Review: The Last Story
Posted 10 Mar 2012 at 00:18 by Aaron Clegg
Let's get it out of the way: this is not Xenoblade. It would be disingenuous to suggest The Last Story is trying to one-up Monolith's epic quest in terms of scale; Sakaguchi's baby has a much more nuanced goal. The structure of this RPG is more aligned with some of its western brethren, specifically of the BioWare ilk. Rather than creating a vast open world to explore, everything is reined in - the appeal of the game will turn on two main factors: the plight of the core characters and the enjoyment of the combat system. The latter is pulled off with aplomb, while the former is a little more of a mixed bag.When discussing The Last Story as it moved along the final stages of development, it didn't take Hironobu Sakaguchi long to draw the comparison with what is considered to be the gold standard of the JRPG. "I used the same method with Final Fantasy VII", he conceded to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. The method in question is very simple: design a game from its most basic parts before even starting on extraneous details like graphics, plot or characters. On the one hand, it sounds like a plan tailor-fitted to developing games on the modestly-powered Wii. On the other, this was clearly never a game that was going be treated with anything but the highest production values by Nintendo and Mistwalker. The result is a slick marriage of adventure homage and modern cinematic sensibilities that almost all comes together perfectly.
The game itself wastes absolutely no time throwing you into the action. There are literally a couple of button presses between the main screen and getting hands-on into a new game, with intuitive tutorials being introduced at a brisk pace. Sakaguchi is establishing himself as one of the least fussy directors working today: his games just get on with it. After a brief prologue, the purpose of the game is set before you. You are to be following a bunch of rag-tag mercenaries who fight hard and play harder in order to make their living on Lazulis Island.
As the plot unfolds, it will become apparent that Lazulis Island is an anomaly in the world. Everywhere but this military power is slowly dying, and with tensions rising between the humans of the city and a powerful, and unfortunately largely antagonistic magical race, our heroes look threatened to be plunged into a crisis that's slightly above their pay grade. The over-arching plot of world danger and salvation is standard JRPG fare, but what is refreshing is that you never feel too detached from the personal plight of these core companions.
With that said, quite a lot will naturally rest on how endearing these characters are. It should be qualified that Nintendo of Europe's localisation efforts have been absolutely sterling once again. There is no Japanese voice track this time around, but it matters not, for the English voice work is almost wholly stand-out. The loud and foul-mouthed Syrenne makes a particularly refreshing change from the tedious female supporting characters of other games. It's just a shame that there's something rather dreary about the main character Zael; something that's tough to pin down. One is always reluctant to criticise voice actors for doing the hard work they do, though perhaps it's a more fundamental issue. It's as though the writers' wanted to embody the relatability of the token 'mute protagonist' from other JRPG's, but at the same time give him just as much dialogue as everyone else. It surely wouldn't help if this intention is lost in translation somewhat. The result is a main character who you never quite care for, and presents a jarring juxtapose to the colourful personalities of everyone else. It's no game-breaker, but in such a character-heavy game, it is somewhat bothering.
Still, you're not going to be worried about the affability of the characters when you're up to your neck in combat, and that really is where the meat of the game lies. As Zael, you're armed with the token longsword and a trusty crossbow – useful for spying up foes from afar, learning weak points, and interrupting enemy spells. But to survive, you're going to have to take note of every party member. Battles commence in pure real-time, and if you go in slashing like a headless chicken (do headless chickens slash? – Ed) you're going to be schooled in no time. The ideal strategy is to sneak around your foes' flank and dispatch them with powerful surprise blows one-by-one – this stealth strategy is very satisfying, perhaps more RPGs should utilise it. Unfortunately for pretty-faced Zael, sometimes it's just bound to be a brawl-fest.
When chaos breaks out, it's difficult to keep up with what's going on, but you must remember that everything works within a system. You can tell which enemies are targeting which party member by a of beam of light from their eye-line. You can attract all enemy attention towards Zael by using his Gathering technique. This aura will strengthen your team and revive down allies when he nears them, but the obvious downside is it makes Zael a hell of a lot more vulnerable. Still, he's pretty handy in a scrap, especially when he strikes from behind cover. Be sure to take advantage of how athletic he can be too – holding down a button whilst moving will allow Zael to vault over obstacles, allies and enemies alike. It all looks very slick and action-movie-like, but never forget that it's all intended so you can take full advantage of the battlefield.
Magic also plays a big role. Your allies will set off a timer when they initiate their spells, and cast them when that timer reaches zero. Successful casts will generate a magic circle on the battlefield of whatever element the spell was. Zael can use the ability 'Gale' on these circles and 'diffuse' their elements, with different elements having different effects (sometimes diffusing will cause enemies' armour to break; sometimes it will heal your party members). It sounds complex, and can take a while to get used to, but you're almost certain to have never played anything like it before. All you need remember is that battles are essentially one big system that encourages an all-encompassing strategy. If all else fails, take the sagely advice from the director himself: "disrupting the 'order' of your enemy so it degenerates into 'chaos' is the key to victory".
The combat system is impressive, but The Last Story's presentation is equally intricate. Early screens of the game looked technically competent, but there was a slight worry that the game would have quite a drab aesthetic to it. Luckily, actually seeing the game in with your own eyes is a world apart. Let it be said that, technically, The Last Story is up there with the best of Wii's first-party offerings. But the art style really does distinguish it from anything else on the system; the sprawling Lazulis City is particularly gorgeous, with a definite French renaissance feel to the architecture, likely inspired by the many months Sakaguchi likes to spend in Europe. Coupled with a grandiose score overseen by Mr Final Fantasy himself Nobuo Uematsu; and voice work provided for virtually every little scene, and you have an epic that, alongside Xenoblade, sets the standard for what we'll now come to expect from Nintendo-funded console adventures. No pressure or anything.
There's so much thought into whatever is on-screen at all times that it would be a miracle if it's all tied together in a flawless manner. The developer's attempt at this is admirable, but there are a couple of issues. The game is not incredibly long, so it doesn't feel quite necessary that it be split into a few dozen 'chapters' across the main story. It often gets split up so much that some chapters are literally nothing more than walking from one location to another and a few minutes of cut-scene. It's not entirely unseamless, but it does make the quest feel quite 'bitty' at times.
The game also seems to struggle to 'settle down' for the first couple of acts. It's pretty cool when after a few hours you first get to go and explore Lazulis City – a massive, sprawling hub of travelling citizens and merchants, with a 'living' economy that has you purchasing new things all the time and selling goods for profit when they come into vogue. It's just a shame that before you know it, you're shipped off (literally) on a new story branch before you're able to get to grips with the town. The game certainly makes no bones about dragging you along with its plot, and players will need some patience before they get to do things at their own pace.
Ultimately though, this sounds nitpicking because it's likely these aspects were perfectly intentional. Sakaguchi seems determined to make an adventure game homage coated in modern production values. Despite having the look and sound of a sprawling, open-world epic, The Last Story is very much a focussed adventure romp that prides itself on its characters and core gameplay. That's not to say there isn't a load to do. That special kind of RPG player will be pleased to know that there are a plethora of rare items and equipment to find and craft; you (we) know who you (we) are. That's not to mention to the impressive addition of six-player online multiplayer, in which you can hone your combat skills competitively or co-operatively.
The Last Story is exactly the sort of game that screams for a sequel, where the developer can approach the quest with even more confidence and vision. It's therefore unfortunate that Mr Sakaguchi has indicated he's moving to mobile platforms for his next few projects. That being said, The Last Story is well worth a buy in virtue of there not being anything else like it on Wii. It's always a bit weird when a high-production epic comes along on the little white box, but when it's made by such a legendary developer who's at the top of his game, you know you're going to get substance in heaps to go with the style.
N-Europe Final Verdict
An homage to the old coated in a shine that stands it proud alongside the new. We'd welcome a sequel to tighten up the odd area, but if this ends up being Sakaguchi's last story, he can ride into the sunset in considerable glory.
Awesomely intricate combat system
Lazulis City is jawdroppingly humongous
Characters are a joy, mostly
Framerate hiccups when the going gets tough
Some pacing issues