|The Last Story|
|Genre||The JRPG, rebooted
|Buy from Amazon|
There’s a narrow alley tucked into a corner of the industrial castle town, hidden behind the bustling Arena Square. Armorsmiths and swordcrafts crowd the path, talking shop and hawking wares to passersby in a gaunt corridor of tiny workrooms. In the alley’s only empty corner, a lean brute presses an elderly shopkeep against the grimy concrete and slyly demands a cut of profit.
It’s a place foul with sweat and industry. It swelters with forge and struggle. A stroll from end to end offers a glimpse of the desperation that is life for these lower class tradesman. They fight for survival, crammed into a corner of the last thriving city on the last prospering island in a rotting world.
The locals call this slum strip Artisan’s Way. It has an effortless narrative density that's so refreshing to see in a JRPG. The Last Story could have been about this place. It’s not. The Last Story is about a vampiric meteor that shoots giant lasers.
It doesn’t start that way. Genuine Good Guy protagonist Zael and his ragged mercenary friends just want to become knights, with the status and security that comes with a shiny suit of armor. The troop performs suitably for the island’s governor, and Zael even earns the affection of the man’s niece. Before they can start breathing easy, the heroes find new hardship in the political entanglements of nobles and all-out war against a rival species. For much of that first half of the game, the characters and conflicts feel believable, and the elements of magic and fate are relegated to the periphery.
But The Last Story still partakes of the genre’s lamest indulgences. It starts small, with irksome attempts at humor: Zael must be the thousandth JRPG hero who gets thwarted trying to peek in the girls’ bath, a gag so predictable and tired that I’m convinced it’s played as non-humor in Japan. But the trope cancer spreads as the heroes are later embroiled in the fight over mystical MacGuffins, both laboriously explained and difficult to recall. Dramatic cutscene deaths abound. It could all be borne if the foundational conflicts had meaning. But the handful of villains all undersell the drama, and the heroes’ inner journeys are too thin to hold alone over the game’s length.
The plot may stumble in genre muck, but the game systems seem determined to avoid the same fate. Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger designer Hironobu Sakaguchi broke free from his menu-based safe zone and crafted a streamlined real time action game that feels almost alien to the genre.
The new feel starts in combat, where the player guides Zael through a skirmish that unfolds largely out of his control. The swordsman is equipped primarily with a single attack, a guard stance, and an evasive roll. He can also take cover behind columns and around corners, using the momentary protection to launch crossbow bolts at distant foes. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a simple third person shooter/action hybrid inspired by this generation’s first trendsetter, Gears of War.
Though Zael has minimal control over his party’s tactics, the battle system rewards the player who merges with the pack instead of going lone wolf. Zael’s only magic is “Gathering,” which calls enemies’ attention away from his allies, giving them a chance to cast their spells uninterrupted. After the mage tosses their fireball, Zael can fight within its magical residue for bonus effects (elemental powers, health regeneration) or disperse their helpful effects across the battlefield (disable enemy mages, heal distant allies). Surrounding a powerful foe with other swordsmen will weaken its attack and defense in addition to splitting its attention, and alternating attacks between Zael and the others builds a combo chain that exponentially increases the effect of each hit.
It’s a unique battle system with several neat ideas that sometimes aren’t so clean in execution. Stealth and the cover system in general are the biggest disappointments: pre-emptive strikes are rarely available and the crossbow is only just strong enough to interrupt the incantations of enemy mages. In contrast, the Gathering ability is almost too useful, as Zael can often kite the enemy around the battlefield with little self-risk while his pals pick them off with icicles and windstorms. Still, even The Last Story’s messiest features are fresh and active enough to make the next battle something to anticipate rather than dread.
Though the battle system allows for plenty of variety, character progression occurs with little customization or player input. Each of the seven main party members has only a handful of abilities that are automatically acquired and upgraded as they level up. Equipping different weapons and armor still affect each character’s stats, but the absolute difference between this sword and that sword is minimized. In fact, equipment management is usually just a fashion choice, offering little functional difference but dramatically altering your character’s appearance. It doesn't leave much for stat fiends, but I had a great time playing dress-up with my action figures, even if it can lead to some pretty weird getups. At the very least, it's nice to play a modern JRPG that doesn't constrict my characters with ludicrous belts and zippers.
If the character models look unimpressive, it’s because the game loves throwing dozens of them on screen at a time. Every plaza in the single hub town is packed full of pedestrians and loiterers, while battles often pit Zael and a quintet of friends against a dozen-plus humanoid foes. Unlike most JRPGs that play it safe in order to run smoothly, The Last Story seems determined to squeeze the Wii’s meager hardware into submission. The game drops to a slideshow during boss battles: I’ve never heard the Wii groan louder than when Team Zael goes up against a single huge foe, littering the battlefield with bright hues of magic and damage counters.
Usually that cavalier attitude towards system performance bothers me, but the scattering of townspeople provides a convincing illusion of autonomy and logic that I can’t help but appreciate. Unlike most JRPGs, the the polygonal community doesn’t look specifically crafted to be a series of sidequest billboards for the hero to “complete.” It’s why I can simply walk down an alley of traders, speaking to nobody, and feel as though I’m walking through a place that could exist somewhere. It’s actually unfortunate that The Last Story feels obligated to layer a hollow fantasy epic over the pure narrative its set design inspires.
The Last Story may not be the final authority on fantasy epics, but it almost feels like a reboot of the JRPG, retooling the genre with new priorities that give the same old song and dance some new moves. Some of it works, a lot of it needs work, but it’s mostly refreshing, even if it doesn’t quite stand with the best iterations of the genre’s long-standing paradigm.
Is it worth the money? Sure. At 20-30 hours for one playthrough, it’s much shorter than your standard JRPG epic. But that’s still a lot of entertainment for fifty bones.
Is it worth the time? Yes. This is one JRPG that respects the player's time. No level grinding. No item farming. No dungeon puzzle busy-work. And there are tons of small quirks that make The Last Story feel brand new even to the JRPG enthusiast.