The wait for The Last Story, the latest RPG from Mistwalker, the company founded by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, has been pretty long for American fans of the genre. First mentioned in 2009 before its Japanese release in January 2011, it didn’t see U.S. shores for a full year-and-a-half, before finally launching on August 14.
After a rocky launch, I picked it up to give it an overview for anyone who’s been on the fence about whether it’s really going to be a beacon of hope for a stagnant genre. Thirty or so hours of play later, and I find myself in a bit of a tough spot – this is probably the toughest time I’ve had coming up with a review for any game that I’ve ever played. Was it worth the wait? You’ll have to read on to find out.
The Last Story is a successor to a number of genres. It clearly bears marks of its JRPG roots, with a story and characters that seem like they were ripped right out of the big console RPGs of the ’80s and ’90s, but it also incorporates elements from Western RPGs, such as a strong focus on character and equipment customization, and from action games, such as its cover system. You’ll also see a bit of influence from tactical games, with the option to select an overheard perspective that gives an overview of the battlefield and reveals the placement of ranged enemies and spellcasters.
The way these various systems work together is what makes The Last Story so unique. Before battle begins, you’ll get a chance to plan your initial strategy with that bird’s-eye-view glimpse. After you’ve decided which enemy to attack first, you can use various battlefield fixtures as cover as you slip close to your foes, at which point you can launch a surprise melee attack or pick them off from a distance with your crossbow. It’s at that point that the battle begins in earnest.
Once you’ve fully engaged the enemies, you’ll have a few options. You can bring the fight to them with your sword by approaching them – set the controls to manual for a more satisfying experience; otherwise you’ll attack simply by moving towards baddies. Meanwhile, your fellow party members will support you with their own attacks and spells. Occasionally, you’ll be able to target certain environmental features for destruction to cause various effects: they might crush enemies in one case or create a pathway to your foes in another case.
Magic works by creating a spell circle on the ground where the caster places the spell. You can enter this circle to gain certain benefits, such as greater attack or defense power, a temporary healing aura, and so on. Later on, you’ll gain the ability to dispel these spell circles, unleashing mightier magical effects – and eventually you’ll even be able to command your party members to cast whatever spells you believe will suit the situation instead of relying on companion AI. Each party member has his or her own specialties, so get to know their abilities well before taking on tougher foes.
Cover continues to play a role in battle even after it’s begun. You can hide to lose the attention of enemies, and while they’re confused you can unleash a special cover attack to deal extra damage.
One of the most important combat abilities is called Gathering. You can trigger Gathering at almost any time with the press of a button, enveloping you in a magical light that can revive downed party members, giving them a brief boost in stats, and that lets you recover health with each blow you deal. There’s a trade-off, though – all enemies will focus their attention on you for as long as Gathering is active. Sometimes this can actually be a benefit, such as cases where your party members are in trouble, but it still leaves the threat of enemy swarms hanging over your head. You can also dispel Gathering when it’s charged up enough energy to damage all surrounding foes.
Battles aren’t necessarily as plentiful as they are in other RPGs, so you won’t have to worry too much about grinding to increase your stats. The result is that each battle feels weightier – especially boss battles, which usually serve as sufficient tests of your strategies, reflexes, and skills.
As a whole, the game’s pretty easy in the combat department, with a sharp difficulty spike at the final boss for those who haven’t quite mastered using various spells in tandem. If you ever find yourself under-level, however, you’ll occasionally run into summon circles that let you call a small band of enemies over and over again to bridge the EXP gap.
Most of the action takes place inside of dungeons, and while these levels aren’t particularly complex, there are a few secret treasures to discover for those who look hard enough. On the whole, the game isn’t very exploration-heavy. There’s not really an overworld to speak of – just a single hub city in the form of Lazulis City and its castle – but there are still plenty of things to investigate and do within those narrow confines, including side-quests, shopping, and treasure-hunting.
While those who love rich worlds to explore in their RPGs might be a bit disappointed by the limited opportunities to explore, the more compact experience lends itself to much greater detail.
A number of characters within the city will comment on the current state of affairs based on your progress through the story, rewarding those who like investigating every nook and cranny. Return trips to dungeons often yield greater treasures that you can use to further improve your gear. And as you wander the streets of Lazulis City, you might notice a space that looks just narrow enough to squeeze past – and it turns out that Zael will actually press himself up against the wall and side-step his way through.
Character customization is a nice addition. The game gives you the freedom to dye basically any piece of armor based on your preferences. You’ll have to unlock most of the game’s dye options, but most of the required materials will cross your path during ordinary gameplay. You can also make other cosmetic changes to gear, stripping away ridiculous stacks of armor from a pair of greaves or removing a character’s jacket because it clashes with the rest of the ensemble.
There isn’t a terrific variety of actual equipment options to choose from as far as the actual gameplay goes, however – you’ll likely find yourself upgrading the same gear you had at the beginning of the game, or else using one of a handful of alternative armor sets.
The game is paced well; by the end, it doesn’t feel too long or too short, and there are always additional sidequests (including a couple Epilogue chapters) and a much tougher New Game Plus option for those who find themselves begging for more. This game does New Game Plus right – your characters will retain everything they had from the end of the game, with additional equipment upgrade levels opened up to further increase their strength, and bosses will be powered up considerably to compensate.
While The Last Story is not the hugest game in the world by any means, it is a highly finished game, at least as far as its world and combat are concerned. There are a few other problems with the gameplay, however.
Most critical battles have pretty clear-cut objectives and play out ingeniously with the game’s strategic mechanics, but scuffs with lower-ranked foes can often devolve into laggy, chaotic messes. The game’s not without its share of bugs, either. One minigame had me chasing a thief through the city, but the game was apparently having trouble keeping up. As the thief passed into different zones, often the space I was following him into wouldn’t fully load, meaning that I kept running into invisible walls and would lose track of my target. Still, neither of these problems negated the positives (though that loading issue came close to being unacceptable).
Would I recommend The Last Story? For multi-platform gamers, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s worth prioritizing over something else they may have had their eye on for some time. For Wii and RPG fans who have been starving for new and unique experiences, however, it’s definitely a must.