Reviews// The Last Story

Posted 5 Mar 2012 10:30 by
Along, I suspect, with many of you I have bought many more Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) than I have finished. My first experience of the genre, Square’s sublime Secret of Mana in 1993, set an unrealistically high bar. The genre was arguably peaking as the likes of the UK’s SuperPlay magazine promoted it to a growing and increasingly eager European audience.

Hype for Final Fantasy VII swelled over the next couple of years even though at that point (astonishingly, in hindsight) the previous six games in the series hadn’t been afforded a PAL release.

While, of course there have been exceptions, in my experience the JRPG genre has largely been a case of diminishing returns since 1997. Repeated exposure to genre conventions, often rigidly and anachronistically adhered to in the face of advances in gameplay and storytelling has resulted in a jaded feeling. Tellingly, the finest JRPG I have played since Secret of Mana was probably the DS version of Chrono Trigger, a remake of another mid-1990’s Square classic.

So now we come to the spiritual successor to Chrono Trigger...

Plunging you immediately into a dungeon skirmish with a group of pale, androgynous teen orphans clad in buckles, crop tops and sporting shocks of spiky hair, The Last Story flaunts its roots.

Writer and creative lead Hironobu Sakaguchi - designer, director and/or (executive) producer on the Final Fantasy franchise for two decades - returns to familiar territory here with his Mistwalker studio. However, it becomes apparent very soon that The Last Story is not going to retread every well-worn JRPG footfall.

Random encounters against previously invisible assailants are absent; battles are often announced via a top-down ‘tactical’ view of the arena. Opportunities to grind are mercifully infrequent. A room within each dungeon is set aside where Zael, who the player controls for at least 95% of the game, can stand within a conspicuous red rune on the floor to summon a room full of monsters to battle for experience points.

Every few rounds this may spawn “STRONG ENEMY” types which are somewhat tougher but issue greater rewards upon defeat. Taking advantage of each of these areas will have the player and his party more than strong enough to take care of any forthcoming enemy they are to face.

Combat is informed by contemporary MMOs, themselves a natural progression from the turn-based combat of early RPGs, via Final Fantasy’s ‘Active Time Battle’ and the more lively system first used in Game Arts’ Grandia. Time spent in menus is minimal throughout the game, with a handy and reliable ‘best-equip’ feature, which I used almost exclusively once I became aware of it.

Control via Wii remote and Nunchuk is standard, however the Classic Controller is fully supported and was the most natural fit for me. The player has full, 360 degree movement control of Zael, while the default sword slashes and kicks are automatic (an option in the menus allows you to employ button presses if you so wish).

Holding the left trigger brings up a first-person view and sighting reticule for your always available crossbow which is useful in some situations, useless in others and essential for certain battles. This view also allows Zael, when prompted, to look for potential structural advantages for his party of mercenary chums to exploit via magic.

While Zael is best with steel and arrow, his companions possess various types of offensive and defensive magic. Character types and potential are ‘locked’, and customisation - outside of a comprehensive but entirely cosmetic apparel dyeing system - is minimal.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the combat, and the defining one as the game progresses, is Zael’s ability to diffuse friendly or enemy magic. By holding down the attack button he will charge across an arena to, for example, break an enemy’s healing zone or spread an elemental magic around the battlefield, causing monsters to fall or to inflict a status change upon them.

While certainly not the healer of the party (three other characters fulfil this role) Zael is something of a human Phoenix Down/life potion, capable of reviving fallen allies simply by touching them.

The results of this need for Zael to keep mobile are pacy, dynamic fights that are hugely enjoyable. Swords the size of garage doors swing fast, making pleasing impact noises, and most enemies react satisfyingly. Strategic thought plus intelligent use of the party’s abilities are rewarded with chain attacks and associated bonuses. In the last quarter of the game many of the confrontations become tactical puzzles, especially within the final, extremely lengthy, ‘boss rush’ which concludes the story.

From around halfway through The Last Story you, as Zael, are given an amount of control over your allies’ actions. While they are quite capable of functioning adequately (for the most part) themselves via AI, it becomes increasingly worthwhile to order them to use certain attacks and abilities to improve the heroes’ chances of survival.

Defensively speaking you have both a manual, fighting game-style block available as well as a cover system where Zael will stick to and crouch behind walls to avoid incoming fire.

The inclusion of these elements is an indication that Sakaguchi and his team have looked beyond the boundaries of the traditional JRPG for inspiration. It demonstrates that the adoption of features typically associated with other genres could benefit this increasingly anachronistic branch of gaming.
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Comments

Anonymous 5 Mar 2012 11:38
1/7
Ill-advised attempts at humour? The humour is the only thing that elevates this game's humour above mediocrity.

The voice acting is fine too.
Leon Cox 5 Mar 2012 19:37
2/7
As regards to the comedy, your mileage may well vary of course, but I found most of it painful rather then charming. As for the voice cast; there are definitely a few decent actors in there (Asthar, Lowell), but mostly they're a bit fresh out of drama school and in a CBBC serial (Zael, Dagran, Calista, Syrenne) while others are just terrible (Mirania, Yurick). While I was playing for review my partner asked if it was just because she wasn't used to the genre or was the acting really that bad compared to the likes of Red Dead Redemption. I explained that these localisations are appreciated and have come a long way since horrific, botched translations and/or people acting in their second/third language - but - that yes, this game was sadly cursed with sub radio soap opera performances.
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Tanto 5 Mar 2012 20:10
3/7
Could this person say the word jrpg enough?

I wish better people could write reviews
Leon Cox 5 Mar 2012 20:53
4/7
6(?) occurrences of (J)RPG in a 1500 word review of a JRPG - I didn't feel that was excessive. Sorry you didn't like the review, Tanto. I'll try to be a better person from now on :)
Anonymous 5 Mar 2012 23:41
5/7
@Leon_Cox All of the VAs in The Last Story are experienced actors/voice actors. Zael was voiced by Jack Ryder. Mirania was voiced by Montserrat Lombard. Certainly not 'fresh out of drama school', as you say.

Kabapu 6 Mar 2012 20:09
6/7
From videos I've seen, the tactical aspects remind me of Valkyria Chronicles.
RPGs should embrace that format more.
Both Valkyria Chronicles and Resonance of Fate were ahead of their time and under-rated. Sad.
Frenke 12 Mar 2012 01:41
7/7
In the beginning of the story, I found it very hard to relate to the voice acting. I've already finished the game and I have to say that the voice acting kind of grew on me. Although sometimes it was hard to understand due to bad script writing as you already said. I am from the Netherlands so I'm afraid I didn't understand some of the words that were probably more local British English. Although I was a bit reluctant at first to play the game, all in all I think that it was a very enjoyable game. My apologies for any grammar or spelling mistakes.
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