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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Xbox 360 at 10: The touching dreams of Lost Odyssey

Microsoft's JRPGs didn't win Japan, but they won Bertie's heart.

Lost Odyssey might be one of the most touching games I've ever played. I remember meeting that dying woman in the village who turned out to be my - lead character Kaim's - long-lost daughter, even though we looked roughly the same age. Then there was the gnarled old pirate your team meets (and recruits) who turns out to be the son of a lady in your party, who looks much younger than he does. This is possible because Kaim and a few others are immortals and have lived for hundreds of years.

But these moments aren't even the game's best. Emotionally poignant and philosophical, the true highlights come in sections with barely any gameplay at all: text-based dream sequences that represent memories awoken inside your amnesiac brain, touching on what it would be to live as an immortal, to outlive those who return your love, over and over again. Visually, these dreams are barely more than lightly animated text against cloudy colours, with gentle piano accompaniment and a few sound effects. But they're deep and ruminative, far more so than the bread-and-butter gameplay they're interspersed in.

These sequences can be 10 minutes long, and they unfold gently in their own time, enforcing a kind of calm appropriate to thoughtful contemplation - a mental contrast to the menu-juggling mindset Lost Odyssey generally requires.

The game's very first memory involves Kaim returning to an inn where a girl is on the brink of death. She has been sickly since birth and now her time has come. Kaim has known her for many years and she has helped him find a warmth in his mercenary heart that has nearly been snuffed out by all battles he's fought. He knows she is slipping away. "He wants her to know that death is not a sorrow but a joy mixed with tears," the text reads, and it still resounds with me now.

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Other memories touch more upon his long life, such as one in a village exuberantly celebrating Resurrection Day. But, once upon a time, that day was known as Earthquake Day and was a sombre reflection upon a terrible natural disaster hundreds of years earlier - a disaster in which Kaim lost his then wife and child.

All the immortal pondering reminded me of Planescape: Torment, that revered old Dungeons & Dragons computer role-playing game, which put you in the scarred and tattooed body of an amnesiac immortal and asked, 'What can change the nature of a man?' Lost Odyssey doesn't doesn't dive as deep outside of the dream sequences - generally, it's cheesy and formulaic, and a weird world to 'wake up' to - but in those moments it is superb and memorable. (Incidentally, 31 of the 33 dream sequences are now contained in a novel you can buy separately.)

The dreams elevated Lost Odyssey above and beyond what another Xbox 360 exclusive, Blue Dragon, could manage. Both games were commissioned by Microsoft to endear Japan to Xbox 360, which didn't work - but the process involved opening Microsoft's cheque-book and securing the talents of none other than Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Blue Dragon was a kids' cartoon of a game, immaculately presented but shallow and a bit annoying. Lost Odyssey was more of a teenager, although dotted throughout with provoking depth. Both games had ageing innards: turn-based combat with menus, menus, menus for selecting spells or attacks or defence, and world exploration with random battles. But they also had twists. Blue Dragon let you charge abilities against a who-goes-next bar, which meant you could lose your place in the queue for charging too long - but you might want to do that. And you could multi-class the blue shadow creatures that fought for each character, which kept me theorycrafting in my sleep.

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Lost Odyssey had timed attacks that involved landing a shrinking ring perfectly on a circle around your target, and it had immortals learn their skills from mortals during combat by linking to them, which meant varying your battle line-up. Oh, and both games came on multiple discs (Lost Odyssey on four, Blue Dragon on three), which was an eye-opener back then.

Neither game had much of an impact in Japan or indeed in the West, and both were quickly forgotten. So much for all the drum-banging. They were considered old-fashioned, which they were, and out of step with the evolution of the role-playing genre. But that didn't matter to me, because for one reason or another the Xbox 360 was the first console I'd owned since a SNES, so I hadn't had the personal pleasure of playing the great Final Fantasies, and I really fancied playing a JRPG.

If only my Xbox 360 hadn't red-ringed and its hard drive corrupted before I could finish Lost Odyssey on a new machine. Sigh. Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey weren't classics, but they weren't wastes of time. There were people out there who did appreciate these bizarre exclusives from nearly a decade ago - people like me.

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