GAME NAME: The Last Story
DEVELOPER(S): Mistwalker and AQ Interactive
PUBLISHER(S): Nintendo and Xseed Games
RELEASE DATE(S): February 24th 2012
If ever there were proof that Nintendo no longer has any idea what to do with the Wii in its final year, it is that virtually all its important 2012 titles are JRPGs: the publisher has a less than stellar record when it comes to promoting the genre outside its Japanese shores and took some convincing before allowing Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story to head States-ward.
Xenoblade certainly set a hell of a standard for The Last Story to meet. Fortunately, on hand is Hinorobu Sakaguchi, creator of the original Final Fantasy and a man in search of a new hit for some time. In title, The Last Story makes a none-too-subtle nod to its creator’s most successful creation. In execution, it has to prove the ailing genre still has the capacity to adapt for a modern generation of gamers seemingly where Western studios and design aesthetics dominate the cultural landscape.
Cards on the table, my knowledge of JRPGs is extremely limited. So limited, in fact, that unless the Mario RPG / Paper Mario series counts, Xenoblade Chronicles represented my first proper foray into the genre. Even with my limited familiarity, Last Story‘s experimental streak is clear from the beginning. There is certainly no shortage of the familiar elements most commonly associated, by vets and noobs alike, with the genre: for one thing, the plot involves a floppy-haired boy, innocent to the ways of the world, discovering his hidden power, falling in love with an ethereal princess and heading out to save the world. So far, so many boxes ticked.
It’s in the gameplay, though, where the game starts to take liberties with the established formula. As usual, the protagonist is part of a team which gathers experience points in combat, although where this process typically involves fighting as many enemies as possible in a relatively non-linear environment, Last Story takes a decidedly more Western approach to proceedings. The path through the game is tightly controlled, with only the city hub of Lazulis Island offering much in the way of freedom to explore. Whilst there are plenty of enemies to dispatch in each environment, harvesting extra experience has to be performed at certain pre-set points on the map (represented by a symbol on the ground), where enemies can be summoned as many times as the player desires in order to ascend through the levels.
It’s a streamlined approach, removing the annoyance of having to continuously traverse a wide environment to find enemies worth fighting, but its convenience comes at the cost of satisfaction. The traditional method of JRPG grinding may be in need of some work, but the labours required make its rewards sweeter when each new landmark is hit. Heading out into the world to practice your skills is an important part of players immersing themselves in a world where their skills grow in tandem with those of the character they are controlling. It’s a chore, but one mitigated the pleasure of achieving an aim through hard work. Abandoning the need to hunt for prey does not make the fighting any less of a graft – it merely removes the legwork – but makes the game’s world feel smaller, too centred around the needs of the player to fully immerse in the fantasy. It’s a hollow convenience, tidying up one of the genre’s minor annoyances but accidentally taking down a key pleasure with it.
Fortunately, changes to the traditional combat system are more successful, albeit clumsily implemented. Fighting takes on a similar form to third-person fighting games à la Prince Of Persia, with moves enabled through context rather than being selected from a menu. Attacking from cover activates a more powerful strike, with a further damage increase if the enemy is confused as to the player’s location. If near a wall, it’s possible to activate a jumping stab. The concession to the genre’s menu-based roots comes through Zael’s ability to command his teammates (otherwise controlled by the AI) once his skill bar is full, selecting a sequence of moves to gain a tactical advantage. It’s a slick system, undermined by how rarely it is needed: only later boss fights pose any serious challenge to all but the most haphazard players, who – with five lives at their disposal – can quite easily survive the game using only the most basic commands.
The crossbow is another neat tactical device – although disgracefully forces Wii remote users to use analogue aiming rather than the infinitely superior pointer – allowing players to take out mages from afar and identify vulnerable spots in the environment to destroy, increasing the chances of a successful fight. A brief overview of the battlefield is offered beforehand, allowing players to form a rudimentary strategy and sometimes spot hidden pathways to gain a positional advantage.
It’s an idea never used to its fullest, partly since the environment rarely makes a difference to how a battle plays out, but also because team-mates shout out the solution almost every time it does. Its main purpose ends up being to identify the different enemy types and select which to attack first (healers and mages, basically), reducing a potentially vital addition to a merely handy one. The online modes, based around players fighting each other or bosses from the single player, demonstrate the system’s versatility, even though the multiplayer modes themselves soon lose any tactical edge to the human tendency to run around aimlessly and hope for the best.
Party members are chosen automatically ahead of each new scenario, in theory a good idea to force players to adapt to different styles of play, but in practice involves a rotation of characters with essentially the same skills. This approach also has the side-effect of unbalancing the team in the first half of the game, with some team members achieving levels way above the others, unless taken to the Lazulis Island combat arena to bolster their stats: Syrenne, the game’s most charming character (armed with a filthy sense of humour and mildly arousing Lancastrian accent) is barely used at all until halfway through the story.
The game’s frustrating inability to spot the potential in its own mechanics is further established by its habit of increasing difficulty – in all but the boss fights – merely by increasing the size of enemy hordes, or gradually strengthening foes without requiring any new strategies to overcome them. Large groups of enemies become doubly frustrating due to the game’s technical shortcomings: the framerate slows to a chug whenever the action grows to anything involving more than a handful of characters at once, while the use of the analogue stick to control both movement and aim automatic attacks (which can be resolved by switching to manual) makes it quite possible to become unable to move when surrounded. The camera requires manual control at all times and is prone to jerking into inconvenient positions when left to function independently.
Framerate problems might have been slightly more forgivable were the game giving the impression of taxing the console to any degree, but while sometimes graced by agreeable images (Zael and Lisa watching a display of shooting stars on a purple night sky), environments are small and texturing on enemies and scenery frequently blurry. Brown and grey colour schemes dominate, combining with the low-quality character models to make Lazulis Island a particularly dreary hub to navigate. The lack of signposting and worthwhile reward for sidequests, meanwhile, only encourages them to be ignored.
A further quirk is how, despite the game’s muddy visual quality, it seems to have been designed for large televisions: on smaller screens, the icons indicating which character is equipped with what weapon or armour is almost indistinguishable, with no text offered for assistance. Certain bosses, meanwhile, require players to note small details, such as glowing red eyes, as a guide to success. The fuzzy graphics make this a task requiring superhuman observational skills, leaving the player relying on pot luck or the purchase of a larger television to progress. Even for the Wii, that’s an expensive peripheral too far.
The game steadily improves as the player adapts to its issues: battles become a tad more challenging and require greater tactical consideration, while the twenty hour length keeps the storytelling focused and accessible for those not able or willing to commit to a Xenoblade-esque eighty hour extravaganza. The lead characters are an engaging bunch, with their regional British accents an easy fit for the rural trappings of the fantasy genre: there’s nary a trace of sci-fi on show here. The excellent localisation is certainly never shy of deploying an amusing colloquialism or two. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu’s score only produces a handful of memorable tracks, but is of consistently solid quality. A pity the same cannot be said for the game as a whole, its most exciting ideas let down by uneven execution. The Last Story is far from a write-off, offering enough potential to hope for an improved and title-defying second instalment, but as a first chapter it is a bit of a bungle.
Xander Markham is an aspiring writer who has produced work for Destructoid and Gamasutra as well as maintaining his own blog covering games, television and movies. For more of Xander’s work, check out his blog: http://xandermarkham.blogspot.co.uk/