Hands On Preview: The Last Story May Herald the Evolution of the JRPG Genre
On Valentine’s Day I had a chance to check out the European retail version of The Last Story, which will be released in Europe for the Wii on February the 24th. The game is the latest production from Mistwalker, led by the creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi.
From such a prominent name rooted in the tradition of the JRPG genre, many would expect a traditional game. But the truth is that The Last Story is anything but that, at least from what I could see during my limited hands-on time that lasted little north of a hour.
The first thing that meets the eye is, of course, the visuals, whichprobably represent the only aspect of the game that sticks closely to the tradition of the genre. You can prepare yourself to see a large bunch of spiky haired pretty boys wearing improbable clothing that leaves weird parts uncovered and includes an enormous quantity of buckles and belts. That said, I’ve seen much worse (I’m looking at you, Tidus), and we’re all pretty much used to that style by now.
The graphics are on the high quality side for a Wii game, with characters that look very detailed (albeit suffering from very visible aliasing) and beautifully designed exteriors. Dungeons suffer a bit from the memory limitations of the machine, with quite a few repeating low resolution textures. Overall, though, Mistwalker did a very good job in working within the limits of a machine with aging hardware.
A nice and rather unexpected detail is how populated and alive the city of Lazulis feels. The number of people walking around and minding their own business is visibly higher than the average you see in these kind of games (even more so on older consoles), giving the player the sensation that the city is actually a city and not an oversized village after an outbreak of the Plague.
Major cutscenes are pre-rendered and look absolutely beautiful. The rest is rendered in real time, and while those aren’t bad for sure, aliasing rears its head in a quite visible way. That said, regardless of the render method, the direction of those I got to experience was really pleasing and highly cinematic.
Combat is where the game really sets itself apart from the genre and brings innovation where many thought it would be impossible. Every battle is fought in real time, while directly controlling the main character Zael. (Zael’s original name was Elza, but unfortunately Nintendo saw fit to change almost every name in the game, an operation that I don’t really appreciate, ever).
Melee attacks are handled automatically, while a manual option exists for those that want complete control, by moving in contact with enemies. Defense can be executed in three main ways: Dodging allows you to completely avoid an enemy attack, while guarding is easier to execute but less effective as it just reduces the damage. The cover system is the most innovative of the three, and works in a similar way to that of a cover-based third person shooter. You can find shelter behind obstacles and jump over them when you’re ready to rejoin the fray. There are, of course, many occasions in which being able to dash from cover to cover is quite crucial.
It’s also possible to dynamically switch to a first person point of view in order to aim Zael’s ranged weapon (a crossbow at the beginning of the game) and to prompt other members of the party to attack specific targets, such as the head of a boss or the bridge from which some unreachable monsters are firing at them. Observing an enemy in first person also allows the player to read his weak points in order to fight him more effectively.
Zael also has an ability that can be switched on and off and allows him to draw the attention of enemies, basically acting like the tank of the party. In addition to that he can cartwheel over the back of his companions, further improving the fluidity of battles and movement.
All those elements that seem to mix several genres surprisingly work extremely well together, creating a very fluid battle system that feels fast and tactical at the same time. This will most probably satisfy those that facepalm at the sole mention of turn-based battles.
Surprisingly enough, the game is comfortable to play even with a Wiimote, which is normally a nightmerish option for controlling any kind of JRPG. The only obstacle is camera control due to the lack of a dual stick, but that’s not such a serious issue. If you don’t want to buy a classic controller for some arcane reason, you won’t need to in order to enjoy the The Last Story.
Another little innovation is represented by summoning circles. Many fans of the RPG genre like to grind experience in order to gain more levels early in the game and have an easier time later. Mistwalker turned that into a feature and removed the chore of having to run around looking for monsters. You can simply use a summoning circle and get all the enemies you need to level up as much as you feel like.
One of the strong points of the game is its characters. While their looks abide to the traditional tropes of the genre, their behavior and attitudes don’t. They may be young, but they’re not kids suddenly finding themselves in the role of heroes. They’re adults in a realistic world of adults, in which their position as mercenaries puts them in the condition of being shunned by their peers and gives them a rather jaded point of view on life.
This reflects on the themes of the game, which leans towards the adult side of things. While juvenile dreams like “becoming a knight” are still present, they’re normally overshadowed by the need to survive in a hostile environment and by the tendency to live every day as it was the last, that leads to a rather realistic representation of a mercenary band and gave me a feel similar to that of the Berserk manga. The Last Story is no fairy tale, that’s for sure.
A degree of choice is also available during dialogue, as quite often the player is promoted with two different choices of line to continue a conversation. I’m not yet sure how much of an impact those choices have on the game, but that’s still a refreshing change over the genre’s normally linear scripts.
Another rather surprising feature is the ability to customize the looks of the characters in the party. Not only is the player able to make parts of a character’s equipment invisible, but he can also use a dye system in order to recolor each area separately, offering a very high degree of variation. I’m definitely sure I never saw a JRPG that included this kind of feature, and I didn’t miss many.
Ultimately The Last Story shows a lot of promise. The masterful hand of Sakaguchi is clearly visible in the storytelling and style, but the game isn’t held back by preconceived genre tropes and shows a very marked degree of evolution that bigger developers seem to be a bit wary to embrace.
We’ll have to wait for my full review to see if this evolutionary stance will allow The Last Story to fully spread its wings. It has the full potential to be able to soar and lift the genre high, where no one has gone before.