If you take a quick glance at the screenshots on this page of TGL’s 1999 PC exclusive spin-off of their long-running Farland Story/Saga series(s) of SRPGs you could easily be forgiven for thinking that by the time Farland Odyssey came along they’d abandoned all pretence of internal creativity and gone down the dark road of Ys-y knockoff-dom instead, red-haired hero Arc and his purple Pikkard-like companion Ami looking perhaps a little too close to Falcom’s legendary hero for comfort. But it’s actually a little stranger than that: These images may make Farland Odyssey look like a (very pretty) clone of classic Ys, but the gameplay itself bears a closer resemblance to Chunsoft’s legendary Shiren the Wanderer than any adventure starring Adol Christin.
This means your team of up to three active members will spend a lot of time trudging around a variety of randomised maps hoping to survive long enough to reach whatever boss battle the designers had planned for this dungeon or trigger the next cutscene. Officially this is described by TGL in the manual as their “RBF” system (Random BattleField), but in practise it’s really no different from any other computer generated dungeon you’ve ever encountered bar the fancy title.
It feels a little strange to see them try to spin this as something unique when the game is missing so many features expected in a game of this type; things you wouldn’t just expect to see in contemporary Playstation and Dreamcast roguelikes but even much older Super Famicom or Game Boy titles too. There’s no hunger or fatigue to consider in Farland Odyssey. You can’t hurl interesting status-inflicting potions or old items at enemies from the other side of the room. There are no “monster house” surprises to worry about or mid-dungeon shops to offer some much-needed relief (or steal from, if you’re feeling brave/stupid). Enemies don’t level up if they kill off a party member or each other. Equipment will never be cursed or blessed on your travels. These things are all to a greater or lesser degree part of the fabric of console roguelikes, yet they’re completely absent here. So what exactly is this game?
You see, this is where Farland Odyssey gets a bit weird: It’s definitely not got the depth of Chocobo’s Dungeon and the like, but nevertheless the game still insists on presenting itself as the sort of title that would very much like to muscle in on that particular slice of gaming. So is it a new hybrid of traditional JRPG and roguelike, perhaps? A roguelite?
Well… no. It’s a bit of both, which unfortunately also makes it feel like neither. Some games are more than the sum of their parts, but this is more like two separate wholes have been scraped from and then haphazardly sticky-taped together.
We’ll start with the traditional JRPG side of things: Arc’s adventures usually start out in the main town area filled with all the facilities a nineties RPG hero could wish for: There’s a tavern, church, all the usual RPG shops, a casino (because why wouldn’t a rustic fantasy setting have an enormous casino in the middle of town?), and homes that rarely feature anywhere at all for their half a dozen occupants to sleep. You’ve never been here but you already know exactly what all of these places do; whether that makes this a victory lap for classic role playing or yet another cookie-cutter setting is open to interpretation (personally, it’s been a nice break from my usual fare).
Resting, saving, and reviving any fallen friends are mercifully all completely free to do in the usual places and the helpful shop interface works along the same lines as the excellent Shining Force series: You can see at a glance who can equip what as well as exactly how they’ll benefit from it before buying anything, and immediately after purchasing individual pieces of equipment you can swap out your team’s older pieces without having to disrupt your shopping spree – brilliant!
This equipment is divided amongst your team based on typical JRPG personality stereotypes – heroic Arc gets the swords, sneaky Kain gets the daggers, women don’t get to wear the heavy armour their male counterparts do, and so on – and each weapon/armour type follows a clear upgrade path where the next one up is always better than whatever the slightly cheaper option was with no particular special effects or resistances to consider or augmentations available. You can find bits and pieces of kit as well as useful restorative items out in the field, but these are identical to shop-bought gear and with the way the game’s balanced they’ll generally be something you’re already wearing or worse.
Once you move out of town the roguelike half of the game takes over, pitting your adorable party against an assortment of monsters who all politely wait for you to move first.
Having a team arriving in dribs and drabs as dictated by the plot can often be a mixed blessing; there’s usually one person who arrives too late and is more trouble than they’re worth to level up. Farland Odyssey sidesteps much of that particular issue by equally sharing out experience points gained from fallen foes amongst your active party, saving you from having to waste time manipulating weaker characters in close enough to artificially “tag” an enemy before your regulars decimate them or having to gently tap a foe until they’re worn down enough for the newbie to land the final blow. You do still have to keep them out of harm’s way because dead friends gain no XP (that sounds like something you’d see on a shirt…), but you’re spared a lot of pointless “dancing” around feeble starter enemies just so someone to catch up.
Keeping less robust party members away from monsters is an important consideration but at least you don’t have to worry about where they’re treading as far as the randomised dungeon layout’d numerous trap tiles are concerned; everyone always copies the lead character’s exact footsteps rather than trying to work out an AI-determined path that’ll keep them in formation so even when the floor’s covered with potentially devastating tiles those tricky diagonal movements cause no trouble at all. Unfortunately if you do accidentally make your leader tread on a trap the entire active party’s immediately effected by it whether it’s good or bad (usually bad, in my experience – after a few dungeons I stopped testing them out as the risk wasn’t worth it), preventing you from using a strong character in the front as a trap-tripping guinea pig.
So there’s some thoughtful design work going on in Farland Odyssey even if the game never quite knows what it really wants to be, and in most circumstances it’s this attention to small details that make good games great. Which is why it feels all the more surprising to find yourself kicked back to the title screen, half an hour or more’s dungeoning up in smoke, after your first unexpected death. That’s my fault for not saving more frequently, isn’t it? I should’ve been more careful. Normally I’d agree with that but for no particular reason the game restricts saving to one desk at the tavern and at special orb pedestals rarely seen out in the breaks between dungeon areas. Why? No idea. This out-of-the-blue kick in the teeth shook my view of the entire game, as what could’ve been a “Right, I’ve got to be more careful on the next floor – there’s a boss waiting for me!” approach to sudden difficulty spikes melted away into the reality that is “Ugh, now I’ve got to re-trigger the next part of the story, then go out to the town entrance to button-mash through a cutscene I’ve already watched, then head down a fifteen-floor dungeon, and then, maybe, beat the boss”. With the rest of the game being so simple and bright-n-breezy this harsh approach to death in a game where success is to an extent built around RNG felt more than a little bit demoralising.
I can’t say Farland Odyssey’s really grabbed me; the shallow dungeoneering means there’s no real hook, climax, or coherency to most areas making it all feel like so much busywork until you manage to get through to the one bit someone consciously designed. It’s fair to say the same complaint could be levelled at more committed roguelikes but they tend to have more clever tricks up their sleeves and some sort of safety net against their randomness, or at the very least are so hard and so random nobody goes into them seriously expecting to come out the other end alive.
On the other side of things the plot is everything you’d expect from a generic swords and sorcery tale of the era: There’s the marketable fluffy mascot who hates being called the cute mascot, comical inter-party bickering, ancient ruins, troublesome rats in cellars for you to clear out – it’s all there. The story may be all light-hearted and cute but the comedy isn’t especially sharp – even by fantasy RPG standards – and the level of mildly amusing hijinks on display here may be enough to carry something more episodic but it’s just not enough for a full-length RPG to hang its hat on.
Having said all that I don’t really object to having the game taking up precious space on my hard drive; it’s a nice enough time-killer that’ll raise a few smiles if you’re in a comic-fantasy-OVA-on-VHS kind of groove and the pixel art’s absolutely fantastic. There was a direct sequel released not long after – I don’t own it so I can’t say any more about it than that but I do hope they made it a little more fleshed out than this.
A word of warning for anyone thinking of trying this game out: It does install and play on Windows 10 but it’s a little glitchy and will infrequently crash without warning. I had no problems whatsoever installing and playing it on an older XP laptop.