Disclaimer: Heavy Lost Odyssey Spoilers Inbound
Since home console gaming’s inception nearly 50 years ago, the industry has tackled most subject matter. Violence, in particular, has remained a reliable standby. Many games either parody the industry’s absurdist violent depictions or chastise gamers for finding pleasure in killing. This is worn out discourse in 2020.
With so many gruesome experiences, then, it’s shocking how few examine violence through the same lens as Lost Odyssey almost 13 years on. Most games providing commentary on violence in media take the easy way out. They attempt to make players feel bad for the violence the game is forcing them to commit because trivializing murder is wrong or something. Lost Odyssey is more nuanced than that. Violence isn’t shamed. Rather, it’s used to illuminate the aftermath–Loss. Loss of loved one’s lives, loss of freedom, loss of security, loss of happiness, and loss of identity.
Lost Odyssey is all about this cross-section between the pain associated with loss as well as how that pain creates stronger bonds. It examines people’s ability to love to the capacity that they do so because life is so fleeting.
Lost Odyssey’s Premise
While the core narrative isn’t anything to preach about, it provides enough of a skeleton to shape the spectacular moments. The story follows Kaim and Seth, two immortals whom have had their memories wiped by Gongora, an evil immortal.
At the narrative’s beginning, Seth and Kaim set on a journey along with Jansen, a mortal, to investigate the nature of some mysterious staff that’s been leaking magic energy thought responsible for a meteor that killed thousands of troops on a battlefield. Through this journey, Seth and Kaim regain their memory in pieces while adding two other immortals to their party: Sarah, Kaim’s wife–and Ming–the queen of one of the game’s nations.
Its villain’s desire to use magic energy to rule over the world and use any means to stop those that interfere solely to stroke his ego is tired narrative fluff. We get it, Gongora. You’re forgettable JRPG villain #987868878789. Thankfully, there’s more to Lost Odyssey than its by-the-numbers plot.
A Thousand Years of Dreams
Players can interact with people and objects that will trigger memories, which Lost Odyssey dubs A Thousand Years of Dreams. These optional text-only short stories written by best-selling Japanese author Kiyoshi Shigematsu carry the brunt of Lost Odyssey‘s emotional complexity. Each dream is a self contained vignette following various points during the immortals’ lives. While some add further character development to the protagonists, they mostly exist to examine the human condition.
The Story of Old Man Greo
Old Man Greo is an obsessive shoemaker. He’s been in the business for decades, making shoes for all kinds of people for different occasions and purposes. Only wiping his apathetic face upon customers placing requests, his identity is so inextricably linked to his love of shoes that he barely makes conversation. He asks what customers need while knee-deep in work, though, its travelers’ shoes with which he shows a more deeply rooted connection.
His eccentricity isn’t played for laughs. Regulars respect Greo’s wishes, returning with shoes well-worn from travel, refusing to clean them so they end up in Greo’s hands “untainted”. These gifts provide Greo with the tenacity to continue.
Not that he was ever thrilled to get an order. What he most enjoyed was when a customer brought him a pair of shoes that had outlived its usefulness. He would stare lovingly at the worn-down soles and the disintegrating uppers, and he would actually talk to them!
“You’ve done some good travelling, I see…”
Greo may have a booming business performing exceptional work for countless people that respect him, but he feels lost amid the acclaim. For Greo, life isn’t about money or reputation. It’s about purpose.
Old Man Greo never wore his own shoes. He couldn’t have worn them even if he had wanted to. His legs were gone from the knees down. A terrible illness had attacked his bones when he was very young, and the legs had been amputated to save his life.
The old man had lived his long life in a wheelchair. He had never once left his native village. This is what he meant when he said that his shoes did his travelling for him.
This passage highlights the root of Greo’s pain. He isn’t in love with his work because it’s a constant reminder of the mobility he lost at a young age; a disability which has confined him to his village his entire life. Yet, by the same token, he lives for the worn-down shoes brought to him by travelers. New shoes are a blank slate with stories awaiting a pen to take them to. The shoes having outlived their usefulness to customers are given a new lease on life through’s Greo’s longing. Having never left his home village, these gifts will never become useless to him. He displays them on shelves as representations of fascinating stories, places, and people with a purpose.
Greo’s conversation with Kaim explores the significance of these shoes in relation to death. He’s been making shoes long enough to live through customers dying from illnesses, accidents, and battles. “It’s hard when only the shoes come back”, says Greo as Kaim nods silently. He tells Kaim of one such incident involving a young man eager to leave his parents. They bought him a pair of Old Man Greo’s shoes as a parting gift, only for him to die one month later.
When recounting this tale, Greo doesn’t delve into specifics because he doesn’t need to. He makes an offhand remark about how his shoes were hardly worn at all, indicating the young man hardly got to live his life before meeting his demise on the road. The circumstances of his death aren’t as important as the fact that a life was taken before it fulfilled its purpose.
His contemptful tirade concerning parents, how they spoil their children, and how ungrateful the youth are doesn’t resonate with Kaim because he senses deeper anguish behind this rant.
Kaim knows that the old man’s feelings go deeper than that. Old Man Greo is the kind of craftsman who would rush to make new shoes for the funeral of a sad young man who had breathed his last while his dream was only half-finished. He would put them on the young man’s feet in the coffin and pray that he would be able to go all the way on this final journey.
Greo shares a mutually beneficial relationship with his customers despite his stand-offish nature. In making shoes for people that need them, he’s become a piece of the puzzle toward them achieving their purpose. The wear and tear symbolize one’s trials and tribulations, filling Greo with a simultaneous sense of longing and purpose. While he may be at a stand-still, his soul is warmed through helping others reach their goals. The shoes’ soles tell tales of adventurer’s hardships and their return signals success, or at the very least, steps toward success.
This conversation is bittersweet, only reminding Kaim of how little time is left for Greo. He’s growing older, with a sometimes unreliable memory and issues with concentration outside his profession. Kaim feigns a smile after Greo makes a remark about Kaim surviving his most recent journey. These words strike him deeper than most conversations he has with people throughout the game. Kaim’s already told him he can’t die. Of course he survived this journey. Greo’s failing memory and Kaim’s immortality are the focal points of his pain, enabling an attitude adjustment.
Kaim is usually a straightforward man of few words, thinking very little of his tone or demeanor. He often comes across as disinterested during much of the main story and many exchanges within the memories. In this instance, though, he softens up and reminisces with Old Man Greo, conversing with him as a good friend, leaving his usual coldness at the door. This warm exchange is also the first indication of Greo’s friendliness. He gushes about the first time they met, confessing that Kaim’s dirty, worn-out shoes inspired him to become a shoemaker. The imagination that sparked within him at that moment as a young adult about what the world offered, where the shoes had been, and what people have accomplished made Greo happy. They still make him happy.
This bond between them is commemorated with Greo making two pairs of shoes. One for Kaim’s next journey; the others–a pair of identical shoes to be worn in his coffin “for his life’s final journey”.
“I’d like that”, responds, Kaim. Greo dies shortly after Kaim sets off with his new pair of shoes. Decades pass and everyone Greo had ever known has been dead a long time. Kaim remains the only person that remembers his impact and visits his grave, though he’s not Greo’s only connection to the living world.
These words inscribed along Greo’s gravestone make the story come full circle. Those were the words he always left his customers with as they departed, but they were never addressed to him. In death, however, he’s been given the opportunity to start the journey his illness had cut short. Kaim will always remember Old Man Greo as will all the shoes lining his grave, or as he would often call them, his sons.
There are 31 of these short stories(33 counting dlc). Each dream centers around loss or pain to varying degrees. Some examine how others cope with loss. Others delve into the sufferer’s point of view. Still others remain relatively light throughout, telling heart-warming tales of friendship.
In one story, Kaim returns from a long journey to bare witness to a young girl’s final moments. Even as she grasps her last breaths, Kaim reassures her she’s simply going on a journey much as he always does and that she’ll join him soon, knowing full well he’ll never be able to.
Another story surrounds a man bringing a woman from another culture into his village. Their relationship is met with constant opposition due to the color of her skin. Unable to bare the years of prejudice, she takes her life not long after giving birth. Kaim, formerly good friends with the man who had wed this woman of color, returns to the village long after he and his family pass away to find a beautiful, mixed environment. People of color play pivotal roles in the village, both parties treating each other as equals.
In another story, there’s a man dubbed the Butcher General for his egregious nature in war. Rather than ending the killing at the battlefield, he wipes his enemies’ villages clean, leaving no chance of any soul coming for revenge. This bites him in the ass after destroying one village famous for a special kind of flower that only grows in that village under special circumstances. Greenery spouts from his body every night and every night he cuts them, haunted by their human-like screams. This cycle continues they sprout from his back one night. Unable to reach this spot, his body is overtaken. Years later, that village’s special flowers are seen blooming at the exact spot of the Butcher General’s death. Those “special circumstances” involved feeding off the flesh of humans baring hatred.
The list goes on. These profound stories shape the game’s universe and its relationship with pain. It’s this pain that drives humanity in a similar manner to a flight or fight response in near death situations. Had the man marrying the foreigner never faced opposition, that single mixed marriage may have been a flash in the pain. It was his wife’s and friend’s(Kaim dropped him because of his spinelessness) loss that drove him to push so hard to radicalize their beliefs.
Lost Odyssey’s A Thousand Years of Dreams contain some of the best writing in gaming. While games industry folk sometimes overstate a game’s narrative or artistic value as some oddly innate defensive mechanism, the truth is the industry has much room for growth. I love video games and I see their potential for narrative potency. Many strong stories exist in games as do many subdued experiential titles that exist to elicit strong emotional responses.
Games have grown quite adept at these “artsy” experiences. Games like Journey, Abzu, Gris, etc…which maybe tell stories, but they play second fiddle to the audio-visual experience meant to move players. This type of emotional weight has been all but mastered by this point. Writing, on the other hand, not so much.
It’s extremely telling that most Lost Odyssey fans would tell you their favorite part of the game was A Thousand Years of Dreams. They’re so strong that they were compiled and released in a book a few years after the game’s release. While this is a convenient way to experience them, much is lost in the translation. Without the context of the characters and their motivations from the game, some scenes won’t resonate as hard. Similarly, many moments are provided extra weight through their use of background imagery, sound effects, and music.
A Story That Sometimes Works
Most of the game’s narrative gets lost in the JRPG formula of rushing against the villain attempting to rule over the world with plenty of hamminess and comedic relief for good measure. It’s a far cry from the memory sequences, but there are some impactful moments that key off the short stories’ ideas.
Each immortal has at least one major scene in which they regain a big part of their identity through remembering painful moments in their own lives rather than the painful moments in others’ as explored within A Thousand Years of Dreams.
Kaim’s major breakthrough comes from reuniting with Lirum, his daughter. Up until this moment, he’s plagued by recurring nightmares of him and his wife unable to save a little girl from plunging off a cliffside. He’s unsure who that girl is. Upon meeting Lirum , however, witnessing her bedridden state, he remembers. He remembers Gongora’s responsible for pushing Lirum off that cliff. This is the first time we see Kaim cry, an emotional place he rarely reaches. This pain becomes the source of his motivation to stop Gongora. It also strengthens his bond with Lirum’s children, Mack and Cooke. Because he’s lost his daughter, moving forward, he’s filled with more intent to prevent any harm coming onto his grandchildren. While still cold, his demeanor is a bit more rooted in the mortals’ realm after experiencing this loss. He starts acting more and more like a fatherly figure. But Kaim isn’t the only immortal to experience loss.
Seth’s first dream revolves around her past. She was once a fearless pirate. Knowing she couldn’t die, she lived every day to the fullest on the open seas, harassing rich people that had more than they knew what to do with. She was rarely violent, though. This carelessness leads to her being trapped in a cave and left to rot. Because she can’t die, she won’t literally rot, but her mental state does. She begins losing her mind until Aneira, the sole-survivor of a winged race of creatures, unshackles her and they remain tied to each other. Aneira not only physically rescued Seth from the cave. Aneira also saved Seth from herself–her “prison of solitude”.
After this dream, we cut to Seth crying on a ship. Mack looks confused. “Remembering made you cry?”, he asks. Yes, Mack. Remembering made her cry, but that’s not reason to show concern. Her tears are more symbolic of her finally remembering her identity rather than as a result of any pain. Crying doesn’t always need to denote negativity. It’s a sign of her humanity. While living forever makes her feel like a foreigner among the mortals, remembering what she used to do and be like reigns her in. She still bears the immortal mark, but she has a son, dreams, friendship, and experiences a range of feelings. She’s a human being. This cathartic release makes her feel more grounded.
Connection Through Mechanics
While A Thousand Years of Dreams shows Lost Odyssey at its most poignant, with the occasional cinematic touching upon semblances of complexity, some of its mechanics more subtly encroach upon these themes.
Mortals learn skills as they level up whereas immortals only receive the expected stat boosts with each level gained. This is where skill linking comes into play. Immortals can link a skill with mortals to learn it. Gain enough skill points through battle while the skill is linked and the immortal learns it permanently, allowing them to set it to a skill slot or keep it in reserve for later.
It’s not this simple either. The mortal in question must also be in the active party for skill points to count toward linked skills, otherwise players are leaving wasted progression on the floor. This dichotomy between mortals’ fixed progression paths and automatic skills and immortals’ malleable progression and dependence on mortals mirrors the world’s relationship between the two.
Lost Odyssey spends its 45+ hour runtime preaching about how painful eternal life can be and how beautiful humanity is when viewed within the context of a flash in the pan, but it also dabbles with the relationship between mortals and immortals.
Immortals associate pain differently than mortals. Mortals experience pain because they know they’ll die one day, spurring a sense of urgency in their day to day. Mistakes carry more weight because fixing them takes time–a precious commodity. Immortals experience pain because they’ll never die. They’ll witness countless deaths, unable to truly feel connected to anyone. Their invulnerability reframes the way they look at life as well as how they proceed with it.
Without getting too into it, Kaim and Sarah reunite with a friend, who happens to be one of the nation’s kings. They discuss some political matters, prompting the king to ask them to attend a meeting with him and another king. Seth and Ming end up attending the meeting in their stead. The negotiation between the parties causes friction between the mortals and immortals as Seth and Ming scold King Gohtza for planning to build another grand staff, the staff that caused the meteor at the game’s opening.
While the staff is dangerous, it is also responsible for the world’s growth in magic energy and technology. Seth and Ming want it destroyed because of the implications it could carry. Instead, King Gohtza figures building another grand staff so that his nation won’t be at an imbalance is the best course of action. He’s thinking in the short term. Losing or halting societal progress is too much a sacrifice for him.
The immortals are thinking big picture. Some technology isn’t worth it at the cost of humanity losing its agency forever. Gohtza and his citizens won’t live to see the true ramifications of his plan to build another staff, but future generations will.
Humans aren’t characterized as weak-minded despite this example. Because their lives are more fragile, they’re also more emotionally charged, a characteristic Kaim adopts more and more of from his grandchildren as the game goes on. This emotional awareness makes the immortal life less depressing. Learning to block everything out and focus on the moment at hand is one of many things immortals learn from mortals.
This mutually beneficial relationship is captured through the skill link system. The human remaining in the active party for skill points to count toward progression encapsulates this idea that immortals are just as dependent on mortals as mortals are to them.
A Journey’s End
Lost Odyssey is potent comfort food. It’s comforting in its adherence to traditional role-playing conventions, making minor tweaks to fit its themes. Fans of the genre won’t find its gameplay especially compelling, but it’ll feel like home. The potency comes from its remarkable exploration of loss, pain, and relationships. This 7/10 RPG is a fondly remembered classic because of its emotional highs and lows. If you’re in the market for a game to make you cry, consider wading through hours of unremarkable dialogue and refined gameplay for its unmatched moments of brilliance.