Developer: Mistwalker, AQ Interactive / Publisher: XSEED Games / Played on: Wii / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Teen [Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence]
If you’ve got a soft spot in your heart for the sprawling multi-disc epic JRPGs from the PSX era, The Last Story will hit you right in the nostalgia. With a genuinely interesting story, endearing cast of characters, experimental combat mechanics, crippling performance issues, and even an unreasonable difficulty spike at the game’s end, The Last Story ends up capturing what was best and worst about that bygone era of RPGs.
Just like JRPGs of yore, the story is the most enjoyable aspect of The Last Story. Penned primarily by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi (among others), the story revolves around a ragtag group of mercenaries that try to work up some amount of status and title in the world. As you might predict, the protagonist Zael runs into a mystic force that marks him with a special power that sets the plot of the game in motion. While the broad strokes of the plot don’t stray from JRPG norms, there is texture and charm to the world that sets it a mark above most other games in the genre. For instance, Zael is embraced by the aristocracy as a savior because his lowly origins make him an excellent political figurehead as the people’s hero. The setting here is cut with just enough biting cynicism to prevent it from being as… well, fruity as modern Final Fantasy games.
The Last Story also maintains an enjoyable tone throughout. Most fantasy RPGs have trouble balancing light-hearted adventure with a serious narrative, but Last Story elegantly transitions between the two. Not only do you get a cutthroat story of grounded political backstabbery, but also more freewheeling fantasy like a spooky haunted mansion and derelict ships infested with giant mutant crabs. The game’s enjoyable cast is the strong thread that connects all these experiences together, and above anything else I’d love to see these characters return in some form or another. If you look for them, you can find Sakaguchi’s proclivities in the story — for instance, there’s a giant cannon that sucks the life force from the Earth to fire — but it’s nowhere near the Final Fantasy gallery that Lost Odyssey was. Some of the game’s themes are genuinely thought provoking, like the need to have Earth-destroying weaponry just to prevent others from using the same power.
In keeping with its genre, The Last Story does not experiment with overarching game structure. You’ll rotate through cutscenes, combat sections, and vaguely open exploration sections where you can run around, upgrade your gear, and ferret out side quests. Cutscenes and exploration work exactly like you’d expect, but Last Story provides a new experience when it comes to combat.
Dropping the term JRPG conjures images of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy, where the game revolves around bringing the right numbers to battle and mashing “go” until you win. The Last Story flips this on its head with a combat system that is real-time and frantic as hell. Every encounter takes place in an arena and starts with a panning sky view of the enemies sprinkled therein. Once the battle starts, it’s a frantic real-time brawl where your positioning and priority of targets make the difference between success and failure. Standard tactics are usually take the win — mages and healers first, while making sure enemies don’t surround you.
Also flying in the face of JRPG trends, you can only directly control Zael, though you can issue orders to your party members to attack specific enemies or cast specific spells. Every spell puts a colored circle on the ground that you can “diffuse” with a dashing attack, which spreads the effect of the spell to every enemy or every party member. For instance, healing spells create areas of recovery, but diffusing them gives the entire party an instant heal. This system is an ingenious way to work in a fantastic amount of gameplay complexity through the control of one fighter.
All the thinking and mechanics behind The Last Story are near brilliant, but it just can’t escape the raw limitations of the Wii. Yes, battles are intense, but later in the game all the bursting spells and cluttered enemies make the Wii sputter and lag terribly. Not only does it look bad, but it’s also incredibly disorienting and even drops some inputs. The scope of the game is extremely conservative as well. The whole game takes place in one large city, with side quests sending you to various locales like dungeons, sewers, and ruined temples. The story is fantastic, but doesn’t approach the grandeur of other sprawling fantasy epics like the Tales series. I also encountered that old phantom again — needing to hit a particular cutscene trigger to progress the story but having no idea where it is. Some elements of old games were left in the past for a reason.
Yep, The Last Story has multiplayer, and it’s a decent way to wring a few more hours of enjoyment out of the game. You can play in three main modes — deathmatch, team deathmatch, and co-op against buffed-up versions of the game’s bosses. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are, well, ridiculous. Combat in multiplayer operates on the same basic rules as single player, only once you throw in a dash of lag and players that somehow kill me in one hit all the time and I genuinely have no idea what’s going on. I couldn’t follow the action after an hour of effort, so I’d wager your experience would be the same.
Co-op is more fruitful, but also more mundane. You can choose to battle five of the game’s bosses with up to six players, and it’s cool to team up with other humans against a huge baddie. However, in grand Nintendo fashion you can’t communicate with anyone aside from the baked-in voice quips. Hilariously, you can’t even add or remove friends while connected to the multiplayer; you have to back out of the menu and do it from the top. The co-op reminds me of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer only far more obtuse and less enjoyable.
I hate to ding The Last Story for crappy visuals… it feels like picking on the slow kid in class. However, the game’s technical issues extend beyond fuzzy textures and blocky geometry (which it has, natch). As mentioned before, some of the fights later in the game push the system so hard that it affects the gameplay, and that’s an issue regardless of how forgiving you are of decade-old visuals. Last Story isn’t without its visual tricks, though; some environments look genuinely beautiful thanks to restrained light bloom and depth of field effects. Amusingly, just like in the PSX era, I looked forward to FMVs because I knew they’d look so much better than the rest of the game.
I have to give it up for the voice acting in The Last Story; it’s the aspect of the game I enjoyed the most. Every character in the game, right down to the smarmy, moustache-twirling aristocrat villain, is executed with effortless precision. I suspect the US release simply uses the British localization, so all the characters are laden with British accents, but that’s immaterial given the quality of performances.
Sadly though, the game’s soundtrack left me wanting. With decades of Final Fantasy under my belt, I’m a big Nobuo Uematsu fan, but his work here is much more forgettable than in Blue Dragon or Lost Odyssey. There are a handful of great tracks; the main theme is evocative while some combat themes later in the game will get your heart pumping. However, most of the music feels generic and forgettable.
The Last Story’s controls are filled with clever ideas but ultimately hit some real problems because too many functions are mapped to too few buttons. For instance, you hold “R” to block, but moving into a piece of cover while holding R causes you to vault over it. I can’t count the number of times I vaulted over cover accidentally because I was blocking while moving close to it. Additionally, you hold “A” to trigger your dash, but holding a direction plus A will just cause you to dodge. Many times I needed to hit pinpoint dash attacks to diffuse spells and just rolled instead, resulting in the death of some party members. Camera issues also plague the game, most damning of which is that it’s really difficult to get an idea of the battlefield. You could be three feet from a healing spell placed on the ground and simply not know because the unwieldy camera swings around to face the closest target.
Certain aspects of The Last Story are timeless. The game’s cast and story is one of the best in all of gaming. Unfortunately, deep-cutting performance issues and clunky controls trash up what could otherwise be a profound experience. Lovers of dark fantasy and charming characters should play Last Story without a second thought, but a gamer used to modern-day levels of production value and polish won’t easily set those expectations aside.