No, I realized. Only in the people who balance them. As long as the transition between field and battle is smooth (and it is fairly close to that in Lost Odyssey) and there is enough thought and involvement coming from the player to offset the challenge, they can actually be a passable mechanic. Men and women cheered as they realized that Final Fantasy XII removed the random encounter system, but did it really do anything other than let you walk around in encounters? Why were JRPG fans cheering and celebrating as though some dark opressor had been cast off?
Here's the last word, folks: if you don't like random encounters, go and play another genre. You wouldn't buy Half-Life and complain because you had to shoot shit, would you? 'Oh, who put all these zombies in my god-damn Resident Evil game?' - cut this shit out. The one time we demand appeasement as consumers is when we're bawling because a game isn't the game we wanted. Well, fuckhats, I didn't want to read Dune books when they're not being written by Fank Herbert, so you know what I did? *I stopped buying that shit*.
No, the problem with random encounters is that you're allowed to relentlessly exploit a tactic or spell or ability without cease, and the gravytrain makes it all so boring. There's none of the resource management or ability matching or trial-and-error fighting that others in the genre have seen.
Seems the developers in Japan are falling to that same debilitation as those in the west; considering (and possibly correctly) these so-called 'casual' gamers, a waste of a term if there ever was such a thing, as a collective of limp-wristed pantywaists who shit themselves at the thought of a challenge. When did breezing through shit become fun? Fuck anyone who thinks like that. Go watch TV, that's nice and fuckin' easy.
Lost Odyssey adds its name to an already overburdened list of games that has tried to accessorize the random encounter system with random shit that you can go on to ignore. Ring system? Forget about it as soon as you've got a few skills. Guard condition? Everything's dead before it even matters, unless it's a boss, which will have a gimmick to relentlessly exploit.
I began to wonder; just what was I doing here, locked away in a dark room rife with the smell of shoe polish? Why was I sitting almost entombed by empty mugs of coffee and energy drinks? There was something I had hoped to achieve, but what had started as a righteous condemnation of mediocrity and banality had become in my notebooks and type-written pages a roaring demand that everything we know be cast aside, burned down and rebuilt.
I was trying to lead myself to starting a revolution, I think, half-crazed from sleep deprivation and excess and isolation.
My original goal, word for word as scribbled frantically on a sheet of filthy paper, was 'affirmation of everything I've feared since X' X being Final Fantasy 10, and Everything I've Feared being nothing more than a great, wordless weight that intrudes on my conscience every time I think of a JRPG.
I came into this without wanting to find a redeeming quality, and I hadn't even realized it.
There was no soothing my conscience; I was grossly biased. I stood in a position of self-righteous superiority, hating something that I once loved. But why? Was bias an unforgivable sin? Objectivity allowed the world media to grow complacent on the Third Reich. Would it now allow us to be ignorant of the hollow filth clawing its way into polite society? Is objectivity anything more than being equally biased to everything? Mencken was not objective. Remember this.
But the question that haunted me was; Why am I Biased?
Because otherwise I'd have to be fair to shining crybabies.
Because I can't forget the New Philosophy that failed. This was to be a medium that could do things that others could not. And now, what has it been allowed to become?
Our medium, awash with post-futurism that makes no prediction in their false-retrospective on the course of our lives, awash with fantasy worlds which offer only shelter rather than interesting parallels, modern shooters that are not brave enough to say anything but patriotism for fear of offending someone. Our medium, that says nothing at all, and we think that this is somehow out of the ordinary? Has it ever said anything worth hearing? Or has it just constructed elaborate scenarios that have us fill in the blank spaces instead?
As the plot unfolds, this is only confirmed. We're rapidly re-approaching the days when a plot was something only thrown on as a last minute garnish in order to give the relentless dungeon crawling, encounter grinding and boss fighting a modicum of context. Simply glide through the cutscenes, and look at the pretty dungeons and hills and mountains and cities that we've created!
The damn thing looks conflicted. Stress is on inconsequential areas rather than prominent, motion capture is interspersed with pre-rendered motions and CGI is thrown among standard cutscenes, the entire thing jarring as art shifts to filler, plot shifts to padding, and battles go from moderate to constant bombardment of conflict resolved by clicking repeatedly on the same button.
But it was time to cast aside the negativity, I decided. Even if I could not speak of the genre without becoming a rabid zealot, I should at least approach the game sideways and allow it a chance.
At the head of this profound personal epiphany, I crawled away from the media contraption, and slept for eighteen hours.
When I came back to it, I was ready, mentally and physically. The windows were now only mildly stained with boot polish, the residue that wiping at it with an old shirt could not remove. The door was un-barricaded - why had I done that in the first place? Who knows, I thought. Who cares? The three-sixty fired to life, ruse of red rings flashing before green (likely meaning that it's on it's way out) logos and shit flashing on the screen.
The words 'Mistwalker' awakened an overwhelming sense of hope within me. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, names associated with the company that were inextricably linked to better things from better days.
And then this happened.
My mind, my faith and my body shattered upon the realization that this is an actual character that actually is in your party that you are actually forced to keep in there so your main character can learn some skills. Objectivity vanished; there were no redeeming the minds that created this. It does nothing but whine and cry and say furiously stupid bullshit.
The plot vanished as well; the writing staff appear to have gone on holiday and accidentally forgot that they left their LSD in the water supply at the Mistwalker building. The result was the staff that were left to fill out the game with a gross of shit disguised as padding disguised as exposition, were all the while under the medical effect known as 'tripping balls'.
How the fuck could a human mind ever think that this fucking whiny-ass punk-bitch kid was ever worth transcribing to the digital platform and shipping out with the game?
This is the turning point; the moment in which the game has turned from something that was perhaps not as enjoyable as it had the potential to be into an endurance challenge. Just how long can you put up with these godmode battles? Just how many cutscenes can you sit through? Can you bear to have Cooke and Mack in your party, and have to listen to their attack/victory/start banter so you can teach Kaim and Seth some new moves? Can you find the will to follow this fucking redundant plot? We already know where it's going.
I plugged away at it. 'Revelations not yet extracted, final wisdoms not yet imparted, supplies not yet depleted...when this is done, I'll sit down and cruise history to see if it was nostalgia that destroyed the present, or the actual past' - by this point, the sentence, scrawled over coffee-mug stains and cigarette ash and burns, made sense. No, it felt like the promise of salvation if only you'll swim through the burning-shit-lakes right now. Jansen was here - in the game, rather - for comic relief, but every time he spoke, I felt like heading to the kitchen for a knife. For him, me, or the three-sixty, I have no idea, but someone or something needed to be stabbed in response to this.
I found myself praying to the Great Concentric Circle in the Sky, begging for the will to continue. Characters were being thrown into the party and were then saying nothing, by anyone's definition. Why were they there? Were they like me, driven to madness and homicide by this clusterbomb of insanity?
I couldn't help but wonder just how so much energy got misdirected. High-definition landscapes in the wrong places, quality writing in the dreams rather than the main plot - these are all sure signs of men and women who don't have a clue what they're doing. It can't help but pose questions - Is the JRPG dead? How long has it been since it had any real innovation? Did they even mean to contrast the industrial revolution ideas with the typical fantasy setting, or was that an accident? Why are we still here? Was anything about this game intentional?
Only one answer is immediately apparent - why are we here? - the average RPG-sucker will say 'because I like a game with a story'. You know what else has stories, and better ones? Books. Go and read some - they're not half bad. Why do we bother with the words spoken in this medium when they haven't spoken a word worth hearing in over ten years? Why are we so insistent on hearing them?
There are no answers, satisfactory or otherwise, that I can foresee at this time. Is the genre dead? It's on the ropes, as far as I can tell; it had its shot and missed. The only people I seem to speak to about it anymore are people that seem hell-bent on convincing me that they really are enjoying it, no, really, *for real*, and I can't help but loathe them. They're lying to themselves, so accustomed to it that they don't even realize it - and worse, they're propagating these lies through some misplaced brand-name slavery. Do you owe allegiance to these brands, or perhaps the tropes and cliches? Why is that? Why are you clinging to it? Do we all crave distraction and escapism so much that you've made being wrong feel right?
Nostalgia - was it even that good back then? We can't go back and look impartially; we've seen the future, and we'll forever hold it to those standards, and our hindsight seems so rose-tinted as to make the truth forever barred to us. There are no answers to be had anywhere.
Especially not here.
The idea of the New Media has been replaced with an aberration in which Halo and Call of Duty break sales records. Other men, the men at the top, have seen where the future lies, and most seem about ready to accept the idea that those at the top know better than they ever could - and that doesn't just apply to gaming. We're losing the art argument by default - if something has the capacity to be art, it doesn't immediately qualify it. I can throw a turd at a canvas, and it isn't art (though I'm sure there are people out there who'd argue that) - and it's never been disputed that canvas has the capacity to contain art.
The Final Realization was that this was the downward spiral. There were no more hopes for better days; we've had nothing more than a glimpse of what the future could have been, and now we're riding out a different course. It's time to accept fate, and ride it out - for me, anyway. What's really left of videogaming that I can recognize from youth? The names, if that. What goes behind them has mutated horribly, and the newborn are worse amalgamations yet. Am I simply a Luddite living in a world that's moved on without me? Or a dangerous heretic that doesn't hold dear the things that most do? Either way, there's no denying it; videogames, for me, are over.
I guess I'll see about getting another rifle, then. Maybe loud noises and explosions will keep my mind too occupied to rebel against itself. But wasn't that how the new videogames were supposed to work?
The answer to the problem hit me then, as I stood, wearing nothing but my underwear and a pair of sunglasses, smashing the game's DVDs with a hammer on the balcony. The problem isn't videogames - I just simply refuse to be distracted from an overwhelming sensation of hate that I find crawling through the places in which I live. Too hyperactive to sit still, and too dumb to live with it. A chemical imbalance in my brain, no doubt - and I'm sure the passers-by down below would agree, as I wave merrily at them. They've probably already had this epiphany, after all. Am I the last in the line of the Backward-Lookers of this generation to realize this? Maybe. Most seem to have realized it, and either accepted the fact that they're doing nothing but wasting their time with interactive TV, or not accepted this fact, and moved on to do something else - probably just standard non-interactive TV.
Standing up from the jagged, shiny remains of the Game that Killed a Gamer, covered in glittery crap, sweat, and tobacco from a cigarette-related explosion, I looked out at the sunlit realm that I had been eschewing for the last few days. Why had I done that? To drive myself half-crazy in order to find a revelation? My only revelation was that I'd wasted my time, holiday, and money. And that I'd have to lie when any of my friends asked me what I'd been doing for the last few days.
There were a myriad of stories I could weave among this sunlit city, I realized. Would I even have to weave them? Insanity leaps from the page in any place that humans congregate. Were there any final truths and base wisdoms contained therein? Or was this really the decline of civilization; the great thinkers replaced by 2 AM Philosophers and puritans? Wiping DVD-shrapnel from my sunglasses, I decided it was time that someone found answers to questions (though what questions, I have no idea) - and there was only one place to start a journey like that.