[18 April 2012]
This is really weird, not weird in a bad way, just, you know, weird in a “it shouldn’t work, yet it still does” sort of way. Like how I can eat fish and chicken at the same time and not feel sick sort of way, like how occasionally I prefer Pepsi over Coke sort of way.
Since I’ve wasted a whole paragraph with rubbish analogies, I should probably explain what I mean. This is a Japanese RPG that is not very Japanese, made by the creator of all things JRPG, Hironobu Sakaguchi of Final Fantasy fame. In fact, if you didn’t see the character designs, you could honestly mistake this for a game from Western heavyweights, such as Bethseda or Obsidian—such is the departure from tradition.
The color palette, best described as subdued, with all its bloom lighting, dark blues, grays, greens, and browns are more akin to an image of Middle Earth, while the main town hub has a very detailed Victorian, regal design. Disappointingly, while the main town is huge, there are only a dozen or so buildings that you can actually interact with, as most buildings and NPCs are just there for decoration. The game is actually quite beautiful with only the hideous slowdown becoming the main visual negative. The character designs strike a pleasing balance between Western realism and a Japanese flair for the eccentric. This darker (yet not quite as moody as Demon’s Souls) atmosphere adds a welcome extra layer of grit and grime to the game world.
The voiceovers, just like in Xenoblade, consist entirely of British accents and dialect, feel welcome—yet still strangely alien—especially after years of hearing American actors in these kinds of parts.
Being thoroughly modern means that your progress is saved automatically every few minutes, your play time is constantly stabilized by checkpoints, and save points are generously littered all over the place.
One of the biggest departures though that the game makes from the usual formula is the game length. At around only 20 hours, you may feel slightly ripped off. Adopting a level-like feel to it, the adventure feels more fragmented, though that does keep the pace brisk (in spite of the sluggish mid game). There are side quests and parts of the game that are locked off, (begging for a second run through I imagine), but the main reason for the short play time is the removal of the mind crushing, life devouring, suicide-inducing level grinding of the typical RPG. Think back to how many games in this genre that we’ve all played where hours were spent running around the same patch, killing the same monsters over and over, just so we can access the next part of the game. Before you know it, you’ve wasted 100 hours of your life and have disconnected from the main story, characters, themes, and the like.
Here such things are not an issue, and you can easily end the game at level 70 or above without ever breaking a sweat. The removal of such a cheap and fraudulent way of extending a game’s length frees up time to focus on more important tactical elements, such as maxing out equipment, armour, and to the allocation of said items to teammates with the betterment of their abilities in mind, depending on the situation at hand.
In this area, the micro-management is far more satisfying, yet if you don’t want to, you can just let the game select everything for you. Why has no one thought of this before?
The focus in The Last Story, though, isn’t on exploration, nor on level grinding, but on good old fashioned swords and sorcery, action, tactics, and frantic, fast paced, intense battles in which one mistake can cost you dearly but winning feels rewarding for both the brain and the reflexes.
You’ll duck, dive, and take cover like many Western shooters with tactics like planning ambushes and flanking the enemy as a key to triumph. Running up walls and using that momentum for a downward assault, leaving your enemies in a state of shock, frees up a few valuable seconds to regroup and plan your next attack. Assigning your teammates to destroy key targets, such as bridges or archers, reinforces the significance of patience, though ironically all while you frantically try to keep those teammates safe from your foes.
The gathering magic used by the main protagonist Zael draws enemies to him, safeguarding weaker allies and greatly reducing their magic casting times and also allowing him to revive fallen comrades. But gathering also comes in handy for counterattacks and the other ninja-like moves at Zael’s disposal. The mixing of magics, leading to enhanced abilities such as shields and the like, deepens the game further and breathes new life into the usual selection of simple magic commands such as fire, ice, light etc.
The ability to pause battles, at any time, assign tactics, and study your terrain in order to locate the best spots to hide and recover adds an invaluable element of strategy, taking the game into realms usually associated with more modern squad-based war games. Yet still if you fancy running in all swords blazing, by all means feel free. The variation in battles (i.e. one battle is against a huge monster, the next is a mini war, while the one after that is a straight one-on-one dust up) affords plenty of opportunities to mix it up.
The game even manages to nearly eradicate one of the biggest flaws of the genre—inactive team-mates, who idly sit by while a fraction of the team goes about saving the world. No, it isn’t the case that at all times you are joined by your full squad, but when they are available and the story logically permits it, no one is left warming the bench.
The only thing distinctly rooted in JRPG tradition is the familiar stereotypes of the genre and familiar storyline. There is a mysterious, pretty boy orphan and his whimsical, royal girlfriend with superpowers out to prevent the evil warlord from conquering the world. You get it. We’ve all been here before, and it’s not very interesting, gets boringly confusing, and you’ll find yourself thankful for the fact that all cutscenes can be either skipped or fast forwarded like on a DVD.
This just doesn’t feel like a Nintendo game, this is very much something that you’d expect from an XSEED or a Marvelous Entertainment or a Rising Star Games—something different, something unique, something…weird. Frankly, The Last Story is the best game from Mistwalker to date.
As we all get ready to bid farewell to the Wii, it really is nice to see a fitting swansong for the console with a host of interesting RPGs, Xenoblade Chronicles, Skyward Sword, The Last Story, Pandora’s Tower and Dragon Quest X, showing that there’s plenty of life left in it and games to be played on it.