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.