A role playing game developed by a famed studio with big names and published by Nintendo comes out in Japan. The same game then gets picked up to be published by Nintendo in Europe. Finally, as though pulling teeth from a wildebeast, same game is published in North America, not by Nintendo, but by XSEED. In fact, the trifecta of JRPGs published by Nintendo in the last year in Japan and Europe has created an entire online movement – the now-commonly heard Operation Rainfall – to try to get them all released in North America.
Whether Operation Rainfall had any hand in Nintendo’s decision to farm the publishing out to XSEED or not, we may never know. The Last Story has, nonetheless, come to our shores amid much hype and expectations that are likely set too high. When the perceived bar is set so high, there’s only one direction you can go in most cases. Does The Last Story live up to the hype? Is it ruined by high expectations? Let me talk a bit about it, and we’ll see.
This story follows the exploits of Zael, who is a member of a group of rag-tag mercenaries visiting Lazulis Island for work. Zael dreams of becoming a knight by some means, because he feels they are noble, just and are able to protect the people and lands they care about. While in Lazulis City, Zael is thrust into a situation that, as these things tend to do, leads him into a much larger adventure involving royalty, conspiracy, betrayal and, on a positive note, love.
I start off talking about the story in this case because it is, quite honestly, the best part of the game. I was completely enthralled by it like few other RPGs in recent memory and I’m not quite sure I can put a finger on why. There are some fairly cliché bits to the story, yet, at the same time, it tends to attempt to pull a fast one over you, luring you to expect one thing, yet delivering something altogether different. In this case, that’s a very good thing.
I feel the characters are some of the best in any recent JRPG. The mercenary band is just full of boisterous personalities that you don’t quite expect to see. Syrenne is one of my favorites. While the acting may go a bit overboard sometimes, her dialog is just hilarious more often than not. She’s an alcoholic, and fully admits it, and she seems obsessed with sexual innuendo in everyday conversation. In fact, she seems to know this and take pride in both her lewd speech and the fact that she’s drunk off her arse nearly every night.
In the middle of the spectrum you have Zael and Calista, some of the most level-headed of the bunch. While Calista is looking at this group of mercenaries from the outside, she exudes this continual stream of ethereal beauty, and lights up the entire story every time she’s on screen. It’s likely the combination of her white hair (don’t ask, it’s just a feeling on my part), dialog and voice inflections. She projects an air of calm and balance in what is otherwise a fairly fast-paced story.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire game is early on when we get a good look at Calista on the balcony at Stargazer’s Tower, looking at the night sky with Zael. There’s something about that scene that reminds me of other iconic scenes of JRPGs past, some of which Hironobu Sakaguchi himself likely also had a hand in. (For those who want to know, both the scene in FFVII when Cloud made a promise to Tifa and the scene in FFX when Tidus and Yuna are getting all touchy-feely in the pond are the ones.)
Another thing that lends itself fairly well to the characterization here, and thus, the story as a whole, is the voice acting and dialog. While sometimes both can be a little overboard, overall things pan out very well. The European accents throughout the game make things feel a bit more fantasy-like and actually add a great ambiance to the entire proceedings.
Part of what makes Calista so special, in my opinion, is her English voice actress, Alix Wilton Regan. If you have played Mass Effect 3 recently, you may recognize her as Specialist Traynor, the ever-present aide to Commander Shepherd on the Normandy. In the case of The Last Story, I feel she’s really the only character who isn’t over-acted at any point during the game and whose dialog is constantly delivered with poise and an unassuming air of fragility that exemplifies the delicate balance in emotions that Calista represents to the context of the story.
Also to be abundantly praised is the game’s impassioned score, which nicely solidified the roller-coaster of emotions that it takes the player through. Noubu Uematsu did a stand-up job with the game’s soundtrack. While it may not be as memorable as some of his past works, it certainly does the job well to enhance the emotional highs and really make you feel the lows deep in your gut.
When you combine the story, characters and score together you get possibly one of the best JRPGs to hit our shores in recent memory. If only the game could stand on that alone, things would be golden. Unfortunately, when you bring game mechanics into play, it’s unfortunate that I have to say things falter a bit.
While much of the game “feels” like your typical JRPG, with field exploration, towns, merchants and side-questing, the one part that may not is the battle system. In an effort to be unique and bring something new to the table, Mistwalker has merged a bunch of genres into one. In this case, aspects of cover-based shooters, first-person shooters, real-time strategy titles and, as always, action RPGs all play into the mix. I will say that they certainly succeeded in bringing something new to the table. However, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t always work, and this is such a case.
Getting the jump on the enemy, in many situations, is what your companion in-game tell you to do, and some semblance of stealth is involved in many battles. Before battles start, more often than not, you get a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, much like you do in strategy titles…except there’s no placement of your characters, no actions given to them, no nothing. All it really serves to do is give you an overview of the battlefield, at which point you can’t change anything anyway.
To get the jump on the enemy, you have to think like you’re playing an MMORPG, and “pull” one mob toward you without alerting the others. This is easier said than done. While the method of going about this is pretty simple, the result is rarely what you expect. Putting Zael into “first-person” mode, he can shoot mobs with arrows and focus on objects in the environment, which are typically all context-related. By that, I mean that in a battle that wants you to break apart pillars to fall on your enemies, the pillars will be destructible. In the next battle, they may not be because that isn’t what the game wants you to do.
In many cases, using the environment in the way the game wants you to saves you from a world of hurt to the point that you almost have to do it that way, with few exceptions. That’s all well and good, but as I mentioned earlier, many battles rely on you “pulling” an enemy away from the group toward you to take out solo. If only it worked that way.
(Note: Some screens were taken from the Japanese version of the game, which has different names for the main characters.)
In my experience, many times when my companions tell me to pull certain mobs solo, it rarely works. It tends to alert nearby mobs and, before I know it, I have a dozen enemies on top of me one-shotting my companions and then molesting Zael in ways I never dreamed imaginable.
For the most part, during battle, you can’t give your companions instructions. However, using a certain resource that builds up over time, you can go into a command mode, much like a strategy title, and give orders to your group. The benefit of doing this is two-fold – first, it lets you actually give them orders in the first place, which you can’t do under normal circumstances and, second, it shortens the cast time of any abilities you may have them use.
This is nice, but, in all honesty, it should have been stuck at the beginning of a fight when it gives you the overview. It would have been much nicer to allow one “control session” at the beginning of a fight to help focus your group and lessen the sometimes ridiculous difficulty of these encounters.
Many magical abilities form circles on the ground, which are area-of-effect regions. Go into a healing circle, and you’ll be healed. Step in a flaming circle deployed by your allies and your weapon may take on those properties. These can also be destroyed by Zael to deal area-of-effect bonuses for your group. Some will do a group-heal, some will boost your defense, some will affect enemies to your advantage. The one fun part of this chaotic battle system is dispelling these magical circles, and always gave me a rare feeling that I was actually doing something right in battle.
Because battles tend to be fought with tons of enemies on-screen, Zael has an ability called “Gathering” which basically forces the enemies to focus on him, so he can tank them (to use MMORPG lingo) while other group members cast and slash away. During “Gathering” mode, Zael can also raise his downed companion. Which leads to an entire other issue altogether.
Each of your characters, during each battle, gets five lives. This should give you an idea of how difficult some of these fights are. In my opinion, this is an unnecessary mechanic to mask a more serious issue with the battle system. The point of the game should never be to let your characters die. It just shouldn’t. Zael can then raise up a character while he’s in “Gathering” mode and they’ll rejoin the fight.
Unfortunately, combined all together, these and the few other nuances of battle tend to make for one unnecessarily chaotic experience that sometimes will result in nothing but frustration and “Game Over” screens. Most of my time during battle is spent guarding, gathering and raising allies, then dispelling magic circles when I get the chance. That is just not fun for me.
I’m of the opinion that this title would have been better served with less “innovation” and more standard action RPG battle mechanics. It really lends itself to mechanics similar to the Star Ocean titles, which would have made the battles more fun and less of a chore. But, then again, I’m not a game designer. What do I know?
While the battle system may be the crux of my issues with the game, there are a few others, as well. All too frequently the game will force you into first-person mode and prompt Zael to find something in the environment to continue the story forward. This seems to me like a cumbersome and unnecessary attempt to “put you in Zael’s shoes”, so to speak, and actually worked for me to be quite the opposite. It was just a jarring “mini-game” that separated me from the intensity of the story. There are even times, if you fail to find an object in time, a battle will start with you at half health. As if battles aren’t difficult enough already…
To some, the camera might be considered a bit wonky, as well, however, I don’t believe that’s the case. Instead, I think many of the environments you’re forced to fight in are too confined, which naturally makes it difficult to control the camera in ways that you organically need to during battle. Even in areas that seem “open”, there are ruins, pillars or other large objects on the field that hamper camera movement. This may be part of the reason the battles seem so chaotic – you’re fighting against the camera, which is fighting against the environment, while you’re busy fighting enemies.
On more positive notes, the amount of side-questing is always good. Lazulis City does feel alive and welcoming while you’re there. People will talk to you, there are quests to be had at various points throughout the game and there are actually quite a lot of things to see and do. The only issue is that I think it’s a bit too easy to bump into people while running, because Zael moves with all the grace of a 100 ton freight train.
If you’re into that sort of thing, the amount of armor customization is amazing, and any change you enact to your characters is represented in all aspects of the game. I’m a big fan of color schemes, so I was giving each person’s armor a personality of it’s own, matching the character if I could. Sometimes it’s also difficult to tell two characters apart in the heat of battle (Yurick and Calista, for example, because of their flowing white locks). By changing their armor you can make that distinction easier on you.
In addition to changing colors, you can also add or remove the appearance of equipment. While it will technically still be equipped for stat purposes, you can “turn it off” from being displayed, so you can mix and match armor in a way few other single-player RPGs allow you to do.
I would be a bit remiss if I didn’t mention that this game does indeed have a multiplayer component, as well, but that seems like a shadowy afterthought to the main game. There’s a deathmatch-type mode, as well as a co-op mode where you can team up with others (if you can find someone to play with, because warm bodies are few and far between). Just like with other games that scream “single player experience”, I can’t help but think that they should have foregone the multiplayer here in favor of thinning out and calming the single player battle system.
Overall, I can’t sing enough praises about the game’s story, characters, music and customization. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes hard to get to and see all that when the huge roadblock that is the battle system comes into play. If you manage to weed out the chaos and trudge through it, though, you’ll certainly be rewarded with what had the potential to be an out-of-this-world title. When it comes to RPGs, it’s hard to have a cohesive, amazing experience without both the story and the game mechanics being up to par, and here, that synergy just doesn’t happen.
For RPG fans, though, it’s definitely worth a trip through based on the names behind the game alone. You’ll likely be kicking yourself if you miss this one, but, at the same time, will probably end up kicking other objects to take out the frustration you may experience while attempting to navigate the tumultuous battle mechanics.